Putting Neoliberalism in Its Place
(2022) Modern Intellectual History, 19 (3), pp. 982-995.
Neoliberalism is an ideal subject for intellectual historians. It is an ideological movement that has been both theoretically sophisticated and influential, ensuring that excursions along the highways and byways of neoliberal thought can always be justified practically, as disclosing the ideas that have shaped contemporary politics. There is also no shortage of source material, as the voluble characters who generated neoliberal ideology wrote innumerable books and articles and left behind extensive archival collections that preserve their correspondence, drafts and records of meetings.
Furthermore, there is abundant evidence of the collaboration (and tensions) between the key neoliberal thinkers, since they worked together in their long years in the wilderness as members of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS), the invitation-only discussion group formed by Friedrich Hayek in 1947 to restate the case for market liberalism, and with various associated think tanks scattered across the globe. Given all this, it is surprising that more historical research hadn’t focused on neoliberalism earlier, but the field was largely left clear for philosophers and social scientists until the 2000s. Much of this work was in any case historicist in character, notably the influential lectures of Michel Foucault, delivered in 1979 but only published in French in 2004 and in English in 2008, which scrutinized certain key texts of neoliberal theory some time before other scholars had focused on them.
The years around the 2008-9 financial crisis-by a mixture of accident and design- marked the point at which intellectual historians (and social scientists with an interest in the history of ideas) followed Foucault by diving more systematically into tracing the origins and trajectory of neoliberal thought. Much of this research has concentrated on the MPS, although the MPS itself is probably best understood as a useful entry point for exploring several distinct strands of market liberalism that emerged in different places in the 1930s and 1940s before being woven together into a broader transnational movement of ideas in the course of the 1950s and 1960s. In spite of skeptical voices claiming either that neoliberalism does not exist, or that if it does exist it is best analyzed as the assertion of class interests rather than as an ideology, this work has cumulatively demonstrated that tracing the history of neoliberal thought is an indispensable exercise if we are to understand how we have reached the present conjuncture.