by Jack Foster and Chamsy el-Ojeili
In September 2021, penning his last regular column for the Financial Times after 25 years of writing on global politics, Philip Stephens reflected on a bygone age. In the mid-1990s, an ‘age of optimism’, Stephens writes, ‘the world belonged to liberalism’. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the integration of China into the world economy, the realisation of the single market in Europe, the hegemony of the Third Way in the UK, and the ‘unipolar moment’ of US dominance presaged a century of ‘advancing democracy and a liberal economic order’. But today, following the financial crash of 2008 and its ongoing fallout, and turbocharged by the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘policymakers grapple with a world shaped by an expected collision between the US and China, by a contest between democracy and authoritarianism and by the clash between globalisation and nationalism’. Only five months later, the editors of the FT judged that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had definitively closed the ‘chapter of history opened by the fall of the Berlin Wall’; the sight of armoured columns advancing across the European mainland signals that a ‘new, darker, chapter has begun’. At this juncture, with the all-consuming immediacy of the war in Ukraine, and the widespread appeal of framing the conflict in civilisational terms—Western liberal democracy facing down an archaic, authoritarian threat from the East—it is worth reflecting on some of the currents that flow beneath and give shape to the discourse of Western liberal elites today.
In a previous essay, we argued that the leading public intellectuals and governance institutions of Western capitalism have struggled to effectively interpret and respond to the political and economic turmoil first unleashed by the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007–2008. We traced out a crisis of intellectual and moral leadership among Western elites in the splintering of (neo)liberal discourse over the past decade-and-a-half—the splintering of what was, prior to the GFC, a relatively consensual ‘moment’ in elite discourse, in which cosmopolitan neoliberalism had reigned supreme. As has been widely argued, the financial crisis brought this period of confidence and self-congratulation to an abrupt and unexpected halt. Both the enduring economic malaise that followed the crash, and the crisis of political legitimacy that has unfolded in its wake, have shaken the intellectual and ideological certitude of Western liberals.
All political ideologies experience ‘kaleidoscopic refraction, splintering, and recombination’, as they are adapted to historical circumstances and combined with elements of other worldviews to produce novel formations. However, we argued that the post-GFC period has seen a particularly intense and marked splintering of (neo)liberal discourse into three distinctive but overlapping and intertwining strands or ‘moments’. First, a neoliberalism of fear, which is animated by the invocation of various dystopian threats such as populism, protectionism, and totalitarianism, and which associates the contemporary period with the extremism and instability of the 1930s. Second, a punitive neoliberalism, which seeks to conserve and reinforce existing power relations and institutions of governance. And third, a pragmatic and reconciliatory neo-Keynesianism, oriented above all to saving capitalism from itself. In this essay, we want to expand upon one aspect of this analysis. Specifically, we suggest here that one way in which we can distinguish between these three strands or ‘moments’ is as distinct responses to the repoliticisation of ‘the economy’ and its management in the years following the GFC. Respectively, these responses can be summarised as rejection, repression, and reconciliation (see Table 1, below).
Depoliticisation and repoliticisation
In our previous essay, we argued that the 1990s and early 2000s were marked by the predominance of cosmopolitan neoliberalism as a successful project of intellectual and moral leadership, the moment of the ‘end of history’ and ‘happy globalisation’. In this period, we saw the radical diminution of economic and social alternatives to capitalism, the colonisation of ever more spheres of social life by the market, the transformation of common sense around the proper relationship between states and markets, the public and the private, equality and freedom, the community and the individual, and the institutionalisation of post-political management, or what William Davies has called ‘the disenchantment of politics by economics’. Of this last, neoliberalism, as both a political ideology and a set of institutions, has always been oriented to the active depoliticisation and indeed dedemocratisation of ‘the economy’ and its management—what Quinn Slobodian calls the ‘encasement’ of the market from the threat of democracy. In practice, this has been pursued in two primary ways. First, it has been accomplished via the legal and institutional insulation of ‘the economy’ from democratic contestation. Here, the delegation of critical public policy decisions to unelected, expert agencies such as central banks and the formulation of rules-based economic policy frameworks designed to narrow political discretion are emblematic. Second, this has been buttressed by ideological appeals to the constraints placed upon domestic economic sovereignty by globalisation and the necessity of technocratic expertise in government—strategies that lay at the heart of the Clinton administration in the US (‘It’s the economy, stupid!’) and the Third Way of Tony Blair in the UK. Economic management was to be left to Ivy League economists, central bankers, and the financial wizards of Wall Street and the City. The so-called ‘Great Moderation’—the period from the mid-1980s to 2007 that was characterised by low macroeconomic volatility and sustained, albeit unspectacular, growth in most advanced economies—lent credence to these ideas.
The hubris of elites in this period should not be underestimated. As Claudio Borio, head of the Monetary and Economic Department at the influential Bank for International Settlements, put it to an audience of European financiers in 2019, ‘During the Great Moderation, economists believed they had finally unlocked the secrets of the economy. We had learnt all that was important to learn about macroeconomics’. And in his ponderous account of how global capitalism might be saved from the triple-threat of financial instability, Covid-19, and climate change, former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney recalls ‘how different things were’ prior to the credit crash—a period of ‘seemingly effortless prosperity’ in which ‘Borders were being erased’.
The GFC catalysed both an epistemological crisis in mainstream economics, and, after some delay, the rise of anti-establishment political forces on both the left and the right. The widespread failure to reflate economic development in the wake of the crisis and the punishing effects of austerity in the UK and the Eurozone, and at the state level in the US, only exacerbated the problem. Over the past decade-and-a-half, questions of economic development, of who gets what, and of who should be in charge, have come back on the table. How have Western elites responded?
One dominant response to this repoliticisation of ‘the economy’ and its management has been to invoke a host of dystopian figures—populism, nationalism, political extremism, protectionism, socialism, and totalitarianism—all of which are perceived as threats to the stability of the open-market order, to economic development, and to a thinly defined ‘liberal democracy’. This is the neoliberalism of fear Four years prior to the election of Donald Trump, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Risks’ assessment was already grimly warning that the ‘seeds of dystopia’ were borne on the prevailing winds of ‘high levels of unemployment’, ‘heavily indebted governments’, and ‘a growing sense that wealth and power are becoming more entrenched in the hands of political and financial elites’ following the GFC. In 2013, Eurozone technocrats were raising cautious notes around the ‘renationalisation of European politics’. By 2015, Martin Wolf, long-time economics columnist for the FT, was informing his readers that ‘elites have failed and, as a result, elite-run politics are in trouble’. This climate of fear reached fever-pitch in 2016, with the shocks delivered by the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, and again in January 2021, with mounting fears that President Biden’s inauguration would be blocked by a truculent Republican party. The utopian world of the long 1990s, in which globalisation was ‘tearing down barriers and building up networks between nations and individuals, between economies and cultures’, in the words of Bill Clinton, has thus disappeared precisely as ‘the economy’ and its management began to be repoliticised.
Two aspects of this often-histrionic neoliberalism of fear stand out. First, we see a striking inability to cognitively map the repoliticised terrain. Rather than serious attempts to map out why and in what ways repoliticisation is occurring, this strand or ‘moment’ is characterised by a reliance on a set of questionable historical analogies, above all the 1930s and the disasters of totalitarianism. Second, extraordinary weight is given over to these threats and fears, and there is a corresponding absence of serious attempts to construct a new ideological consensus. Instead, repoliticisation is countered in a language that is defensive, hectoring, and dismissive. For Wolf, populist forces have organised to ‘muster the inchoate anger of the disenchanted and the enraged who feel, understandably, that the system is rigged against ordinary people’. In like fashion, former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, reflecting on his role in resolving the GFC, writes that in crises, ‘fear and anger and ignorance’ clouds the judgement of both the public and their representatives and impedes sensible policymaking; it is essential, in times of crisis, that decisions are left to coldly rational technicians. Musing on the integration backlash in the EU, Mario Draghi, then president of the European Central Bank, noted that while ‘protectionism is society’s natural response’ to unchecked market forces, it is crucial to ‘resist protectionist urges’, and this is the job of enlightened technocrats and politicians, who must hold back the populist forces threatening to roll back market integration. In other words, while recognising that a rampaging globalisation has driven social and political unrest, within this neoliberalism of fear the masses are viewed as too capricious and ignorant to be trusted; the post-GFC malaise, while frightening and disorienting, will certainly not be solved by more democracy.
Closely related to, and overlapping with, this neoliberalism of fear is the second core strand or ‘moment’, that of a punitive and coercive neoliberalism. If the neoliberalism of fear can be understood as a dismissive overreaction to repoliticisation, this second strand represents a more direct and focused attempt to manage this new, more unstable, and more contested political economy. Fears of deglobalisation, of protectionism, of fiscal recklessness are also prominent in this line of argument; however, equally prominent are the necessary solutions: strengthening the rules-based global order, ongoing flexibilisation and integration of labour and product markets—particularly in the EU—and a harsh but altogether necessary process of fiscal consolidation.
The problem of public debt has, of course, been one of the major battlegrounds here. Preaching the necessity of fiscal consolidation at the elite Jackson Hole conference in 2010, for example, Jean-Claude Trichet raised the cautionary tale of Japan, a country that ‘chose to live with debt’ in the 1980s and suffered a ‘lost decade’ in the 1990s as a result. These concerns were widely echoed in the financial press and by international policy organisations; here, the threat of market discipline was also consistently evoked as justification for fiscal retrenchment and punishing austerity. As former IMF economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff infamously warned, prudent governments pay down public debt, because ‘market discipline can come without warning’.
Much has been made of the punitive, moralising, and post-hegemonic dimensions of this discourse. However, it is worth bearing in mind that there are also genuine attempts to match the policy prescriptions associated with this more authoritarian and coercive neoliberalism—fiscal austerity, enhanced fiscal discipline and surveillance, structural adjustment, rules-based economic governance—with a positive vision of the political economy that these policies will deliver: economic growth, global economic stability, a route out of the post-GFC doldrums. Viewed in this way, the key ideological thrust here seems to be less that of punishment for punishment’s sake than it is of the deliberate repression and foreclosure of repoliticisation. Pace the classical neoliberal thinkers, the driving logic is that economic development and economic management are far too important to be left to democracy, which is altogether too fickle and too subject to capture by interest groups to be trusted. The upshot? Austerity, flexibilisation, the strengthening of the elusive rules-based global order: all this must be pushed through regardless of dissent. As with any ideological formation, shutting down alternative arguments is also important. As one speaker at the Economist’s 2013 ‘Bellwether Europe Summit’ put it, ‘the political challenge’ to structural adjustment ‘comes not from the process of adjustment itself. People can accept a period of hardship if necessary. It comes from the belief that there are better alternatives available that are being denied’. In these ways, this second strand or ‘moment’ is directly hostile to the return of the political: less a hurried and defensive pulling-up of the drawbridge, as in the neoliberalism of fear, than a concerted counterattack.
