Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Globalists: Neoliberals in search of terrestrial empire

The recently published “Globalists:The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism” by Quinn Slobodian charts the history of neoliberalism from its rather humble origins (in terms of intellectual importance, not in terms of income level of its main participants) in Vienna and Geneva to its ascent to a very important if not dominant position in economics, both in theory and economic policy. It is a very well researched book that, I believe, brings even to those who know the essentials of the Mont Pèlerin society, ordoliberalism and Hayekiana lots of new factual information and fresh insights into opinions and, at times, unusual political positions or unexpected bed-fellows of various neoliberal luminaries.

The title puts the emphasis on the global nature of neoliberal thinking. Having, after the end of the Great War, reconciled themselves to the political impossibility of a single worldwide empire that would ensure freedom of commerce, and free movements of labor and capital (a thing which Pax Britannica in the last decades of the 19th century provided), neoliberals’ ideal world consisted of a “double government”. On the surface, national borders would remain and, with them, all the national symbolism: flags, coats of arms, national language, newspapers etc.; but at a deeper level, there would be no national sovereignty in economic policy-making at all. The world would remain “flat” for the movement of capital, labor, goods and services. Capital especially will have a privileged position: it will be protected against nationalization and abuse by international rules, enjoying to a large degree extraterritoriality as it did in the colonized or semi-colonized countries in Asia in the latter part of the 19th century.

It its scope and generality neoliberal vision is breathtaking.  But it ran into many problems, particularly after World War II when African and Asian nations became independent, numerically dominant in the United Nations, and keen to extend their newly-won political sovereignty into the economic arena. The clash between the neoliberal ideals and the dominant development paradigms that influenced not only the “new” nations but, through Keynesianism, also the United States, was inevitable. This clash led many neoliberals, especially so Wilhelm Röpke who plays a very important role in the book, but also (to a lesser extent) Mises, Hayek and Friedman to support racist regimes, apartheid, military coups, and to openly stand against one-person one-vote democracy whenever “inferior” classes or races threatened to use it to come to power.

Slobodian shows how, ironically, an ideology that was, in the beginning, general and very abstract (treating in principle every individual the same) and whose many key proponents opposed Nazism and fled  Germany, came, in the 1960s and 1970s, to an almost explicit reactionary, and at times even racist, position. Thus, the support for Pinochet in 1973 was not an oddity, but represented a consistent choice, driven by neoliberals’ increasing rejection of democracy and quasi-religious emphasis on free markets.

The book truly comes to life from Chapter 3 onwards, that is, from the end of the Second World War. In these parts it is a real page-turner. It tackles there the early post-War period and decolonization, the split of the neoliberal camp regarding the desirability of the European Economic Community, neoliberals’ rearguard action against the New International Economic Order and the Group of 77.

The first part (Chapters 1 and 2) deals with the beginning of the movement until the outbreak of the Second World War. I found that part weaker because it concentrates exclusively on neoliberals without situating them in a broader intellectual context. We learn enormous amount about the early evolution of neoliberalism, including most interestingly its close political and financial connection, principally through Mises, to national (and later International) Chambers of Commerce as well as about its short flirtation with economic statistics and empiricism. But we do not see neoliberals’ relationship with other strands of thought: classical Marshallian economics, Keynesians, Marxists, Fascists. We never get the proper measure of neoliberals’ importance nor of their intellectual interaction with the rest of the world.

This is unfortunate because the period was remarkably intellectually fertile and contentious. Neoliberals, though, at that time, represented a tiny, and rather uninfluential, faction—even in their own Vienna “headquarters” where social-democrats, communists and fascists all commanded much greater support. It is thus rather unfortunate that Mises’ debate with Oskar Lange and Abba Lerner about the (im)possibility of economic calculation in a socialist economy does not get even a mention. And yet it was not only an important event in the history of neoliberalism (and indirectly, socialism), but presaged many of neoliberals’ later positions, including Hayek’s seminal work on the nature of economic information. (On that last point, Slobodian leaves the reader in a bit of a quandary as to who was the real innovator there. Walter Lippman’s book An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society published in 1937, from which Slobodian quotes several passages, seems to contain key insights—dispersal of economic knowledge, state with a very narrow but powerful role focused on the rule of law—that Hayek formulated in the later years. It would have been nice to have learned a bit more about intellectual precedence on this and several other matters.)

Another part where the book does not, I think, duly account for the interaction (cross-fertilization) between neoliberals and others ideologies is in the discussion of neoliberals’ model of federalism.  As mentioned, it consisted of a “double government” or differently put, “imperium”, that dealt with political, cultural and symbolic matters and was fully autonomous, and “dominium” which was internationally-controlled and dealt with economics. But the idea of a political federation that allows full cultural autonomy is something that goes back to Austro-Marxists who, prior to the First World War, grappled with precisely the same problem but looked at it from a different angle: how to organize a social-democratic federation in a multiethnic state (like the Habsburg Empire).  Both Austro-Marxists and neoliberals came to advocate an essentially identical federal design compatible with cultural and religious freedoms-but, of  course, they diverged on the “dominium” part. For Austro-Marxists it included a strong state involvement in the economy, and for neoliberals none at all—except for the rule of law. It would have been useful to find out more about the mutual influences of the two groups, as well as about the role of others like Schumpeter who straddled the space between neoliberals and Marxists.

The quality of writing is uneven. There are parts of the book that are engagingly written, and cover historical developments very closely. But there are also parts, especially in Chapter 7 which provides a “lengthy exegesis” (to quote Slobodian himself) of Hayek’s writings which are repetitive, boring, and at times even odd. These parts resemble a doctoral dissertation where an eager students shows to have mastered hundreds of quotes from the authors he reviews (probably more than they themselves could remember) but which have very little do to with the subject at hand. One would have liked to learn more about Hayek’s influence in the Thatcher revolution (that goes unmentioned) than on Hayek’s ruminations on epistemology, law, psychology, cybernetics, system theory, brain neurology and the like, complete with his many Greek neologisms and innumerable metaphors (is the human society more like a flock of geese, or like a school of fish, or like “iron fillings magnetized by a magnet under the sheet of paper on which we have poured them”).  

This is an excellent book but if it were shorter, more focused and at times less concerned about providing all the rights citations, it would have gained, in my opinion, in readability and probably in influence.