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Putting Neoliberalism in Its Place

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2021

Ben Jackson*
Faculty of History, Oxford University
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


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.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Foucault, Michel, The Birth of Biopolitics (Basingstoke, 2008)Google Scholar.

2 Walpen, Bernhard, Die offenen Feinde und ihre Gesellschaft: Eine hegemonietheoretische Studie zur Mont Pèlerin Society (Hamburg, 2004)Google Scholar; Plehwe, Dieter, Walpen, Bernhard and Neunhöffer, Gisela, eds., Neo-liberal Hegemony: A Global Critique (London, 2005)Google Scholar; Plickert, Philip, Wandlungen des Neoliberalismus: Eine Studie zu Entwickling und Ausstrahlung der “Mont Pèlerin Society” (Stuttgart, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 This earlier style of commentary is best exemplified by Cockett, Richard, Thinking the Unthinkable: Think Tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution 1931–83 (London, 1994)Google Scholar; Hartwell, Max, A History of the Mont Pèlerin Society (Indianapolis, 1995)Google Scholar.

4 Plehwe, Dieter and Mirowski, Philip, eds., The Road from Mont Pèlerin (Cambridge, MA, 2009), see 35 n. 5, 428–9Google Scholar, on Fleck.

5 Burgin, Angus, The Great Persuasion (Cambridge, MA, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar: for the discussion of Friedman see 152–86. I have discussed this period in Jackson, Ben, “At the Origins of Neoliberalism: The Free Economy and the Strong State, c.1930–47,” Historical Journal 53/1 (2010), 129–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Burns, Jennifer, “Across the Great Divide: Free Markets from Right to Left,” Modern Intellectual History 11/1 (2014), 253–65, at 259CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Burns, Jennifer, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Oxford, 2009)Google Scholar; Stedman-Jones, Daniel, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, 2012)Google Scholar; Mirowski, Philip, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (London, 2013)Google Scholar; Davies, William, The Limits of Neoliberalism (London, 2014)Google Scholar; Offer, Avner and Söderberg, Gabriel, The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn (Princeton, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Amadae, S. M., Prisoners of Reason (Cambridge, 2020)Google Scholar; Plehwe, Dieter, Slobodian, Quinn and Mirowski, Philip (eds.), Nine Lives of Neoliberalism (London, 2020)Google Scholar.

8 Cooper, Melinda, Family Values (New York, 2017); Samuel Moyn, Not Enough (Cambridge MA, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Whyte, Jessica, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (London, 2019)Google Scholar; Olsen, Niklas, The Sovereign Consumer: A New Intellectual History of Neoliberalism (London, 2018)Google Scholar; Cornelissen, Lars, “‘How Can the People Be Restricted’? The Mont Pèlerin Society and the Problem of Democracy, 1947–98,” History of European Ideas 43/5 (2017), 507–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cornelissen, “Neoliberalism and the Racialized Critique of Democracy,” Constellations 27/3 (2020), 348–60; Biebricher, Thomas, The Political Theory of Neoliberalism (Stanford, 2019)Google Scholar.

9 Rogers, Daniel, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA, 2011)Google Scholar; Rogers, “The Uses and Abuses of Neoliberalism,” Dissent, Winter 2018, at

10 Another excellent recent book which also demonstrates the benefits of moving from the local to the national to the global in the analysis of neoliberalism is Ortolano, Guy, Thatcher's Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See also Slobodian, Quinn, “Anti-68ers and the Racist–Libertarian Alliance: How a Schism among Austrian School Neoliberals Helped Spawn the Alt-Right,” Cultural Politics 15/3 (2019), 372–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum (New York, 2003; first published 1950), 197–8, 235.

13 This episode has also recently been discussed by Rosenboim, Or, The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939–50 (Princeton, 2017), 130–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Petersmann in fact penned his own review of Globalists in the Journal of International Economic Law 21/4 (2018), 915–21.

15 The neoliberal response to the NIEO and postcolonial democracies more generally has also been expertly analysed by Whyte, The Morals of the Market, 198–233.

16 Whether this is in the end a satisfactory resolution to the conceptual difficulties with Hayek's position remains open for debate. For the case that it is not see Luban, Daniel, “What Is Spontaneous Order?”, American Review of Political Science 114/1 (2020), 6880CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Quinn Slobodian, “Neoliberalism's Populist Bastards: A New Political Divide between National Economies,” Public Seminar, 15 Feb. 2018, at; Slobodian, Quinn and Plehwe, Dieter, “Neoliberals against Europe,” in Callison, William and Manfredi, Zachary, eds., Mutant Neoliberalism (New York, 2019)Google Scholar; Slobodian, “Anti-68ers”; Slobodian, Quinn, “Demos Veto and Demos Exit: The Neoliberals Who Embraced Referenda and Secession,” Journal of Australian Political Economy 86 (2020), 1936Google Scholar.

18 Lars Cornelissen has also flagged this as a promising line of enquiry for scholars of neoliberalism: Cornelissen, Lars, “The Condition of Neoliberal Studies,” Journal of Political Power 12/1 (2019), 152–8, at 157Google Scholar.

19 An irony recently noted by James, Harold, “Neoliberalism and Its Interlocutors,” Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 1/2 (2020), 484–518, at 501CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Olsen, The Sovereign Consumer, 65–104.

21 For similar arguments applied to the case of modern Britain see Aled Davies, Ben Jackson and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, eds., A Neoliberal Age? Britain since the 1970s (forthcoming 2021).

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