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Understanding the current political/economic world — Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Quinn Slobodian’s masterful exegesis, an old term befitting his subject, tells of the Ur group of thinkers who formulated the assumptions and prescriptions of global neoliberalism. This intellectual history tells of their underlying semi-delusional nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I when beliefs about the smooth functioning of the old order ignored its exploitation of the majority people and resources of the world. Foremost neoliberal Hayek thought that the workings of capital were fundamentally “sublime”, beyond human comprehension, “pristine” in its utilitarian asceticism in Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood’s term, not palpable and material. To this reader, this small group of men seem similar to Arendt’s Eichmann in their dehumanizing of humans; Slobodian’s conclusion is titled is A World of People without a People. The importance of ideas, of intellectual history, should not be underestimated by people committed to changing the world: these neoliberal theorists influenced the formation of the prime national and international laws and institutions that protect capital from the people, a system that now threatens our very existence.

Slobodian focuses on the writings of the mainly European theorists who congregated in Geneva and then at Mont Pelerin. These thinkers include F.A. Hayek, Wilhelm Ropke, Ludvig von Mises, Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann among others. Slobodian also provides a comprehensive picture of the pertinent historical contexts. He challenges at the outset misconceptions about neoliberal principles: they did not see humans as motivated only by economic rationality and they sought “neither the disappearance of the state nor the disappearance of orders.” They aimed to globalize the “ordoliberal principle of ‘thinking in orders’’’, to create institutions that would protect the world economy from autonomous democratic nation state interests that could interfere with global capital. They saw two levels of order: imperium was the partitioned, territorial state in which governments ruled over people; and dominium which was the world of property, in which people owned things, money, and land scattered across the earth. The function of constrained, “militant democracy” was to encase and protect capital from the masses. The supranational arrangements came to include the international financial institutions, trade treaties, international investment law, and many types of economic zones.

The Geneva School thinkers saw three 20th century ruptures to the world economy: World War I, the Great Depression, and decolonization. Slobodian describes the fundamental shifts following the 1938 Walter Lippmann symposium in Paris. The Geneva School focused on supranational orders and rejected a narrow economistic reliance on models and data. They conceived their task as “enabling the conditions of the grander order itself.” Slobodian traces their battle against the 1973 UN New International Economic Order (NIEO) with its demand for redistributive equality and social justice. Slobodian includes primary source discussions on the GATT, the European Economic Community (EEC), and the World Trade Organization. Sovereignty lay in individual consumers and in the superstructure. These neoliberal theorists tasked the nation with enforcing negative freedoms against a broad range of economic and human rights protections that could infringe upon the global encapsulation and autonomy of capital. “Against human rights, they posed the human rights of capital.”

In his conclusion, Slobodian describes two book covers. Petersmann’s cover is ironically from communist artist Diego Rivera’s Calla Lilly Vendor: a woman bowed under the weight of a mountain of beautiful white flowers. Petersmann, blind to suffering, called it an icon of the “freedom to sell in the market place.” Slobodian pointed out that across the street from the Centre William Rappard in Geneva, which first housed the International Labour Organization and then the GATT, Petersmann would have seen the monument to work: miners picking at a coalface, fishers at sea, farmers tilling and hauling crops, a hooded indigenous man carrying pelts, a man in a worker’s apron holding pincers, and a black African man with a hoe”. Engraved in the plinth: “Labor exists above all struggle for competition. It is not a commodity.” The second cover is from Pascal Lamy’s book: barely perceptible beneath a grid of crosses and flecks of color is a Mercator projection of the world – no people and no life.

There is much to think about here, in our world of much intellectual confusion in which words often obscure the relationship of people with each other, people divided by various boundaries, and their relation to different forms of authority. It would be helpful to analyze the overlaps with liberalism itself, especially as it slides to the extreme centre. Slobodian’s original source material helps to disentangle one significant reversal: the hand of the market is not an invisible sublime process, but the hand belongs to Eichmann-like people for whom people are invisible. In Shakespeare’s great play about justice, the merchant of Venice cannot see ordinary human materiality as represented in the figure of Shylock; the merchant’s character and his legalistic compatriots live in a constricted world of capital and are shorn of feelings, sensations, motives, desires. What urgently demands attention is double government: how many people give a thought to this seemingly omnipresent supranational political/economic order, backed by the military and law, that can well cause human extinction?

Of related interest:

Michael Glennon (2015). National Security and Double Government. Oxford Vijay Prashad (2014). The Poorer Nations: A possible History of the Global South. Verso.

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