Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

BostonReview  |  In 1907, in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Austria saw its first elections held under universal male suffrage. For some this was progress, but others felt threatened by the extension of the franchise and the mass demonstrations that had brought it about.

The conservative economist Ludwig von Mises was among the latter. “Unchallenged,” he wrote, “the Social Democrats assumed the ‘right to the street.’” The elections and protests implied a frightening new kind of politics, in which the state’s authority came not from above but from below. When a later round of mass protests was violently suppressed—with dozens of union members killed—Mises was greatly relieved: “Friday’s putsch has cleansed the atmosphere like a thunderstorm.”

In the early twentieth century, there were many people who saw popular sovereignty as a problem to be solved. In a world where dynastic rule had been swept offstage, formal democracy might be unavoidable; and elections served an important role in channeling the demands that might otherwise be expressed through “the right to the street.” But the idea that the people, acting through their political representatives, were the highest authority and entitled to rewrite law, property rights, and contracts in the public interest—this was unacceptable. One way or another, government by the people had to be reined in.

Mises’ writings from a century ago often sound as if they belong in speeches by modern European conservatives such as German Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble. The welfare state is unaffordable, Mises says; workers’ excessive wage demands have rendered them unemployable, governments’ uncontrolled spending will be punished by financial markets, and “English and German workers may have to descend to the lowly standard of life of the Hindus and the coolies to compete with them.” 

Quinn Slobodian argues that the similarities between Mises then and Schäuble today are not a coincidence. They are products of a coherent body of thought: neoliberalism, or the Geneva school. His book, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, is a history of the “genealogy of thought that linked the neoliberal world economic imaginary from the 1920s to the 1990s.”

The book puts to rest the idea that “neoliberal” lacks a clear referent. As Slobodian meticulously documents, the term has been used since the 1920s by a distinct group of thinkers and policymakers who are unified both by a shared political vision and a web of personal and professional links.
How much did the Geneva school actually shape political outcomes, as opposed to reflecting them? 

John Maynard Keynes famously (and a bit self-servingly) claimed that, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist . . . some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Not everyone will share this view, but by highlighting a series of seven “moments”—three before World War II and four after—Slobodian definitively establishes the existence of neoliberalism as a coherent intellectual project—one that, at the very least, has been well represented in the circles of power.