Gino Severini (1883–1966), Flying Over Rheims, 1915.


Foreword to Quinn Slobodian's newly edited book

What is neoliberalism? Does it make sense to use this term to describe the transformations undergone by capitalism? Since when? What do they consist of? This book is the most valuable contribution to answering these and similar questions. With unprecedented historical rigor for a work of synthesis, neoliberalism is presented as a movement for the renewal of liberalism, led by actors with first and last name, the so-called “globalists”. The ideas that motivated such a project will be known in depth in this book.

Since the 1990s, when the negative impact of policies to cut costs and dismantle public services became evident, the notion of neoliberalism has been employed, above all, by its critics. The frequency and impetus of the denunciations are such that it is presumed that the term was an invention of the opposing movements. Quinn Slobodian turns this common sense upside down by showing that neoliberalism was a coherent project and was baptized as such by its defenders.

Privatization, reduction of labor rights and destruction of the welfare state, in a broad sense, were measures implemented by different governments from the 1970s onwards – starting in Chile led by General Augusto Pinochet and reinforced by Ronald Reagan and Margareth Thatcher. However, long before that, European theorists were already meeting to design an institutional building capable of protecting the global market from national policies. The task had become urgent since the end of the empires (such as the Russian and Austro-Hungarian) and with the perception of the impacts of the 1929 crisis.

After the end of World War II, the independence of former colonies (such as India and China) only increased the group's concern with a world order dictated by strong national states. Pressures for self-determination in Latin American countries added fuel to the fire. The 1960s and 1970s reinforced changes in the international correlation of forces. The globalists acted in this context, driven by the intention of provoking a great renewal of liberalism, in order to contain a trend that they saw as a threat to global markets.

The title of this book refers to this group, which brought together thinkers from diverse backgrounds, some of whom are now popular among the new liberal right, such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Today, it becomes anecdotal that conservatives call “globalists” those who would be behind a supposed worldwide plot – embraced by multilateral organizations – whose objective would be to weaken Christianity and nationalism. These are not the globalists studied in this book, because, with such a conspiratorial definition, they do not even exist. But it is still ironic that these same conservatives, as is the case with Bolsonaristas in Brazil, have allied themselves with the heirs of the true globalists – those who claim to be followers of the tradition of Mises and, above all, of Hayek.

Going back to the book you have in your hands, a disciplinary tension is felt from the first pages. History and the social sciences saw the neoliberal transition in different ways. From a historical point of view, there were several works analyzing the intellectual movement that was formed during the Walter Lippmann colloquium, held in Paris in 1938, or at the Mont Pèlerin Society, founded in 1947.

These are the contexts in which the neoliberal movement appeared. Names such as Philip Mirowski, Serge Audier and others are remembered, with the exception that these works focused, above all, on monetary policies and the economic theory defended by the studied intellectuals. The issue of global governance was left in the background. Social science, in turn, saw in the neoliberal project the opportunity to establish a new global order. The role of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the World Trade Organization was correctly perceived, as well as their objective of “insulating the markets”, that is, of protecting them from national political decisions. Stephen Gill and Sarah Babb are two names mentioned as an example of this line of analysis, among others.

However, according to Slobodian, social scientists lacked historical rigor to describe how the influence of certain icons, such as Hayek or Milton Friedman, would have spread. Ideas do not convince by themselves and an essential factor to explain the strength of the neoliberal movement was its capacity for political action, whose success stemmed from the effort of conceptual creation, the ability to articulate different actors and the willingness of wealthy businessmen to support them . The great merit of Slobodian's book is that it presents an accurate historical analysis of this movement, taking into account the strategies used to increase its radius of influence, while maintaining the focus on globalization.

Although he declares his intention to balance the two trends of analysis of neoliberalism, Slobodian is a historian. According to him, one of the biggest obstacles for critics of the neoliberal project to understand the movement in its own terms was the influence of Karl Polanyi's book, the great transformation. Mentioned by nine out of ten social scientists, capitalism is characterized by the disembedding of the market in relation to society.

