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How Neoliberalism Embraced Human Rights

Jessica Whyte

The intellectual godfathers of neoliberalism knew they needed to attach a philosophy of high-minded ideals to the vicious free-market system they wanted to spread around the globe. They found such a philosophy by perverting the idea of human rights.

Economist Friedrich Hayek sought to revive international liberalism to counter the rise of socialism and other collectivist currents. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Interview by
Angela Smith

Two seemingly unrelated events took place in 1947. It was the year the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted. It was also the year in which the Mont Pelerin Society, a grouping whose founding members included pioneering theorists of neoliberalism Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, was founded.

In The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, political philosopher Jessica Whyte investigates the historical and conceptual relationship between human rights and neoliberalism. In response to the horrors of the World War II, delegates to the United Nations came together to formulate a list of universal rights. Concurrently, an effort spearheaded by Friedrich Hayek was underway to revive international liberalism, purportedly motivated by similar concerns for the imperiled state of human dignity and liberty.

The UN human rights delegates and the early neoliberals disagreed about the correct solution to the social crises created by the war. The former adopted an extensive list of social and economic rights as the foundation for a postwar order. The latter, by contrast, depicted state welfare and planning as totalitarian threats to “Western civilization.”

Whyte argues that governments, ideologues, and intellectuals embraced the discourse of human rights to supply a moral language suitable to the market-based society they had created. This became possible once neoliberals had expunged human rights of its radical content.

Whyte spoke to Jacobin about the crisis of neoliberalism and what might come next.


AS

Tell me about the background to Morals of the Market. What questions led you to write this book?

JW

I was trying to understand the relationship between human rights, which had become a dominant language of political contestation from the late 1970s onward, on the one hand, and neoliberalism, which had been widely adopted in the same period, on the other. I was interested in understanding why our neoliberal age had also been the age of rights. So I decided to go back to 1947, when the Commission on Human Rights began drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The year also saw a group of economists, philosophers, and historians come together in a Swiss alpine village to form the Mont Pelerin Society. The society was originally convened by Friedrich Hayek and sought to revive international liberalism to counter the rise of socialism, social democracy, and other “collectivist” currents. Among its founding members were Austrian School economists such as Ludwig von Mises, Ordoliberals of the German Freiburg School such as Wilhelm Röpke and Alexander Rüstow, and Chicago School economists Milton Friedman and Frank Knight. A host of others were also involved, including the Swiss diplomat William Rappard, the British economist Lionel Robbins, and the French philosophers Bertrand de Jouvenel and Raymond Aron. The Mont Pelerin Society, which still exists today, grew into a collective of neoliberal thinkers who went on to define and advocate for neoliberalism around the world for many decades.

I wanted to know how the neoliberals themselves understood and related to human rights, and whether they had contributed to the development of the human rights politics that came to prominence from the 1970s onward. My research, and the book which I developed out of it, is an attempt to understand the role of human rights thinking in neoliberal thought and practice.

AS

There’s a widespread assumption on the Left that neoliberalism is an amoral perspective, committed only to economic rationalism and the goal of limitless growth. Of course, this has moral implications. However, in your book, you argue that from the beginning, neoliberalism was a moral project. This is why neoliberalism influenced and was influenced by developing theories of human rights. How does this analysis of neoliberalism as a moral project change our understanding of how it evolved from the 1940s onward?

JW

I was very dissatisfied with one of the dominant understandings of neoliberalism that regards it as an amoral economic rationality that reduces human beings to “homo economicus.” This interpretation clashed with what I found in the Mont Pelerin Society archives.

When you look at the 1947 founding documents of the Mont Pelerin Society, a different picture emerges. In their own words, the founders of neoliberalism believed that the “central values of civilization are in danger.” This civilizational crisis, they argued, was the result of the denial of absolute moral standards. In light of this, many neoliberals defended the moral legitimacy of “Western civilization,” which they associated with family values, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and accepting the results of market competition.

It was not that, for the neoliberals, market competition was simply a more efficient means to distribute goods and services. Instead, the market was the central institution that could coordinate society to counter political power. Friedrich Hayek in particular put a lot of effort into formulating what he regarded as the morals of the market. He argued that a free society could only survive if people tolerated high levels of inequality and refrained from collectively interfering with the market order. The success of a competitive market order relied on inculcating these beliefs.

AS

What does this perspective help us to understand about the moral mission of neoliberalism today?