While this punitive and coercive neoliberalism seeks to repress repoliticisation by further insulating ‘the economy’ and its management from democratic interference, the third main strand of post-GFC (neo)liberal discourse responds to repoliticisation in a more measured way. In our previous writing on this issue, we referred to this strand or ‘moment’ as a pragmatic neo-Keynesianism, which promotes technocratic policy fixes aimed at lightly redistributing wealth and rebuilding the social contract. Over the past couple of years, we suggest, these more reconciliatory energies have coagulated into a relatively coherent ideological project, that of stakeholder capitalism. Simultaneously, aided by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, the punitive and authoritarian neoliberalism of the 2010s has been discredited and has largely vanished from the pages of the financial press, the policy recommendations of the major international organisations, and the books and columns of Western public intellectuals. Thus, we use the term stakeholder capitalism to refer to the recent ideological shift in the Western policy establishment, among public intellectuals, and in business and high finance, that centres around the push for more ‘socially responsible’ corporations, for ‘green finance’, and for the re-moralisation of capitalism.
By 2019, this shift was gathering momentum. Former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz implored readers of the New York Times to help build a ‘progressive capitalism’, ‘based on a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed’. The FT launched its ‘New Agenda’, informing its readers that ‘Business must make a profit but should serve a purpose too’. The American Business Roundtable, the crème de la crème of Fortune-500 CEOs, issued a new ‘Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation’, in which it revised its long-standing emphasis on promoting shareholder-value maximisation. Rather than narrowly focusing on returning profit to their shareholders, it now claims that corporations should ‘focus on creating long-term value, better serving everyone—investors, employees, communities, suppliers, and customers’. Similarly, the WEF launched its 50th-anniversary ‘Davos Manifesto’ on the purpose of a company, promoting the development of ‘shared value creation’, the incorporation of environment, social, and governance (ESG) criteria into company reporting and investor decision-making, and responsible ‘corporate global citizenship […] to improve the state of the world’. And no lesser figure than Jaime Dimon, the billionaire CEO of JPMorgan Chase, America’s largest bank, noted in his 2019 letter to shareholders that ‘building shareholder value can only be done in conjunction with taking care of employees, customers and communities. This is completely different from the commentary often expressed about the sweeping ills of naked capitalism and institutions only caring about shareholder value’. Now, in early 2022, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset-management firm, has announced that it will be launching a ‘Center for Stakeholder Capitalism’ in the near future.
The term ‘stakeholder management’ was originally coined by the business-management theorist Edward Freeman in the 1980s, but the roots of this discourse go back to the dénouement of the first Gilded Age, where some business leaders began to promote the idea of the socially responsible corporation as a means of outflanking working-class discontent during the Great Depression. The concept of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ then became popular in the 1990s, associated above all with the Third Way of New Labour. Today, the discourse of stakeholder capitalism has been resurrected and updated, we suggest, in direct response to the repoliticisation of the economy and its management and the failure of authoritarian neoliberalism to provide a way out of the post-2008 quagmire.
At the root of this rebooted version of stakeholder capitalism is an argument for the re-moralisation of capitalism in the interests of social cohesion and long-term sustainability. To be sure, there remains a strong aesthetic-ideological attachment to neoliberal ideals of self-actualisation, entrepreneurialism, market-enabled liberty, consumer choice, and so on. But there is also a recognition of—or at least the payment of lip service to—the fact that a rampaging globalisation and widespread commodification has undermined social stability and cohesion. Thus, in contrast to the second strand or ‘moment’ of post-GFC (neo)liberalism, stakeholder capitalism seeks to deal with the repoliticisation of the economy and its management by establishing a more ‘inclusive’ capitalism.
To establish a more inclusive capitalism means making some relatively significant shifts in economic policy. ‘[T]argeted policies that achieve fairer outcomes’ are the order of the day. A more fiscally active state and investment in infrastructure, health, education, and R&D are all called for. So too is an expanded social-welfare safety net, primarily in the form of active labour-market policies. And above all, stakeholder capitalism is about tackling the green-energy transition, which presents, for boosters of a private-finance-led transition, ‘the greatest commercial opportunity of our time’. This means ‘smart’ state intervention to steer and ‘derisk’ private investment. Cultural reform, economic education, and democratic renewal are also viewed as important enabling features of this more ‘inclusive’ capitalism. Here, policymakers must lead from the front, finding ways to better communicate with, and to educate, citizens and to foster consensus.
In these respects, if the ‘moment’ of punitive and authoritarian neoliberalism was characterised by the repression of repoliticisation, then stakeholder capitalism seeks reconciliation. But while the legitimacy of democratic dissatisfaction is broadly recognised, and while there is a place for ‘more democracy’ in the discourse of stakeholder capitalism, this is democracy conceptualised not as the meaningful contestation of the distribution of power and resources, but as a relentless machine for building consensus. Opposing value systems and fundamental conflicts over the distribution of resources do not exist, only ‘stakeholder engagement’ oriented to revealing the ‘public interest’ or the preferences of ‘society’ at large. Exponents of stakeholder capitalism call for more education on how the economy works and emphasise the need to ‘listen’ more attentively to the citizenry. But the intention behind such endeavours is to develop or fortify consensus around already-existing institutions, or at best to tweak them at the margins. In these respects, there is an ambivalence running through this third—and perhaps now dominant—strand or ‘moment’: the mistrust of democracy, made explicit in the neoliberalism of fear and its authoritarian counterpart, is never completely out of the frame.
Table 1: Rejection, repression, and reconciliation
Despite its obvious limitations from the normative point of view of radical or even social democracy, the (re)emergent ideological formation of stakeholder capitalism does, we suggest, represent a relatively coherent attempt at rebuilding ideological consensus in Western societies. After years of intellectual and moral disorganisation, the rise to dominance of stakeholder capitalism among the policy establishment, high finance, some liberal intellectuals, and the financial press perhaps signals the reestablishment of intellectual and ideological discipline among elites. But it seems unlikely that this line of approach will bear fruit in the long run; the dysfunctions of the (neo)liberal world order—spiralling inequality and oligarchy, post-democratic withdrawal and outrage, resurgent nationalism, and anaemic, debt-dependent economic growth—run deep. More immediately, the war in Ukraine, and the unprecedented financial and economic sanctions imposed upon Russia by Western powers, threatens to once again reorder the ideological terrain and to intensify the shift away from globalisation. Perhaps the dominant response among (neo)liberal commentators thus far has been to frame the conflict as the first battle in a coming war for the preservation of liberal democracy: we are seeing the return of a more ‘muscular’ liberalism, reminiscent of the early years of the War on Terror. Indeed, throughout modern history, war has served to restore liberalism’s ideological vigour; the conflict in Ukraine may yet prove to be a shot in the arm.
 P. Stephens, ‘The west is the author of its own weakness’, Financial Times, 30 September 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/9779fde6-edc6-4d4c-b532-fc0b9cad4ed9
 The Editorial Board, ‘Putin opens a dark new chapter in Europe’, Financial Times, 25 February 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/a69cda07-2f63-4afe-aed1-cbcc51914105
 J. Foster and C. el-Ojeili, ‘Centrist Utopianism in Retreat: Ideological Fragmentation after the Financial Crisis’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 2021.
 Q. Slobodian and D. Plehwe, ‘Introduction’, in D. Plehwe, Q. Slobodian, and P. Mirowski (Eds), Nine Lives of Neoliberalism (London: Verso, 2020), p. 3.
 N. Schiller, ‘A liberalism of fear’, Cultural Anthropology, 27 October 2016, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-liberalism-of-fear
 W. Davies, ‘The new neoliberalism’, New Left Review, 101 (2016), pp. 121-134.
 W. Davies, The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty, and the Logic of Competition, revised edition (London: Sage, 2017).
 Q. Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018). The reduction of essentially political problems to their economic dimension is a long-standing feature of liberalism as such and is therefore not an original aspect of neoliberalism; it is, however, particularly pronounced in the latter.
 C. Borio, ‘Central banking in challenging times’, speech at the SUERF Annual Lecture, Milan, 2019.
 M. Carney, Value(s): Building a Better World for All (London: William Collins, 2021), p. 151.
 World Economic Forum, Global Risks 2012 (Geneva: WEF, 2012), pp. 10, 19.
 B. Cœuré, ‘The political dimension of European economic integration’, speech at the Ligue des droits de l’Homme, Paris, 2013.
 M. Wolf, The Shifts and the Shocks: What We Have Learned – and Have Still to Learn – From the Financial Crisis (London: Penguin, 2015), p. 382.
 William Clinton, ‘President Clinton’s Remarks to the World Economic Forum (2000)’, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOq1tIOvSWg
 Wolf, The Shifts and the Shocks, p. 383.
 T. Geithner, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises (London: Random House, 2014), p. 209.
 M. Draghi, ‘Sustaining openness in a dynamic global economy’, speech at the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium, Jackson Hole, 2017.
 J-C. Trichet, ‘Central banking in uncertain times – conviction and responsibility’, speech at the Jackson Hole Economic Symposium, Jackson Hole, 2010.
 Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, ‘Why we should expect low growth amid debt’, Financial Times, 28 January 2010.
 See, for example, Davies, ‘The new neoliberalism’.
 J. Asmussen, ‘Saving the euro’, speech at the Economist's Bellwether Europe Summit, London, 2013.
 J. Foster, ‘Mission-oriented capitalism’, Counterfutures 11 (2021), pp. 154-166.
 J. Stiglitz, ‘Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron’, New York Times, 19 April 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/19/opinion/sunday/progressive-capitalism.html
 Financial Times, ‘FT sets the agenda with a new brand platform,’ Financial Times, 16 September 2019, https://aboutus.ft.com/press_release/ft-sets-the-agenda-with-new-brand-platform
 Business Roundtable, ‘Business Roundtable redefines the purpose of a corporation to promote “an economy that serves all Americans”’, 19 August 2019, https://www.businessroundtable.org/business-roundtable-redefines-the-purpose-of-a-corporation-to-promote-an-economy-that-serves-all-americans
 World Economic Forum, ‘Davos Manifesto 2020: The universal purpose of a company in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, 2 December 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/12/davos-manifesto-2020-the-universal-purpose-of-a-company-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/
 J. Dimon, ‘Annual Report 2018: Chairman and CEO letter to shareholders’, 4 April 2019, https://reports.jpmorganchase.com/investor-relations/2018/ar-ceo-letters.htm?a=1
 L. Fink, ‘Larry Fink’s 2022 letter to CEOs: The power of capitalism’, https://www.blackrock.com/corporate/investor-relations/larry-fink-ceo-letter
 See E. Freeman, Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach (Boston: Pitman, 1984).
 J. P. Leary, Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018), pp. 162-163.
 For an early statement, see W. Hutton, The State We’re In (London: Random House, 1995). Freeman also wrote on the concept of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ in the 1990s. It is notable that the drive to develop this more ‘inclusive’ capitalism is made in the absence of, and often disdain for, the key conditions that enabled Western social democracy to (briefly) thrive—namely, a more autarkic global political economy, mass political-party membership, high trade-union density, the ideological threat posed by Soviet communism, a more coherent and engaged public sphere, and stronger civil-society institutions. Further, exponents of stakeholder capitalism retain a strong aesthetic-ideological attachment to neoliberal ideals of self-actualisation, entrepreneurialism, market-enabled liberty, and so on. For these reasons, we suggest that its closest ideological cousin is the Third Way.
