(CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

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.”


Capitalism is the democracy of the rich.

To assure the ascendency of dominium, neoliberals called for a global architecture of states and supranational organizations that would formulate and enforce laws that protected the ownership and mobility of capital and goods. Though resigned to the triumph of the masses, neoliberals looked to the nation-state to enforce property and contract law—especially the right of foreign corporate investors to be protected from regulation or expropriation—and to accommodate a bare minimum of working-class demands while expediting the movement of capital and commodities. The state must not only refrain from regulating business; it must desist from providing social welfare, since the workers of the world must be united in submission to the fluctuations of the world economy. Thus, even when it bears a democratic façade, the neoliberal state is not an instrument of popular will; it’s a police station charged with managing and, if need be, repressing any group of pestilential commoners who get in the way of business, whether it’s a union, a civil-rights organization, or a political party. To neoliberals capitalism was always, Slobodian observes, “threatened by spasms of democracy and the destructive belief that global rules could be remade to bend toward social justice.”

Still, if the state under neoliberalism comes fully into its own as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, its susceptibility to popular pressure makes it an unreliable instrument of political discipline. The state, neoliberals believed, needs global organizations to keep it on the straight and narrow path dictated in the realm of dominium. The international organizations envisioned or supported by neoliberals—from the League of Nations to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, formed in 1947) to the WTO—would frame a body of binding global laws on finance, trade, and production. But they would also, ideally, possess the power to override the laws and policies of sovereign states—even those created by democratically elected representatives—that impeded the passage of capital and goods across national borders. Neoliberals such as Mises defended this interdiction of nation-states as itself a form of democracy; capitalism, he argued, is a plebiscite of money “in which every penny represents a ballot paper.” Capitalism is the democracy of the rich.

Marked by imperial rivalry, protectionism, and two world wars, the first half of the twentieth century did not offer propitious conditions for the realization of this project. The Bretton Woods system established in 1944 gave neoliberals some of what they desired; GATT reduced or abolished many tariffs and quotas, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF, formed in 1945) went some way toward forcing nations to respect the edicts of currency markets. But neoliberals still considered Bretton Woods too partial to the domestic interests of states, especially to postcolonial nations seeking to promote and insulate their economic development. The Genevans’ moment finally arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, when neoliberalism became the common sense of ruling classes throughout the global North, epitomized by the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the WTO, extolled in hosannas to the market by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair. “There is no alternative,” as Thatcher intoned with all the grace and lyricism of a firing squad.

Yet until 1989 there were alternatives, which is why the Geneva School accepted violence and tyranny as overhead costs of capital accumulation. In the 1920s, Mises lauded Benito Mussolini for imprisoning or murdering the Italian left; Il Duce “saved European civilization” and “will live on eternally in history,” said Mises. In the 1970s, Hayek and Milton Friedman proudly shilled for the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in whose prisons thousands were tortured, raped, and exterminated. Hayek defended Pinochet as “a liberal dictator.”  

Geneva Schoolers also championed a kind of paternalistic racism; as one British neoliberal put it, postcolonial peoples should not be permitted to “misrule themselves.” In the 1960s, Hayek, Ropke, and Friedman favored both a “weighted franchise” in Rhodesia and the maintenance of apartheid in South Africa. Slobodian devotes an entire chapter to Ropke’s racist variant of neoliberalism, aimed at controlling the “cannibals” unleashed by the collapse of European colonialism. (Usually more polite in his racism, Ropke—still beloved in some conservative Catholic quarters—also hobnobbed with William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and other genteel paladins of white supremacy.)

Although Slobodian says nothing about U.S. military superintendence of the global economy, Uncle Sam has been the primary gendarme of capital since the end of the Second World War. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin showed in The Making of Global Capitalism (2013), U.S. imperialism has been distinguished from its predecessors by a commitment to enforcing the interests of capital in general, not just of its own domestic capitalist classes. That colossally vainglorious and expensive responsibility expanded with the victory of neoliberalism. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman cheerfully explained in March 1999:

America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is. The hidden hand of the market will not work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.


Capitalist economics has always been a kind of theodicy: what seems irrational to mere mortals is actually the emanation of a superior, unaccountable wisdom—a modern economic analogue to the premodern theological concept of providence.

