the new right

Image: Engin Akyurt


Neoliberals and ultra-right: the single trunk

One dogged account of recent years claims that the rise of the far-right is a social backlash against something called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is often defined as a certain market fundamentalism or belief in a core set of ideas: everything in this world has a price, borders are obsolete, the world economy must replace nation-states, and human life is reducible to a cycle of earning, spending, taking credit and dying.

On the contrary, the “new” right would believe in the people, in national sovereignty and in the importance of conservative cultural values. Today, with traditional parties losing more and more votes, the elites that promoted neoliberalism would be reaping the fruits of inequality and the erosion of democracy that they sowed.

But this report is false. Indeed, it is enough to look closely to notice that some important factions of the emerging right are mutating strains of neoliberalism. After all, the so-called “right-wing populist” parties in the United States, Great Britain and Austria are not avenging angels that would have been sent to destroy economic globalization. They have no plans to subjugate finance capital, restore “golden age” labor guarantees, or end trade liberalization.

Broadly speaking, the projects of these so-called populist privatization, deregulation and tax cuts stem from the same script that the world's owners have been following for thirty years. Understanding neoliberalism as an apocalyptic hypermarket of the world is a mistake and only generates disorientation.

As many authors demonstrate, far from evoking stateless capitalism, the neoliberals who organized themselves into the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Friedrich Hayek — who in the 1950s used the term “neoliberalism” to describe his own ideas — reflected for almost a century on how to reshape the state to restrict democracy without eliminating it, as well as on the role of national and supranational institutions in protecting competition and exchange. When we understand that neoliberalism consists of a project to restructure the State to save capitalism, its supposed opposition to right-wing populism begins to dissolve.

Both neoliberals and the new right despise egalitarianism, global economic justice and any kind of solidarity that extends beyond national borders. Both perceive capitalism as inevitable and judge citizens by standards of productivity and efficiency. More surprisingly, both feed their spirits on the same pantheon of “free market” heroes. A good example is Hayek, a figure who remains unchallenged on both sides of the alleged rift between neoliberals and ultra-rightists.

In a speech in 2018, Steve Bannon, alongside Marine Le Pen, at a National Front congress, condemned the “elites” and the “globalists”. He also employed the metaphor of the path of servitude, thus invoking the authority and name of this master on the right.

Bannon had already quoted Hayek the week before. Behold, he was called to an event by Roger Köppel, editor of the magazine Wirtschaftswoche and a member of the Swiss People's Party and the Friedrich Hayek Society. During this meeting, Köppel showed Bannon one of the first issues of the magazine and added which it was “from 1933”, a time when the publication promoted the Nazi coup.

“Let them call you racists,” Bannon said, without hesitation, to the audience, “let them call you xenophobes. Let them also call you nationalists. Wear those words as badges.” The goal of the far-rights, he said, is not to maximize shareholder value, but to "maximize citizen value first." This sounded less like a rejection of neoliberalism than a deepening of its economic logic at the very heart of collective identity. Rather than dismissing the neoliberal idea of ​​human capital, populists combine it with national identity in a discourse about the nation with capital letters.

Before leaving Europe, Bannon also had the opportunity to meet with Alice Weidel, a former adviser to Goldman Sachs bank, leader of the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and member of the Hayek Society until early 2021. Another AfD representative is Peter Boehringer: a former libertarian blogger and consultant, also a member of the Hayek Society and now Bavaria's representative to the Bundestag and chairman of the parliament's budget committee.

In September of 2017, the Breitbart, a news site of which Bannon was executive chairman, interviewed Beatrix von Storch, an MP and AfD chair who is also a member of the Hayek Society. She [who would become meet with Jair Bolsonaro on 26/7/2021] took the opportunity to say that Hayek inspired her in her commitment to “family recovery”. In neighboring Austria, Barbara Kolm, tasked with negotiating the short-lived coalition between the Freedom Party and the People's Party, was director of the Hayek Institute in Vienna, a member of the commission that sought to create special deregulated zones in Honduras, and a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

In short, all this to say that, over the last few years, we have not witnessed a clash of opposing trends, but rather the emergence of an old dispute on the capitalist side, which revolves around the means necessary to keep the free market alive. Ironically, the conflict that separated the so-called “globalists” from the far-rights erupted in the 1990s, when many thought that neoliberalism had conquered the world.


