Is Friedrich Hayek to Blame for our Political Crisis?

17 March 2020

This is the third post in our review forum of Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West (Columbia University Press, 2019).


I am grateful to participate in this discussion, having learned so much over the years from Wendy Brown’s work—especially her writings on neoliberalism. What I offer here is not meant as criticism so much as an expression of my curiosity upon reading her latest book.  


I am most curious about the role that the “primacy of the political” plays in the book. Brown states her ambition in In the Ruins to combine the Foucauldian and neo-Marxist approaches to neoliberalism, drawing both on her own previous work in Undoing the Demos, and more recent studies such as Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists. It is worth asking, however, whether this combination is coherent. There has been tidal wave of scholarship over the past few years that emphasizes not only Foucault’s well-known critique of Marxism, but also his attraction to the novel political rationality of neoliberalism—and his suspicions of the French welfare state—during the last decade of his life [1]. Brown’s approach in In the Ruins appears to put this debate aside, but it would be helpful to see explicitly how she understands the tension between the Foucauldian and neo-Marxist analyses of neoliberalism, since the two lead to vastly different priorities and emphases.


This debate over Foucault and neoliberalism is not just academic, but gets to the heart of Brown’s analysis. If some Marxist critics have sought to emphasize the connections between Foucault’s thought and neoliberalism, Brown, interestingly, takes the opposite approach. In the Ruins points out something that both Marxism and neoliberalism share in common: a “failure to reckon deeply with the political.” As Brown puts it, because of this failure: 

neoliberalism perversely shares a crucial weakness with Marxism. Not only do both inadequately theorize political life, both reject the siting of freedom in the political domain, and both fetishize the independence of “the economic” from political discourse. Above all both conflate their deconstructive and normative critique of political powers with the practical withering away of these powers “after the revolution.”

Brown’s insistence on the “primacy of the political” is central to her account of the rise of conservative Christian politics. Ignoring the realm of political contestation—or even believing they could dispense with it entirely—the neoliberals ultimately ceded ground to the forces of social conservatism. Marxism shares this same weakness in Brown’s view, but we don’t entirely get an account of how her combination of the Marxist and Foucauldian approaches might avoid it. 


Brown’s explanation of social conservatism ultimately relies heavily on a reading of the traditionalist thought of none other than Friedrich Hayek himself, insofar as it is connected to his famous notion of spontaneous order, and hence the market, which ends up providing the bases for why she sees a strong connection between neoliberalism and white conservative Christian moral traditionalism. My question here is whether Hayek is the best source material. If we read the recent histories of neoliberalism, such as Angus Burgin’s, The Great Transformation, we learn that the libertarian wing of neoliberalism, represented by Milton Friedman, was surpassing Hayek’s influence in the US by the 1970s—at the very moment conservative Evangelicals were mobilizing. In this regard, the book does very little to pinpoint the exact ways Hayek’s thought has specifically influenced this group. Of course, Brown is not an intellectual historian, but a political theorist. From this perspective, Hayek did not necessarily “influence” political actors or general common sense in the same way Friedman did, but his thought most clearly demonstrates the logic of neoliberalism and the ways in which it enabled other aspects of the right. But if this is the case, it should be pointed out that there are rival versions of how this story can go, and that someone like Slobodian, whose arguments Brown heavily relies on, are primarily directed at an entirely different historical and political context, namely the European continent before and after World War II and the question of global governance.  


The historical context, though, does seem to matter, and might be employed to enrich Brown’s argument. In particular, by focusing primarily on Hayek, Brown doesn’t account for the other major intellectual influences on the contemporary Right: namely neoconservatism and Evangelical theology. It was during the 1970s that fears over the New Left, the undermining of traditional conservative values at home, and the rise of movements like the New International Economic Order abroad, led neoconservatives into coalition with both Evangelicals and neoliberals. Interestingly, neoconservatives entered into this coalition due to their own commitment to “the primacy of the political,” which interestingly shares a lot in common with the critique that Brown levels at both neoliberalism and Marxism’s failure to reckon with the political. 