 B. Cœuré, ‘The consequences of protectionism’, speech at the 29th edition of the workshop ‘The Outlook for the Economy and Finance’, Villa d’Este, Cernobbio, 2018.
 Carney, Value(s), p. 339.
 D. Gabor, ‘The Wall Street Consensus’, Development and Change, 52(3) (2021), pp. 429-459.
 M. Wolf, ‘Putin has reignitied the conflict between tyranny and liberal democracy’, Financial Times, 2 March 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/be932917-e467-4b7d-82b8-3ff4015874b
by Sonia Maria Pavel
Imagine two societies. In the first, children are separated at birth from their biological parents and raised collectively by specialised educators. These educators, carefully selected for the task, closely observe the children in order to discern their talents, abilities, and dispositions. Based on how well they perform at various tasks and the ease with which they acquire knowledge, the children are then categorised and assigned what is believed to be their proper place in society. Those who are particularly musically gifted are given the instruments, instructors, and all the conditions they need to become musicians. The ones who are thought to show a great love of truth and distinct reasoning abilities are raised to become the leaders of that society. The desires and wishes of each individual child are irrelevant to this allocation. Nevertheless, most are content with this arrangement because they are taught and come to believe that they are all brothers and sisters who must serve their community by fulfilling their natural, preordained role. The society is just as long everyone contributes to it by minding their business and not interfering in that of others.
In the second society, children are raised in private, nuclear families. The unchosen circumstances of their birth, including who their parents are, where they were born, and their class, race, and gender status shape their life paths, often to a significant extent. From the beginning, their chances of becoming a musician, a politician, an academic, or a service worker are shaped by various factors beyond their control and irrelevant from the perspective of their ability to fulfil such roles. If their parents are highly educated and wealthy, they are much more likely to receive an education that will allow them to occupy a well-compensated and highly respected position. By contrast, if their parents live in a poor, perhaps racially segregated area, the educational and professional paths in fact available to them will be severely limited. Many people are content with this arrangement because they are taught that the competition is fair—opportunities are by law equally open to all those individuals willing and able to seize them, regardless of who they are and to whom they were born. According to the dominant ideology, accidents of birth can be corrected through hard work, which will allow everyone to ‘rise’ as far as their talents take them.
Which of these is a meritocracy? Surely, the first society seems to be governed by merit—each task and role is fulfilled by the person best suited for it. Show yourself to have a keen eye for the visual arts and all the resources to become a great painter or sculptor will be placed at your disposal. Nobody will have a better chance than you at becoming one—it does not matter that they really want to try their luck at painting (perhaps much more than you), that their biological parents were artists, or that they could have afforded tuition at the best art school. That person will only become a painter if the teachers discern that same talent in them. Otherwise, they will be assigned a different task, through which they can best contribute to society. No drop of talent will be wasted.
The second society, which much more closely resembles our own, also seems to be meritocratic, but in a different respect. Regardless of any natural disposition or proclivity, there is no legal barrier to you becoming a visual artist. If you start painting and you are appreciated by other artists or critics, or have success selling your art, then you are free to be a painter. Nobody can tell you that you have no business creating visual art because your talents lie elsewhere and are being wasted. Nor can anyone accuse you of squandering society’s resources in becoming a visual artist when so many others are or would have been much better at this task—the choice to compete with you to make their living in the same fashion was open to them.
In my view, both of these social arrangements can be called meritocracies because the concept of ‘meritocracy’ is far more open-ended than its proponents and critics have so far recognised. Rather than having a standalone meaning, meritocracy is always reliant upon other values and ideals for what a good human life and a good society look like, which can vary dramatically.
To begin with, we should distinguish between the principle of merit and a social, economic, and political arrangement we call a meritocracy. Merit is a principle according to which rewards, positions, and goods are allocated to particular persons on the basis of desert—as a result of certain qualities, feats, or achievements. Both the rewards and the rewarded traits vary in accordance with context—the team who wins the Premier League is awarded a few dozen million pounds and a prestigious trophy, while the winner of my friends’ Fantasy PL Mini-League gets a kit of their choice. But not every context in which judgments of merit are made and rewards allocated on their basis is a meritocracy. A mother might give a treat to the child who is most well-behaved at the doctor, but that does not make the family a meritocracy. For this reason, we should reserve the label ‘meritocracy’ only for those social and political communities and institutions in which goods are primarily or exclusively distributed on the basis of merit.
Where does this leave our current debates and controversies about merit and meritocracy? Some social and political thinkers argue that most contemporary societies are not, nor have they ever historically been, meritocracies. The implication of this view is that ‘true’ or ‘real’ meritocracy would have certain political, economic, and institutional features that are absent from our existing and past arrangements. Other thinkers have articulated trenchant critiques of merit and meritocracy, discussing the “tyranny” of merit and meritocracy, the “meritocracy trap”, the “meritocracy myth” and even the “haunting spectre of meritocracy”. The latter argue that our meritocratic arrangements are deeply unjust, harmful for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and that ideologies of merit often function to obscure these realities and justify our social, economic, and political institutions. Elite higher education institutions in the US and UK have been the targets of both types of criticisms. While some have called out the spurious nature of elite universities’ claim that admission is exclusively or even primarily merit-based (see the legacy admissions, class and race bias, bribery, and corruption scandals of the past few years), others have focused on the negative effects that the intense competition pre- and post-college admissions have on students’ mental health and general wellbeing, as well as on society writ-large.
Though both types of criticisms are well-founded, I think that they misidentify merit (or the lack thereof) as the culprits. Because of its open-ended nature, merit as a principle necessarily attaches to other values, ideals, and commitments. For example, universities with a liberal arts focus often evaluate the ‘well-roundedness’ of candidates, including their involvement in arts, sports, activism, etc., as a central merit, while research-focused universities pay much more attention to specialised academic merits such as grades and test scores. Thus, what the resulting meritocratic arrangements look like depends on an institution or society’s conception of individuals and their relationship to the collective, how individuals are expected to relate to each other and the larger group, and the purposes of the collective endeavours and coordination efforts. In other words, merit attaches to a social theory, a set of moral, social, and political norms, as well as an ideal of justice and the good life.
Take the first society described above. The principle of merit serves a vision of social life that prioritises the collective good over and above the good of its individual citizens. In order to achieve justice, each person must fulfil the role they are most suited for, regardless of their personal desires, ambitions, and preferences. The influence of factors that are arbitrary and irrelevant from the perspective of justice—such as class, race, or gender—is therefore neutralised to the greatest extent possible. If I can best make a contribution as a cobbler, I will be given all the resources to become one. At the same time, I am prevented by society from being a ‘busybody’ by attempting to become an opera singer. Regardless of my personal fancies and ambitions, I must submit to the judgment of our communal teachers about my talents and abilities. This arrangement of society will of course strike modern sensibilities as extreme in its lack of concern for individual freedom and its assumptions about natural or innate talent. The point of the example is not to defend this social arrangement as an actionable alternative type of meritocracy, but rather to point out that meritocracies exist on a spectrum, varying from this pole to the more familiar one inherent in the second society described.
In the second example I offered, society is supposed to resemble the free market model of ‘careers open to talents’. Merit is subordinated to the pursuit of private profit within capitalism, as opposed to a vision of the collective good. Judgments about the value of an elementary school teacher’s contribution to society, as compared to a hedge fund manager, are determined by market forces. The social theory is one of extreme individualism and society is not seen as anything more than an aggregate of people, each of them pursuing their interests. Unlike the first example, there is no sense of a collective vision of justice that individuals must contribute to. Even though all opportunities are formally open for anyone willing to compete for, they are in fact limited and circumscribed by structural injustices and inequalities.
These two different examples of social arrangements that can plausibly be called meritocracies show us that the concept should not be understood as describing a single unitary system, but rather as a spectrum of social, economic, and political arrangements that take very different forms depending on the values placed at their core. Like many contemporary critics, I recognise the profound injustices and limitations that characterise our contemporary forms of meritocracy. However, unlike them, I do not think the ideal of meritocracy itself is to blame. Nor is the solution to try to make the current system ‘more meritocratic’. By criticising merit itself we are focusing on an empty abstraction, rather than the deeper political commitments that we should be collectively deliberating upon and changing. Somewhere between the two societies I portrayed at the poles of this spectrum, we might find a more just meritocracy.
 This description is roughly based on Plato’s Ideal City (The Republic, trans. by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991).
 On the ‘rhetoric of rising’, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Chapter 3 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
 See, for example, Stephen McNamee and Robert K. Miller, The Meritocracy Myth (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
 Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020); Daniel Markovits, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (Penguin: 2019); Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015); Kai Yu, The Implementation of Inclusive Education in Beijing: Exorcizing the Haunting Specter of Meritocracy (Lexington Books: 2014).
 For a critical analysis of this feature of contemporary meritocracy, see Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (2020), especially Chapter 5: Success Ethics.
by Luke Martell
Following the explosion of the internet since the 1990s, and of smartphones and the growth of big tech corporations more recently, the politics of the digital world has drawn much attention. The digital commons, open access and p2p sharing as alternatives to enclosures and copyrighting digitally are important and have been well covered, as providing free and open rather than privatised and restricted online resources. Free and open-source software (FOSS) has been important in projects in the Global South. Also discussed has been the use of social media in uprisings and protest, like the Arab Spring and the #MeToo movement. There is consideration of the anxiety of some when they are not connected by computer or phone, which raises questions of the right or perceived obligation to be connected and, on the other hand, the benefits of digital detox. There are many other important analyses in the digital politics literature about matters such as expression, access, equality, the digital divide, power, openness, and innovation. I focus here on alternatives in the light of recent surveillance and privacy concerns that have come to the fore since the Snowden affair in 2013, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, and the Pegasus spyware revelations in 2021. US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed widespread phone and internet surveillance by US and other security agencies. The firm Cambridge Analytica collected extensive personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users, without their consent, for political advertising, although they may have exaggerated what they did or were able to. The NSO technology company were found to have installed Pegasus surveillance spyware on the phones of politicians, journalists, and activists for number of states. There have been numerous hacks and mega-leaks of individual and company data.
Big tech corporations like GAFAM—Google (Alphabet), Amazon, Facebook (Meta), Apple, and Microsoft—have come to dominate and create oligopolies in the digital and tech worlds (another acronym FAANG includes Netflix but not Microsoft). More internationally communications social media like WeChat, Line, Discord, and QQ have become pervasive. GAFAM have an extensive hold over sectors such that we are constrained inside their walled gardens to get the online services we want or have come to rely on. Google is a prominent example; it is difficult, for instance, to operate an Android phone without using them, the company’s early motto ‘Don’t be Evil’ not to be seen any more these days. These companies’ oligopolies over tech and the digital are of concern because they limit our ability to choose and be free, and so is their invasion of personal spaces with surveillance and the capturing of personal information. Many of the corporations gather information about our digital activities, searches, our IP addresses, interests, contacts, and messaging, using algorithmic means. The information is captured and aggregated, and value is created from surveillance, the extractive process of data mining, the selling of personal information, and the creation of models of user behaviour for directing advertising and nudging. In this system, it is said, the user or consumer is the product, the audience the commodity. Data is seen as the new oil, where the oil of the digital economy is us. The produce is the models created to manipulate consumers.
