Despite his reputation as a scourge of religion and a herald of its death under capitalism, Marx saw traces of its cunning persistence in the secular dynamics of the market. Religion, he declared in the Communist Manifesto, would succumb to the pecuniary logic indispensable to the success of capitalist enterprise. The rage to accumulate ensured that all “heavenly ecstasies” would be “drowned in the icy waters of egotistical calculation.” Yet Marx marveled elsewhere at the “divine power of money”—its power to perform (and induce us to accept) the most perverse acts of moral and metaphysical sorcery. In our business civilization, money not only mediated access to life’s necessities but also determined the parameters of reality itself. From the mercenary standpoint of the market, “if I have the vocation for study, but no money for it, I have no vocation for study.” Similarly, “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness...is nullified by money.” Thus money, Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, “is the god among commodities.” Divinity had not expired, but relocated. Capitalism promoted what the theologian William Cavanaugh might call a “migration of the holy.”
Quinn Slobodian alludes to this migration in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, $35, 400 pp.), his magnificent history of neoliberalism. To be sure, Slobodian, a historian at Wellesley College, doesn’t dwell on the theological significance of his narrative. Respecting the secular protocols of his discipline, he offers a rich, lucid, and illuminating genealogy of neoliberal theory and practice, from its inception after World War I to the formation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. Still, in the midst of a secular tale of economics and political philosophy, he points to a neoliberal cosmology—“the sacrosanct space of the world economy,” as he puts it, whose imperious and unfathomable mysteries are hermetically evoked in “a negative theology.” Justifying the inscrutable ways of the Market, neoliberalism is far more insidious and destructive than even its critics have recognized. It drapes capital in the image and likeness of divinity, and charges the world with the grandeur of money.
Focusing on the “Geneva School”—Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, and their epigones in the academic and policy intelligentsia—Slobodian contends that neoliberalism is not an economic but rather a political and metaphysical project: the articulation, in his words, of “the meta-economic or extra-economic conditions” for the flourishing of capitalism. This hadn’t been a problem in the nineteenth century. Classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo assumed that unfettered markets were self-regulating, and that all states had to do was get out of the way of market forces. In practice, this meant not only lowering taxes and eliminating tariffs but restricting suffrage, hampering labor unions, and bedeviling left-wing political parties—all feared as enemies of freedom and obstacles to progress. Meanwhile, the European powers supervised their competing colonial systems—brutal, racist, but profitable apparatuses of investment and resource extraction. For the Geneva School, the Habsburg Empire—“a single economic space without a homogeneous language or culture,” ruled by a centralized, authoritarian government—became a model of efficient, cosmopolitan capitalism.
But during the First World War, cooperation between government and industry conferred a degree of legitimacy on state regulation, supervision, and even planning. Postwar extensions of suffrage empowered the European working classes, jeopardizing both the concentration of wealth and popular acquiescence in the vicissitudes of the market: the hoi polloi might vote for welfare states or expropriate the bourgeoisie. (As of November 1917, the Soviet Union loomed as an alternative.) By affirming the “self-determination of peoples,” the Treaty of Versailles not only augured the collapse of the prewar imperial order; it validated the democratic nation-state as the central political actor in world affairs. Free markets, it now appeared, were not self-adjusting; they required constant vigilance and intervention to maintain the unhindered flow of money and commodities—something the post-imperial world could not be relied upon to provide. Far from celebrating “a world made safe for democracy,” Mises, Hayek, and their fellow neoliberals feared that a system of sovereign, democratic nation-states would pose an impediment to capital accumulation.
Thus, neoliberalism arose not so much to rehabilitate free markets as to “inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy,” as Slobodian writes. Contrary to conventional accounts that portray neoliberalism as little more than libertarian economics, Slobodian demonstrates that it has been, from its inception, an attempt to reimagine governance in an age of mass democratic politics—“less a discipline of economics,” he writes, “than a discipline of statecraft and law.” The Geneva School’s political imagination replicated that of the German jurist (and former Nazi) Carl Schmitt, who divided the world into two related “orders”: imperium, the realm of nation-states, and dominium, the realm of property, money, and commodities. But whereas, for Schmitt, this distinction registered the unfortunate limits on national sovereignty—imperium, he thought, should always trump dominium—neoliberals believed that states (and especially their nettlesome proletarian populations) must uphold and defer to the verdicts of the market: dominium must always trump imperium. Adamant that property rights supersede democracy, neoliberals insisted that the world must be made safe for capitalism. “Against human rights, they posed the human rights of capital,” as Slobodian puts it. “Against sovereignty and autonomy, they posed the world economy and the international division of labor.”