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The Morals of the Market

by Jessica Whyte on November 19, 2019

In 1992, the Chicago School economist Milton Friedman was asked about the original purpose of the neoliberal Mont Pèlerin Society, founded in 1947. There is “no doubt”, he replied, that its original purpose was “to promote a classical, liberal philosophy, that is, a free economy, a free society, socially, civilly and in human rights.” Coming from a thinker who described the authoritarian regime of Chile’s General Pinochet as an economic and a political miracle this evocation of human rights appears out of place. According to a dominant view, neoliberal emphases on competitive markets and austerity are self-evidently at odds with human rights.

My new book The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, published by Verso, nonetheless argues that Friedman’s position deserves to be taken seriously. It traces the overlooked place of human rights in neoliberal efforts to challenge socialism, social democracy and anti-colonialism from the mid-twentieth-century, and it seeks to explain why human rights became the dominant ideology of a period marked by the demise of revolutionary utopias and the belief, succinctly expressed by Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no alternative”.

In attempting to understand why neoliberalism and human rights proved so compatible, it was necessary to challenge the common view that neoliberalism is an amoral, strictly economic rationality. I take the book’s title ‘The Morals of the Market’ from the Austrian neoliberal and founder of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS)  Friedrich Hayek, who argued that the competitive market order requires a moral framework that sanctions wealth accumulation and inequality, promotes individual and familial responsibility, and secures submission to the impersonal results of the market process at the expense of the deliberate pursuit of collectively-formulated ends.

Hayek drew on the social theory of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, for whom human history supposedly passed through a sequence of stages – from the hunter to the herdsman to the farmer to the trader – to argue that the development of market societies required the abandonment of feelings of personal loyalty and egalitarian commitments more suitable to tribal existence. In Hayek’s racialised narrative, demands for redistribution were civilisational regressions that threatened the moral foundations of the competitive market.

One of my key arguments throughout the book is that the neoliberal argument for the competitive market was itself moral and political rather than strictly economic. Early neoliberals attributed to the market a series of anti-political virtues: checking and dispersing power, facilitating social cooperation, pacifying conflict, and securing individual liberty and rights. They presented commercial or ‘civil society’ as a space of mutually beneficial, voluntary relations that contrasted with the violence, coercion and conflict that they argued were endemic to politics—and especially to mass politics. If neoliberal thinkers and human rights activists could find common cause, as I suggest they could, this is largely because the concerns of twentieth-century neoliberals were far less narrowly economic than existing accounts tend to allow.

What do neoliberal human rights do?

Throughout the book, I show that neoliberal thinkers cast twentieth-century attempts to secure rights to social welfare and national self-determination as threats to the market order and to ‘civilisation’ itself. Yet, I also show that neoliberals developed their own account of human rights as moral and legal supports for a liberal market order.

The neoliberals saw human rights and competitive markets as mutually constitutive. In his best-selling polemic The Road to Serfdom, Hayek argued that “the ideas of 1789’ – liberty, equality, fraternity – are characteristically commercial ideals which have no other purpose but to secure certain advantages to individuals.” The competitive market made individual rights possible, the neoliberals believed, but the market’s functioning also depended on the rule of law and recognition of human rights. Neoliberal human rights existed not so much to protect the individual as to preserve the market order and inherited status hierarchies in the face of political challenge.

This neoliberal vision of human rights was at its purest in the period of neoliberal ascendancy, in Margaret Thatcher’s simultaneous denial that “state services are an absolute right” and championing of a “right to be unequal”, and in Ronald Reagan’s defence of “human dignity” as “the crowning ideal of Western civilization.”

Yet, the neoliberal human rights heritage was not only embraced by figures on the right. I also argue that this neoliberal background can shed light on the apparent puzzle that the human rights politics of the late twentieth-century, with its distinctive use of international advocacy to limit the power of the state, especially the post-colonial state, emerged, as Samuel Moyn writes in The Last Utopia, “seemingly from nowhere”. I show that organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Médecins sans Frontières drew on an account of rights developed by the neoliberals since the 1940s. For the NGOs too, decolonisation generated a desperate need for new standards to constrain and discipline post-colonial states.

Although the human rights NGOs came to prominence in the context of the evisceration of social welfare protections and public services, these concerns rarely entered the frame of their early advocacy. I argue that major international human rights and humanitarian NGOs embraced the central neoliberal dichotomy between commercial or “civil society” – understood as a realm of freedom, voluntary interaction, and distributed, private power that checked the centralised power of the state – on the one hand, and politics, understood as violent, coercive and conflictual on the other. They defended the same (anti)-political virtues the neoliberals attributed to the market: restraining political power, taming violence, and facilitating a margin of individual freedom.

This orientation has made human rights NGOs both reluctant and unsuited to challenge the structural and impersonal effects of market processes. Yet, while supposedly eschewing coercion, major human rights NGOs have been quite prepared to call on the military might of the most powerful states to intervene in the name of securing human rights and enforcing the morals of the market across the globe.

What I call neoliberal human rights are not the only form of human rights to have existed historically. Yet, I contend that the neoliberal contribution to human rights has been far more widely influential than most contemporary human rights defenders would like to admit—and not only on the political right or in the halls of power. Without coming to terms with that influence, social movements and struggles that wield the language of human rights to contest neoliberalism may find themselves strengthening its hold. 

There will be a book launch for The Morals of the Market at Gleebooks, details HERE.

Jessica Whyte
Jessica Whyte is Scientia Fellow (Philosophy and Law) and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. Her work integrates political philosophy, intellectual history and political economy to analyse contemporary forms of sovereignty, human rights, humanitarianism and militarism. She is author of Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, (SUNY 2013) and The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso, 2019) and an editor of the journal Humanity.

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