By Quinn Slobodian
Neoliberals hate the state. Or do they? In the first intellectual history of neoliberal globalism, Globalists; The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Quinn Slobodian follows a group of thinkers from the ashes of the Habsburg Empire to the creation of the World Trade Organization to show that neoliberalism emerged less to shrink government and abolish regulations than to redeploy them at a global level.
Slobodian begins in Austria in the 1920s. Empires were dissolving and nationalism, socialism, and democratic self-determination threatened the stability of the global capitalist system. In response, Austrian intellectuals called for a new way of organizing the world. But they and their successors in academia and government, from such famous economists as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises to influential but lesser-known figures such as Wilhelm Röpke and Michael Heilperin, did not propose a regime of laissez-faire. Rather they used states and global institutions—the League of Nations, the European Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization, and international investment law—to insulate the markets against sovereign states, political change, and turbulent democratic demands for greater equality and social justice.
Far from discarding the regulatory state, neoliberals wanted to harness it to their grand project of protecting capitalism on a global scale. It was a project, Slobodian shows, that changed the world, but that was also undermined time and again by the inequality, relentless change, and social injustice that accompanied it.
Adam Tooze on Dissent wrote:
"We people of the Anglosphere need to learn the peculiar use among German-speaking economists of the Latin word ordo (‘arrangement’), as in der Ordoliberalismus. The historian Quinn Slobodian’s fascinating book is the place to learn. [...] The main danger to free markets in a democratic age, the ordoliberals believed, is populism. Populists want the rewards right now, this afternoon. As Slobodian sees it (channelling the ordoliberals), socialism and other populisms breach the boundaries between market and government, which the ordoliberals regard as sacred and prudent. The populist is not willing to wait for the market to enrich us all, as it has since 1800 by increasing real income for the poorest by 3,000 per cent. The ordoliberals, by contrast, counsel patience. [...] We should reflect on maintaining a form of liberalism that has made us rich and free. You can do it, class, by attending to this brilliant, scholarly book."
Henry on Crooked Timber wrote:
"Neoliberalism has many histories. Milton Friedman, the Chicago school, Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan’s market revolution, IMF structural adjustment, and shock-therapy transition programs for the post-Communist states are all fixtures in the narrative of the neoliberal turn. [...] Globalists, from Wellesley historian Quinn Slobodian, is important because it provides a new frame for the history of this movement. For Slobodian, the earliest and most authentic brand of neoliberalism was from the outset defined by its preoccupation with the question of world economic integration and disintegration. In the 1970s, neoliberalism’s proponents would help unleash the wave of globalization that has swept the world. But, as Slobodian shows, their advocacy for free trade and the liberalization of capital movement goes back to neoliberalism’s founding moments in the wake of the First World War. [...] Slobodian gives us not only a new history of neoliberalism but a far more diverse image of global policy debates after 1945. [...] It is a measure of the success of this fascinating, innovative history that it forces the question: after Slobodian’s reinterpretation, where does the critique of neoliberalism stand?"
"Slobodian’s book is excellent history. [...] While his own leftwing politics are not hidden, he is careful in sticking to the facts, and in trying to present the neoliberals’ own understanding of their project fairly, even as he also makes his own opposition to it perfectly clear. He has a big story, which does indeed shed important light on neoliberalism. If we think of it as a project of anti-democratic statebuilding at the international level, we come to see and understand many things that would otherwise be obscure. [...] Slobodian says, unusually for a historian, that much can be learned from political scientists, who have studied some of these questions with greater intensity than historians. [...] He exploits sources and synthesizes historical developments over decades in a way that political scientists stand to learn a lot from. It is an exciting book and deserves to do very well indeed. That’s not to say that the book’s account is perfect or comprehensive. [...] Put differently, the strength of the book and its limitations both run in the same direction. It offers a fresh and exciting new vantage point on an important set of global developments, drawing on important and under-utilized archival resources. It also implicitly pushes back at the romanticism of ideas that is core to the standard story of neo-liberalism. [...] Yet this perspective, however new and important, is radically incomplete if it is taken (as some less-careful readers might take it) as a complete history of globalization, and as evidence that international institutions represent in their totality some kind of grand neo-liberal plot. It would be better to say that they are in part the product of neo-liberal plotting – but also of the plots and plans of Keynesians, empire building bureaucrats, business lobbyists with narrowly defined interests and a myriad of other actors."
Lecture on the Book
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Thinking in World Orders
- A World of Walls
- A World of Numbers
- A World of Federations
- A World of Rights
- A World of Races
- A World of Constitutions
- A World of Signals
- Conclusion: A World of People without a People
About Quinn Slobodian
Quinn Slobodian is associate professor of history at Wellesley College. He is a historian of modern German and international history with a focus on North-South politics, social movements, and the intellectual history of neoliberalism. He is the author of Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany, and the editor of Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World. As in his research, Slobodian’s teaching places histories of modern Europe in the history of the larger world. This goal is pursued in classes on the history of world economic orders, gender and sexuality, and cities. In Slobodian’s courses, students learn about the events and processes that shaped modern Europe while keeping an eye on the margins, and the unrealized histories of the continent's last two centuries.
- Introduction to Globalists by Quinn Slobodian at the blog of Harvard University Press.
- interview with Slobodian about Globalists and the history of neoliberal thought at the Toynbee Prize Foundation blog.
- Slobodian and Stuart Schrader on the connection between twentieth-century “nation-building” efforts and the development of Bell Curve author Charles Murray’s racial thinking at The Baffler.
- Slobodian on why—in the face of frequent obituaries for the notion of “neoliberalism”—he’d rather see the category more accurately understood than summarily dismissed at FocaalBlog.
- Slobodian on how contemporary right-wing populism in Germany and Austria emerged from within neoliberalism, not in opposition to it at Public Seminar.
And for audio and video:
- Listen to Slobodian define neoliberalism and trace its history “from the ashes of the Habsburg Empire to the WTO” on radio program Entitled Opinions at Stanford University's KCSU
- Watch The Walls of the WTO, a short film by Slobodian and filmmaker Ryan S. Jeffery that revisits the history of twentieth-century ideas of the world economy through a single building: the Centre William Rappard on the shores of Lake Geneva, at the Verso blog.