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On “Commerce and Civilization” – The Question of Order in the Post-Colonial World


Kojo Koram (@KojoKoram) is a Lecturer in Law at Birbeck, University of London.

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

9780674979529“Commerce and Civilization!” These two terms formed the dual mandate popularized by Lord Lugard, the first British Governor-General of a united Nigeria. Despite its promise as being the encumbered, pure logic of the market, liberal capitalist trade has always carried a civilizational imperative, a desire to make or remake the moral order of the world. Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth  of Neoliberalism tells the story of capitalism’s most recent world-making revolution, giving us an intellectual history of the idea of neoliberalism. Spanning the breadth of the twentieth century, taking us from the chaotic disillusionment of the Habsburg Empire up to the triumphant establishment of the World Trade Organization, Slobodian’s book helps reframe the common understanding of neoliberalism as a project not of freeing the market but of instituting and safeguarding it. Through Slobodian, we come to think of neoliberalism as a productive and not a merely a destructive ideology; neoliberalism did seek to dismantle the model of labour power and social welfare that had arisen in post-war Europe, but it was also concerned with creating international institutions that could cultivate a fertile terrain for international capitalism. This post takes up the question of order as Slobodian articulates it, the quest for a fixed economic order underneath the potential disorder of competing nation states being a driver of neoliberalism. Specifically, I wish to reflect further on the history of neoliberalism as it was implemented in the Global South, a story that Slobodian points us towards in Chapter 5 of his book, but a story that remains underappreciated for its consequences upon the contemporary world.

By historicizing neoliberalism’s rise, Slobodian takes us outside the common realms of neoclassical, Chicago school economics or Reaganite/Thatcherite politics in which this story is usually placed and into the arena of international law. The end of the Second World War provoked a reconstitution of international legal order as law had failed twice that century to act as a restraint upon the outbreak of contagious violence within the international community. The necessity for international legal institutions to temper the propensity for competing nationalisms to descend into warfare had become self-evident, even more so after decolonisation brought a foray of new nation-states into the international community. As the newly-independent states of the post-colonial world began to articulate a vision of a new international economic order, the maintenance of a recognisable civilizational as well as commercial order for the European protagonists of Slobidan’s book meant the empowering of institutions that could resist disruptive calls for permanent sovereignty over national resources. The property rights of multinational capital were to be protected in what Slobodian describes as a “global constitution,” to be enforced by “multi-tiered governance … insulated from democratic decision making.”

Reading this history today, in the age of authoritarian populism, Slobodian’s work also challenges us to move beyond accepting the easy opposition between draconian state power and the liberalising of markets often offered in defence of neoliberalism. With Friedman, Hayek, Röpke, and the other protagonists of Slobodian’s book seeing themselves as the antithesis of communist rule, a self-ascribed truism has come to be associated with their economic theory that neoliberalism is a vehicle for democratic values. Neoliberal economics and a political system of human rights, rule of law, civil rights, and freedom of speech are assumed to be co-constitutive of one another. Erased is the underside of how neoliberalism found comfortable bedfellows in the authoritarianism regimes across the Global South. From General Pinochet in Chile to General Abacha in Nigeria, neoliberalism was not simply advocating for small government – specifically, minimal government intervention and regulation in economic matters – but also increased state security power in order to repress the resistance against these policies. As structural adjustment programmes proliferated across the post-colonial world, these programs would often be implemented by authoritarian states who would need to mobilise draconian security forces and repressive state practices to try and quell the riots and uprisings that would follow. Where is this recent history in our readings of populist authoritarianism across the west today? Focused on constructing and protecting an established order for the post-colonial world, Neoliberalism sought not just a weakening of the state but to defang its ability to threaten the dynamics of the world market whilst empowering its ability to compel obedience to market fundamentalism. As Slobodian tells us, “Hayek’s proposal was to downgrade the significance of representative government by reducing its roles to the enforcement of competition and contract.” Furthermore, Slobodian’s research illuminates how indebted neoliberal thought was to Eurocentric ideas of civilisation and, in the work of figures like Röpke, even to explicit associations between racial hierarchy and economic order.

While Röpke’s naked investment in race was a minority opinion among the architects of neoliberalism, the ideal of a global market that the theory envisioned was anchored upon the preservation of a Eurocentric order; it promised a global economic system that would allow for the new nations of the decolonised world but bind them underneath an umbrella of international institutions that preserved ‘commerce and civilisation.’ The closing reflection I had upon finishing Slobodian’s book was the question of whether it was a mistake of the West to presume that this discipline of state sovereignty would be limited to governments of decolonised countries. As we witness the rise of authoritarian capitalism in the centre of the neoliberal world order today, we should ask whether the architects of neoliberalism were myopic in assuming that they could the empower the international capitalist class to dismantle the sovereign power of ‘emerging’ nations without there being a boomerang. Once sovereign control over resources, worker’s rights, environmental protections, and redistributive tax laws were taken apart in one state, was it inevitable that a multinational corporation would try and recreate the same friendly conditions across all jurisdictions that they operate?

By encasing international capitalism from the threat of nation-states, the West created a power imbalance between states and multinational corporations; companies like BP, Apple and Amazon have become Frankenstein monsters, unable to be tamed by the countries that gave birth to them. What is the complicity of Hayek, Friedman, and co. in this turn of events? Does the recent emergence of more populist, more authoritarian governments in the west read as a breakdown of political order simply because of the site of location? How will the coming future change the way we judge the neoliberal intellectual project? These are now open questions.