Since the global financial crisis, the legitimacy of neoliberalism has been in tatters. The year 2019 saw mass street protests in Chile, Lebanon, and France. All of them were sparked by bread-and-butter issues such as the rising cost of transport and the diminishing access to public services. All of them targeted neoliberal policies as their antagonists and faced brutal police repression as a result. To many, neo-liberal hegemony had now withdrawn tear gas canisters and rubber bullets from the velvet glove of mass propaganda and institutional capture. We were witnessing the last stages of its final demise, the raging violence a telling sign of the desperation of its disciples.

Some of us are convinced that neoliberalism is not going away anytime soon and that the rise of populism has not sounded its death knell. Far from being antagonistic, Thomas Biebricher warns us in his article that the amalgam of the two “will be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future” (Biebricher 2020). This is no pessimistic assessment. Rather, it is sound historical diagnostic. Neoliberal ideology has been shown to be incredibly resourceful in times of crisis (Mirowski 2013). Its producers are sophisticated and well versed in adapting their message to different audiences; their mediatic penetration remains unrivaled. There is no need for a conspiracy to account for its staying power. For more than a decade, historians have been dissecting the magnetism of its ideas and explained its ascendency over mainstream parties (e.g., Mudge 2018). If anything, the current association between neoliberal ideas and authoritarian politics demonstrates once more a facility in transcending or blurring traditional political cleavages.

By now, the “strange” nondeath of neoliberalism (Crouch 2011) and its catlike resilience (Plehwe, Slobodian, and Mirowski 2020) have been duly recorded. Nevertheless, a swift reckoning of some of the darker corners of the neoliberal intellectual history has been steadily taking place. A recent volume has insisted that current political ruptures have in fact been instigated by neoliberal governance, riding on a wave of depoliticization and leading, in turn, to a ‘mutant’ and reactionary form of neoliberalism (Callison and Manfredi 2019). As Biebricher mentions, Chile has long been considered as exhibit no. 1 for neoliberal cavorting with authoritarian politics, a hybrid form of military-backed autocracy and deregulated market economy now on display in countries such as Thailand or Brazil.

Examining Frankenstein’s Monster

It is therefore appropriate that Global Perspectives examines the growing visibility of this unsettling mutation. Building upon his acclaimed analysis of The Political Theory of Neoliberalism(2018), Biebricher teases out the instantiation of neoliberal policies within right-wing populism whose conditions of possibility, he argues, can be traced back to the very origins of neoliberalism. In his narrative, authoritarian neoliberalism constitutes a contingent crystallization of a latent potentiality, not the teleological actualization of a predetermined fate. There is certainly no incompatibility between authoritarian politics and neoliberal policy recipes, a reactionary alliance that countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia have been suffering from for far longer than their northern counterparts.

As Biebricher acknowledges, the awareness of authoritarian neoliberalism has been steadily increasing across various strands of scholarship, from an intersectional materialist research agenda (e.g., Bruff 2014; Tansel 2017; Bruff and Tansel 2019) to sociological accounts of its genealogy (e.g., Davies 2014, 2016) to transnational reconstructions of its historical and ideological trajectory (Slobodian 2018b). As a political theory, neoliberalism does possess an inherent decisionist foundation for the ways in which the competitive order must be instituted. As Hayek mentions in the Road to Serfdom, there exist no “hard-and-fast rules fixed once and for all” for liberalism (Hayek 2007, 71). Humans and their relations are perpetually in flux, their intimate goals and needs supposedly invisible to the social scientist, and the overall result of their interactions allegedly unpredictable and unexplainable. In last resort, neoliberal ideas and markets work as long as we believe them to. Such a fragile creed needs strong means of enforcement, and Biebricher alludes to the neoliberal “eschatological view of politics” (Biebricher 2020) where gradual reforms may cede to authoritarian shocks when their legitimacy is contested.

Hence it is now well established that neoliberals never wished for the state to wither away. Instead, they desired that it would be strong enough to resist the demands of the masses, enforce contractual obligations, and regulate competitive markets. In his book, Biebricher untangles the neoliberals’ paradoxical intentions of reinforcing the state while confining its scope for interventions (Biebricher 2018, 33--78). They favored a concentration of state power at the hand of a trusted executive and an obedient judiciary over the messiness of parliamentary politics. At its limits, this form of authoritarianism, remarks Ian Bruff, makes its way “in the reconfiguring of state and institutional power in an attempt to insulate certain policies and institutional practices from social and political dissent” (Bruff 2014, 115). This process can take the form of constitutional budget amendment, delegation of regulatory authority to dedicated agencies, or the design of automatic punitive measures for people receiving social benefits. Authoritarian neoliberalism, or “punitive neoliberalism” (Davies 2016, 129), then becomes the next stage of its governmental rationality, increasingly relying on state coercion and political dispossession (Tansel 2017, 2).

