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Books: Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism by Quinn Slobodian

Quinn Slobodian's book shows how neoliberalism emerged less to shrink government and abolish regulations than to redeploy them at a global level

Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism
by Quinn Slobodian
(Harvard University Press, £25.95)

THERE are two misconceptions about neoliberalism. One is that it seeks to return to laissez-faire and to “roll back the state,” while the other is that the EU cannot be neoliberal because its regulatory framework and social safeguards makes it social democratic in nature.

Quinn Slobodian’s new book Globalists explodes both these myths.

He explores the roots of neoliberal ideas, not in Chicago but in the Habsburg Empire, inter-war Switzerland and Weimar Germany and he focuses on a “Geneva School” bringing together for a while the likes of Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Ropke. 

They looked to 19th-century empires, British and European, as models because they were seen to encase within strong rule-making authorities the sanctity of private property and free movement of goods, capital and labour.

Slobodian refers to the importance in modern neoliberal thought of the “global imaginary” proposed in 1950 by erstwhile nazi jurist Carl Schnitt of a “double world.” One was the world of “imperium” — nation states ruled by national governments — the other of “dominium”  - of property, assets, money and resources scattered across the globe, regardless of historical boundaries.

The globalist vision that united neoliberals from various European, British and US  schools of thought was of a borderless world for property and enterprise. To that end, they sought to tie nation states into a supranational rule-making authority, in such a way as to limit the leverage of 'mass democracy', seen to lead to the ‘degeneration of economic policy'.

Far from seeking to diminish the role of the state, neoliberals sought to make it party to supra-national rules and to act as a mean of ensuring, in the words of LSE’s Lionel Robbins, ‘a carefully constructed competitive order’.

In building a world after WWII that would be safe for capitalism and private property, European globalists were divided. On the one hand were the “universalists” who opposed the formation of the EEC, a precursor to the EU.

They defended earlier visions of a global supranational authority, having been closely involved in the development of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the forerunner of the World Trade Organisation.

Hence they saw European federation as a potential source of disunity in the Western world, fearing that it could 'turn national autarky into a continental one' and win economic liberation by 'digging a moat' against the outside while maintaining preferential colonial ties through “Eurafrica.”

The so-called ‘constitutionalists’ promoted federalism as a means of limiting sovereign power and allowing only limited rights to nation states and, as such, it acted as a curb on mass democracy. Thus they saw the formation of a West European supranational authority as the means to ensure that rules allowing freedom of enterprise and shackling national governments could be enforced in a way a global authority could not achieve.

Slobodian explores and explains the development of such ideas and their influence on modern institutions in fascinating detail. He demonstrates their deeply anti-democratic and anti-socialist impulses but identifies the collapse of empires following WW1 as the crucial stimulus in the neo-liberal search for new supra-national authorities. There is, however, little mention of the huge jolt to thinking occasioned by the Russian and other revolutions.

How much more would the alarm of such people grow in the years following WWII, with communist governments operating in European heartlands — within their beloved old Habsburg empire itself —  and acting as a beacon to the aspirations to self-determination in former colonies?

Nevertheless, this important book provides a useful exploration of the neoliberal mind. United in the cause of multinational enterprise unfettered by the claims of national populations to their resources, the thinkers Slobodian explores provide valuable insights into the current Brexit debate. In many ways, the British public has been presented with a choice between two sides of the neoliberal coin.

One important point to emerge from the book is that neoliberals identified the nation state as the mechanism  through which democratic demands can be realised and sought to constrain it.

Again, the lesson should not be lost in the context of Brexit. We should recognise, as neoliberals do, that national sovereignty allows for democratic leverage needed to deliver policies which serve the people, not private profit.

Helen Mercer is author of Constructing a Competitive Order: The Hidden History of British Anti-Trust Policy (Cambridge University Press).

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