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"We are experiencing the biggest split in the neoliberal camp in decades"
The historian Quinn Slobodian clears up popular misconceptions about neoliberalism in his acclaimed book Globalists. In an interview, the Canadian explains why the defenders of the market are in a clinch - and what the left can learn from Friedrich Hayek.
By Daniel HackbarthMail to AutorInTwitter profile of the author (interview) and Florian Bachmann (photos)
WOZ: Quinn Slobodian, when one speaks of “neoliberalism” today, liberals often object that this is a mere battleground. What would you say to that?
Quinn Slobodian: In fact, the word "neoliberalism" has been used very differently. On the one hand, to describe the period from the late 1970s to the present, which is also known as the “neoliberal era”. Here “neoliberalism” serves to mark a period of global capitalism. The term is also used to denote a kind of rationality: that we see ourselves as human capital, the value of which we try to maximize. Here "neoliberalism" denotes a logic, a kind of subjectivity in which we are entrepreneurs of ourselves.
And beyond these two uses?
The third meaning of neoliberalism is the way I use the term in my book, namely to mark an intellectual movement. This began in the 1930s as a result of the Great Depression, when the term “neoliberalism” was coined by liberals who believed that the old laissez-faire capitalism was no longer an option and that the role of the state was being rethought must. In the years that followed, it was customary for economists like Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman to describe themselves as neoliberals. Hayek said explicitly in the 1950s that the goal of the Mont Pèlerin Society, which he co-founded in 1947, was to spread neoliberal thinking around the world.
Later, however, did they no longer want to be considered neoliberals?
Yes. This group continued to discuss how to save capitalism for the future, but for reasons that are unclear, they stopped calling themselves neoliberals. The word does not appear again until the nineties, but then actually often as a "fighting term", in other words in the vocabulary of critics of global capitalism. I only use the term in the said narrower sense: to describe an ideology that has been worked out by a certain group of people. I also believe that it makes sense to use the term only like this: Evidence for this is that neoliberals are now more willing to call themselves that - for example the Adam Smith Institute, a British think tank that has been around for a long time, which only came out a few years ago as a “neoliberal” institute.
Why exactly are these people now more willing to attach themselves to this label?
Because the term “libertarian”, which they have favored so far, is misleading, as it would mean that they want to get rid of the state. In fact, however, they believe that capitalism needs a strong state - albeit one that does very different things than a social democratic state, of course.
This corresponds to one of your central theses: in your book you reject the widespread notion that neoliberals believe that the market regulates itself and would best get by without a state.
Exactly. When the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher spoke about the need to push back the state, this also meant that a different kind of state should be expanded. The reason the left is so attached to the idea that neoliberals want a self-regulating market is because it makes it very easy to criticize. Then one can say: Look how ridiculous the neoliberals are - it is clear that a state is needed! However, just reading ten pages of thinkers like Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke or Walter Eucken is enough to see that their thoughts revolved around the establishment of a different kind of state - and not about shrinking the state as such. A famous lecture by the German ordoliberal Alexander Riistow is appropriately entitled "Free Economy, Strong State".
They show that the international institutions that the neoliberals invented should shield the market from democratic access: from movements and elected governments that wanted to redistribute wealth. Is neoliberalism essentially anti-democratic?
As I said, the neoliberals are not just concerned with “liberating the markets”, but rather with sheathing them: only legal structures enable free trade and the free movement of capital. If that is acknowledged, a real debate is possible about what kind of regulation is desirable. Ideally, this discussion takes place in a democratic discourse in which everyone contributes their ideas. But that was precisely the main concern of the neoliberals in the 20th century: They viewed the democratic principle of “one person, one voice” as a new reality that modernity has brought with it - as something that cannot be easily got rid of, but also doesn't necessarily have to get rid of. Both Ludwig von Mises and Hayek praised democracy as the most peaceful means to date to bring about political change.
However, you are quoting Hayek with the sentence expressed on the occasion of Augusto Pinochet's coup in Chile that a liberal dictator is preferable to an anti-liberal democracy.
There is also the beautiful sentence from Hayek that in a democracy one counts the heads instead of beating them. But in fact, democracy enables a largely uneducated population to make excessive demands and usurp the state in order to redistribute wealth in such a way that it would destroy the market. The neoliberals are less concerned with abolishing democracy than with imposing limits on it. Your project revolved around the question of how democracy can be tamed. This is where the law becomes important: The independence of the judiciary from democratic pressure is crucial for both Austrian and US neoliberals. This idea of the judge as guardian of the economic order then develops into the idea of the central banks as guarantors of the monetary constitution. Many supranational organizations like the WTO aim to do just that: These are places where the power of decision has been shifted away from the nation states.