Daniel Bell, often considered one of the godfathers of neoconservatives, had this to say about Hayek: 

The end of ideology had a double aspect, and one part is always forgotten. People forget that one of the persons appearing at the Congress for Cultural Freedom Milan meeting in 1955 was Friedrich Hayek. . . The end of ideology was aimed at Hayek’s apocalyptic notion that socialism will lead to serfdom and at the apocalyptic notion of Stalinism. A lot of people looked at the end of ideology as an attack on Marxism. To some extent it was. At the same time it was also aimed at the Hayek version of the apocalypse.

In a similar vein, Raymond Aron, another neoconservative thinker, wrote this, specifically about Hayek and Marx: 

Marxism was born of a reversal of classical economics. Instead of seeing private prosperity and free competition in the market, the secret of maximum production and equitable distribution, Marx saw in private property the foundation of exploitation and the cause of contradictions that in the long run would bring down the system. I fear that some of my liberal friends—if they can forgive me this heresy—have inflicted on socialism the same fate Marx inflicted on classical liberalism. Instead of seeing a planned economy as the solution to the contradictions of capitalism, they see the beginning of servitude, if not misery. Planning becomes inherently evil, just like Marxists view capitalism as evil. This is a kind of liberal economic orthodoxy. 

Like Brown, these thinkers prioritized the political, and in doing so saw neoliberalism and Marxism as different sides of the same coin.


Despite this critique, however, neocons were willing to join forces with neoliberals and Evangelicals due fears over the unraveling of the post-War world order, which they fear allowed advantages to political internal and economic enemies on the Left. This is a story Melinda Cooper has told at length in Family Values. The ruins in which we are living today are not just those of Friedrich Hayek’s thought, but also those of this tripartite Frankenstein ideology on the Right.


This is not to say that Wendy Brown is promoting a notion of the primacy of the political that is inspired by the neoconservatives. It is to say that that the primacy of the political might be hard to square with both the Foucauldian and Marxist inspirations which she hopes to bring together into a coherent critique of neoliberalism. Whose primacy of the political?  What primacy of the political?  


Here something also could be said about the ideology informing what Brown clearly sees as a reaction to the failures of neoliberalism. She makes it quite clear that neoliberalism is something quite different from, and even opposed to the populist, alt-right, and white nationalist movements that have surfaced around the globe since 2008. What is interesting is that conservative white Christians have supported both the ideologies of neoliberalism and Trumpism. Something else besides neoliberalism must explain why, but the book ignores political theology altogether.


Here again, I think Brown might have followed Cooper, who showed in Family Values the consequences of the collapse of liberal Protestantism in the US (which Cooper believes was basically welfarist), and at least tried to look at the theology of the conservative Christian groups she examined. Brown doesn’t want to prioritize the economic, but in stressing the primacy of the political she focuses on a rather secular conception of it. One cannot understand these white conservative religious groups the book targets without a deep understanding of their theologies, which predate both the neoliberal revolution and the populist turn. How does dominion theology influence conservative white Christians? What is the connection between premillennial dispensation theology and Evangelical anti-statism, and how might his share an affinity with neoliberalism? Who are the major thought leaders in this community? (On a slightly different note, Slobodian’s book ends with the suggestion that Hayek’s thought was ultimately an apophatic theology.) A more panoramic view of conservative and rightwing thought is needed to explore the ruins in which we now live.    


So what exactly is the “primacy of politics” Brown is promoting? The book’s relationship to Marxism and its treatment of religion leave some questions unanswered. First, though many on the non-Marxist left have stressed the priority of the political—and Brown is critical of Marxism’s shared blind spots with neoliberalism—Brown nonetheless suggests that her use of this notion is at least compatible with Marxism even as she criticizes it for failing to reckon with the political. And second, the conception of the political in In the Ruins is entirely secular. The conservative religious believers the book examines are not merely disgruntled junior partners of neoliberalism, and a fuller account would explore their own agency within the conservative movement. 


[1] See the volume on Foucault and neoliberalism edited by Daniel Zamora and Michael Behrent, as well as the one I recently co-edited with Stephen Sawyer.


Photo Credit: Friedrich Hayek, Gothenburg, Sweden, 1981 (accessed via Levan Ramishvili), via Flickr, Public Domain.


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