JW

I think this changes our understanding of the alliance between social conservatism and neoliberalism, which is particularly entrenched in the United States. In her early work, political theorist Wendy Brown tackled this problem, as has sociologist Melinda Cooper. They have both tried to resolve the puzzle of how, in the wake of the sexual revolution, dry, amoral, economic neoliberals — notably those associated with the Chicago School of Economics — made common cause with neoconservatives, evangelicals, and social conservatives.

If we shift our focus away from the United States and back to 1940s Europe, it becomes clear that social conservatism was not an external supplement to neoliberalism. Rather, it was very much part of the neoliberal package from the beginning. Neoliberal thinkers didn’t need to look outside the neoliberal movement to find strong defenses of Christianity or of the superiority of Western civilization. Nor did they need to look elsewhere to find a defense of the family. The German neoliberal Wilhelm Röpke described it as “the natural sphere of the woman, the proper environment for raising children and indeed the parent cell of the community.” Indeed, as I argue, the early neoliberal thinkers believed that the rise of social democracy and the welfare state threatened to usurp women’s natural role in the family.

AS

Other scholars — notably Samuel Moyn, professor of jurisprudence and history at Yale — have suggested that neoliberalism and human rights are “companions,” or they “converge neatly.” In contrast, you argue that the neoliberal project repurposed theories of human rights. Given how centrally the idea of human rights figures in social movements, do you think that neoliberalism depoliticized those movements, shifting them away from political struggle? Is this connected with the incorporation of political movements into depoliticized NGOs?

JW

Neoliberal thinkers and leaders very explicitly adopted a strategy of depoliticizing social movements. In the early twentieth century, the neoliberals of the Mont Pelerin Society were largely united by the conviction that the market could be used to pacify social relations. To make this case, they revived an eighteenth-century idea tracked by the development economist Albert Hirschman.

The early neoliberals argued that when people act on the basis of cool, rational interests, they are less captive to their violent political passions. Consequently, the neoliberals viewed civil society as a realm of mutually beneficial self-interested relations that needed to be protected from the intrusions of politics. Human rights could be used to protect civil society and the private domains of individuals — most importantly, their private property — from political challenge.

On an international scale, this also meant protecting the rights of investors. This was particularly important in former colonies, where postcolonial states that were attempting to expropriate the property of multinational corporations and corporations associated with former colonial powers. So the founders of neoliberalism very much saw human rights as a brake on politics and as a way to prevent political intervention.

With regards to NGOs, the neoliberals themselves tended to be quite ambivalent about them. However, I argue that from the 1970s onward, many human rights NGOs adopted the neoliberal framework. They came to see politics as violent and oppressive, while regarding civil society and the market as the realm of individual freedom and mutually beneficial social relations.

AS

So how did neoliberal thinkers make peace with the role of the state as a guarantor of human rights? And what relationship did they wish to foster between supra-national institutions like the UN and the nation state?

JW

Neoliberalism was certainly not anti-statist. On the contrary, neoliberalism was very much concerned with mobilizing the state to protect the competitive market from political challenge. Fundamentally, what neoliberals really opposed was popular sovereignty. There is one figure who recurs again and again in neoliberal writings as the original theorist of totalitarianism: the radical Genevan Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau is perhaps the most important theorist of popular sovereignty.

The neoliberals wanted to depoliticize the state. They rejected Rousseau’s argument that the popular will should develop through the state and that the state could be an institution that upholds popular sovereignty. Instead, they wanted to limit the state’s role to policing social discontent and countering threats to the market. The founders of neoliberalism supported state intervention to preserve market relations. They saw the idea of human rights as advantageous because it could legitimize intervening to protect market relations on an international level.

AS

Neoliberalism consolidated and became hegemonic in the 1970s and 1980s, as did the model of human rights they favored. At the same time, communist revolutionary projects and state socialism were in decline. How do you chart the relationship between these trends?

JW

Neoliberalism emerged in the mid-twentieth century as a reaction to the rise of socialism, communism, anti-colonial nationalism, and social democracy. In the 1970s and 1980s, when these political currents were in decline, neoliberalism began its march to hegemony. It was also in this period that a human rights discourse came to prominence, which focused on civil and political rights at the expense of social and economic rights.

To understand the relationship between these developments, I looked at France. Focusing on the humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which very explicitly adopted neoliberal thinking in opposition to postcolonial demands for global redistribution. By the early 1980s, it became commonplace to argue that the emancipatory promise of what had been called Third Worldism had ended in some fairly disastrous scenarios and authoritarian and repressive regimes. The figures associated with MSF drew on the work of the neoliberal development economist Peter Bauer to explain this and to argue that only a competitive market economy could preserve human rights.