The crux of the matter is to ensure the democratic legitimation of these institutions at the same time. This is the neoliberals 'Achilles' heel: they believe they can maintain democracy and at the same time limit democratic decision-making by establishing new institutions. But they never ask why the population should have an interest in their sovereignty being transferred to supranational organs.
The receipt then came, for example, in the protests against the transatlantic trade agreement TTIP, which was supposed to secure corporate interests against possible democratic decisions?
Absolutely. It was similar with the NAFTA agreement. Many people were appalled to learn that corporations should be able to sue their governments if they decide within their borders to improve environmental protection or to increase corporate taxes. Human rights are often complained of being ineffective because of the lack of means to enforce them; it is all the more remarkable that the rights of capital are very real because there is a developed institutional apparatus to secure them.
The outrage over the TTIP was correspondingly great.
Yes, and I think the neoliberals made a strategic mistake here, not just a moral or political one. You crossed the line: It was wrong to believe that people would simply put up with the fact that power was being transferred away from the hands of the people. In this respect, the backlash that we could observe with Trump or Brexit was foreseeable. The major parties all agreed that free trade and globalization are unchangeable developments - just like the changing of the seasons. In doing so, they opened up a large political field into which the forces from the right only had to stroll.
It also shows why liberalism and democracy ultimately contradict each other? That was a thesis of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, whom you also mention in your book.
A democracy can certainly produce illiberal effects because the will of the people does not always have to be consistent with civil liberties. That is why liberalism demands the suppression of some democratic demands - I think the thesis is correct in this sense. Chantal Mouffe speaks here of the “democratic paradox”. That describes well the tension with which the neoliberals are confronted.
In the meantime, there is no longer any talk of TTIP; Donald Trump is governed by a US president who cheerfully threatens punitive tariffs. What are the discussions among neoliberals like today?
At the moment we are experiencing the biggest schism in the neoliberal camp for decades - and this can be seen most clearly in German-speaking countries. This rupture is sparked by questions of migration and borders.
So is there a cosmopolitan camp and a reactionary one? Where exactly can this be observed?
A first indication was the founding of the AfD in Germany, which was brought into being by ordoliberal economists, some of whom were members of the Mont Pèlerin Society. These people have long been convinced that the globalist solution is wrong, that one shouldn't shift decision-making power to the European Central Bank because the nation is still the best manager of capitalist affairs. They quickly formed alliances with xenophobic forces. To justify these alliances, they resorted to the old argument of some neoliberals - including Wilhelm Röpke - that culturally not all people are equally suitable for capitalism. If there are European traditions that Africa lacks, then anti-immigration policies can be economically justified. The place where this alliance was formally formed was the Hayek Society in Germany, which, by the way, in addition to the co-chair of the AfD parliamentary group, Alice Weidel, also has many Swiss members: Roger Köppel, for example.
Does it fit that Thilo Sarrazin was also a guest at the Hayek Society?
Yes, he has given lectures there several times and has appeared with the sociologist Erich Weede, who is something like the theoretician of this right-wing ordoliberal wing. The two spoke at the "Freedom Forum" of the Hayek Society in Berlin. And it is remarkable that Sarrazin, one of the best-known opponents of non-white immigration in Germany, spoke there in the name of freedom, since one involuntarily asks oneself: What kind of “freedom” is this actually about? In the Hayek Society, however, there were also people who did not want this alliance with the right: the business journalist Karen Horn, who also writes for the NZZ, has led this withdrawal movement. Until then, however, the neoliberal movement appeared remarkably closed - which is one of the explanations for its great influence.
If you look at the global trend, does it play into the cards of the reactionaries?
When it comes to populism, you have to differentiate. If you look at the camp of the “Brexiteers”, the AfD or the FPÖ in Austria, it seems to me quite clear that they represent an exaggerated neoliberalism. Brexit is supposed to lead to a deregulated economy, and if you read the AfD's program, the term “competition” appears dozens of times, but “solidarity” never appears. However, if you look at the Lega in Italy or the Rassemblement National in France, these parties don't just want to cut social spending. It is often the case that there are both camps within the parties. One has to wait and see how that turns out. But if you look at the US, it's entirely possible that we'll end up with some kind of revamped globalism.
Where do you see the signs of this?