We are often so reliant on such providers it is difficult to avoid this information being collected, something done in a way which is complex and opaque, so hard for us to see and respond to. It is often in principle carried out with our consent but withdrawing consent is so complicated and the practices so obscure and normalised for many that in effect we are giving it without especially wanting to. The information gathered is also available on request, in many cases to varying degrees in different contexts, to governments and police. Sometimes states use the corporate databases of companies like Palantir, avoiding legal restrictions on government use of citizen data, especially in the USA, to monitor some of the most mainstream, benign, and harmless groups and individuals. There are reports of a ‘chilling effect’ where people are hesitant about saying things or using online resources like searches in a way they feel could attract unjustified government attention.
Questioning approaches to this situation have focused on critique, and action has homed in on boycotts, e.g. of platforms like Facebook, and more general disconnection and unplugging. There is a ‘degoogling’ movement of people who wish to go online and use the Internet, computers and smartphones in ways that avoid organisations like Google. For many, degoogling (or de-GAFAMing) is a complex process, technically and in the amount of work and time involved. Privacy concerns are also followed through by the avoidance of non-essential cookies and using tracking blockers, encryption, and other privacy tools like browser extensions and Virtual Private Networks. Apple builds privacy and blocking means into its products to the consternation of Facebook who have an advertising-led approach. Mozilla has taken a lead in making privacy tools available for its Firefox browser and beyond.
At state level, responses have been oriented to attempting to limit monopolisation and ensure competition, although these have not stopped oligopolies in digital information and tech. There is variation internationally in anti-monopoly attempts by states or the supranational EU. States have varying privacy laws limiting access to personal information digitally, with governments like the Swiss being more rigorous and outside the ‘eyes’ states that share intelligence, while states like the Dutch have moved from stronger to weaker privacy laws. The ‘five eyes’ states Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and USA have a multilateral agreement to spy on citizens and share the collected intelligence with one another. So, those beyond the ‘eyes’ states are not obligated to sharing citizens’ private data at the request of other powers. EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) legislation is important in this context.
The radical politics of alternatives in the Arab Spring, and the Occupy and anti-austerity movements have often relied on social media such as Twitter to organise and act. Many in such movements believe in independence and autonomy including in conventional media but do not go much beyond critique to digital alternatives, which can remain the preserve still of the tech-minded and committed. The latter sometimes have a political critique and approach but often just privacy concerns within an effectively liberal or libertarian approach. One approach, ‘cyber-libertarianism’, is against obstacles to a free World Wide Web, such as government regulation and censorship, although Silicon Valley that it is identified with is also quite liberal, in the USA sense, and concerned with labour rights. An emphasis of activists on openness and transparency can be given as reason for not using means, such as encryption and other methods mentioned above, for greater privacy and anonymity in information and communication.
There is less expansion beyond critique, boycotting and evasion of privacy incursions to alternatives. However, alternatives there are, and these involve decentralised federated digital spaces where individuals and groups can access internet resources for communication and media from means that are alternative to GAFAM and plural, so we are not reliant on single or few major corporations. Some of these alternatives promise greater emphasis on privacy, not collecting or supplying our information to commerce or the state and, to different degrees, encryption of communication or information in transit or ‘at rest’, stored on servers. In some cases, encryption in alternatives is not much more extensive than through more mainstream providers, but we are assured on trust that that our data will not be read, shared, or sold. Many alternatives build free and open-source software provided not for profit or gain and sometimes, but not always, by volunteers. Code is open source rather than proprietary so we can see and access it and assess how the alternatives operate and can use and adapt the code. Some provide alternatives to social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit (such as Mastodon, Diaspora, and Lemmur) and to mainstream cloud storage, messaging (e.g., Signal) and email, although some of the alternative fora have low levels of users and activity and many critical and alternatives-oriented activists are still pushed to using big corporate suppliers for quantity of content and users.
Groups like Disroot, a collective of volunteers, provide alternative email which limits the collection, storage and sharing of personal details. Disroot offers links to many platforms alternative to the big corporations for email, messaging, chatting, social media and cloud hosting. Groups like Riseup, a leftist and activist platform, provide invite-only email, data storage on their own servers, and other means for digital activity beyond big corporations and prying eyes to whom they intend to not divulge information, although sometimes limited by levels of encryption and the laws of the states where they are sited. Email providers like Protonmail and Tutanota promise not to collect information about users and to encrypt our communication more rigorously so we can avoid both GAFAM and surveillance. Some of these are still capitalist corporations, but with a privacy emphasis, although semi-alternative companies like Runbox and Infomaniak are worker-owned. Autistici, like Disroot, is volunteer-run on non-capitalist lines, monetary aspects limited to voluntary donation. Both have an anarchist leaning, Autistici more explicitly committed to an autonomous anti-capitalist position. Some alternative providers (like Runbox, Tutanota, and Posteo) have green commitments, using renewable energy to reduce carbon emissions. Others go beyond a corporate form and have more of a social movement identity. There are campaigning organisations that focus on digital rights and freedom, and crypto-parties that help people adopt privacy and anonymity means in their digital activity.
Some alternative privacy-oriented platforms gained more attention and users after the Snowden affair, but many otherwise alternatives-oriented people continue to use providers like Google because they do not know about the alternatives or switching to them is, sometimes justifiably, seen as a big job. Others are resigned to the belief that email and such online activity can never be private or take alternative tracking blocking measures while continuing to use mainstream resources in, for example, email. For some users there is much to be gained by what data harvesting allows, for instance personalisation of content and making connections with others across platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or they feel that most of the data collected is trivial for them and so accepted. In such cases the dangers and morality of data harvesting and selling are not worrying enough to resist or avoid it. There may also be less individualistic benefits for social research and improvement of tech and the digital that, for some, make some of the data gathering outweigh privacy incursions.
Many of the alternatives are at the level of software and online providers, but this leaves the sphere of hardware and connectedness, where it is possible for states to stop resistance and rebellion by turning the internet off or censoring it, as in China, Egypt, and Iran amongst many other cases. There are alternatives for hardware, for instance in the open-source hardware movement, and for connectedness through devices linked independently in infrastructure or mesh networks. Interest in these lags behind that in software alternatives and their effectiveness depends on how many join such networks.
So, the alternatives are around a politics of privacy, independence and autonomy alongside anti-monopoly and sometimes non-capitalist and green elements. It has been argued that the digital world as it is requires the insertion of concepts of anonymity alongside concerns such as equality, liberty, democracy, and community in the lexicon of political ideas and concerns, and anonymity rather than oft advocated openness or transparency, a key actor in digital alternatives having been the network ‘Anonymous’.
While anonymity is desirable, just as it is when wished for in the offline world, it faces limits in the face of what has been called ‘surveillance capitalism’. Firstly, this is because, as offline, anonymity and privacy are difficult to achieve if faced with a determined high-level authority like a government, as the Snowden and Pegasus affairs showed. Secondly, seeking anonymity is a reactive and evasive approach. For a better world what is needed is resistance and an alternative. Resistance involves tackling the power of big tech and the capturing of data they are allowed. Via social movements and states this needs to be challenged and turned back. And in the context of alternatives, alternative tech and an alternative digital world needs to be expanded. So, implied is a regulated and hauled back big tech and its replacement by a more plural tech and digital world, decentralised and federated. One advocate of the latter is Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the founder of the World Wide Web. Anonymity may be desirable individually and for groups, but collectively what is required is overturning of big intrusive tech by state power, through regulation, anti-monopoly activity and public ownership. The UK Labour Party went into the 2019 General Election with a policy of nationalising broadband, mainly for inclusivity and rights to connectedness reasons, but opening up the possibility of other ends public ownership can secure. But state power can be a problem as well as a tool so the alternative of decentralised, collectivist, democratic tech is needed too in a pluralist digital world.
So, to recap and clarify key points. Oligopoly and the harvesting and selling of our digital lives has become a norm and a new economic sector of capitalism. State responses, to very different degrees, have been to resist monopolisation and ensure modest privacy protections or awareness. Individual responses and those of some organisations have been to use software that blocks tracking and aims to maintain privacy and anonymity. But positive as these methods are, they are in part defensive, limited in what they can achieve against high-level attempts at intrusion, and some of these individualise action. Alongside such state and individual processes, we need a more pro-active and collective approach. This includes stronger regulation and breaking up and taking tech into collective ownership. In the sphere of alternatives, it means expanding and strengthening a parallel sphere, decentralised and federated. And alternatives require putting control in the hands of those affected, so collective democracy with inclusive participation. Then oligopolies are challenged and there is a link between those affected and those in control.
But alternatives must be made accessible and more easily understandable to the non-techy and beyond the expert, and do not just have to be an alternative but can be a prefigurative basis for spreading to the way the digital and tech world is more widely. This involves supplementing liberal individual privacy and rights approaches, often defensive within the status quo, with collective democracy and control approaches, more proactive and constructive of alternatives. If there is an erosion of capitalism out of such an approach so there will be also to profit incentives in surveillance capitalism. With an extension of collective control not-for-profit, then motivations for surveillance and data capture are reduced. But this must be done through inclusive democratic control (by workers, users and the community) as much as possible rather than the traditional state, as the latter has its own reasons for surveillance. It should be supplemented by a pluralist, decentralised, federated, digital world to counter oligopoly and power. Democratisation that is inclusive globally is also suited to dealing with differences and divides digitally, e.g. by class or across the Global North and Global South. Taken together this approach implies pluralist democratic socialism as well as liberalism, rather than capitalism or the authoritarian state.
I am grateful to David Berry for his very helpful advice on this article.
 Berry, D. (2008) Copy, Rip, Burn: The Politics of Copyleft and Open Source, London: Pluto Press.
 Pearce, J (2018) Free and Open Source Appropriate Technology, in Parker, M. et al (eds) The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization, London: Routledge.
 For a good overview and analysis of the area see Issin, E. and Ruppert, E. (2020) Being Digital Citizens, London: Rowman and Littlefield. See also Bigo, D., Issin, E., and Ruppert, E. (eds) (2019) Data Politics: Worlds, Subjects, Rights. London: Routledge, and Muldoon, J. (2022) Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim our Digital Future from Big Tech, London: Pluto Press.
 See Lopez, A. and Bush, M.E.L., (2020) Technology for Transformation is the Path Forward, Global Tapestry of Alternatives Newsletter, July. https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org/newsletters:01:index
 Rossiter, N. and Zehle, S., (2018) Towards a Politics of Anonymity: Algorithmic Actors in the Constitution of Collective Agency and the Implications for Global Economic Justice Movements, in Parker et al (eds) The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization, London: Routledge.
 Zuboff, S., (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, London: Profile Books.
 See Liu, W. (2020) Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology from Capitalism, London: Repeater Books.
by Michael C. Dawson
Afropessimists argue that we can only understand the global system of racial domination if we acknowledge that it is, first and foremost, a system defined in toto by anti-blackness. Moreover, Afropessimism rejects a central role for political economy and politics for understanding the essence of black oppression. For the past few years, this branch of critical race theory has gained a number of supporters in and out of the academy. For example, Frank Wilderson’s highly influential 2020 book Afropessimism was long-listed for the National Book Award and was praised by several outstanding black intellectuals.