Human rights came to prominence in that period as the alternative to the now tarnished utopias of communism and Third Worldism, as Samuel Moyn has argued. But more than that, the discourse of human rights gave moral legitimacy to the neoliberal agenda. MSF was most explicit in its rejection of ideas of economic sovereignty and economic redistribution. However, many other human rights NGOs reinforced the neoliberal attack on postcolonial sovereignty and supported the demand for new forms of humanitarian intervention into the territories of former colonies.

AS

So MSF is an example of a progressive organization that adopted neoliberal perspectives?

JW

Yes. Despite being a humanitarian NGO, MSF’s French leadership started making very strong economic arguments, particularly against the idea of the New International Economic Order, which was supported by the Non-Aligned Movement [of nations that sided neither with the communist world nor the USA and NATO]. The MSF’s leadership started recycling arguments that neoliberal thinkers had made for decades, arguing that the West should not fall victim to so-called colonial guilt.

They also set out to defeat the arguments of a previous generation of anti-colonial thinkers — for instance, Frantz Fanon’s account of how the wealth of Europe was literally stolen from the former colonies, which was reiterated by Jean-Paul Sartre. MSF’s leadership drew on Bauer’s work to explicitly reject the argument that there was a relationship between the wealth of Europe and the impoverishment of former colonies. This was crucial to their rejection of “colonial guilt.”

AS

And so a range of progressives essentially adopted the neoliberal perspectives on civilization, race, and the nation?

JW

Human rights theorists didn’t always go as far as the neoliberals in explicitly embracing the idea that Western civilization is superior due to its valorization of markets and human rights. However, they did draw on neoliberal thinkers in developing what I call “neoliberal human rights,” which assumed that human rights require a competitive market economy.

In Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Ludwig Von Mises put this view most starkly. There he argued that “as soon as the economic freedom which the market economy grants to its members is removed, all political liberties and bills of rights become humbug.” Many human rights NGOs accepted this, implicitly and explicitly.

NGOs were more reluctant to accept the explicit racial hierarchies that some neoliberal theorists defended. They never went as far as Mises, for instance, who argued in Human Action that the “better races” have a special aptitude for social cooperation through the market and, consequently, the “peoples who have developed the system of the market economy and cling to it are in every respect superior to all other peoples.”

Yet, in asserting that the poverty of postcolonial nations was the result of self-inflicted wounds, many NGOs implicitly accepted a racialized discourse that obscured the ways that colonial nations and supposedly free-market relations had impoverished former colonies. Additionally, human rights NGOs often embraced the neoliberal dichotomy between politics and the market, which valorized the latter as a counterbalance to the authoritarianism of the former.

AS

How did the neoliberal understandings of freedom and sovereignty relate to their attitudes against self-determination and anti-colonial struggles? And what specific understandings of freedom and sovereignty do the neoliberals put forward?

JW

Let’s start with freedom. Freedom is interesting because it’s the value most associated with neoliberalism. When you look very closely at their work, the neoliberal understanding of freedom boils down to what Hayek described as submission to the impersonal results of the market. For neoliberal thinkers, freedom is very clearly limited to what is compatible with the working of a competitive market order.

This is a kind of freedom that we’re all too familiar with today. You are free to look for another job, to retrain, to go back to university or to drive for Uber. But you’re not free to join a trade union or to struggle against the imposition of capitalist market relations on an international level.

As formal colonialism came to an end, neoliberalism was most concerned with blocking the emergence of genuine political freedom or self-determination for the people of former colonies. Instead, they wanted to ensure that former colonies submitted to their traditional place in an international division of labor created by colonialism.

It’s similar when we look at the idea of sovereignty. The neoliberals argued for what Mises called the “sovereignty of the market.” For them, the sovereignty of the market granted no right to resist — everybody had to conform to their place in a given market order. Again, this contrasts very starkly with idea of economic sovereignty that was popular in postcolonial societies.

The neoliberals opposed the idea of popular sovereignty over natural resources, arguing instead that raw materials should belong to whoever was able to buy them on the open market. Their ideal was one in which the economic relations of the colonial period persisted in the wake of formal colonialism.

