The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism
November 20 @ 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm
In 1927, the leading Austrian School neoliberal thinker Ludwig von Mises published a scathing attack on European colonial imperialism, which he described as antithetical to all the principles of liberalism. Tracing modern imperialism to the 1870s, Mises argued that the basic idea of colonial policy in this period was to take advantage of the superior weaponry of “the white race” to subjugate, rob and enslave weaker peoples. Yet, even as he criticised colonial imperialism, Mises argued that the British Empire differed in pursuing “grand commercial objectives” that benefitted colonial subjects and the world. Drawing on research in the neoliberal Mont Pèlerin Society archives, this paper examines the twentieth-century neoliberal discourse on imperialism, decolonisation and development. It traces the neoliberal attempt to refute Marxist theories of imperialism by re-signifying imperialism as a product of politics not economics. It also shows that the central neoliberal concerns in the period of decolonisation were to constitute market subjects, secure the rights of investors, and inculcate what Friedrich Hayek the “morals of the market”. Drawing on Albert Hirschman’s genealogy of political arguments for capitalism, I argue that the neoliberal argument for the market was itself primarily political rather than economic; commerce, the neoliberals argued, was pacifying and “civilising” (with all the racial hierarchies that term implied); a competitive world market, neoliberal thinkers argued, would overcome the violence and conflict of international politics, make imperialism unnecessary, and support individual rights. Yet, just as Hirschman’s original “sweetness of commerce” thesis was developed in a context marked by the violence of European colonisation and the slave trade, the neoliberal civilising mission is best understood as a permanent (just) war for competitive markets.
Jessica Whyte is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow. Her work integrates political theory, intellectual history and political economy to analyse contemporary forms of sovereignty, human rights and humanitarianism. Her work has been published in a range of fora including Contemporary Political Theory; Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development; Law and Critique; Political Theory; Radical Philosophy, and Theory and Event. Her first monograph, Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, was published by SUNY in 2013. Her forthcoming book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism will be published by Verso in 2019. She is currently working on the project, “Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War”.
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