What is neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is often thought of as a set of solutions, a ten-point plan to destroy social solidarity and the welfare state. Naomi Klein defines it as a “shock doctrine”: it attacks in times of disaster, empties and sells public services and transfers power from the state to companies.

The Washington Consensus, created in 1989 by economist John Williamson, is the most famous example of neoliberalism as a recipe: a list of duties to be followed by developing countries, ranging from fiscal reforms to privatizations, passing through different types of trade liberalization. . From this perspective, neoliberalism seems like a cookbook, a panacea and a formula that applies in all cases.

But the works of neoliberal intellectuals provide a very different picture, and if we want to explain the apparently contradictory political manifestations of the right, we need to study them. Then one discovers that neoliberal thinking does not consist of solutions, but of problems. Are judges, dictators, bankers or businessmen reliable guardians of economic order? What institutions should be created and developed? How do you get people to accept markets even if they are often cruel?

The problem that has most bothered neoliberals over the past seventy years is that of the balance between capitalism and democracy. Universal suffrage – they believe – has strengthened the masses; and these are always ready to make the market economy unfeasible through voting. Through it, they “extort” politicians, obtaining favors and, thus, draining the state coffers. Many neoliberals tend to think that democracy inherently has a pro-socialist bias.

Therefore, their disagreements revolved mainly around the choice of institutions capable of saving capitalism from democracy. Some argued for a return to the gold standard, while others argued that the value of national currencies should float freely. Some fought for aggressive antitrust policies, while others felt that certain forms of monopoly were acceptable. Some felt that ideas should circulate freely, while others championed intellectual property rights. Some felt that religion was a necessary condition for prosperity in a liberal society, while others believed that it could be dispensed with.

Most considered the traditional family to be the basic social and economic unit, but others disagreed. Some perceived neoliberalism as a way to create the best possible constitution, while others judged that a democratic constitution was — using a metaphor with a distinguishable macho connotation here — “a chastity belt whose key is always within reach of its wearer”.

However, compared to other intellectual and political movements, the neoliberal movement has always been characterized by a surprising absence of sectarian divisions. From the 1940s until the 1980s, its core remained more or less intact.

The only major internal conflict occurred in the 1960s, when one of the main representatives of this core distanced itself from him. The German economist Wilhelm Röpke, often considered the intellectual father of the social market economy, deserted his peers as he openly advocated South African apartheid. He had come to embrace certain racist biological theories which argued that Western genetic inheritance was a precondition for capitalist society to function. This position was a harbinger of the conflicts that followed.

While, in the 1960s, the defense of whiteness was a rather peripheral position, in the following decades it began to fragment neoliberals.

Although, at first, the combination of xenophobia and the attack on immigrants with neoliberalism may seem somewhat contradictory – as this supposed philosophy would advocate open borders – this was by no means the case in Britain under Thatcher, precisely the place where this doctrine most prospered.

Hayek, who became a British citizen after emigrating from fascist Austria, wrote a series of articles in 1978 in support of Thatcher's call to "end immigration". They were launched during the political campaign that would take her to the post of prime minister.

To defend this position, Hayek recalled the difficulties faced by Vienna, the capital where he was born in 1899, when “large contingents of Galicians and Polish Jews” arrived from the East before the First World War and faced great obstacles to integrate.

It is sad but very real, wrote Hayek: “no matter how committed modern man is to the ideal that the same rules should apply to all men, he in fact applies them only to those whom he regards as beings like himself, and it is only very slowly that it learns to expand the set of those it accepts as its equals”.

Although far from being definitive, the suggestion that a common culture or group identity was necessary to guarantee the functioning of the market already implied a change of course in neoliberal society, founded as it was on the universalist notion that the same laws should apply to all human beings.

This new restrictive attitude found some resonance, particularly among British neoliberals who, contrary to the liberal tendencies of the Americans, have always leaned towards the conservatives. It must be remembered that Enoch Powell, of whom many things can be suspected except his dislike of non-white immigration, was a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and spoke at many of its meetings.

However, one of the novelties of the 1970s was that Hayek's rhetoric praising conservative values ​​began to combine with the influence of a new philosophy: sociobiology, which in turn was nurtured by cybernetic theory, ethology, and the theory of cybernetics. of the systems. Sociobiology got its name from the title of a book by EO Wilson, a biologist at Harvard. That work argued that individual human behavior could be explained by the same evolutionary logic as that of animals and other organisms. We all seek to maximize the reproduction of our genetic material. Human characters all fit into the same scheme: Selection pressures eradicate less useful traits and multiply more useful ones.