Look what happened to the NAFTA agreement: This is said to have been the “worst deal ever” - Trump based his election campaign on the promise that he would withdraw the US from the agreement. Then, a year and a half later, there was a new agreement that is very similar to the NAFTA agreement: you can't just break all promises to your partners and then expect them to still want to act. Instead, you have to find new compromises, and you may end up where you started. Trump's attacks on the WTO are very real - but that doesn't mean that we may not end up with some kind of WTO 2.0. Capitalism is organized globally and necessarily requires a legal structure.
Back to Europe: In your book you describe the early controversies of the neoliberals with regard to European unification. Doesn't that reflect today's left-wing conflict with the EU?
At its core, historiography is about removing the appearance of the inevitable from the present. This can be shown well in the EU, which is widely regarded as neoliberal. The European Economic Community (EEC) was not founded until the late 1950s, so we are dealing with a manageable amount of time. And already in these sixty years, what Europe stands for has changed many times. The founding of the EEC was already a compromise that provided for a protectionist policy for farmers, but also an intensification of international trade relations. Then, in the 1970s, European unification appeared promising to the Eurocommunists and the left. In the nineties, on the other hand, there were the Maastricht Treaties, which were supposed to limit state spending, but at the same time also the expansion of the European Social Charter. A look back at such compromises shows that the content of the institutions is not fixed once and for all.
Does that also apply to the IMF or the World Bank?
Yes. The claim that these institutions can never change is historically untenable. This is why the idea of a left-wing Brexit goes astray: The idea that you are finally free as soon as you leave the EU is wrong.
Can't you understand that it is considered absurd to say: “Okay, we finally have the majority in the country, but we are staying in the EU and bowing to the austerity course”? That was the problem for the Greek Syriza government in 2015.
I have friends from Greece who were active on the left during this time, for example the political scientist and activist Pavlos Roufos, author of the book “A Happy Future Is a Thing of the Past”. If you ask him why they weren't out of the EU at the time, he replies: “What would that have done? We would have been just as limited as we were by the requirements of the Troika. " Roufos has fought the ECB and the European Commission throughout his political career. However, he concludes that there is no better alternative to the institutional framework that the EU offers. So the question is, how do you use social movements to develop pressure to take over these institutions? The neoliberals saw this difficulty very well, Hayek advocated supranational federations, which should be free trade zones, but which should also consist of as different populations as possible: This should prevent people from developing solidarity with one another.
If you think of the polemics against the “lazy southern Europeans”, it seems to work too.
And that's why I think the real challenge for the left is to create international solidarity: to launch a project that articulates a political will across borders. We find such insights in an inverted form in the writings of neoliberals. Hayek believed that solidarity only exists with primitives: as soon as societies become more complex, their members would have to be less empathetic, otherwise the international labor system would collapse. If Hayek is right in this analysis, we should start showing more solidarity if we want to change things. Whenever a movement arises based on the ideas of internationalism and social justice, Hayek is refuted. That's a nice thought.
Globalization and resistance
The “Battle of Seattle” - and how it came about
The world saw the birth of the anti-globalization movement almost exactly twenty years ago: on November 30, 1999, tens of thousands came to Seattle for a conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to protest against its policies and their consequences.Even the term “anti-globalization movement” is misleading: The media, as Quinn Slobodian recalls, did their best to discredit the demonstrators as nationalists who preferred to live isolated from the world: “The people who protested there, very well aware of the problems elsewhere in the world - that was exactly what drove them. " For the Canadian historian, the desire articulated in Seattle for a different globalization - an alter-moonialism - is still "the model on which left politics should be oriented."
In his recently published German book «Globalisten. The end of empires and the birth of neoliberalism », to a certain extent, Slobodian tells the prehistory of the struggles over globalization since the 1990s. His description concentrates on the little researched but influential «Geneva School», a group of neoliberal economists like Friedrich Hayek or Wilhelm Röpke, who devised institutions after the First World War that were supposed to secure free world trade. So far, interest has mainly focused on US neoliberals such as the infamous “Chicago Boys” around Milton Friedman, who were focused on the USA and were less interested in international issues. Slobodian corrects this imbalance in the debate.
The historian, who now teaches at Wellesley College in the US state of Massachusetts, was a student at the University of Portland in 1999 - just a three-hour drive from Seattle. But he did not take part in the protests: at the time he was a "somewhat nihilistic teenager" who preferred to play in punk bands than to go to demos. Nevertheless, Seattle was a revelation for him, says the 41-year-old: "I saw the pictures on television and thought to myself: Wow, the front line of a world-historical dispute is really going on there."
Quinn Slobodian: «Globalists. The end of empires and the birth of neoliberalism ». Suhrkamp Verlag. Berlin 2019. 522 pages. 47 francs.
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