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Quinn Slobodian, ‘Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism’ (2018) – Global History Reading Group

Defining Neoliberalism

It has almost seemed necessary for discussions of neoliberalism to start with a preamble on the uncertain status of neoliberalism as an object of inquiry. This tradition looks to be challenged by an increasingly broad and confident body of literature which has emerged over the past five to ten years, and to which Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018) firmly belongs. This body of literature aims to peer through the scholarly haze obscuring the nebulous concept of ‘neoliberalism’ and attempts to define precisely what neoliberalism might be. Slobodian is the co-editor, with Dieter Plehew and Philip Mirowski, of the forthcoming book Nine Lives of Neoliberalism(January 2020) which looks to be something of a follow-up of Mirowski and Plehew’s seminal edited volume The Road from Mont Pèlerin: the Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (2009) - the authoritative volume for the historical study of neoliberalism. Slobodian frequently cites, and is very much part of, this historical project.

The project has been particularly successful in dissipating what Mirowski has delightfully described as the ‘remarkable and dumbfounding […] nominalism when encountering neoliberalism.’ [1] The general thrust of this group’s argument understands neoliberalism as a distinct system of political thought with a number of prevalent features which differentiate it from other systems of thought, particularly classical liberalism. On Wednesday 8 May, the GHCC’s Global History Reading Group gathered to discuss excerpts from Globalists.

The Nominalism of Neoliberalism

Slobodian reiterates this argument that neoliberal cannot be equated usefully with ‘laissez-faire corporatism’. Instead, for Slobodian neoliberalism can be conceived of as a form of governmentality which is concerned with the preservation of the free operation of markets through strong central legislation by states or institutions. The rightfully free actions and subjective valuations of individuals are represented collectively in the market which, through the price index, provides the optimum distribution of goods possible. Attempting to control or interfere in the operation of the market is a recipe for inefficiency and autocracy. Instead under neoliberalism, the powerful centralising tools of state infrastructure, such as the exercise of the rule of law, should be directed towards the maintenance of the stable conditions necessary for the efficient and free operations of the market.

Slobodian draws primarily on the biographies of the usual protagonists of narratives of the development of neoliberalism, including Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Lionel Robbins, and Wilhem Röpke, though his analysis also draws on many more obscure figures such as South African neoliberal W. H. Hutt or English MP Clive Morrison-Bell. Slobodian’s narrative covers both successes and failures of neoliberalism, with particular focus on the integration of neoliberal thought into policy and institutional design, including at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), League of Nations, European Economic Community (EEC), and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).[2]

Slobodian’s contribution is particularly exciting in how its focus on the more provincial geographies of Eastern Europe and the Global South from 1920-1980 contrasts with the Anglo-American focus of much of the rest of the literature; including Mirowski and Daniel Stedman Jones.[3] In identifying the earlier and more continental ‘Geneva School’ of neoliberalism, Slobodian continues to develop the definition of neoliberal and identify its sub-species. Slobodian makes a clear divide between the more quantitively inclined economic modelling of American Chicago School neoliberalism and the ‘network and signals’ focus of the more sceptical ‘Geneva school’. Chapter five provides the most intriguing example of the speciation of neoliberalism using what Slobodian calls the ‘litmus test’ of attitudes towards the use of the category of race in the decolonisation of Southern Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, and how far different neoliberals were prepared to limit Black enfranchisement to ‘protect’ markets.[4]

The tension in neoliberalism between democracy and operation of the market is one that Slobodian frequently returns to. Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises is portrayed by Slobodian as not the ‘libertarian’ or ‘paleoliberal’ scholar he is often understood to have been, but as a state employed bureaucrat interested in the preservation of the function of markets and international trade protected by the rule of law and opposed to democratic redistribution of wealth. Slobodian contextualises Mises’ support for the violent repression of labour protests within Mises’ economic thought. It is in the extremely readable and accessible contextualisation of neoliberalism, often very literally describing the buildings and streets the protagonists of neoliberalism inhabited, that Slobodian’s argument is strongest and most engaging.

Future Questions

Globalists cannot dispel all the fog obscuring neoliberalism, and Slobodian is the first to admit his narrative is ‘necessarily incomplete.’[5] Slobodian concludes his narrative prior to the ascendancy of neoliberal policies in the 1980s. The hot and cold wars of the mid-to-late twentieth century are largely absent from his narrative. One critique raised at the reading group was that Slobodian engages little with the content of the arguments of the opponents of neoliberals – Vienna School Marxists, Fascist, Social Democrats, the proponents of industrial policy, and others. More often than not these opponents are little more realised than the ‘collectivist’ caricatures which Slobodian’s neoliberal subjects themselves illustrated.

Perhaps the most sustained comments were that Globalists does not constitute a holistic critique of neoliberalism. Slobodian seeks to ‘bring neoliberalism down to earth by casting both neoliberalism and globalism less as abstract overarching logics of history than as political projects populated by discrete individuals occupying specific places and moments in time.’[6] While neoliberalism is rightly criticised by Slobodian as obscuring power relationships in its defence of the market and the deployment of state power in order to repress democracy, the moral attractions (perhaps, justifications) of neoliberalism to those who exercise it in governance are obscured in Globalists. In Chapter 3, Slobodian quotes Lionel Robbins in such a way as to downplay the moral attractions of neoliberalism, such as the ‘democratic’ capacity of the market or international ‘unity’ of the world economy.[7] It is not just that neoliberals were ‘business philosophers’ exclusively concerned with justifying the maintenance of exploitative corporate power structures (even if they were by the most part funded by them.) Criticism of the attractions of neoliberalism is as important as criticism of its failures.

That such criticisms can be made and further questions asked is clearly a sign of a scholarly movement in rude health. Slobodian’s contribution is a fascinating continuation of the discussion and clarification of neoliberalism and points towards some intriguing future directions of inquiry.

Josh Patel is a second-year PhD student in history at the University of Warwick (2017-2020), supervised by Mathew Thomson and Claudia Stein. Josh’s research is interested in the history of economic thought and its relationship to governmentality in liberal political philosophy, using Higher Education expansion in Britain during the 1960s as a case study. Josh’s research draws upon the literature describing the development of liberal political philosophy which developed 1930s to the 1960s. This liberal political philosophy in Britain brought to Higher Education policy what it saw as a pragmatic methodology for the realisation of an idea of the ‘good society’.

[1] Philip Mirowski, 'Neoliberalism: The Movement That Dare Not Speak Its Name', American Affairs, II (2018

[2] Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: the End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (London: Harvard University Press, 2018), p. 24.

[3] Ibid. p. 8.

[4] Ibid. pp. 146-81.

[5] Ibid. p. 23

[6] Ibid., pp. 25-26.

[7] Ibid., pp. 100, 103.

Slobodian Globalists

Quinn Slobodian