A similar view would have been applied, retrospectively, to characterize neoliberalism as “market fundamentalism”, which ended up giving excessive – and mistaken – importance to the idea of ​​self-regulation. Let us not forget that Polanyi's book was published in 1944 and deals with the 19th century. Therefore, its pertinence to characterize neoliberalism is in fact small. It is precisely the opposite, argues Slobodian.

Contrary to the intention of disembedding the market in order to make it “free”, the concern of the globalists was to create laws and institutions to protect global markets. And why did they need protection? Since the post-war period, mass democracy has increasingly threatened the functioning of the world market (from the perspective of neoliberals). One consequence – perhaps the most important – of the historical analysis in this book is to show that neoliberalism is far from being identified with the defense of a minimal State, since the objective of the movement that created it was always more political than economic.

Seeing the role of the State by privileging its size (that is, a quantitative aspect), instead of looking at its nature, usually accompanies economicist criticisms of neoliberalism. Slobodian goes far beyond such a characterization. The neoliberal project was – and continues to be – an entirely political undertaking, whose key weapons are the legal architecture of law and institutional creation. This displacement is vital to explain the survival of neoliberalism, even in the face of the failure of the results once promised.

One of Slobodian's most eloquent phrases appears on the first page of the book: “politics has changed to the passive voice”. This was an achievement of the coordinated action of neoliberals. Globalization sought to restrict the radius of influence of politics, creating global institutions so that “market forces” would be protected from national governments and democratic processes. This architecture was being built by a meticulous restriction of the interference of national States in the government of global markets.

That is, it is not a question of reducing the size of States, but of protecting – through legal and institutional channels – world markets, reducing the radius of influence of national policies, subject to popular pressure for more democracy – something seen as undesirable and risked by the neoliberal vanguard. A key term in the book is difficult to translate: “I'm encased”, used to designate the encapsulation of markets, but which also refers to the idea of ​​covering an electrical wire, in order to avoid shocks. The globalists' mission was to encapsulate global markets against the political energy manifested in some historic moments.

Since the end of empires, in the period between wars, through the strengthening of mass democracy, in the post-war period, great threats were announced. Markets needed to be protected – coated or encapsulated – against this, neoliberals thought. One way out, therefore, was to create global institutions. Without such intervention, both political and legal, there would be no market fundamentalism that would survive the sovereignty of nations and the revolts of their peoples. The Geneva School deserves special attention in the book precisely because it is at the origin of the theories that underpinned key institutions of the globalists, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Even though it was only created in the 1990s, it follows a network of influences and other international institutions that characterize the school of thought. Details are described in the book and this is his great historiographical contribution.

Before finishing this preface, I would like to reflect on the current situation. How is it possible, in the face of so much damage, that neoliberals continue to have political strength? They owe their survival to the far right, as is evident in the Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro. After the economic crisis of 2008, the conservative tendency strengthened, but it has been losing strength in some countries, such as in the United States of Joe Biden. It is too soon to say that neoliberalism is weak and reading this book helps to choose criteria for assessing the chances of post-pandemic globalization. Never underestimate the power of enemies is an adage of battle.

In the following pages, it becomes clear that a strength of the globalists was the intellectual militancy implied in reality. We need to have the same willingness to face the battle of ideas – not just academic production, not just political action. There is a layer between these two realms that has been pushed into the background by the left. Furthermore, realizing that the main objective of neoliberals was to weaken mass democracy – as they saw socialism, but also social democracy as a threat – can alert us to the historical value of these experiences.

Even if we dream of more radical forms of democracy, post-war achievements and those of the 1960s and 70s terrified neoliberals, as is obvious in several excerpts quoted below. Something good they should have, therefore.

* Tatiana Roque Professor of the Graduate Program in Philosophy at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).



Quinn Slobodian. Globalists: the end of empire and the birth of neoliberalism. Translation: Olivir Freitas. Florianópolis: Statement publications, 2021, 358 pages.

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