This governmental rationality has nevertheless led to insurmountable paradoxes: “In contrast to the offensive against socialism,” writes Davies, “the ‘enemies’ targeted now are largely disempowered and internal to the neoliberal system itself. In some instances, such as those crippled by poverty, debt and collapsing social-safety nets, they have already been largely destroyed as an autonomous political force” (Davies 2016, 132). In the past decades, neoliberal policies have reshaped the ways in which we experience ourselves as subjects and social beings, through “modulations situated at the level of emotional affinities, habitual dispositions, and affective attachments” (Konings 2017, 57). On top of brutalizing the bodies, they have also tamed the heart, working beyond the intellectual or discursive levels to reach deep into our everyday life (Mirowski 2013, 91--92). If authoritarian neoliberalism has grown ominously in the political sphere, it is in no small part because the ground of our subjectivities has been furrowed by its new techniques of management, crushing traditional forms of solidarity.

Closer to Biebricher’s theoretical turf, Wendy Brown has herself taken stock of the new state of neoliberal politics in her last opus In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, reversing and updating some of the conclusions from her Undoing the Demos(2014). Acknowledging its novelty, she proposed that authoritarian neoliberalism is somewhat of an ideological Frankenstein’s monster: whereas neoliberal principles, policies, and ambiguities made their use and misuse by populists possible, mainstream or historical neoliberals would have recoiled at such a fusion (Brown 2019, 9--10). Yet Biebricher contradicts Brown’s assumption in one key manner: he does not assume that the association of neoliberalism and authoritarianism is the result of an experiment gone wrong; neoliberalism’s potential for illiberal politics had been there all along. Brown’s combination of neo-Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives lends her account a certain teleological flavor that Biebricher is wise to stay clear of. Broadly conceived, authoritarian neoliberalism, like “progressive neoliberalism” (Fraser 2017) or “normative neoliberalism” (Davies 2016), proves the agility of neoliberalism and the ability of its promoters to adapt the political project of a global capitalist economy to changing local contexts.

Forgetting the “Good Society”?

One of the difficulties of neoliberalism studies is the intrinsic fuzziness of its object, an underdetermination that, according to some detractors, is lethal to its usefulness (Venugopal 2015; Rodgers 2018). Yet this inconvenience should not deter us. Neoliberalism is quite different from a simple ideological legitimation of late capitalism. It straddles disciplinary divides, from philosophy and epistemology to geography, sociology, economics, and psychology in equal measure. Of course, “the conditions of possibility of functioning markets” (Biebricher 2020) still define the core of its agenda, but neoliberals also share broader moral imperatives, cultural values, and epistemic prejudices that are all tied to a common idea of a civilizational telos (Whyte 2019).

Starting from the interwar period, the “problematic” (to use Biebricher’s word) of neoliberalism has been to answer the challenge of modernity—where “the fabric of existence is constantly being remade” (Davies 2017)—to the (re)construction of a liberal global order. Right after the Second World War, this challenge was mainly a political one: how to combine the efficiency of the price mechanism with a stable, peaceful social order, one where revolutionary politics would be moderated. Far from advocating a dissolution of social obligations or a retreat of the state, neoliberals rallied behind a vision of a “good society” (Lippmann 1937) where the primacy of the rule of law under the acute supervision of the state would steer Western societies toward peaceful trade and incremental progress. The genesis of neoliberalism is inseparable from the decay of the imperial model and the transition to a decolonized world made of nation-states (Slobodian 2018b). Beyond economics, neo-liberalism provided conceptual innovations for remodeling the encasement of economic relations in political institutions at the national and international levels (Schulz-Forberg 2019).

In this way, neoliberalism built upon the difficult legacy of the League of Nations: most of its founders had been steeped deep in the League-sponsored debates on how to run the world economy and avert economic nationalism. Of course, these high-level meetings usually entailed an elitist brand of politics, legitimized by scientific expertise and united against the capricious irrationality of the masses. The “good society” was a liberal one, not necessarily a democratic one: the rule of law, the price mechanism, or the fluidity of international trade needed to be sheltered from excessive popular demands for reform and redistribution. Yet the majority of neoliberals paid more than token respect for democratic institutions; they accepted that their policies had to appeal to people and that compromises, not intransigence, would win them influence.

