I argue in my PhD that one of the defining features of the neo-liberal state is (or was) that it maintains an arms-length relationship with technological expertise. This is most vigorously argued by Hayek, whose chief enemy was the economic planner. Why, you wonks out there might ask, has the Treasury spent the last 30 years sniggering at BERR? The neo-liberal economist finds it amusing that a government department might want to have a policy on how to manufacture a given product, when quite evidently this is none of the state's business. (I once spotted a poster in a BERR corridor listing the four 'market failures', an apparent bid to remind its staff not to think too substantively about the production process itself). Foucault's observation, which inspired this paper of mine, that "the economic critique the neo-liberals try to apply to governmental policy is also a filtering of every action by the public authorities in terms of contradiction, lack of consistency and nonsense" might well apply to HMT views of BERR, pre-2008.
Two questions follow. Firstly, how does (or did) the neo-liberal state then go about representing the substantive technological dimension of capitalism? It's no good pretending away the technological differences between the era of Adam Smith and that of Margaret Thatcher, despite the latter's popularity amongst rural idiots. I suggest that this is the crucial function performed by the 'competitiveness' discourse, developed by Michael Porter, The World Economic Forum and IMD. Its vagueness, which has enfuriated orthodox economists, is entirely the point: it provides a way of loosely referring to the productive capacity of a nation, without getting bogged down in Soviet-style questions of how many tractors are needed.
In this context, the cultural economist in me finds this slide show rather interesting. The IMD have just published their 2009 competitiveness rankings, which (predictably) puts the US in number 1, lots of tiny countries in the top 10 and a few wilting giants in the top 20. The images are rather nice. While Business Week would be the last people to recommend industrial policies, they have some rather attractive images to conjure up warm fuzzy feelings about where wealth actually probably comes from. Britain's, apparently, emerges from Bank tube station, which puts us in 21st spot.
The IMD rankings are also interesting for being the first ones produced since the beginning of the financial crisis (the World Economic Forum produced their last ones only a few days after the collapse of Lehmann Bros). Britain has slipped significantly, but largely the rankings seem unaffected. Cause for Western optimism, or a sign that this is a methodological paradigm invented for the purposes of a now-defunct neo-liberal era?
If it's the latter, the second question is how technology will be represented and evaluated for policy-makers during the next political-economic epoch. Early indications, what with politicians becoming embroiled in discussions of car exhaust pipes, are of a return to the 1970s. Everything in history happens twice, someone said, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The European Commission is desparately trying to keep a lid on faintly Gallic state aid strategies all over the place. Tractor quotas seem imminent. Industrial policy is no longer a taboo in quite the same way, not that it ever went away - look at copyright - but it is no longer the policy love that dare not speak its name.
This I Love 1976 nostalgia show can only last so long, however. Sorry to indulge in more evolutionary mysticism (as implied in this comment), but I reckon something new will emerge that is neither Bennite industrial policy nor Porter-esque competitiveness policy. It will have traces of both, naturally, but we're currently waiting for a new paradigm.
Could, for example, the division between substantive economic knowledge ('100 tractors please') and abstract formalism ('is this a market failure or not?') be bridged in some way? There are some who imply that this is happening elsewhere in the economy, thanks to the vast data sets that are being made available by ubiquitous surveillance. In the age of the 'constant audit', consumer research is moving to collapse the distinction between qualitative and quantitative data. What might this mean for how governments relate to the technological means of production? Not socialism, by a long way, but not neo-liberalism either. BERR might be about to have the next laugh.