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Neoliberalism against world government

The neglected world order dimension in ideologies

By Stefan Pedersen

Photograph of Roosevelt, Truman, and Wallace from the Truman Library

(The following article was reproduced with the permission of the author. You can find the original piece at IDEOLOGY THEORY PRACTICE)

The idea that adherents of neoliberalism desire world government is an old misunderstanding. In recent years this mistaken notion has been promoted by populists such as former President Donald Trump who in one of his most ideology and world order oriented speeches to the UN General Assembly made the ‘ideology of globalism’ and global governance seem diametrically opposed to his preferred ‘doctrine of patriotism’ and national sovereignty.

Though it is not nominally a given that Trump and others with similar nationalist inclinations are specifically talking about neoliberalism when this supposed major contemporary ideological cleavage comes up, there should be little doubt among students of global governance that this is effectively what is being claimed when neoliberalism has been the hegemonic ideology in global governance circles at least since the Cold War ended. [1] In addition, the terms ‘globalism’ and ‘globalists’ have been connected to early and present-day neoliberals in several influential studies over the last few decades. Noteworthy examples in this regard are here initially Manfred B. Steger’s many works treating neoliberalism as the hegemonic form of ‘globalism’—albeit not the only one. [2] Then, Or Rosenboim notes how neoliberal theorists actively played a role in ‘the emergence of globalism’ in the 1930s and 1940s—and she also sees neoliberalism as one of several streams of thought advocating ‘globalism’ in the sense of variations over the theme of establishing some kind of global order. [3] Finally, and most consequentially for the way neoliberalism is presently understood, Quinn Slobodian has in his Globalists (2018) convincingly and in detail argued that the early neoliberals operated with an agenda aiming for global control of the workings of the world economy that subsequent ideological fellow travellers had to a certain extent managed to establish through legislative and international institutional inroads by the mid-1990s. [4]

Those at the forefront of studying neoliberalism today, such as Slobodian, has provided us with a multitude of insights into neoliberalism’s multifaceted development and present configuration. For instance by further confirming how the neoliberals have prioritised establishing ‘world law’ over a ‘world state’. [5] But on one front there seems to be a paucity in the record—and that is when it comes to how the neoliberals originally arrived at this stance and what it actually meant in world order terms in comparison to the then extant alternatives.

What most scholars have thought happened in world order terms during neoliberalism’s formative period has had a tendency to be derived from an intense scrutiny of the period that spanned from the Colloque Walter Lippmann in 1938 to the foundation of the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS) in 1947. Significant here is what was said by the various ‘early neoliberals’ who attended these monumental events in this formative period for the neoliberal ideology. [6] But as Hagen Schulz-Forberg has now sensibly argued, if the Colloque Walter Lippmann represents the birth of neoliberalism, then that birth will have been ‘preceded by pregnancy’. [7]

The years of importance for the earliest development of neoliberal thought does therefore not exclusively include the 1938–1947 period but also the about two decades of intellectual gestation that preceded that final sprint leading up to the formation of the MPS. Considering the span of the careers of some of the primary actors here, such as Walter Lippmann—who the eponymous Colloque in 1938 was held in honour of—and Ludwig von Mises, this brings us back to their earlier writings during the First World War. We can therefore say that the neoliberalism whose core tenets were broadly agreed upon in the late 1940s was the fruit of debates that spanned the entire period 1914 to 1947. This was also a time when considerable intellectual effort was put into thinking about world order, first concerning the shape of the League of Nations and then the shape of what ought to replace the League of Nations once this organisation had revealed itself to be dysfunctional for ensuring peace among mankind. [8]

World politically, the temporal span from 1914 to 1947 also takes us from the realisation that imperialist nationalism needs to be tamed or excised, brought first to the fore by the occurrence of the Great War itself, to the understanding that a ‘Cold War’ had begun in 1947—an expression not coincidentally popularised by Lippmann, who was a journalist and an avid commentator on foreign affairs, and in 1947 published a book with the title The Cold War that was a compilation of articles he had recently written. [9] Lippmann, as perhaps the premier American foreign policy commentator of the time and associate of centrally placed early neoliberals such as Friedrich von Hayek, is the key to unlocking the world order dimension that neoliberalism ended up incorporating by the end of the 1940s.

