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“A world of people without a people”


Quinn Slobodian’s masterful exegesis, an old term befitting his subject, tells of the ur group of thinkers, the globalists, who formulated the assumptions and prescriptions of global neoliberalism. This intellectual history tells of their underlying semi-delusional nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War when beliefs about the smooth functioning of the old order ignored its exploitation of the majority of the people and of the resources in the world. Foremost, the neoliberal Hayek thought that the workings of capital were fundamentally “sublime,” beyond human comprehension, “pristine” in Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood’s term, and not palpable and material. To this reader, this small group of men seem similar to Arendt’s Eichmann in their dehumanizing of humans; Slobodian’s conclusion is aptly titled “A World of People without a People.” The importance of ideas, of intellectual history, should not be underestimated by people committed to changing the world: these neoliberal theorists influenced the formation of the prime national and international laws and institutions that protect capital from the people, a system that now threatens our very existence.

Slobodian focuses on the writings of mainly European theorists who congregated in Geneva and then at Mont Pèlerin. These thinkers include F.A. Hayek, Wilhelm Ropke, Ludvig von Mises and Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann, among others. Slobodian also provides a comprehensive picture of the group’s pertinent historical contexts. He challenges at the outset the misconceptions about neoliberal principles: they did not see humans as motivated only by economic rationality and they sought “neither the disappearance of the state nor the disappearance of orders.” Rather, they aimed to globalize the “ordoliberal principle of ‘thinking in orders,’” to create institutions that would protect the world economy from autonomous democratic nation state interests that could interfere with global capital. They saw two levels of order: imperium was the partitioned, territorial state in which governments ruled over people; and dominium which was the world of property, in which people owned things, money and land scattered across the earth. For the globalists, the function of constrained, “militant democracy” was to encase and protect capital from the masses. The supranational arrangements came to include the European Central Bank, trade treaties, the World Trade Organization, international investment law and many types of economic zones.

The Geneva School thinkers saw three 20th century ruptures to the world economy: the First World War, the Great Depression and decolonization. He describes the fundamental shifts following the 1938 Walter Lippmann symposium in Paris. The Geneva School focused on supranational orders and rejected a narrow economistic reliance on models and data. They conceived their task as “enabling the conditions of the grander order itself.” Slobodian traces their battle against the 1973 United Nations New International Economic Order (NIEO) with its demand for redistributive equality and social justice. Slobodian includes primary source discussions on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the European Economic Community (EEC) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). For globalists, sovereignty lay in individual consumers and in the superstructure. They tasked the nation with enforcing negative freedoms against a broad range of economic and human rights protections that could infringe upon the global encapsulation and autonomy of capital. According to Slobodian, “against human rights, they posed the human rights of capital.”

In his conclusion, Slobodian describes two book covers from this group’s publications. Petersmann’s cover ironically uses the work of Communist artist Diego Rivera titled Calla Lilly Vendor, showing a woman bowed under the weight of a mountain of beautiful white flowers. Petersmann, blind to suffering, called it an icon of the “freedom to sell in the market place.” Slobodian points out that across the street from the Centre William Rappard in Geneva, which first housed the International Labour Organization and then the GATT, Petersmann would have seen the monument to work: “miners picking at a coalface, fishers at sea, farmers tilling and hauling crops, a hooded indigenous man carrying pelts, a man in a worker’s apron holding pincers, and a black African man with a hoe.” Engraved in the plinth of the statue: “Labor exists above all struggle for competition. It is not a commodity.” The second cover is from Pascal Lamy’s book: barely perceptible beneath a grid of crosses and flecks of colour is a Mercator projection of the world – no people and no life.

There is much to think about here, we live in a world of much intellectual confusion in which words often obscure the relationship of people with each other, how we are divided by various boundaries, and how we relate to different forms of authority. Slobodian’s original source material helps to disentangle the reversals: the hand of the market is not an invisible sublime process, but rather the hand belongs to Eichmann-like individuals for whom people are invisible. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s great play about justice, the merchant of Venice could not see ordinary human materiality as represented by the figure of Shylock. What urgently demands our attention is double government: how many people actually give a thought to this seemingly omnipresent supranational political/economic order, backed by the military and law, that can well cause human extinction?

Judy Deutsch, a psychoanalyst, teaches and supervises at the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute, and is on the board of Science for Peace. Judy is a long-standing CD contributor.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Canadian Dimension (CD Goes Digital).


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