Chosen by Pankaj Mishra as one of the Best Books of the Summer
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.
“[Globalists] 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… 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… One of Slobodian’s great insights is that the neoliberal program was not simply a move in the distributional fight, but rather about establishing a social order in which distribution was not a political question at all. For money and markets to be the central organizing principle of society, they have to appear natural―beyond the reach of politics… Slobodian has written the definitive history of neoliberalism as a political project.”―J. W. Mason, Boston Review
“Imagine a novel and interesting coverage of the post-war Austrian School, here relabeled the ‘Geneva School,’ a well-done partial history of the WTO and EU, and a book where the central characters are not only Mises and Hayek, but also Alexander Rüstow, Wilhelm Röpke, and Michael Heilperin.”―Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
“[Globalists] 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…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? First and foremost, Slobodian has underlined the profound conservatism of the first generation of neoliberals and their fundamental hostility to democracy.”―Adam Tooze, Dissent
“Beginning with the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire, Slobodian’s lucidly written intellectual history traces the ideas of a group of Western thinkers who sought to create, against a backdrop of anarchy, globally applicable economic rules. Their attempt, it turns out, succeeded all too well in our own time. We stand in the ruins of their project, confronting political, economic and environmental crises of unprecedented scale and size. It is imperative to chart our way out of them, steering clear of the diversions offered by political demagogues. One can only hope that the new year will bring more intellectual heresies of the kind…Slobodian’s book embod[ies]. We need them urgently to figure out what comes after neoliberalism.”―Pankaj Mishra, Bloomberg Opinion
“Contrary to popular assumption, Mises, Hayek, and many of their heirs did not actually trust capital to manage itself unimpeded: The economic ‘freedom’ they desired, in practice, required extreme, top-down measures to curtail democracy.”―Atossa Abrahamian, Bookforum
“[A] magnificent history of neoliberalism…Offers a rich, lucid, and illuminating genealogy of neoliberal theory and practice, from its inception after World War I to the formation of the World Trade Organization.”―Eugene McCarraher, Commonweal
“[A] fascinating book… [Slobodian] writes with elegance and clarity.”―Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Literary Review
“A book that is likely to upset enthusiasts of the ‘liberal world order.’…Slobodian makes a groundbreaking contribution. Unlike standard accounts, which cast neoliberals as champions of markets against governments and states, Slobodian argues that neoliberals embraced governance―chiefly at the global level…Globalists is intellectual history at its best.”―Stephen Wertheim, Foreign Affairs
“Represents a step forward in scholarship on neoliberalism. It deserves to be widely read not merely by historians interested in the twentieth century, but by anyone looking for more depth and broader context on the populist uprisings reshaping global relations today…To know this history is not just necessary but urgent.”―Jennifer Burns, American Historical Review