Neoliberalism and the Return of Belle Epoque Science

The neoliberal era has been often described in terms of “private avarice” and “public squalor.” An example of this dichotomy is the difference between the lavishly resourced private school sector, especially those catering to the rich, and the squalor of publicly funded schools, especially those catering to the working classes.

Thomas Piketty in his magisterial Capital in the 21st Century argued that we are returning toward Belle Epoque levels of inequality that characterised the era of high aristocracy in Europe.

Science, following the advent of the scientific revolution, was for a considerable period financed by aristocracy. Leading scientists and philosophers were required to indulge the whims and fancies of the men and women of court so that they could think their lofty thoughts.

For instance, Gottfried Leibniz, who had a disposition for life at court, had a relationship of this sort with the Elector of Hanover. Rene Descartes, unfortunately for him, also had a similar relationship with Queen Christina. This was how science functioned prior to its takeover by the state, which occurred most especially after the second industrial revolution and the beginnings of big science prior to World War Two.

Science and scientists no longer were dependent upon the rich, as the state came to see that scientific advance was critical to economic growth. A good example of this shift can be seen in the hisory of quantum mechanics with the pre war Solvay Conferences and the post war Shelter Island Conference.

However, neoliberalism has seen a retraction not only of public funding of the arts and the humanities but also, a relative, retreat from state support for fundamental theoretical science. The most well known manifestation for this has been the scuttling of the Superconducting Super Collider in the United States.

Celebrity scientists, built up through a crass popular culture, increasingly are enjoying the attentions of the 0.1% who have gained so much at the expense of the public at large over the last 30 to 40 years.

A very interesting conference on philosophical naturalism, widely viewed and discussed, for instance was financed by a wealthy investor. The bald headed toad can be seen endlessly typing into his lap top, and he speaks of his delight in gathering a group of “smart people” into “the one room.”

I myself have had a profound interest in the philosophy of naturalism for many years. The bald headed toad didn’t invite me, which is fortuitous as my response would have been brief, to the point, and rather coarse.

Consider the following New York Times article on information loss and the no hair theorem featuring the work of Stephen Hawking, Andrew Strominger and Malcolm Perry which says this;

For years, he and Dr. Strominger and a few others had gotten together to work in seclusion at a Texas ranch owned by the oilman and fracking pioneer George P. Mitchell…

…Dr. Hawking and his colleagues worked in a hotel by day and were feted at night, including a party at the home of the media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The considerable expense was covered by Yuri Milner, a Russian philanthropist and entrepreneur, who wanted Dr. Hawking on hand to help announce a new project to see if we can fly iPhone-like spaceships to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star

Hawking, Strominger and Perry are such cool cats. The hipster look and the fracking pioneer by day, Rupert Murdoch the epitome of filth by night, all to the indulgence of Russian billionaires and their cosmo fantasies.

Sadly we would expect to see more of this as inequality grows and neoliberal austerity continues.