This essay centres the work of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton as they are widely recognised leaders of the Afropessimism school of thought. Wilderson and Sexton claim that the enslavement of Africans constituted a rupture; a rupture that was essential for the development of capitalism but also a rupture that put black bodies and black people outside of the logics of capitalism and colonialism. For Sexton and Wilderson, anti-blackness is both a unique system of structural dominance as well as an ideology. Anti-blackness, they claim, is defined by racial slavery and impervious to change. Sexton argues for example, “the application of the law of racial slavery is pervasive, regardless of variance or permutation in its operation across the better part of a millennium”.
In this essay, I offer a critique of Afropessimism, both as a theory of black oppression and as a political project. I make the following claims. First, Afropessimism incorrectly centres the experiences of people of African descent that were enslaved within the U.S. This results in the homogenisation of the experiences of peoples of African descent, and, equally importantly, mischaracterises and belittles the oppression of non-African colonised subjects. While I agree that anti-blackness is a central structural feature of global white supremacy that emerged with the mid-15th-century Iberian slave trade, I argue that it is not the only critical structural feature that historically defined white supremacy. Further, the ontological centring of the experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. radically and incorrectly homogenises the history and conditions of the peoples of Africa and those in the African Diaspora.
Secondly, I argue that Afropessimists overemphasise the continuities in the black experience in the U.S. While Afropessimists are correct that there are structural continuities across time that continue to contribute to black oppression—not the least of which is a continuing vitriolic and violent global anti-blackness—they underemphasise the achievements of black freedom struggles. Even Wilderson’s own biography is a testimony to critical changes in the black experience in the U.S. The positive changes that are elided in the work of many Afropessimists—such as the formation of modern black civil society and a great expansion of a robust and often revolutionary black politics— serves to erase the often heroic struggles of black activists; struggles that often tragically failed to bring substantial progress, but that also sometimes achieved victories in the struggle for black liberation.
Finally, and critically, Wilderson and Sexton present a fatally flawed account of the relationship between black oppression, white supremacy and the capitalist social order. I will demonstrate that this is a flaw that not only makes impossible any accurate account of black oppression, but also prevents us from understanding the contradictions and cleavages that exist within black communities and black politics.
Afropessimism Incorrectly Centres the Experiences of People of African Descent Enslaved within the U.S.
Afro-Pessimists homogenise the black experience. I agree with Wilderson when he argues that the enslavement of blacks, and specifically the slave trade, was a condition for the development of global capitalism, particularly as the Atlantic became more economically important than the Mediterranean. The large-scale sale of Africans in 1444 by the Portuguese marked Africans as the Other, justifying in the minds of royal, religious, and secular Portuguese elites the brutal and exceptional enslavement of Africans. Previously, only prisoners of war were subject to enslavement. This marked the moment when Africans were marked as the exception to natural law in service of accumulation; in service of profits. I also agree with Wilderson that this marks the inception of a set of anti-black logics that have taken a life of their own and have rendered black lives less valuable, subject to excessive and often arbitrary violence, and ultimately disposable during the entire history of capitalist development.
I disagree, however, when Sexton and Wilderson privilege the role of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the “New World” and homogenise the black experience. They fail to understand that black people have played a number of roles viz colonialism and have been valued differently by capitalist states and managers depending on those roles. Sexton’s claim “[t]he United States provides the point of focus here, but the dynamics under examination are not restricted to its bounds” glosses over the differences in black experience at the time of slavery and the present day, and between “New World slavery” and old-world colonialism. It assumes that the figure of the enslaved African in the “New World” can represent the entirety of black experience. This is untenable: After all, one might well argue that the experience of colonised Africans was more akin to that of the other colonised populations of Asia and the “New World” than that of their enslaved cousins. The work of scholars such as Michael Ralph and Andrew Zimmerman, among many others, demonstrate that those enslaved in the so- called “New World” was not the same, for example, as the experience of Africans in Senegambia who worked as agents on behalf of European colonial powers.
Further, these Afropessimists incorrectly belittle the oppression of non-white peoples who are not of African descent. If the threat and shadow of slavery followed those of African descent across generations, the very real threat of dispossession, massacre and even genocide at the hands of Euro-American imperialists and their clients similarly hung over entire indigenous populations across multiple continents and islands.
But Afropessimists deny this. Sexton, for example, argues that with respect to black folks, indigenous populations had the same relationship to people of African descent as the Europeans that colonised the western hemisphere, Asia, and Africa. Sexton argues, “freedom from the rule of slave law requires only that one be considered nonblack, whether that nonblack racial designation be “white” or “Indian” or, in the rare case, “Oriental”—this despite the fact that each of these groups has at one point or another laboured in conditions similar to or contiguous with enslaved African-derived groups.” In other words, Sexton here argues that modern racial slavery was so momentous than even the indigenous victims of genocide, or the conquered colonised peoples throughout the world, had more in common with whites than they had in common with enslaved African populations and their descendants—even though arguably colonised Africans had more in common with other colonised peoples than with their enslaved cousins in the Western Hemisphere.
Sexton declares, “we note the fact that ‘the absolute submission mandated by law was not simply that of slave to his or her owner- but the submission of all the enslaved before all whites. The latter group is better termed all non blacks (or, less economically, the unequally arrayed category of non-blackness), because it is racial blackness as a necessary condition for enslavement that matters most, rather than whiteness as a condition for freedom.” Even bracketing the historical inaccuracies, the logical and temporal slippage in the above passages that lead to the transformation from “enslaved before all whites” to “better termed non blacks” is stunning. The genocide of indigenous peoples in the New World preceded black slavery and was in many ways as or more brutal even if the dehumanisation processes markedly differed. Nine out of ten indigenous people died due to European diseases in the New World—yet that category was a condition for freedom? The American empire as well as that of its European counterparts required periodic massacres of racialised “natives” at places such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, or in the early 20th century, the Philippines where an extraordinary percentage of the population was killed during the American military intervention before World War I. In his work on racialised U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, Kramer calls estimates of 250,00 Filipinos dying as a result of U.S. military intervention during the late 19th early 20th century “conservative”. Massacres such as these were conducted by from Southern to Northern African by brutal imperialists such as the Germans and British.
To sum up: White supremacy was and is a global imperial project that divided the world into civilised, human, citizen-subjects, and non-civilised, sub-human colonised subjects. The enslavement of Africans and the centrality of the slave trade for the early development of capitalism and empire for Atlantic sector European states ensured that anti-blackness would be an enduring structural feature of white supremacy. But the processes of racialisation, domination, dispossession and exploitation associated with white supremacy differed within and across regions. Only by not homogenising the experiences of the various racially subordinated populations—including the experiences of people of African descent—will we be able to analytically forge theories and practices needed for black liberation.
Afropessimism is Anti-Political and Erases the History and Achievements of Black Liberation Movements.
Wilderson argues that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history. Wilderson states: “As provocative as it may sound history and redemption (and therefore narrative itself) are inherently anti-Black.” For Wilderson, blacks are outside of history; “space and time” are absent: “just as there is no time for the Slave, there is also no place for the Slave.” In asserting that black people are outside of history, Wilderson is making the claim that Blackness is irrevocably marked as slaveness—there is no historical change in the meaning of blackness and position of black people. In Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson claims that “Afropessimism is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness.” “Blackness,” Wilderson emphasises, “cannot exist other than Slaveness”.
This is not so much an iconoclastic claim as a false one. It is true, of course, that Black lives after slavery continued to be marked by domination and violence. The spectre of extreme violence aimed at individuals and black communities, the expropriation that marked share cropping in the rural south, the super-exploitation of black industrial workers, the precarious position of black women performing paid and unpaid domestic labour, and the continued vulnerability of black women to all of the above as well as gender-based domination, all serve to emphasise the continuities of domination.
But while there were important continuities between in the condition of black people during and after slavery, the rupture caused by the end of slavery nonetheless represented a massive change in how black life was organised—a reorganisation that transformed the articulation between white supremacy and the capitalist social order. The end of slavery presented new and important opportunities for black agency even if full “freedom” was not achieved. It was marked by the formation of black civil society, the emergence of new possibilities as well as new challenges for black politics. It was during this period that the institutional backbone of black civil society was developed—including the black church (which was as much a political institution as a sacred one); black institutions of higher learning; cooperative and mutual aid societies; and. a myriad of other organisational initiatives. All were launched and/or consolidated during this period. The ability to form families, expand black politics, and build black civil society represented a type of real if limited progress.
Further, Wilderson’s claim that the black condition is defined by “slaveness,” that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history is also profoundly anti-political. For Wilderson, blacks exist outside of the domain of politics: “The violence of the slave estate cannot be thought of the way one thinks of the violence of capitalist oppression. It takes an ocean of violence to produce a slave, singular or plural, but that violence never goes into remission. Again, the prehistory of violence that establishes slavery is also the concurrent history of slavery. This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.”
Wrong. What progress has been made has been the result of fighting through social movements that, as Malcolm X urged, used any means necessary. Fighting oppression is inherently political. The anti-political nature of Wilderson’s central claim casts aside the momentous struggles of black people for liberation in the U.S., massive struggles for freedom throughout the African Diaspora, the 20th-century African national liberation struggles, as well as contemporary African struggles against neocolonialism, neoliberal regimes, and against the new imperial project of redividing Africa.
Perhaps the most immoral implication of Wilderson’s claim that slaveness defines blackness is that the human is defined against blackness. If blacks are not human then it is easier to claim that black people are outside of history, and blacks are outside the realm of politics. For Wilderson, all human life is defined in opposition blackness, in opposition to the condition of being a slave. Wilderson explains, “Human Life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence. There is no world without Blacks, yet there are no Blacks who are in the World.” This claim places Wilderson outside of both the black radical and black nationalist traditions. Black movements whether black liberal, black Marxist, or black nationalist fought and died insisting on Africans’ humanity—although some, particularly but not exclusively many black nationalists, questioned the humanity of those that enslaved others. Black movements have historically, and correctly, demanded a place in a world the recognition of one’s own humanity regardless of one’s status as enslaved, expropriated, and oppressed.
Afropessimism Distorts the Relationship Between Anti-Blackness, White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Capitalism
Finally and critically, this version of Afropessimism severely mischaracterises the relationship between anti-blackness, white supremacy, and capitalism. Wilderson asserts that political economy is of little use for analysing the black condition as the condition of the slave, the condition of blacks, is subject to violence that cannot be explained by political economy. Further, the status of the slave is invariant to “historical shifts.” I assert that only by understanding the interaction between the multiple systems of domination blacks are subject to—white supremacy (of which anti-blackness is a central structural feature), patriarchy and capitalism—will we be able to understand for any given era the status of blacks; the massive and multiple forms of violence that blacks experience, and the way forward toward full black liberation.
In Afropessimism, Wilderson only briefly considers the role of political economy in black subjugation. He argues that the use/study of political economy cannot explain the violence committed against blacks. This violence, Wilderson argues, is invariant across time. Specifically:
“Black people exist in the throes of what historian David Eltis calls ‘violence beyond the limit,’ by which he means: (a) in the libidinal economy there are no forms of violence so excessive that they would be considered too cruel to inflict upon Blacks; and (b) in political economy there are no rational explanations for this limitless theatre of cruelty, no explanations that would make political or economic sense of the violence that positions and punishes Blackness….the Slave’s relationship to violence is open-ended…unaccountable to historical shifts.”