AS

After Donald Trump’s election, thinkers ranging from radical political philosopher and activist Cornel West to Samuel Moyn declared neoliberalism dead. This is a claim that people have been making for decades. In The Morals of the Market, you criticize this kind of epochal thinking. Why does declaring neoliberalism dead get in the way of thinking about contemporary politics?

JW

Neoliberalism has been declared dead so many times now. And yet it seems to constantly revive itself. As a result, all sorts of metaphors have circulated, including the idea of “zombie neoliberalism” and what Zachary Manfredi and William Callison have recently called “mutant neoliberalism.”

“Mutant neoliberalism” might be a better way to understand the trajectory of neoliberalism from the Trump period onward. The version of neoliberalism associated with the Clintons in the United States and Third Way Labour in the UK combined a socially progressive agenda with a free-market economics. This approach was displaced not just in the United States and the UK but also in India, Brazil, and Hungary by a much more explicitly reactionary, racist, and socially conservative style of neoliberalism. However, if you look back into the history of neoliberalism, it becomes clear that these seemingly new themes — whether they affirm the superiority of “the West,” or a civilizational or racial hierarchy — have always had a key place in the neoliberal worldview.

Nevertheless, I do think there is a real transformation underway today. People like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and even Tony Blair were able to present neoliberalism as a utopian promise. There was a sense that it would lead to a brighter future. This has been profoundly tarnished by global economic and financial crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the developing climate catastrophe.

Although I think we are seeing a shift, I also worry that neoliberalism is a profoundly persistent and tenacious set of ideas and practices. As well as insinuating itself deeply in policymaking, neoliberalism has inserted itself into our subjectivities. Overthrowing neoliberalism will therefore require an extraordinary challenge and a far more political mobilization than we’ve seen to date.

AS

What do you mean when you say that neoliberalism has inserted itself into subjectivities?

JW

I think it’s very common now for people to see themselves as entrepreneurs interacting in a competitive marketplace. For example, trade unionism has been undermined by the idea that the individual is responsible for being resilient, for improving their own life, and for determining their own fate. In this sense, the morals of the market have been taken up widely and explicitly, including by people who don’t see themselves as neoliberals.

It’s become commonplace for people to think that this is just how the world works, and that there is very little alternative. This is also because neoliberal reforms have eroded the social supports and welfare systems that would once have given people an alternative to simple self-reliance.

The challenge, in such a context, is to convince people to have faith in the idea that a collective process of social change could offer them more than individualized processes of self-investment. This is a big ask, and it requires us to transform not only the way we think but also the material reality that neoliberalism brought into being globally.

AS

In addition to examining the way that neoliberalism and the ideas of human rights developed together, The Morals of the Market gives an account of how neoliberalism shaped US imperialism abroad. In the United States, liberals have recently celebrated the Democrats’ return to power. What’s your take on the Joe Biden presidency? Where does neoliberalism go from here?

JW

The Democrats’ return to the White House is very interesting, both for neoliberalism and for human rights. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently declared that the Biden administration will place human rights at the center of its foreign policy. It’s very clear that this is part of the new Cold War with China. As much as Blinken and Biden have affirmed a commitment to a universal human rights discourse that doesn’t distinguish between allies and adversaries, their focus on China is clear.

In the wake of Israel’s recent devastating bombardment of Gaza, the Biden administration repeatedly blocked UN Security Council statements calling for an end to the offensive. This demonstrates that the Biden administration is just as selective about how they apply human rights to foreign policy as any previous US government. In many ways, it’s no surprise.

I think there’s a more fascinating shift under Biden, at least in rhetorical terms. His administration is explicitly turning away from the results and the rhetoric of decades of neoliberal restructuring. You can see this most clearly in his statements that trickle-down economics never worked, that big government is back. It’s also noticeable in his contention that the state needs to play a substantial role in creating the physical and social infrastructure to enable economic participation and foster greater equality.

The United States seems to be moving toward a more state-directed capitalism internally. This raises an interesting question: how will this shift modify the country’s international human rights advocacy? In a March 2021 address to mark the release of the United States’ annual human rights report, Secretary of State Blinken argued that countries that respect human rights are better markets for US goods, whereas countries that deny human rights are also those that violate trade rules.

This is a classic statement of the neoliberal human rights paradigm. If the Biden administration is indeed moving toward economic policies that give the government a bigger role in the ownership and management of capital, it will be interesting to see how this modifies the United States’ human rights policy agenda. Human rights advocacy may well be less central in a world of state-directed capitalism, in which the language of national interests assumes a renewed importance.