Sociobiology seduced Hayek, but the Austrian did not shy away from questioning the fact that this knowledge had placed emphasis on genes. Instead, he argued that changes in the human were best explained by certain processes he called "cultural evolution". Just as, in the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives in the United States had promoted so-called “fusionism” between libertarian liberalism and cultural conservatism—a project that condensed into the magazine National Review of William F. Buckley —, Hayek's scientific inclination ended up creating a new fusionism and this created a conceptual space capable of receiving diverse loans from evolutionary psychology, from cultural anthropology and even from a scientificity centered on race. During the following decades, strains of neoliberalism were combined on different occasions with strains of neonaturalism.

In the early 1980s Hayek began to say that tradition was a necessary ingredient of "the good society". In 1982, before an audience in Heritage Foundation, he claimed that “our moral heritage” was the basis of a healthy market society. In 1984, he wrote that "we must return to a world in which not just reason, but reason and morality, as equal partners, must govern our lives, and where the truth of morality is simply a specific moral tradition, that of the Christian West, the origin of the morality of modern civilization”.

The conclusion was obvious. Some societies have developed certain characteristic cultural traits, such as personal responsibility, ingenuity, rational action and some time preference, while others have not.

As these traits were not easily purchasable or transplantable, these culturally less evolved societies—that is, the “developing” world—must go through a long learning period before catching up with the West—albeit without guarantees of success.


race and nation

In 1989, history intervened in culture and the Berlin Wall fell. After this unexpected event, the question of whether the typical cultures of capitalism could be transplanted or whether they should grow organically became very relevant. “Transiciology” became a new field of study for social science specialists who became involved in the problem of the conversion of communist countries to capitalism.

In 1991, Hayek received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George HW Bush. The former president described him on that occasion as a “visionary” whose ideas had been “validated before the eyes of the entire world”. One would think, therefore, that neoliberals spent the rest of the decade wallowing in complacency and polishing busts of Ludwig von Mises for display in every university and bookstore in Eastern Europe.

However, the opposite happened. Let us remember that the main enemy of neoliberals since the 1930s was not the Soviet Union, but Western social democracy. The fall of communism meant that the real enemy had new fields to expand. As James M. Buchanan, president of the Mont Pelerin Society, said in 1990, "Socialism is dead, but Leviathan lives."

For neoliberals, the 1990s raised three axes of reflection. First, could the newly “liberated” communist bloc become a responsible market player overnight? What would it take for this to happen? Second, was European integration the harbinger of a neoliberal continent or was it simply the expansion of a superstate that would promote welfare policies, labor rights and redistribution? And finally, there was the issue of demographic shifts: an ever-older white population versus an ever-increasing non-white population. Could it be that there are some cultures – and even some races – more predisposed to the market than others?

The 1990s opened a rift in the neoliberal camp that separated those who believed in supranational institutions such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization and international investment laws — one might call them “globalist” orientation — from those who felt that national sovereignty — or perhaps the creation of smaller sovereign units — would best fulfill the goals of neoliberalism. It seems that here was created the basis on which the populists and libertarians who led the Brexit campaign met many years later.

The growing influence of Hayek's ideas on cultural evolution, as well as the increased popularity of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, caused many people in the breakaway UK camp to start paying attention to the so-called hard sciences. For some, research on market fundamentals needed to “dive in the brain” – that, incidentally, is the title of a 2000 article written by Charles Murray, member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

The crises that followed 2008 highlighted the tensions between the two neoliberal camps. During 2015, the arrival of more than a million refugees in Europe created the conditions for the emergence of a triumphant new political hybrid, which combined xenophobia with free market values. It is important to be very clear in separating what is new in the right and what is a legacy of the recent past.

The right-wing Brexit campaign, for example, was based on a political foundation built by Margaret Thatcher herself. In a famous 1988 speech in Bruges, Thatcher declared that "we do not push back state borders in Britain only to stand aside while Europe replaces them through a superstate that controls everything from Brussels".

The following year, inspired by a speech by Lord Ralph Harris, former member of the Mont Pelerin Society and founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, she created the Bruges Group. Today, the group's website proudly claims to have been the "spearhead in the intellectual battle that led to winning the votes to leave the European Union". It is evident, in this case, that the ultra-rights come directly from the neoliberal ranks.