What Wilderson misses is that blacks are subject to multiple sources of violence—the cumulative nature of which is monstrous. Simultaneously analysing the articulation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism leads one to the realisation that blacks depending on context in various combinations experience violence as workers, women, and/or as black people. Each system of domination routinely inflicts violence for those at the bottom of each hierarchy. I would add that an aspect of white supremacy and anti-blackness is that for blacks even the forms of violence that derive from patriarchy and capitalism are intensified due to white supremacy. This violence is also rational to the degree that each form of violence is ultimately aimed at reinforcing the rule of those at the top of each system of domination.
In a much earlier essay, Wilderson more directly addresses the relationship between capitalism and black subjugation. Wilderson asserts that “…the United States is constructed at the intersection of both a capitalist and white supremacist matrix.” This statement is promising in that it hints at the simultaneous analysis of the interaction between capitalism and white supremacy. Yet, he does not sufficiently explore the consequences of this statement and does not analyse the actual dynamics created by the articulation of capitalism and white supremacy.
For example, in Afropessimism Wilderson correctly asserts that “….the emergence of the slave, the subject-effect of an ensemble of direct relations of force marks the emergence of the capitalism itself.” The “primitive” accumulation necessary for the establishment of the capitalist social order does have at its centre the brutal and hideous social relations of slavery and the slave trade, but not only slavery. But unlike what Wilderson argues, the historical record shows that under white supremacy and colonialism blacks are not the only racially subordinate group to be subject to “direct relations of force.” As Ince argues, “direct relations of force” do not only mark the subject of the slave, but of the colonised more generally such as the genocide of the indigenous peoples of particularly the “New” World (itself a precondition of capitalism). Establishing and maintaining capitalism has required the expropriation of resources and labour—simultaneously wedded to the violation of black, brown, and yellow bodies throughout the world. In the end, non-white bodies are disposable in the global North and South; in the ghettoes, barrios, reservations, prisons, refugee camps and immigration detention centres that can be grimly found throughout the world. The particularities are important—and anti-blackness is a key particularity that shapes capitalism and white supremacy, but as argued earlier, it still a part a global system of white supremacy marked by direct relations of force, and which non-whites are racialised differently by that force.
Within the context of the U.S., only a type of stubborn blindness, a refusal to acknowledge the historical record, and refusal to see the interrelationship between capitalism and racial domination can lead those such as Wilderson to argue that “we were never meant to be workers…..From the very beginning, we were meant to be accumulated and die.” This assertion flies against the historical evidence. No, blacks were meant to work, die, and be accumulated as need be. White supremacy often demands that blacks die. Capitalism demands that blacks must also, when necessary work and/or be accumulated. Each, and patriarchy as well, continually make their bloody demands. Through politics and other means of struggle blacks continually resist. This resistance can only be successful by understanding the mutual articulation between each system of domination.
Conclusion: What is at Stake?
What is at stake is far more critical than an abstract academic debate between theorists. These debates speak directly to how we understand Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections and the racist, authoritarian and potentially fascist phenomenon of “Trumpism” and the rise of neo-fascist movements in the global north and south. It speaks to how we best understand the accelerating rates of inequality in both the global north and south popularly described by Thomas Piketty. It speaks to how we understand the rising wave of violence that black folks face here, throughout the Diaspora, and within Africa itself.
Afropessimists have an ahistorical narrative that distorts the relationship of white supremacy to capitalism—insisting despite all historical and contemporary empirical evidence to the contrary that the core logics of slave-based anti-blackness exists outside of, and ultimately invariant to, the dynamics of the capitalist political economy. This strand of theorising has taken root in real-world activism—in this case among young black activists struggling once again for black liberation. Afropessimism, however, presents real political dangers for those organising for black liberation. I will mention three such dangers here. By arguing that black subjugation lies outside the realm of the political, Afropessimism serves as a basis for political demobilisation rather than mobilisation. Indeed, Wilderson is correct when he states, “This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.” Second, Afropessimism severely undermines those attempting to build solidarity with other racially subordinate groups. Do we still need to be building independent radical black movements and organisations? Yes. Is building solidarity hard. Yes. Is one likely to experience anti-black racism from some other peoples of colour? Yes. Is it still a necessary task if meaningful political victories are to be achieved? Yes.
Third, by ignoring the class and gender dynamics within black communities, Afropessimism makes it far more difficult to understand the dynamics of intra-black politics. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for fighting all forms of oppression and domination that are experienced within black communities. Afropessimists are correct to insist that the logics of racial domination are autonomous and not fully determined by a capitalist social order. Afropessimists fail to understand, however, the effects of the interaction of multiple systems of domination have on black life and politics. It is our task to forge better theoretical weapons to not only illuminate the nature of oppressive systems of domination, but also to provide effective tools to combat oppression.
 There are a wide range of activists who either have been identified with Afropessimism and/or have been in conversation with prominent Afropessimists such as Frank Wilderson. Brilliant scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Saidya Hartman, and Fred Moten have been claimed by those supporting and critiquing Afropessimism. The latter two in particular have been in sympathetic conversation with Afropessimists, such as Frank Wilderson. However, they—as well as scholars such as Christina Sharpe whose argument is congruent with Afropessimism—rarely use “Afropessimism” in their own published research. Fred Moten has publicly stated that he is not an Afropessimist.
 Jared Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery’, Social Text 28(2 (103)) (2010), 37. Emphasis added.
 I am making an historical claim about global capitalist social order that emerged during the 16th century. I am agnostic about the theoretical claim that processes of racial subordination are necessary for original and ongoing capital accumulation, and thus necessary for capitalist social orders.
 Anna More, 'Necroeconomics, Originary Accumulation, and Racial Capitalism in the Early Iberian Slave Trade', Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 19 (2019), 75-100.
 Michael Ralph, Forensics of Capital (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 36.
 Ralph, Forensics of Capital; Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa.
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 16.
 Ibid., 36.
 Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States, and the Phillipines (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 157.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 226.
 Ibid., 227. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 225–6.
 Ibid., 229.
 Ibid., 224. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 228–9.
 . Patriarchy is not addressed as a system of domination or oppression in Wilderson’s analysis.
 Ibid., 216. Original emphasis.
 Frank B. Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?’, Social Identities 9(2) (2003), 225.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 229.
 As I and many others argued, going back to Rosa Luxemburg, it is more correct to understand accumulation as an essential ongoing aspect of the capitalist social order and reject Marx’s terminology of “primitive” or “original” (depending on the translation of Volume I of Capital).
 Onur Ulas Ince, ‘Primitive Accumulation, New Enclosures, and Global Land Grabs: A Theoretical Intervention’, Rural Sociology 79(1) (2014), 104–31.
 Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx’, 238. Emphasis added.
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 224.
by Emily Katzenstein
Afropessimism issues a radical challenge to contemporary theories of the role and nature of anti-Blackness and its relation to other forms of oppression and domination. As the very term makes clear, it is characterised by a deeply pessimistic attitude towards the possibility of Black liberation. For Afropessimists, modernity inaugurates a “new ontology” of anti-Blackness that defines Blackness, as a constructed category, as inextricably tied to the condition of enslavement and thus as a structural position of “social death.” Afropessimists here draw on the work of Orlando Patterson, who understands enslavement as a form of “social death” defined as “natal alienation, generalised dishonor and violent domination”. As Frank Wilderson III, one of the leading theorists of Afropessimism, puts it: “Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be separated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness.” Wilderson thus rejects, in the most radical way possible, a narrative of progressive Black emancipation. Blackness as a structural position remains essentially fixed despite historical changes, no matter how transformative they may seem. “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president,” Wilderson argues “are merely changes in the weather.”
But Afropessimism not only issues a radical challenge to theories and histories of anti-Blackness. It also challenges the idea that anti-Blackness functions analogously to other forms of oppression and domination that are based on distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, or class. Anti-Blackness, in Afropessimist thought, isn’t one form of subjugation amongst many forms of oppression (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) but a condition of radical alterity and abjection that must be recognised as the limit of the human condition—the other of the category of “human.” Laying claim to humanity in the face of pervasive dehumanisation, Afropessimism insists, is doomed to failure because Blackness denotes a position from which laying claim to “humanity” is a political and, indeed, ontological impossibility. This implies a radical reconceptualisation of the relationship between struggles for Black freedom and struggles against other forms of oppression. In his most recent book, Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson argues that non-Black struggles against domination ultimately only become legible through the comparative illegibility of Black political claims and thus perpetuate the exclusion of Blackness from the category of “human” in order to make themselves legible as “human.”
In this series of essays on Afropessimism, which will be published in installments, Michael Dawson, Jordie Davies and Marcus Lee reflect on and grapple with the theoretical and political challenges that Afropessimism poses. In the first essay of the series, Michael Dawson reflects on the question of whether an ontological account of Blackness can theorise anti-Blackness in its complexity and in its changing historical articulations and asks if Afropessimism allows us to recognise the ways in which different forms of domination are articulated. Dawson evaluates Afropessimism’s relationship to other ideological traditions in Black political thought, such as Black nationalism and Black radical thought. In this context, he critically examines Afropessimism’s foregrounding of the libidinal (rather than political) economy and assesses its potential for generating a critique of the entanglements of white supremacy and capitalism.
In “Afropessimism and Narrative Theorising”, Marcus Lee offers a rejoinder to Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism. Lee provides a close reading of Frank Wilderson’s authorial and narrative strategies and reflects on how Afropessimism imagines Black sociality and practices of recognition.
In the final essay in the series, “After Afropessimism,” which will be published on 31 May, Jordie Davies asks what political opportunities Afropessimism presents by re-centering anti-Blackness in struggles against racism and white supremacy and tackles the implications that Afropessimism has for coalition-building in movement politics.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 18ff.
 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. ACLS Humanities E-book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982: 38.
 George Shulman. "Theorizing Life Against Death." Contemporary Political Theory 17:1 (February 2018), pp. 118-127: 119.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism. Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 42.
 Ibid., 96.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 20
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 243ff.
by Stefan Pedersen
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. 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. 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. 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.
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’. 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. 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’.
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.
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. 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 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. 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. 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. Even after his formal retirement from the Washington D. C. circuit, Nixon sought the old Lippmann’s advice too. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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’. 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’. 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. 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’. 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’. 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.
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. 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.
 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.
 Manfred B. Steger. Globalisms: The Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.
 Or Rosenboim. The Emergence of Globalism. Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939-1950. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.
 Quinn Slobodian. Globalists. The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
 Slobodian. Ibid., p. 272.
 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.
 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.
 Glenda Sluga. Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
 Ronald Steel. Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980, p. 445.
 ‘Liberal’ in the American sense of supporting (the left-wing of) the Democratic party.
 Ludwig von Mises, Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of
Our Time. New York: New York University Press, 1983.
 Steel, Ibid., pp. 134–135.
 Steel, Ibid.
 Steel, Ibid., p. 589.