The world order dimension

To get a handle on this argument it is important to note that neoliberalism, like all other major political ideologies, can be understood as composed of a series of conceptual dimensions. Since neoliberalism is considered the ideology behind the process of economic globalisation that gained truly global reach once the Cold War ended, it is naturally its economic dimension that has been the key focus. And to understand how this works, we can think of the number of ideologies with party political representation that by the 1990s had put neoliberalism’s economic dimension into the economic slot Keynesianism once occupied. This practically happened across the board, with Thatcher and the Conservatives and Reagan and the Republicans spearheading a change in policy later also followed up by Clinton and the Democrats and Blair and the Labour Party—and this was repeated throughout the world.

Thinking here in terms of an ideally articulated neoliberalism, rather than the compromised versions that appear once the ideology is made to fit some party political program in the real world of political practice, neoliberalism should be understood as a multi-dimensional ideology in its own right that also contains a ‘world order dimension’ of great significance. Every ideology contains what is at least an implicit world order dimension. But since today’s nation-state centric world order has existed unchallenged longer than most can remember, it is commonly assumed that all political ideologies are designed to function in the state system. Conservatism, liberalism, and socialism, we know best in their national garb. Stalinism is a form of communism made to suit the world of nation-states with its focus on achieving ‘socialism in one country’. Every ideology that is made to function within the nationalist and statist parameters of the current world order share the same basic ‘world order dimension’.

The early neoliberals ended up deviating from traditional nationalist conceptions while recognising—with Marx and Trotsky—that a world economy had become a feature of reality. The Trotskyist solution to dealing with a novel world economy was to aim to subsume the entire world under the command and control of a communist regime that would also lead politically. The neoliberals worked from the same premise, that there was now a world economy, but with a different set of aims. They wanted to free the economy—meaning those who benefitted from mastering it through their entrepreneurial skills. That meant avoiding at all cost that some force powerful enough to subsume the world economy to a different set of political interests arose—be they for instance communist, democratic socialist, social liberal, or humanist (and in our day we can add ‘ecological’ to that list). This was in part achieved through taking a strong anti-totalitarian stance, deriding both fascism and communism. But there was a greater Westernised threat to a world order suited to neoliberal interests: a world democracy, where the free people of the world could elect a socialist world party into power.

A world democracy, as someone as versed in cosmopolitan theory as Mises well knew, was not really compatible with a world of nation-states. It would have to involve what we can call a ‘cosmopolitan world order dimension’ that is incompatible with the nation-state sovereignty that forms the foundation of the extant system of states. Mises had once thought this an ideal solution himself, since to him cosmopolitanism was compatible with ‘liberalism’ and ensuring world peace. But it gradually dawned on both Mises and Hayek that a paradigm shift in the world order dimension subscribed to by the democratic populations on the planet could spell doom for the institution of the neoliberal economic agenda they were in the process of planning in detail. A world government, though still desirable if its only function would be to ensure the free working of the world economy, was an all too risky proposition if it were to be democratically elected. The simple reason for this was that the neoliberal agenda was understood to be not inherently popular but elitist, or for the few rather than the many. Popular politics in the 1930s and 1940s, especially as fascism, Nazism, isolationism, and other right-wing varieties lost their pull, was becoming more and more social democratic or liberal [10] in a manner that we today would perhaps better recognise as ‘democratic socialist’.

