Despite its ubiquity, the concept ‘neo-liberalism’ resists consistency of meaning. It is too often deployed as a neutralized alternative to naming capitalism; but more thoughtful study also encounters real ambiguity in its referent. There are two principal inflections. The first, most basic, is a result of historical periodization. Within the advanced capitalist world, this gloss of the term denotes the era succeeding that of Keynesian mixed economies. Taken this way, it was a policy response first felt across the Anglosphere after the onset of the 1970s downturn, characterized by an attack on organized labour, the deregulation of markets, privatization of public assets and the take-off of finance. Its strictures and injunctions are now global. In a second register, that of ideas, ‘neo-liberalism’ designates the antecedents to this policy programme. The name in this case derives from the work of a group of economists who had been waiting in the wings since the inter-war period for the opportunity to put their ideas into practice. While histories of neo-liberalism may justifiably subordinate the concept’s genealogy to its appearance as policy, they risk neglecting its distinctness as a movement of thought. Because neo-liberalism has been something altogether more expansive than a set of policy prescriptions, though less coherent than an ideology, reconstructing its intellectual development requires close attention to its internal variations.
Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion is an attempt at this. Rather than tracking a shift from latency to expression, Burgin follows the intellectual transformations of neo-liberalism as idea, charting the differentiae specificae of its principal strains from their genesis in what he calls a ‘transnational community of ideas’, with its points of concentration at the London School of Economics, the Universities of Freiburg and Chicago and the Institute for International Studies in Geneva. Burgin contends that neo-liberalism developed an art of persuasion to shift public opinion from mistrust of the market to embrace of it as the only legitimate basis of social life. His approach incorporates both synchronic and diachronic perspectives: punctuated cross-sections of the neo-liberal thought world, and narration of its mutations from a social philosophy of the market, in the 1930s, to an effective public-relations network in the 1970s, issuing a flood of concrete policy proposals. The ‘more strident market advocacy of recent years’, he writes, emerged ‘only after an extended period of contestation and debate.’
Such an account should clearly hope to illuminate neo-liberalism’s persistence as doxa after the implosion of its material base in the world economic crisis of 2008, signalling the modular features that appear to have allowed it a significant afterlife. Burgin book-ends his story with two historic announcements of the end of laissez-faire, opening in the 1920s with Keynes’s ringing proclamation of its imminent demise—some years, in fact, before the Crash and Great Depression, in Hobsbawm’s words, ‘destroyed economic liberalism for half a century’—and closing in 2008 with the chorus of voices insisting that ‘free-market fundamentalism’ was over after Lehman Brothers’ fall. Burgin cites Keynes: ‘A study of the history of opinion is a necessary preliminary to the emancipation of the mind.’ In our present predicament, he suggests, it is worth recalling that:
The assumptions of an era seem less firm when they are placed in a context that includes their formation, degeneration and reformation . . . Those who set themselves against the prevailing opinions of today can take comfort in the knowledge that discursive constraints are never absolute, and often help create the conditions of their own decline.
Burgin, who teaches history at Johns Hopkins, is not the first to devote a monograph to the long gestation of neo-liberal policy within an international network of think-tanks; essential contributions in this field have been made by Dieter Plehwe, Bernhard Walpen, Ralf Ptak, Philip Plickert, Richard Cockett and Matthias Schmelzer, inter alia. Nor is The Great Persuasion the only recent study to distinguish early forms of neo-liberalism, with their theorizations of a strong state to ensure a basic framework for a market society, from later vulgarizations. The work, adapted from Burgin’s 2009 doctoral dissertation, The Return of Laissez-Faire, is more insistent than most on this trajectory, however, and offers an especially stark periodization. From the 1930s to 1962, neo-liberal thinkers problematized pre-1929 doctrines of laissez-faire, sought a social or ethical grounding for their economic project, adopted an intellectually elitist approach—symbolized by the figure of Hayek—and had minimal impact on economic policy-making. From 1962 to 2008—the starting point here marks the publication of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom—neo-liberalism openly proclaimed the virtues of laissez-faire, abandoned social philosophizing in the name of economism, adopted a populist approach (symbolized by Friedman himself) and had a global impact on policy-making.
The opening sections of The Great Persuasion offer a high-resolution examination of the ensemble of thinkers who built up a defence of liberalism during the 1930s. Burgin goes on to provide a concise distillation of the main currents of neo-liberalism in the mid-twentieth century, taking the Mont Pèlerin Society as the vector of the most important innovations, as well as the most illuminating divisions. His book promises a mapping of this tradition outside of existing social-scientific literature and intellectual biography. The point, Burgin writes, is to situate ‘the major figures in dialogue with one another’ through the extensive use of archival evidence; Hayek’s correspondence, in particular, is an invaluable source. What emerges from this account is a group portrait of half a dozen highly distinctive economic thinkers, set in their respective locales during the inter-war period, working against the grain of social democracy and Keynesianism, while also remaining profoundly aware of problems in the tradition of laissez-faire.
His story begins in London where, by the start of the 1930s, Lionel Robbins had positioned himself at the vanguard of forces changing the political composition of the Economics Department at the lse, which had hitherto been Fabian, by reading the conjuncture through the lens of Carl Menger and Eugen Böhm-Bawerk’s disciples in Vienna. Robbins, more than anyone, helped to introduce to English economics a new account of the capitalist crisis which blamed an expansionary monetary policy for the problem of over-investment in fixed capital—the source of deflation—and thus for the transformation of what otherwise might have been a tolerable, normal recession into a world-historic depression.