 John C. Culver and John Hyde. American Dreamer. A Life of Henry A. Wallace. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 342.
 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.
 Culver and Hyde, Ibid., pp. 402–418; and; Steel, Ibid., p. 407.
 Steel, Ibid., pp. 404–406.
 William E. Scheuerman. The Realist Case for Global Reform. Cambridge: Polity, 2011, p. 6.
 Steel, Ibid., p. 406.
 This development is detailed in the article that this text is a companion piece to.
 Schulz-Forberg, Ibid., p. 194.
 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.
 Also detailed in the article that this text is a companion piece to.
 Gilbert Jonas. One Shining Moment: A Short History of the American Student World Federalist Movement 1942-1953. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com, Inc. 2001.
by Udit Bhatia
Udit Bhatia: Your first book looked at conceptualisations of the market in the work of Smith and Hegel. How did you move from this onto moral responsibility and division of labour in complex organisations?
Lisa Herzog: While I worked on Smith and Hegel, the Global Financial Crisis happened. I read a lot about it—all this stuff about synthetic financial products, risk models, conflicts of interests, “Chinese walls”, insane bonuses—and the repercussions in the broader economy. When thinking about it, two things emerged for me. First, what had gone morally wrong in this crisis had to do with markets, no question – but it also had to do with things going wrong within organisations, in this case, financial organisations. And second, my assumptions—including what I had learned in my studies of economics—about organisations were probably about as wrong and one-sided as the assumptions I had held about markets before I delved into the history of ideas to sort out some of these assumptions and arguments about them. I also realised that philosophy had not very much to say about organisations, despite the fact that they shape the daily life of millions of people. So, I decided that I wanted to understand what it means to be an ethical agent when you’re a “cog in the wheel” of a complex organisation—and whether there could be something like “ethics for cogs in wheels” (that was my informal working title).
UB: Reclaiming the System gives us a rich account of organisations as spaces where individuals—cogs in the wheels, as you describe them—can act as responsible agents and it explores organisational conditions that can facilitate this. One response, which you challenge in the book, is that we should focus on structural questions about the way markets are organised rather than the internal aspects of business firms. Could say a bit more about the relationship between the two approaches?
LH: Both are crucially important to keep an economic system morally on track. Without them, it can easily spiral out of control and become the kind of moral monster that we see in many countries, with so many injustices and the exploitation of humans and of nature. Both are coupled—in the sense that how one level is regulated impacts what happens on the other—though not in a strictly deterministic way. Even if we had excellent market regulation, this would not exclude the possibility of internal problems within business firms (and the same goes for other organisations and their respective regulatory frameworks). On the other hand, even if regulation is deficient and there are dysfunctional pressures on organisations, that does not mean that they have no wiggle-room whatsoever. For example, business firms may find market niches in which they can sell ethically-sourced products with a premium, and the practices they develop there might one day be mainstreamed. That doesn’t mean that the legal framework should not be improved, but it means that we shouldn’t overlook the moral responsibility that businesses can nonetheless have.
UB: You point out that suitable legal regulation could protect responsible businesses from dying out for the wrong sort of reasons in a market dominated by an orientation towards profit. Are there grounds for optimism here? Do you have any examples in mind where regulation of this kind has been initiated or implemented? Has the left, in particular, been successful in successfully advancing this cause in a systematic fashion?
LH: Well… I live in Europe, and while I’m not super-optimistic, I see at least certain steps in the right direction (though all too often they seem to get thwarted by lobbyism). Often, you need international agreements, because one country—especially a small one—going it alone is not the most effective strategy (though it might be important in the sense of sending a signal to others). One example of regulation in the past, where such international collaboration has worked reasonably well, was the effort to ban hydrofluorocarbons, which had caused the hole in the ozone layer. What we need today, very urgently, is regulation with regard to CO2 emissions, which is much harder because our whole material economy depends to a great extent on CO2-based technologies. There is also a third factor that one shouldn’t underestimate: the role of customers, especially relatively well-off customers in the Global North. If they paid more attention to the climate footprint of products, that could make quite a difference for businesses that try to reduce CO2 emissions. But I think in the end we need regulation as well, to correct the perverse incentives businesses face at the moment.
As for the left, it had sort of forgotten this basic principle—the “primacy of politics”, as it has been called in the social-democratic tradition—during the height of the “neoliberal” era, when free markets were seen as a kind of panacea for social problems. So, there is a lot of rebuilding that needs to happen.
UB: The kind of market regulations necessary for facilitating responsible business would presumably require considerable collective action at a global scale. But with the rise of populism and rising hostility towards ideas of global justice, do you worry about the future regulation of global markets?
LH: The short answer is, I do. But I’m nonetheless cautiously optimistic that multilateral action remains possible, and with a Biden administration in the US much more than with a Trump administration. We see an asymmetry here in the sense that vested interests—e.g., the major international corporations in a specific industry—will have an easy time coordinating their lobbying efforts, because their shared interests are at stake. The question is: where is the counterbalance in terms of the representation of the public interest, and the interests of the weakest individuals and communities, and maybe even of non-human life on earth? To be sure, this is also a question of how active NGOs and civil society organisations are—and here, we can all make a difference. And we can also do so by voting for parties that are willing to engage in international agreements to rein in global markets.
There is also a connection to the rise of right-wing populism here, I think. If individuals feel that the traditional left parties do not protect them from the ups and downs of global markets, if they don’t have a voice at work and no safety net, it becomes all the more attractive to look for strong “leaders” who claim to offer better protection. This is maybe not even so much about people on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, but about people in lower and lower-middle class positions who feel the threat of economic precarity.
UB: Your work points out the epistemic problems involved in the ethical management of firms. Knowledge available to parts of the machine remains unavailable to others in a system of divided labour. But one might worry that the epistemic problem facing firms runs deeper than that. Even if firms were better at synthesising dispersed knowledge, ideological frames through which social and economic problems are approached may pose barriers for responsible agency. How promising a strategy do you find the restructuring of firms’ organisational structures in addressing this challenge?
LH: This is certainly an additional challenge—if all employees believe in a narrative that is all about profits, and not at all about moral responsibility, then it’s not enough to better address internal knowledge problems. But on that front, I think we are at an interesting moment and there is reason for hope: more and more people become aware that we cannot go on with the economic ideology that has reigned for the last few decades, without any attention to the wellbeing of human beings, the environment, or the planet. What these individuals struggle with is how to carry these responsibilities into their working lives, and that’s where organisational structures matter.
UB: The book points to the importance of organisational culture in addition to the formal rules that govern organisations. You note that the former shouldn’t be seen as merely an epiphenomenon of the latter. This, no doubt, makes organisational culture hard to amend in ways that help reorient businesses’ values. How do we deal with this elusiveness of organisational character? Then there’s also the worry about how much organisational culture can change from within when it remains embedded in a capitalist economy centred overwhelmingly on profit motives.
LH: This is a topic I want to do more research on, together with social scientists. I find the ways in which the formal (structures) and informal (culture) sides of organisations interact quite fascinating, and I am convinced that culture makes a huge different for moral outcomes. Just think about the way in which different university departments—though similarly structured, all facing more or less the same (partly dysfunctional) incentives—can have such different cultures, for example with regard to the inclusion of minority voices. Individual personalities certainly play an important role for that (and to the extent to which this is the case, the practical implication might simply be: make sure that you don’t hire narcissists or jerks, because one bad apple can infect the whole barrel). But I am pretty sure that there are also some factors that go beyond that, such as communicative structures and patterns of participation. My hypothesis is that a fair distribution of benefits and burdens, and a supportive, participatory culture are also contributing factors to a good organisational culture. If this is true, then one can make an indirect argument for fairness and participation in the workplace: namely, that this is our best bet for creating the kind of culture that are needed to keep organisations morally on track.
And on your last point: I zoom out, at the end of the book, to discuss the need for better regulative frameworks to reign in capitalist markets, and the need for giving workers more voice. Ultimately, we need to gain democratic control over the economic system, on so many different levels. But that’s a longer process, it won’t happen overnight, unfortunately. While we are—hopefully—on that path, questions about the responsibility for an organisational culture don’t go away.
UB: Would we need to think differently about spaces for agency available in new forms of business in the gig economy? Do you worry that platforms like Uber, for instance, may undermine some of the social interaction and solidarity between workers that might support collective action?
LH: Yes, this is a challenge—not only the one-sided narratives about autonomy and individuality that these platforms like to maintain, but also the fact that you hardly meet your “colleagues” (formally, they’re all independent contractors, not co-employees). Think about the history of the labour movement: people shared intense, often physically demanding, working experiences; they spent long hours together, and often also lived in the same neighbourhoods. That can create a level of trust and solidarity that is probably very difficult to create among those who work for the same online platform, but hardly ever meet physically. As I’m writing this (in February 2021), many of us have a lot of experience with the “home office” because of the pandemic—and you realise how much is missing if all the informal contacts and interactions that happen at workplaces are cut down to a few minutes in a digital room before or after an official digital meeting. There is something about physical closeness that the digital realm simply cannot replicate, and it matters for the ability of workers to organise. Right now, there is a lot of debate about the extent to which we’ll continue working in home office, and whether there should be a legal right to that. But maybe we also need some kind of right to spaces where those working for the same company (in whatever legal form) can physically meet and share their experiences.
UB: I’d like to now move to some questions about methodology. Reclaiming the System draws on your ethnographic work, connecting this to normative questions you raise in the book. Could you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the empirical and the philosophical aspects of your work?
LH: I started doing this ethnographic work—mostly interviews, then also some longer observational periods in one organisation—because I felt that I did not have a good grasp of what was actually going on, morally speaking, “on the ground”, i.e., within the kinds of organisations I was interested in. The interviews provided me with fascinating material, and a lot of food for thought—but it took me a while to figure out how to turn these insights into something that would “count” as philosophy, and how to connect them to existing discourses. I first thought that I might conceptualise the interview material as an expression of a kind of practical moral expertise—but colleagues quickly pointed out that this might be problematic, because the interviewees’ views might be distorted by having to act under very non-ideal circumstances. I ended up using the material as heuristic for typical moral challenges in organisations, choosing episodes from the interviews that stood for something more general, something about organisational structures as such. There were those moments when I realised that someone working in public administration, for example, was telling me something about procurement rules that was quite similar to something an interviewee from a chemical company had told me about safety rules—so I started realising that there was something about the nature of organisational rules here that I could analyse in more general terms.
UB: In a paper with Bernardo Zacka, you’ve suggested that an ethnographic sensibility can help political theorists revise the questions they use to approach a certain field. Did something like this happen during your research for the book?
LH: Oh definitely! What was most eye-opening to me was the way in which knowledge and ignorance, and speaking up and remaining silent, were at the core of many moral issues in organisations. Questions about who knows what, when, and why, shape the contours of many moral problems—and they co-determine which issues are seen as moral issues at all! I did not have this on my initial list of questions, but it became a whole chapter in the end. And in my current book project I try to draw out the role of knowledge for democracy on a broader scale, beyond the realm of organisations.
UB: What advice would you have for political theorists considering or engaged in ethnographic work?
