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Many Neoliberalisms: Market Logic and Social Values


Kate Redburn (@k_redburn) is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia Law School, a PhD Candidate in history at Yale University, and a former Managing Editor of the LPE Blog.

This post is part of our symposium on Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Read the rest of the symposium here. 


As many of the other contributors to this symposium have attested, one of the signal achievements of Globalists is the evidence that “neoliberalism” is indeed a coherent set of intellectual commitments, growing like any other ideological movement out of a particular set of historical conditions and contingencies. Fearful that the post-WWI proliferation of nation-states would obstruct the international flow of capital, a diverse set of economic thinkers converged on a new form of internationalism, intended to insulate transnational markets from democratic decision-making at the national level. Given the common suspicion that “neoliberalism” is a trendy, empty synonym for late capitalism, Slobodian’s persuasive account of substantial intellectual agreement – a real “there there” – gives historians of neoliberalism a more solid base from which to proceed.

Given the novelty of this argument, it may be somewhat surprising that I’m not focusing my response on the core agreement within the neoliberal thought collective, but on its internal division over social policy and moral preference. Contrary to accounts of neoliberalism as a hegemonic governmentality, Slobodian illuminates the differences between socially libertarian and socially conservative neoliberals from the earliest days of the neoliberal thought collective. The result points toward a more analytically specific account of American neoliberalism, one which acknowledges the uneven and contested development of actually-existing neoliberal law.

LPE scholars turn to Karl Polanyi because he imagined a route out of a capitalist market society. For Polanyi, the crucial insight that markets resulted from politics, and not spontaneous ordering, was matched by the conviction that a re-orientation of politics could “embed” the market in a newly democratized and de-commodified society. In Globalists, Quinn Slobodian suggests that the early neoliberal thought collective pre-figured Polanyi by a few years, with one crucial distinction. Like Polanyi, neoliberal thinkers imagined that re-configuring the laws and institutions of the economy would bring about a more desirable society. But where Polanyi hoped social democracy could rein-in the excesses of capitalist political economy, the neoliberal thought collective had different social ideals in mind.

But they did not agree on what sort of society neoliberalism should call into being. The division was evident at the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in 1937, where Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow argued that modernity’s relentless pursuit of “efficiency, profit, and productivity had led to a sociologically damaging isolation and degeneration of morality.” As Slobodian explains, “Rüstow and Röpke effectively argued that the economy must be re-embedded” in a society where “the individual must rediscover meaningful community relationships, including family, religion and, preferably, a connection to the rural land.” Fredrich Hayak and Ludwig von Mises, the more familiar neoliberal figures, vigorously disagreed that neoliberalism was compatible with conservative social values. “Mises accused Rüstow of romanticizing rural life, and Hayek argued that the proposal for a “rating scale” of “vital values” was inconsistent with the principles of liberalism” (85).

For Röpke, designing a “world safe for capitalism” required more than symbiosis between law and economics, it necessitated the right “moral infrastructure” (149). He drifted further away from Hayek and Friedman, who viewed racial discrimination as a market failure, toward a “personal fusion of neoliberalism and traditionalist conservatism,” where “white supremacy in Southern Africa was an essential feature of the extra-economic framework securing the world economy”(150). Röpke’s racism was not exogenous to his economic vision, but provided the stabilizing social hierarchy he considered necessary to secure Western control over the decolonizing Global South.

Following Slobodian’s example, US scholars should tease apart the differing social visions within American neoliberalism. This work will help identify divergent strands of neoliberalism, and the place of libertarian, neoconservative, and evangelical Christian thought within them. Melinda Cooper began to solve the puzzle of neoliberal social values – in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, she argues that the New Right-Republican political coalition linked neoliberal economics with neoconservative social values through their shared desire to devolve state power to the heteronormative family.

Cooper also suggests that libertarian fanaticism for contractual freedom, and thus social permissiveness, is predicated “on the proviso that the associated costs are fully internalized by the contracting parties” (116). Libertarians thus agree with neoconservatives that freedom of contract depends on stable, naturalized social hierarchy. Cooper cashes out this allegiance in the libertarian embrace of same-sex marriage. If the ultimate goal is to protect freedom of contract against state intervention or responsibility, then same-sex couples may marry as long as they privately bear the costs of sexual non-normativity (for example, the costs of queer social reproduction).

This account is extraordinarily persuasive and yet leaves questions unanswered. Cooper tends to treat neoliberals as though they are all social libertarians, leaving the less dominant strands of socially conservative neoliberalism underexplored. Her account doesn’t explain how libertarians like Richard Epstein can object to sexual privacy rights on the grounds that they are new “positive” rights deploying state power on behalf of a minority of citizens, and yet raise no objection to the expansion of religious freedom to override generally applicable anti-discrimination laws. (Contrast Epstein’s responses to Obergefell, and to Masterpiece Cakeshop.)

Perhaps more importantly, Cooper’s account cannot explain the decidedly non-neoliberal, socially conservative developments in American law. As I’ve written on the blog with Amy Kapczynski, social conservatives can claim significant victories against market fundamentalism. These other social conservatives, many of whom embrace neoliberal economics, also reject same-sex marriage (or any remotely liberal social agenda). The Witherspoon Institute, for example, objects to gay rights and abortion on plainly moral grounds, while embracing the free market as one of the five pillars of a thriving society. Writers for the Institute’s popular online journal, The Public Discourse, frequently argue against anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation, and challenge the very existence of trans people. They also raise neoliberal defenses of property rights, especially of religious people as against queer and trans people.

As the intellectual history of American neoliberalism develops, it can learn from the example of Globalists. Like Slobodian, we should integrate the apparent outliers (like Röpke) into our ideological taxonomy. By insisting on the uneven process and extent of neoliberalization, the core agreement within neoliberal circles cannot be mistaken for a shared vision of where that path should lead.