By Or Rosenboim, forthcoming in German Studies Review.
Quinn Slobobian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-674-97952-9, x + 381 pp.
In recent years, the intellectual foundation of neoliberalism has attracted the attention of historians and economists. Scholars like Angus Burgin and Dotan Leshem have looked to the past to define the meaning of neoliberalism and outline its future trajectories. Quinn Slobodian, a historian of modern German and international history based in Wellesley College, made a significant contribution to this growing body of scholarship with his remarkable study of neoliberalism in the twentieth century, Globalists. Slobodian’s main thesis in the book is that neoliberalism sought to adapt the liberal market-based global vision to the reality of the modern states-system in the post-imperial world.
The book’s dramatis personae are a group of economists centered around what Slobodian calls the ‘Geneva School’, which included Friedrich Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, Ludwig von Mises, Michael Heilperin, Lionel Robbins and Gottfried Haberler, and Frieder Roessler. Thus, Slobodian argues that scholars who seek to understand the rise and the meaning of neoliberalism should shift their gaze away from the English-speaking intellectual sphere to the German speaking one. In this narrative, the Swiss city by the lake becomes a hub of intellectual, political and economic exchanges between mostly Central European economists – many of them refugees – concerned with the future of liberty after empire. The appropriation of their ideas by American economists in Chicago or by international organizations like the WTO came at a later stage. The origins of the neoliberal global worldview were anchored to Europe, and in particular to the political and economic legacy of the Habsburg Empire and fin-de-siècle Vienna.
The book’s meticulously researched narrative progresses in seven chapters, each dedicated to a different aspect of the globalists’ vision of renewed economic liberalism: from tariffs to federations, from constitutions to new international organizations, the globalists explored a wide range of means to adapt the state to their liberal idea of absolute property rights, wholly integrated world economy and individual liberty. Writing in the shadow of totalitarianism and fascism, these neoliberals advocated setting constrained to both democracy and nationalism. But their critique of the ideology of nationalism did not translate into a call to abolish all states or to establish a supranational political system (although some, like Hayek, were at one time federalists). Instead, they sought a structural adjustment that could embed the post-imperial world order within an integrated, liberal international institutional design. For them, ‘order was not a steady state, but an adjustment, an often painful process of learning’ (262). The market could not function on its own; the globalists’ role was to finetune its mechanisms and ensure its smooth operation on a global scale. Thus, Slobodian argues that neoliberalism ‘is less a theory of the market or of economics than of law and the state’ (268).
The main contribution of this original and compelling study is outlining a new context for assessing and understanding neoliberalism in which the state plays a major role. Politics and the law now play a much more central part in constructing the neoliberal worldview than previously assumed. Slobodian shows how the protagonists of the globalist neoliberalism envisioned a range of legal, institutional and political tools to ensure the integration of the world economy, and the preservation of the unequal global power relations after the decline of the European empires.
The book is set as a contextual intellectual history of the economists who made up the Geneva School, yet the contextualization provided is inevitably partial. Importantly, the readers lacks a clear view of the political and intellectual opposition to the neoliberal vision. Who was Hayek arguing against? What were the alternative visions and plans of a global order available after 1945? If the core of neoliberalism is to be found in Central Europe, it would be valuable to situate the proposals of the globalist neoliberals within the horizon of European post-war politics. In this sense, for example, the wartime federalist vision of Hayek and Robbins emerges as an alternative to a popular vision of welfare-based federalism, proposed by William Beveridge, Barbara Wootton and others who celebrated democracy as the true ethos of any federal or global order. Welfare politics, as reflected in the Marshall Plan and the European post-war reconstruction, make haphazard appearances in the book, whetting the readers’ appetite for an in-depth discussion. While the book avoids the pitfall of neoliberal triumphalism, it would have benefitted from a more detailed discussion of neoliberalism’s opponents.
Globalists is a rewarding reading for those interested in the historical trajectory of the state-economy nexus. With its eloquent prose and strong arguments, the book offers a compelling account of the history of neoliberalism as well as interesting insights on its future. By emphasizing the German and Austrian intellectual ties of the neoliberalist approach, Slobodian draws a map of interconnections that may serve as a guideline for future scholars. The many merits of the book are therefore crowned by the future paths of research that it has opened up for the study of European politics, international history and economic thought.