One of the key political and ideological problems that confronted neoliberals was the public character of economic knowledge in a democracy. Armed with the requisite empirical evidence, the people or their representatives could scrutinize and even exercise power over the economy; and in their professional pride, economists might oblige the meddling rabble with the econometric repertoire of charts, reports, and other forms of information. The Geneva School—unlike the “Chicago School” of economists, with whom it’s usually conjoined at the hip by historians—recoiled sharply from these dangerous desires for mathematical precision and democratic transparency. Where the Chicagoans favored statistical modeling and prediction, the Genevans, and especially Hayek, voiced “skepticism about the value of numbers and models in telling the truth about the world.”

Hayek’s distrust of econometrics did not derive from some Romantic aversion to science. As Slobodian indicates, Hayek’s fundamental objection to statistics was not epistemological but political: by making the market visible, econometrics made dominium vulnerable to democratic scrutiny and intervention. Empirical representation of the economy, he wrote in 1966, abetted the desire of socialists and other enemies of unregulated capitalism to turn the market into “a deliberately run organization serving an agreed system of common ends.” Thus one of the primary goals of Hayek’s career became mystification—“placing the economy beyond the space of representation,” in Slobodian’s words, “casting it as sublime and beyond capture...theorizing it as a spontaneous order eluding comprehension.”

One of Hayek’s favorite bits of obscurantism was a term he borrowed from Mises: catallaxy—the spontaneous order created by individuals and groups participating in the global market. Influenced by the new science of cybernetics, Hayek imagined catallaxy as a gargantuan information processor, transmitting its wisdom through pricing signals. Tracing this conception of order to St. Augustine—the complexity of the universe, the saint maintained, eluded even the most capacious and penetrating mind—Hayek denounced any attempt to grasp or represent the world economy. In itself, catallaxy is, in Hayek’s words, “sublime,” even “transcendent.” It is, as Slobodian writes, “beyond the capacity of the human mind to either manufacture or comprehend.”

Thus did Hayek preside over a re-enchantment of our secular age. His work illustrates how capitalist economics has always been a kind of theodicy: what seems irrational to mere mortals is actually the emanation of a superior, unaccountable wisdom—a modern economic analogue to the premodern theological concept of providence. In Hayek’s pecuniary ontology, ignorance is bliss and submission is freedom; the more we genuflect to the logos of the Market in faithful subservience to its mandates, the more our hustling humility will be rewarded with riches. Slobodian’s portrayal of neoliberal economics as a “negative theology” is apt. For Hayek and his fellow acolytes, the invisible hand executes the infallible decrees of an impenetrably apophatic domain. And since those decrees are promulgated primarily in the numerical vernacular of money, money is the Word of the Market, the evangel of dominium. Neoliberalism is not just the highest stage of capitalism—when everything, from the self to the state, must be organized and evaluated according to market principles, and when business enjoys almost complete hegemony over our moral and political universe. Neoliberalism is the consummation of capitalist enchantment, when, as Marx predicted, money comes into its own as the anima mundi.

Hayek himself was well aware that catallaxy was really the product of egotistical calculation. As he observed in the first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty, dissemblance about the artifice of the market was necessary for neoliberal intellectuals and politicians:  “an order which would have to be described as spontaneous” rested in fact “on rules which are entirely the result of deliberate design” (my italics). If both dominium and imperium are products of human agency, then Hayek’s invocation of the Market’s mysterious omniscience both obscures the imbalance of earthly power relations and underwrites the vilification of elites who claim to understand and attempt to regulate the impromptu beneficence of capitalism.

Any challenge to neoliberalism must therefore begin as a demystification of its negative theology: since markets, property, money, and commodities are not divine but human creations, they can be represented, understood, and democratically governed. Palaver about what markets are “doing” or “thinking”—commonplaces of business journalism—should yield to knowledge about the quotidian realities of production, technology, accumulation, and exchange. Such knowledge will bring much sorrow to anyone who believes that men and women are made in the image and likeness of God. For all the wealth it produces, capitalism depends, and will always depend, on exploitation. There’s more than the future of democracy riding on the disenchantment of neoliberalism.


Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. This essay draws upon two lectures: an address to the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University–Chicago on October 15, 2020, and the 2022 Ruskin Lecture, sponsored by the Ruskin Art Club and delivered at the University of Southern California on September 8, 2022.

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Published in the October 19, 2018 issue: View Contents
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