The neoliberals therefore thought it would be better if the rules for running the world economy were simply made expertly and separated from the political rules that parties elected into power could alter according to the volatile demands of diverse voting publics. This neat separation would have the benefit of blocking socialist reforms from having severe world economic effects even if socialists were to be elected into power in key nation-states. What this meant in world order terms was that neoliberalism needed to be both economically ‘globalist’ or universalist, so that the world economy could operate on neoliberal principles, and politically nationalist, so that controlling the world economy as a whole would not be subject to popular desires. The possibility of just such a separation was aired by Mises already in 1919. [11] But due to the insecurity surrounding the question of what would replace the ailing League of Nations, a question which became steadily more acute as world politics converged on the course that led to World War II throughout the 1930s, there was always also the chance that the masses would start to demand the more comprehensive political solution to the world’s problems that world federalism offered. The neoliberals therefore also had to address this contingency—while finding ways to argue against it without sounding too illiberal. However, as the Second World War entered the phase where Allied victory seemed certain while its leaders seemed eager to water down any plans for a permanent organisation to keep the peace, the neoliberals understood that the old plans could be reinstated. Lippmann is an apt example of a neoliberal theorist who helped see to it that things developed this way.

Walter Lippmann's crusade against One Worldism

Lippmann had a long history of engagement with issues relating to diplomacy and grand strategy that made him the foreign policy wonk in the group of early neoliberals. In 1918, Lippmann had been the brain behind no less than eight of Wilson’s historic ‘Fourteen Points’ that laid down the American terms for the peace to come after the end of the First World War. [12] From this time on, Lippmann was a very well-connected American journalist and intellectual, whose close connections in Washington D.C. included all sitting Presidents from Wilson to Lyndon B. Johnson. [13] Even after his formal retirement from the Washington D. C. circuit, Nixon sought the old Lippmann’s advice too. [14] Lippmann was no neutral observer, and is for instance known to have sided for Harry Truman against Henry A. Wallace in the crucial contest for the Vice Presidency that preceded President Roosevelt’s last nomination. [15] This calculated action is evidence that Lippmann, in accordance with early neoliberal tenets, preferred Truman’s anti-progressive agenda of replacing the ‘New Dealers’ Roosevelt had earlier put in place—New Dealers such as Wallace—with ‘Wall Streeters’ in his cabinet. [16]

What is less often pointed out here is that Lippmann, through favouring Truman over Wallace, also would have made it clear that he was siding against the ‘One Worldism’ that Wallace and others who had thought long and hard about a desirable world order advocated. [17] Lippmann, who instead appealed to a ‘realism’ that rested ‘on a hard calculation of the “national interest”’ was at this point ‘distressed by’ the ‘one world euphoria’ which was then a prevalent feature of post-war planning in idealist circles. [18] The world federalism that was espoused by the idealists of the day seemed entirely impractical to Lippmann, who himself can be counted amongst the ‘classical realists’ in international relations theory—even if his ‘original contributions to realist theory were ultimately modest’. [19] In contrast, Lippmann towards the end of World War II instead offered up a ‘formula for great-power cooperation’ that he thought of as ‘a realistic alternative both to bankrupt isolationism and wishful universalism’. [20] What all this goes to show is that Lippmann, in his capacity within early neoliberal circles as an authority on matters of foreign policy and world order, would have further strengthened the neoliberal insight that the state-system was crucial to neoliberalism.

Reading the contemporaneous works of Mises and Hayek—which in the case of Mises spans nearly the entire 1914–1947 period—this is indeed what seems to have happened towards the end of this formative era for neoliberalism. Mises and Hayek were both markedly more open to idealist forms of world federalism in the early to late 1930s than what they ended up being towards the end of the war and in the late 1940s. [21] This was likely part in response to Lippmann’s realist influence, supported by the general course of events, with the founding of the United Nations and the early signs of the Cold War developing, and part in response to a growing realisation that the world order that was most desirable from a neoliberal standpoint ought to be ‘many worldist’ in its construction rather than based on genuine One Worldism.

