The abrupt resignation of Larry Summers seems yet another reminder that the world is changing faster than its would-be leaders. The remaining “best and brightest” in Cambridge still don’t lack for arrogance, rudeness or self-aggrandizement. But the lesson of the Harvard president’s sudden demise is that the technocratic neoliberalism Summers embodies (as Robert McNamara did before him) works better on blackboards these days than in the real world.
Summers’s defenders, in constantly touting his “brilliance,” ended up underscoring the narrowness–the old-fashioned (and badly outdated) Stanford-Binet notion of IQ–by which they (and he) measured it. Smart and tough may still get you to the top, but increasingly it won’t keep you there. In the 1960s it was McNamara’s fetishized faith in the computerized “truth” of a coming American victory in Vietnam–and the inability to see the world in plain view–that brought him down. In the 1980s Michael Dukakis lost the presidency by preaching a gospel of “efficiency” rather than the Democratic dream of justice and equality. In the go-go world of 1990s business, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap–the corporate version of this sort of narrow technical efficiency–made millions for investors by taking over companies and running them using massive layoffs and a take-no-prisoners rule over those who remained. He anointed himself “America’s best CEO,” but when he finally ran into trouble at Sunbeam, his noisiest defenders abandoned him faster than you can say “SEC.”
For at least the past twenty-five years, the neoliberal model that preaches every man (or country) for himself and disdains those without economic clout (think Summers’s famous suggestion as chief economist of the World Bank that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable”) has been in the ascent in America and much of the world. But that is no longer the case. L’état, c’est moi–substitute l’université or la compagnie or la famille for l’état here as you like–may finally be on its last legs in human history. It’s a bold hope, to be sure, but who knows? Someday it might come true even in Washington.