Most people would likely claim a general understanding of neoliberalism as a movement of laissez-faire principles aimed at ensuring free markets and an “unfettered” economy. In Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, one of the first intellectual histories of the movement, Quinn Slobodian shows that, in the beginning, neoliberalism was actually about shielding the economic world from the political world—about protecting the global economy, not freeing it. For Slobodian, neoliberalism is ultimately less a theory of the market or economics than of law and state, and his work gives us a much clearer sense of how the old world of empire gave way in the twentieth century not to a quasi-libertarian world of markets but to international institutions that were highly active in prescribing trade policies and rules about competition. Below, Slobodian introduces his study, and recounts its origins in a late-1990s moment when passion could often outpace understanding.
If I had to give this book an origin point, it would be almost 20 years ago, at the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. For people who don’t know much about it, a famous coalition of “teamsters and turtles,” meaning environmentalists along with labor unions, students, anarchists, old hippies, and assorted others shut down the meeting and shook the organization to its core. Despite the director-general’s famous call to “re-brand” in the early 2000s, the WTO hasn’t completed a negotiating round since. So, the protest was a big deal.
I was a junior in college in Portland at the time, a few hours south of Seattle, and for reasons mostly to do with laziness and ennui, I didn’t go. I remember watching the protests on our small box TV with a coat hanger stuck in the back with the sinking feeling that “oh no, a world historical event is taking place that I passed on to watch some Lars von Trier movies on VHS.”
My friends and classmates felt activated, painting huge papier-mâché fists and strapping them to their backpacks, filled with certainty. Myself, I felt demobilized and filled mostly with disorientation.
The 1990s were a weird time to come of age. Middle class North American white kids like me were profiting from everything that went under the decade’s buzzword of globalization but also saw it as something ominous, sometimes verging on evil. We were the Adbusters generation. My sixteen-year-old sister was printing small stickers attacking McDonald’s viscerally. I wrote and photocopied a zine that said on the cover in block letters: OPEN YOUR EYES.
But open them to what exactly? The world economy was like the Nothing from my favorite childhood film, The Neverending Story, an anonymous, faceless force that seemed to swallow everything in its path, extinguishing particularity; it Coca-Colonized, to use a term of the time, squashed dreams of global modernization and turned the Third World back into a labor colony to make our stuff.
Before there was fake news there were what I saw then as fake needs, created by advertising and the mind control of the blizzard of logos—the swooshes and stripes that now adorn the cool kids in Berlin and Brooklyn. Back then we were all little Frankfurt Schoolers, or Frankfurt Pre-Schoolers, distrustful of irony though we were steeped in it, seeking elusive authenticity, wanting to unveil, unmask, expose, and upend—in my case, preferably from my desk, typewriter, and the warm chairs of the library.
So this book came out of a simple question that germinated at that time: why would anyone defend the great Nothing of the world economy, the power that forced the hands of democratically elected governments, anonymously imposed new rules and strictures and only rewarded us with what I saw in my adolescent mind as a disposable culture that would choke us all with plastic, garbage, and refuse before I even had a chance to die a natural death. (Capturing some of the melodrama of the time here).
I wanted to come as close as I could to a kind of deep logic of the moment. I knew, or thought I knew, what “we” wanted—but what did “they” want? How did “they” understand their own mission in the world?
The word that arose in the 90s to describe what “they” believed was “neoliberalism.” Although the term was coined by a group of intellectuals in the 1930s to describe themselves, as I recount in the book, in the 1990s and afterward it was used mostly by its enemies—as an academic curse word. As I write in the book’s introduction:
Neoliberals, we were told, believed in global laissez-faire: self-regulating markets, shrunken states, and the reduction of all human motivation to the one-dimensional rational self-interest of Homo economicus. The neoliberal globalists, it was claimed, conflated free-market capitalism with democracy and fantasized about a single world market without borders.
But why would anyone promote such a philosophy? There are a few obvious answers. The first is that the big Nothing was actually the big Everything: it was lifting the aggregate wealth and productivity of humanity as a whole. The number of people living on a dollar a day was dropping year to year. Even if inequality was also growing—and ecological problems were not going anywhere—the rising tide, globally speaking, was lifting all ships. Therefore there was nothing “evil” about the IMF, the World Bank, the economics profession, and the Financial Times op ed page. They were simply watching the biggest line graph of all—world economic growth—creep ever higher. We, on the other hand, were all nostalgic brats of the global north, unable to apprehend the bigger picture.