Mises and Hayek stands out as the most centrally placed early neoliberals who were willing to engage with the world order debate that ran concurrently to the formative neoliberal debate. Lippmann was not the only early neoliberal sceptical to One Worldism—the claim has indeed been made that the early neoliberals taken under one were all ‘acutely aware that nation-states were here to stay’. [22] But in the world order discourse of the time, there were two distinctly different approaches to what was then viewed as the desirable and necessary goal of creating ‘a world-wide legal order’—and these two were either ‘law-by-compact-of-nations’ or a ‘complete world government that will include and sanction a world-wide legal order’. [23] It is debateable if even those who subscribed to the former approach really believed that ‘nation-states were here to stay’ as the League of Nations order wound up around them and the Third Reich and then Imperial Japan swallowed most nations in their surrounding areas. It was also not a certainty that the United States or the Soviet Union, who each straddled the globe from the perspective of their respective capitals at war’s end, would let go of the new lands they now commanded. For a while, both Mises and Hayek supported some form or other of world federalism to ensure that basic security could be installed worldwide—with Mises advocating world government and Hayek favouring a federation of capitalist nations. [24]

What laid the dreams of a world order for all humanity to rest was the lack of trust among the Allied nations that established the United Nations in 1945—which led to veto power being granted to the permanent members of the Security Council. This effectively made humanity’s further progress hostage to the whims of the leaders of the nations that won World War II, here primarily the conflicting interests of the new superpowers. Any remnant of hope for a quick remedy to this stalemate then disappeared completely as the Cold War started to escalate and the McCarthyite Red Scare kicked in. This made cosmopolitan advocates of a humane world order appear dangerously close to proponents of Internationalism in the United States and conversely led their Soviet equivalents to be seen as potential capitalist class-traitors there. [25] The neoliberals had before this crisis point was reached and the world order debate was ended in its present iteration already disowned their prior engagement with figuring out what form a desirable world order people would willingly sign up to should take.

Divide et impera

Sometime between the beginning of the Second World War in Europe in 1939 and its end in 1945, both Hayek and Mises seem to have come to the same conclusion—supported by Lippmann’s insights and arguments—that world government would more likely than not be anathema to the primary goal of neoliberalism: creating a world economy where entrepreneurs could let their fortunes bloom unimpeded by negative government intervention. The reason for this was straightforward enough. Any world federation that in principle would be acceptable to the Western nations, first and foremost in 1945 the United States, Britain, and France, would have to be democratic. And an elected world government would at this time more likely than not be socialist, eager to install a Keynesian version of a global New Deal. This represented the worst of all worlds for the neoliberals—the least desirable scenario. One Worldism therefore had to be countered—with Lippmann’s ‘realism’ and communist smears. Subsequently, the whole program for a world government had to be kept discredited—which is achieved simply enough by letting the present world order run on auto-pilot, since its political default position is to uphold national sovereignty, nationalism, and the division of humanity into a myriad of designated national peoples with their own territorial states.

We are in the end faced with a peculiar world order dimension in neoliberalism that is anti-globalist in political terms but globalist in economic terms—insofar as we understand ‘globalist’ to be a synonym for universalist, which is of course how it is understood by nationalist politicians today who use the term to convey the opposite of the nationalism they themselves seek to promote. The paradox is therefore that the neoliberal ‘globalists’ are against the creation of a democratically functioning planetary polity or world government, especially if one understands ‘world government’ to be the legitimate government of a world republic or planetary federation ruled by representatives elected into power by the global populace in free and fair elections—that therefore also would end up being multi-ideological.

Pluralist cosmopolitan democracy embodied in a world parliament is not the goal, or even one of the goals that adherents of neoliberalism aim for. Instead it is something neoliberals fear, and that is a very different proposition from the nationalists’ misconceived portrayal. Another great misunderstanding today, one that follows from the misconception that the neoliberals want genuine world government, is that the neoliberals would abhor nationalism. Today, this leads many on both the left and right to think that neoliberalism can be effectively countered with a turn to nationalism—on the assumption that nationalism is the opposite of neoliberal globalism and therefore incompatible with it. But that is not the case. The neoliberals instead rely on nationalism to keep democracy tamed and irrelevant, at a scale too small for it to exercise effective control over the world economy’s neoliberal ruleset—which continues to send the spoils of economic activity towards Hayek’s idealised ‘entrepreneurs’.