Nevertheless there remained, from the start, a clear antidemocratic slant to the neoliberal thinking on political change. Neoliberals imagined that their ideas needed to inform democratic aspirations, not the other way around. They belittled the cognitive capacity of the common man, either through sophisticated epistemological arguments à la Hayek, or through sheer aristocratic distaste à la Röpke. Out of their fear of seeing scientific legitimacy lent to progressive or socialist ideas, neoliberals had marshaled a comprehensive critique of a democratization of social science in the post-war world. They had dismissed the “social” as a valid object of inquiry and criticized public universities for indoctrinating students with wrong principles. This prophylactic reaction soon morphed into a full-scale delegitimation of scientists as producers of truth, while at the same time, neoliberals sought to establish their own rival, and often privately funded, institutes and schools that could disseminate their own “heterodox” conception of science. It is therefore significant that neoliberal politics have increasingly faced down dissent and protest with recourse to aggressive policing and repression, especially against academics, journalists, activists, whistleblowers, and other champions of truth. These intellectuals embody the kind of “pretense of knowledge” neoliberals love to excoriate: that of expertise at the service of progressive change, eager for public knowledge to be a handmaiden to emancipation.

Business as Usual or State of Exception?

Biebricher provides plenty of empirical evidence of right-wing leaders prevaricating with neoliberal policies and the ways in which the political rationalities of right-wing populism and neoliberalism can be mutually reinforcing. He finds the philosophical positions of neoliberals to be ambiguous enough that authoritarian modalities may draw theoretical sustenance from them, especially in ordoliberal state theory. While openly rejecting collectivism or totalitarianism, leading neoliberal thinkers such as Röpke or Hayek did not exclude using authority to enforce the liberal competitive order, even when it meant bending the rule of law. More striking, however, is the continuing existence of racist and nativist views within the higher and lower spheres of neoliberal production, especially regarding the level of cultural homogeneity desirable for optimal market efficiency (Slobodian 2018a). There, supremacist views masquerade as economic arguments.

In spite of their persistent influence, these xenophobic tendencies are far from systematic and should not be taken to represent mainstream neoliberalism as a whole. For instance, the political trajectory of postwar Germany and that of the construction of the European Union, where Biebricher has argued that the ordoliberal imprint is most visible (Biebricher 2018, 200--220), did not display overt authoritarian tendencies. As an intergovernmental issue, the constitution of the common market proved to be a divisive issue for neoliberals. For some, like Rueff, it fulfilled the initial neoliberal agenda; for others, like Röpke, it created a privileged economic zone impeding free trade. A “depluralized” technocratic state was a vision shared as much by neoliberals such as Eucken, Aron, and Marjolin as it was by the Trilateral Commission or by pro-planning enthusiasts. Social-democratic parties in power in the late 1990s did little to reverse these trends or find other alternatives.

In the same manner, moments of crises and Schmittian exceptionalism have also been increasingly regarded as catalysts for authoritarian neoliberalism. As neoliberal politics exhaust new spheres of value production, their representatives resort to more punitive measures to enforce the discipline of market outputs. Growing ominously with each crisis, authoritarian neoliberalism appears, in that perspective, as the next regulatory regime for the heightened contradictions between increasing inequality, debt, uncertainty, and democratic demands (Davies 2016; Streeck 2017). Yet this account can be equally limiting as it bypasses the many instances in which neoliberalism has enjoyed genuine popular support. Thus critics of neoliberalism often have to come to terms with the fact that its policies can have real appeal and that leaders displaying authoritarian neoliberal tendencies have been democratically elected and, often, voted out of office.

In a way, Biebricher’s perspective points toward a compromise. He evades historical causality to show that neoliberalism and authoritarianism may be wielded in service of the same political program in forms of right-wing populism, but that rather than showcasing an evolution of mainstream neoliberalism, these instances remain marginal and exceptional. Scholars prone to attribute all evils to neoliberalism should therefore hear his words of wisdom: “in the already rather toxic discourse on neoliberalism, it is all the more important for its critics not to cavalierly overstate their cases in a virtual contest of who can be the most critical and rather limit themselves to defendable and accurate, albeit less spectacular claims” (Biebricher 2020). All in all, whether by necessity or by accident, neoliberalism and authoritarianism make for strange bedfellows, albeit not uncomfortable ones.

Author Biography

Martin Beddeleem is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Global Studies at Aarhus University. He writes on the history of early neoliberalism, its theory of science, and its scientific networks. He investigates the genealogy of epistemological ideas in neoliberalism through less recognized figures such as Louis Rougier, Michael Polanyi, or William Rappard. Martin holds a PhD from the Université de Montréal, where he defended his dissertation “Fighting for the Mantle of Science: The Epistemological Foundations of Neoliberalism, 1931–1951.” His publications include a chapter in the edited volume Nine Lives of Neoliberalism (Verso, 2020) and articles in the Journal for the History of Ideas, KNOW, and Tradition & Discovery. He is preparing a book-length study in French on the life and ideas of Michael Polanyi to be published at the Presses de l’Université de Montréal.


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