The second explanation was that neoliberal globalization made a small number of people very rich, and it was in the interest of those people to promote a self-serving ideology using their substantial means by funding think tanks and academic departments, lobbying congress, fighting what the Heritage Foundation calls “the war of ideas.” Neoliberalism, then, was a restoration of class power after the odd, anomalous interval of the mid-century welfare state.
There is truth to both of these explanations. Both presuppose a kind of materialist explanation of history with which I have no problem. In my book, though, I take another approach. What I found is that we could not understand the inner logic of something like the WTO without considering the whole history of the twentieth century. What I also discovered is that some of the members of the neoliberal movement from the 1930s onward, including Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, did not use either of the explanations I just mentioned. They actually didn’t say that economic growth excuses everything. One of the peculiar things about Hayek, in particular, is that he didn’t believe in using aggregates like GDP—the very measurements that we need to even say what growth is.
What I found is that neoliberalism as a philosophy is less a doctrine of economics than a doctrine of ordering—of creating the institutions that provide for the reproduction of the totality. At the core of the strain I describe is not the idea that we can quantify, count, price, buy and sell every last aspect of human existence. Actually, here it gets quite mystical. The Austrian and German School of neoliberals in particular believe in a kind of invisible world economy that cannot be captured in numbers and figures but always escapes human comprehension.
After all, if you can see something, you can plan it. Because of the very limits to our knowledge, we have to default to ironclad rules and not try to pursue something as radical as social justice, redistribution, or collective transformation. In a globalized world, we must give ourselves over to the forces of the market, or the whole thing will stop working.
So this is quite a different version of neoliberal thought than the one we usually have, premised on the abstract of individual liberty or the freedom to choose. Here one is free to choose but only within a limited range of options left after responding to the global forces of the market.
One of the core arguments of my book is that we can only understand the internal coherence of neoliberalism if we see it as a doctrine as concerned with the whole as the individual. Neoliberal globalism can be thought of in its own terms as a negative theology, contending that the world economy is sublime and ineffable with a small number of people having special insight and ability to craft institutions that will, as I put it, encase the sublime world economy.
To me, the metaphor of encasement makes much more sense than the usual idea of markets set free, liberated or unfettered. How can it be that in an era of proliferating third party arbitration courts, international investment law, trade treaties and regulation that we talk about “unfettered markets”? One of the big goals of my book is to show neoliberalism is one form of regulation among many rather than the big Other of regulation as such.
What I explore in Globalists is how we can think of the WTO as the latest in a long series of institutional fixes proposed for the problem of emergent nationalism and what neoliberals see as the confusion between sovereignty—ruling a country—and ownership—owning the property within it. I build here on the work of other historians and show how the demands in the United Nations by African, Asian, and Latin American nations for things like the Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, i.e. the right to nationalize foreign-owned companies, often dismissed as merely rhetorical, were actually existentially frightening to global businesspeople. They drafted neoliberal intellectuals to do things like craft agreements that gave foreign corporations more rights than domestic actors and tried to figure out how to lock in what I call the “human right of capital flight” into binding international codes. I show how we can see the development of the WTO as largely a response to the fear of a planned—and equal—planet that many saw in the aspirations of the decolonizing world.
Perhaps the lasting image of globalization that the book leaves is that world capitalism has produced a doubled world—a world of imperium (the world of states) and a world of dominium (the world of property). The best way to understand neoliberal globalism as a project is that it sees its task as the never-ending maintenance of this division. The neoliberal insight of the 1930s was that the market would not take care of itself: what Wilhelm Röpke called a market police was an ongoing need in a world where people, whether out of atavistic drives or admirable humanitarian motives, kept trying to make the earth a more equal and just place.
The culmination of these processes by the 1990s is a world economy that is less like a laissez-faire marketplace and more like a fortress, as ever more of the world’s resources and ideas are regulated through transnational legal instruments. The book acts as a kind of field guide to these institutions and, in the process, hopefully recasts the 20th century that produced them.