Global democracy, stripped of nationalist division, is what the early neoliberals truly feared. We can today imagine what for instance a democratic socialist world government able and willing to enforce global taxation could do to the profit margins of high finance, multi-national corporations, global extractive industries, and the high net worth of individuals that currently are allowed to keep their money outside of democratic reach in offshore accounts, and see why the prospect of an elected world government became repulsive to neoliberals.

The big question today is therefore, when will we see an ideological movement for instituting exactly the kind of world government in the interest of humanity in general that would work properly to counter the neoliberal agenda? Any number of ideological projects could be global in scope, whether we are talking about prioritising liberal global democracy, economic solidarity, the ecological preservation of the biosphere, or enabling the future flourishing of human civilisation through intertwining all these three ideological strands into a cohesive and holistic planetary cosmopolitanism or planetarism that would be both post-nationalistic and post-neoliberal in principle. The left and green parties of today are clearly not there yet—but they will at some point have to realise that neoliberalism and nationalism are two sides of the same coin—the two ideologies reinforce each other and should therefore be countered as one.

[1] Stephen Gill. ‘European Governance and New Constitutionalism: Economic and Monetary Union and Alternatives to Disciplinary Neoliberalism in Europe’, New Political Economy, 3 (1), 1998, pp. 5–26.

[2] Manfred B. Steger. Globalisms: The Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

[3] Or Rosenboim. The Emergence of Globalism. Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.

[4] Quinn Slobodian. Globalists. The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

[5] Slobodian. Ibid., p. 272.

[6] See for instance: Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, eds. The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

[7] Hagen Schulz-Forberg. ‘Embedded Early Neoliberalism: Transnational Origins of the Agenda of Liberalism Reconsidered’, in Dieter Plehwe, Quinn Slobodian and Philip Mirowski, eds. Nine Lives of Neoliberalism. London: Verso, pp. 169-196.

[8] Glenda Sluga. Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

[9] Ronald Steel. Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980, p. 445.

[10] ‘Liberal’ in the American sense of supporting (the left-wing of) the Democratic party.

[11] Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of

Our Time. New York: New York University Press, 1983.

[12] Steel, Ibid., pp. 134–135.

[13] Steel, Ibid.

[14] Steel, Ibid., p. 589.

[15] John C. Culver and John Hyde. American Dreamer. A Life of Henry A. Wallace. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 342.

[16] John Nichols. The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party. The Enduring Legacy of Henry A. Wallace’s Antifascist, Antiracist Politics. London: Verso, 2020, pp. 109–110.

[17] Culver and Hyde, Ibid., pp. 402–418; and; Steel, Ibid., p. 407.

[18] Steel, Ibid., pp. 404–406.

[19] William E. Scheuerman. The Realist Case for Global Reform. Cambridge: Polity, 2011, p. 6.

[20] Steel, Ibid., p. 406.

[21] This development is detailed in the article that this text is a companion piece to.

[22] Schulz-Forberg, Ibid., p. 194.

[23] Gray L. Dorsey. ‘Two Objective Bases for a World-Wide Legal Order’, in F.S.C Northrop, ed. Ideological Differences and World Order. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 442–474.

[24] Also detailed in the article that this text is a companion piece to.

[25] Gilbert Jonas. One Shining Moment: A Short History of the American Student World Federalist Movement 1942-1953. Lincoln, NE:, Inc. 2001.

Stefan Pedersen, Ph.D., is a member of the Advisory Board at the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Advanced International Theory at the University of Sussex (2022-23). Since 2018, he has been a Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, currently based at Utrecht University, where he is a co-convenor of its Taskforce on Planetary Justice. Pedersen's notable works on planetarism and world order include Navigating World Order: Neoliberalism Between Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism (2020), Planetarism: A Paradigmatic Alternative to Internationalism (2020), and Kantian and Wellsian Cosmopolitanism: A Critical Distinction (2015)