Neoliberals hate the state. Or do they? In the first intellectual history of neoliberal globalism, 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.
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- Will Szal
Tracing Neoliberalism to Its European Origins
I’ve been spiraling around this book since late last fall. Daniel Denver (producer of Jacobin’s “The Dig” podcast) interviewed the author last November in a lengthy conversation revolving around the importance of governance, in all of its many forms and the dogmas that come along with them. Around that time Jonathan Levy reviewed Adam Tooze’s “Crashed” in “n+1” in an article that focused on the threat of liquidity. I also read Anand Giridharas’ “Winners Take All” during this time, which speaks to and about the globalist class.
There are many other books, authors, and thinkers relevant to list in this catalog, but I’ll stop there for now. I rattle through this list to help point to the formation of a school of thought that has been forming in the post-2008 period. Although some might call it the anti-globalism movement, it is actually more globalist than the globalists.
In a way, this is a book about neoliberalism. As defined by Slobodian, neoliberalism has three core tenants:
1. Free trade and closed borders (racism)
2. Minimization of quantification
3. Weak states and encased markets
Common belief appears to hold that neoliberalism is an ideology born out of the United States in the second half of the 20th century. In “Globalists,” Slobodian traces this history back to the first half of the 20th century in Europe. This could be called the Geneva school. It was an intellectualism defined by free trade but strong borders that has endured to our present moment. Along these lines, it is worth calling out that there are two branches of neoliberalism regarding borders: the racists and the non-racists. The first might be called the nationalist branch, or white-supremicist branch, while the second could be called the libertarian branch.
It came as a surprise to me that, in its evolution, neoliberalism has eschewed quantification. Having recently read “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshona Zuboff and “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn—both books about behaviorism—this came as a bit of a surprise to me. Slobodian pits the neoliberals against the likes of Dana Meadows and the Club of Rome report on the “Limits to Growth.” Their rhetoric revolves around a statement that economies are so vast and complex as to render any form of quantification meaningless. This is at odds with the co-emergent field of cybernetics. In this segment, Slobodian explores the work of F. A. Hayek, including the systems theory that he helped to develop.
Also contrary to popular belief, neoliberalism is not about laissez-faire in the literal sense of “unbridled markets.” Rather, these are encased markets. How can we constitutionally restrict the reach of the state to interfere with the functions of the global economy? This is the epitome of a neoliberal question.
If you’re looking for the cliff notes, turn to page 271 in the conclusion, where Slobodian outlines his fifteen points of neoliberalism.
Slobodian is clearly writing from the left side of the aisle; in that regard, this is an investigation of his opponents. That said, I’m not sure that I can distill a thesis of this book. Maybe this makes it all the more academic, in that Slobodian’s biases are under the surface as opposed to front-and-center.
As I work in the field of cryptocurrency, I’m particularly interested in considering what all of this means for the crypto-sphere. Other authors have given this question some thought, such as David Golombia in his “The Politics of Bitcoin.” When considering the frontiers of economic and governance design, what paradigms are we inheriting?
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- Jonas S. de Almeida
A modern economic history of Globalism
First read it, then listened to audio version. For me this was the definite book on Globalism, neoliberalism, and a particularly relevant strain for the European reader, ordoliberalism. First conjured to shore the privileged of falling multinational Habsburg empire, then matured with international institutions of the post-war period, eventually challenged by decolonization, it now appears decidedly opposed by a resurgent digized Demos.
- Bryan Beaudoin
excellent information-rich high level synthesis. don't skip the last chapter. useful background for people who like to read news about this stuff.