Chicago School Economics and Postmodernism


newmusicbox Fall 2007



Thank you for the very interesting and informative post, Randy.  The video is very interesting because it shows how elements of the American right are appropriating postmodernism for their own purposes.  In its simplest terms, the general strategy is to define the commercialization of “high” culture (including classical music) as “cool”.  This would reinforce the far right’s belief that the marketplace should be the arbiter governing virtually all human activity.


The Ludwig von Mises Institute (which hosted the video you linked) describes their economic theories as the “ Austrian School of Economics”, though in the States it is usually referred to as “The Chicago School.” Its principle proponent was Milton Friedman, who studied and later taught at the University of Chicago , where he acquired many of his views from another Austrian free-market economist named Friederich Hayek.) 


The technical economic term for Friedman’s extreme form of unregulated capitalism is “neo-liberalism” (though it has nothing to do with the usual American usage of the term liberal.)  In a word, Friedman’s neo-liberal economics advocates that virtually all human enterprise should be privatized, including traditionally communal institutions such as public water systems, highways, electrical grids, public schools, social security systems, and to a considerable degree even the military. This system is, of course, deeply opposed to public funding of the arts.


It is confusing to call Friedman’s economics the “ Austrian School ” because Austria , like all Western European countries, has been a social democracy since 1945.  The Austrian government spends about 50% of the country’s GNP.  (Like many European countries, Austria also spends more on its cultural budget than it does on its military.)  Milton Frideman’s economics might better be called “The Austrian School of the 1890s.”


One should also remember that American economic ideologues have consistently attempted to exploit BOTH modernism and postmodernism for their own political and cultural agendas.  The CIA’s manipulation of modernist culture during the Cold War are a fascinating example.  Our government wanted to promote modernism as a Western ideal opposed to the “Social Realism” of the East Block.  The CIA went so far as to create phony front arts foundations and journals to support modernist art.  The CIA’s agents also infiltrated the Boards of many of our major legitimate cultural institutions in order to shape cultural policy.   Fances Stonor Saunders has written an excellent history of these activities entitled “The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.”  (The New York Press, 2000 – distributed by Norton.)  There is a very detailed review of the book here:


The CIA championed and secretly funded the careers of numerous modernist artists, such as Jackson Pollock and Kristof Penderski.  Modernism was used as a symbol of individualism and freedom that could also legitimize the hegemonistic global capitalism advocated by America ’s financial elite.  It is sobering to realize that the CIA has had a considerable and carefully calculated influence on America ’s postwar cultural identity and development.


Now that capitalism has become global and the cold war is over, elite financial interests are naturally also appropriating and shaping the ideals of postmodernism for their own agendas – though I should hope less covertly than using the CIA.  The video you link by the rightwing think tank, the Ludwig von Mises Institute, is an example.  As the speaker illustrates, the manufactured hippness of world music, and the commodification of “high culture” through cross-over genres, are a couple of the obvious ways the ideologies of global capitalism and postmodernism are being aligned.


We also see the subtle influences of what might be termed “Chicago School Postmodernism” in global record companies that stress cross-genre eclecticism and a kind of iPod plastic wrapping of commercialized classical music.  In itself, the popularization of classical music in the marketplace could be very beneficial, but the darker sides of postmodernism’s ideals could also lead to a neo-liberal vision of a radically commodified culture. 


Another goal of Chicago School Postmodernism is to destroy Europe ’s public funding of the arts.  Classical music, and notions of “the common good,” are defined as old-fashioned, elitist, and square.  Impotent classical music is to be rejuvenated by the virile world of rock and the market. Subsidized classical music in social democracies is equated with aristocratic patronage.  This is an extreme irony in light of the cultural plutocracy created by the American system of arts funding.  The patrician rituals of the wealthy at places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center could hardly be more overt.  One only need compare the wide demographic of Europe ’s classical music public with the white, monied status quo that surrounds American classical music to see which system is elitist. 


When we read authors like Alex Ross (The New Yorker) or Greg Sandow (The Wall Street Journal), we should remember that these publications often represent very particular segments and viewpoints of a white, financial elite.  There is so much more going on between and behind the lines of their writings about postmodernism than many people realize – perhaps even the authors themselves.


William Osborne