While Brexit supporters mostly exalt the nation, in Germany and Austria the reference to nature is highlighted. Perhaps the most striking thing about this new fusionism is the way it combines neoliberal assumptions about the market with dubious social psychology. There is a certain fixation on the subject of intelligence. Although one tends to associate the term “cognitive capital” with Italian and French Marxist theorists, the neoliberal Charles Murray used it in his book The Bell Curve, published in 1994. He used it to describe what he considered to be the partially heritable differences of groups in the field of intelligence, capable of being quantified by the so-called IQ.

Another case is the German sociologist Erich Weede, co-founder of the Hayek Society — and also awarded the Hayek Medal in 2012. Behold, he follows race theorist Richard Lynn to argue that intelligence is the main determinant of economic growth. Or Thilo Sarrazin, for whom the wealth and poverty of nations are not explained by history, but by a series of complex qualities that determine their populations. The book by this former member of the Bundesbank, entitled Germany Does Itself In it sold nearly one and a half million copies in Germany and contributed to the success of Islamophobic parties such as the AfD. Sarrazin also cites Lynn and other intelligence quotient researchers to argue against immigration from Muslim-majority countries on the basis of alleged IQ.

In this way, right-wing neoliberals attribute intelligence averages to different countries in order to collectively innate the concept of “human capital”. Their speech is complemented by allusions to values ​​and traditions, which are impossible to understand in statistical terms and through which they recreate notions of national character and essence.

The new fusionism between neoliberalism and neonaturalism provides a language that proposes, not a panhumanist market universalism, but a worldview segmented according to culture and biology.

The consequences of this new conception of human nature go far beyond the far-right parties, spilling over into alt-right separatism and white nationalism.


More continuity than rupture

Not all neoliberals have embraced this shift towards these exclusionary concepts of culture and race. There are also those who criticize it as a misappropriation of the cosmopolitan legacy of Hayek and Mises by a horde of bigoted xenophobes. However, the vehemence of their protests masks the fact that these populist barbarians now knocking on the city's gates were fed by their wares.

A striking example is that of Czech Václav Klaus, one of the favorites of the neoliberal movement of the 1990s due to the policies he implemented as finance minister, prime minister and president of the post-communist Czech Republic. Klaus, a member of the Mont Pelerin Society and a frequent teacher at its meetings, was a staunch advocate of shock therapy during the transition to capitalism. He always said that Hayek was his favorite intellectual. In 2013, Klaus became a lead researcher at the Cato Institute, a stronghold of cosmopolitan libertarian liberalism.

However, it is interesting to observe its trajectory. It started in the 1990s, combining the demand for a strong state at the time of transition with the typical Hayekian statement about the unknowability of the market. In the following decade, it aimed its weapons mainly at the European Union's environmental policies. By the early 2000s, he had become an outspoken climate change denier, a subject he wrote a book about in 2008: Blue Planet in Green Shackles (The blue planet and the green shackles).

In the 2010s, Klaus fell in love with the ultra-right movement and began to demand the end of the European Union, the return of the nation-state and the closing of borders in the face of immigration.

But his faltering return to the right did not lead him to break with the organized neoliberal movement. He presented himself, for example, at the Mont Pelerin Society, with a lecture on “the populist threat to the good society”. And at one of the meetings that same year, Klaus argued that “mass migration in Europe […] threatens to destroy European society, thus creating a new Europe, which will be very different from that of the past and from the ideas of the Mont Pelerin Society. ” While drawing insurmountable lines in which to lock certain people, Klaus defends, together with the extreme right parties with which he collaborates in the European Parliament, the free market and the free flow of capital.

In short, Klaus-type ideologues are best described as xenophobic libertarians rather than ultra-rightists. They are not supposed enemies of neoliberalism, marching through the countryside with torches and rakes, but its own children, fed by decades of conversations and debates about the levers capitalism needs to survive.

The new strain thinks that the issue is in race, culture and nation: a pro-market philosophy that has stopped relying on the idea that we are all the same, to argue that we are essentially different. But beyond the furor generated by the rise of a supposed new right, the truth is that the geometry of our time has not changed. Exaggerating the break implies losing sight of its elemental continuity.

*Quinn Slobodian and pProfessor of History at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Author, among other books by Globalists: The End of Empires and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Captain Swing Books).

Translation: Eleutério Prado to the website Other words.

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin Latin America.


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