LH: If you show genuine curiosity and openness, and also humility in the sense that you don’t assume that you know everything from the start, people often open up very quickly, and it is possible to have very deep conversations. So, don’t weigh the pro’s and con’s forever, just give it a try and see how it goes! Take the opportunity when unexpected occasions arise, e.g., when a friend knows someone who works in a certain field, or when you meet someone on a train (when we’re not in a pandemic, at least). And don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to pay off immediately. It can take a while to find the right people, who can then connect you to more interview partners. It can be a very rewarding experience—I’ve certainly learned a lot, both intellectually and also in terms of moral role models.
by Sabrina Martin
The Covid crisis has, by and large, been a positive time for ethical consumerism. Numerous people have used lockdown as an impetus to review their purchasing habits and make more conscious decisions about what and where they buy. Last year The Guardian reported that UK spending in the ‘ethical market’ is now worth £41bn (though statistics on this vary widely). Accenture has even predicted that Covid has ushered in a new era of ethical consumerism for at least the next decade.
Ethical consumerism has been around, in some form, since the early days of capitalism, with activist producers and abolitionists stamping ‘not made by slaves’ on various consumer goods to signify they were made ethically with free labour. Around the turn of the 20th century, it evolved into a consumer protection movement calling for product standards to be better regulated. Public regulation of goods and production standards remained at the forefront of what it meant to consume something ethically until the late 1980s and, in the UK, led to the passage of the Consumer Protection Act. The rise of our current version of ethical consumerism dates to approximately 1989 and the establishment of Ethical Consumer Magazine, which helps readers to “Discover the truth behind the products we buy and the companies we buy them from” and is still in publication today.
Ethical consumerism starts with the premise that goods and a growing number of targeted services available on the market have moral shortcomings: they may contribute to pollution or deforestation, they may perpetuate cruelty to animals, or use low-wage labour. Ethical consumers show their dissatisfaction with this status quo by purchasing products or services that don’t engage with these practices. On the face of it, it appears to be an individualist act of moralism and activism targeted at collective problems that relies on the market as its mechanism of action: ‘voting with your dollar’, as the saying goes. Yet, even the most self-interested or -regarding consumer is still, by definition, participating in a social act through the use of the market, so the individualism that we observe in ethical consumerism actually gives way to an acknowledgement of collective responsibility. So we have to ask to what extent the market is an effective tool for our activism.
There are myriad criticisms to be levied against ethical consumerism, ranging from the use of the free market to advance causes of justice to the claim that the onus of justice shouldn’t and can’t fall solely on individuals, from the fact that it’s a privilege to be able to choose to consume ethically to the idea that any system that tries to redress capitalism is doomed to fail. These criticisms are the subject of a later blog. Yet, given ethical consumerism’s growing prevalence, even among those who are critical of the movement (cards on the table: I count myself among these participant-critics), it’s worth asking what the ideological underpinnings of the movement are, and to what extent ethical consumerism is or can be seen as a critique of capitalism.
For one thing, to anti-capitalists, the use of market mechanisms to execute ethical behaviour or acts of justice seems counterintuitive and counterproductive. Further, ethical consumerism has been seen as a way for companies to greenwash or pinkwash—when companies play up their environmental and feminst credentials, respectively—our moral concerns away about their production practices. At the same time, at the very least, ethical consumerism does seem to be very much a critique of certain aspects and ‘negative externalities’ of capitalism. To the extent that externalities of capitalism can be separated from the market system itself we can see ethical consumerism as a type of repudiation of capitalist practices. The neoliberal backdrop against which we believe in and practice ethical consumerism, however, makes this separation nearly impossible.
To clarify, ethical consumerism isn’t trying to encourage us to buy or consume less. This is what we would refer to as ‘the ethics of consumption’ (see Crocker and Linden 1998), and seems to be more in line with an anti-capitalist stance. Instead, ethical consumerism’s main purpose is to make us think about the things we do consume, and treats the buying of goods and services as a moral and political action. But what are consumers doing when engaging with ethical consumerism? Is it simply ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘middle class guilt’? Figures seem to back this up: statistics commonly cite that the majority of people report that they are willing to buy ethical brands, but only about 26% actually do so. Lending more credence to this idea, another study shows that people are substantially more likely to participate in sustainable consumption if someone else is reported having done it first. Or is there ideologically something deeper to it?
Ethical consumer options exist in most markets: from FairTrade and Rainforest Alliance foods and other consumable goods, to sustainable fashion, even to finances and banking and investing in the covid vaccine. In addition to being able to buy ‘ethically’ for your chosen product or service, you can also find brands in almost every market to match your pet cause or ideology: animal rights, shattering the glass ceiling, environmentalism, human rights, etc.
For this reason, coupled with its use of the market to coordinate its outcomes, ethical consumerism is by no means a unified ideology or movement. As an ideology it seems to be ‘thin-centered’ in that it has a singular central theme, which seems to be a broad commitment to avoiding or rectifying some of the ails of capitalism. (Indeed, its supposed thinness is what seems to make it compatible with other ideologies like environmentalism and feminism.) As an activist movement it consists of a collection of consumer activists, kitemarking labels, and companies trying to make capitalism more palatable for buyers and suppliers, and the laborers in between. What’s important to note here is the use of the market as an activist platform and the use of a dollar as a mechanism of free speech.
The use of the market here seems to be a reappropriation of the free market, which is seen as an unalloyed good in traditional liberal and converservative thinking, but is so often criticised in more progressive ideologies. This in turn, signals participants not only seeing the economy as a site of social and political struggle, but actively using it in its current form as a front to exert ideological pressure on political, economic, and cultural institutions. Ultimately, then, it seems that ethical consumerism may not be quite as ‘thin’ as it originally appears, and there may be a thicker set of concepts lurking within it. It shows a commitment to markets, which is of course compatible with economic systems other than just capitalism. It also speaks to an affirmation of the power of the consumer and an acknowledgement that that power can and should be used responsibly. Finally, as noted above, it also seems to be a nod towards the collectivity that markets and a globalised society create and a move away from a value-neutral picture of economics.
Further complicating the conceptualisation of ethical consumerism, it bucks trends in several established fields of study. Activism is usually portrayed as a social movement and therefore a collectivist project, making the individual purchases in ethical consumerism a bit of an anomaly in the world of activism; markets are usually studied (at least in modern-economics) as value-neutral, making the morally targeted purchases in ethical consumerism a bit of an anomaly in the observance of markets. Seeing the economy as value-laden was commonplace in classical economics, but largely went out of fashion alongside the rise of the predominance of liberalism (for an interesting analysis of the history of linkage, see Machan 1995). There is, however, a recent trend in economics contesting the value-neutrality of markets and economics trying to introduce alternative norms into the economy, for example, Raworth’s doughnut model of the economy, Mazzucato’s Mission Economy, and the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission. While these are centered on the top-down policy or supply-side of the economy, like ethical consumerism, they show a tendency towards a belief in a moralised economy.
When studying capitalism in various disciplines from sociology to media studies, individuals’ motives are often divided into ‘citizen’ where people act outwardly, or in the interest of the common good, and ‘consumer’ where they act privately in their own interests. A prevailing theory of ethical consumerism argues that the movement bridges this gap with people acting as consumers by purchasing goods they want or need while simultaneously expressing outward, citizen commitments to a more just world (see Schudson 2007). From an ideological perspective, however, we might see less as bridging a gap and instead contesting the constructed binary between public and private, individual and collective, and indeed therefore citizen and consumer.
In the study of market economics, buyers are motivated by self-interest. This doesn’t seem to be the case with ethical consumers. Instead, they might be motivated by any number of private ethical commitments all of which express some discontentment with the status quo. For example, when it comes to buying FairTrade products, consumers might buy FairTrade because they believe they contribute to development (though the economic gains are dubious). Others might argue that it reduces poverty, and we therefore have a moral obligation to purchase these goods. Yet others still might be less focused on the consequences of Fair Trade and argue that there is a deontological moral imperative to pay a ‘fair price’ for all goods.
Under ethical consumerism, these individual moral commitments don’t actually matter; people don’t have to agree on ideologies to pursue their activism collectively or even hold internal consistent comprehensive moral positions. Instead, the invisible hand of the market takes care of the coordination of the activism and the ideology. It’s almost like seeing Rawlsian overlapping consensus being played out in the real world: individuals hold a plurality of moral commitments and the market coordinates and executes them. The problem is that the market is therefore the primary social institution of justice, which seems counter-intuitive in that the market is what brought about the injustices in the first place. This means either that a) ethical consumerism could have radical potential because it has found a way to bring justice into the workings of a previously unjust institution or b) ethical consumerism is doomed to fail because it relies on an inherently anti-justice (as well as unjust) institution.
Under capitalism, it’s essentially impossible to avoid being a consumerist. The extent to which we can see ethical consumerism as a critique of capitalism, it seems, depends on where we think the onus of responsibility lies and what follows from our ethical consumerism practices.
One theory on the motivations behind ethical consumerism says that individuals believe that the onus of responsibility for these moral shortcomings falls on them because of their previous purchases, and it's therefore their responsibility to rectify. On this view, it seems impossible to view ethical consumerism as a critique of capitalism because it fails to acknowledge the structural backdrop against which the markets operate, and the causality of the moral failings. Under this version, participants of ethical consumerism are broadly committed to capitalism, but think that it can do better and that ethical consumerism is the best way to nudge the markets in that direction. In other words, they think that the exploitative production processes, environmental damage, racism, sexism, etc. perpetuated by these companies can be separated from capitalism.
Alternatively, we might see participants of ethical consumerism as individuals who are unconvinced by capitalism in its entirety, but feel that ethical consumerism is one course of action for improving it, either because it is low-risk activism, they don’t know what else to do, or don’t see any viable alternatives. Ethical consumers who fall into this camp, would seem to think that capitalism is at fault for the unethical products being produced (making it a supply-side, rather than a demand-side issue), but understand that market—not capitalist—mechanisms can be used as a means improving but not rectifying, the system. This conceptualisation relies on a reimagining of markets and their purpose, and being able to disentangle them from the capitalist system in which they exist. Here, we must believe that markets are capable of expressing civic will, rather than simply being an instrument of (profit-seeking) exchange.
The problem seems to be that by continuing to buy, it doesn’t really matter what they believe. The choices on the market take a lot of the individual onus of responsibility away from them. Whether or not ethical consumers are critical of capitalism, the outcome seems to be the same: they use the market to make a statement about what goods are acceptably just and purchase those both as a signal of their own virtue as well as a sign to ‘unjust’ corporations that their products aren’t of an acceptable standard. Market mechanisms should then respond to these cues and slowly move towards a more ethical equilibrium.
Fashion brands have started putting out sustainable clothing lines, and supermarkets now offer ranges like ‘plant kitchen’ or products kitemarked with ‘sustainably sourced’ to satiate the concerned consumer. It’s worth noting that these are often sold alongside, rather than in place of, ‘normal’ product lines. What ethical consumerism has done is, in effect, created a separate market (markets) for these conscientious consumers. It exists alongside the ‘regular’ or ‘unethical’ markets. Ethical consumerism has, in effect, created more consumerism. It might drive demand down a bit in these regular markets, but because not everyone is buying from ethical markets, it doesn’t seem likely to drive demand down enough to replace them. Eventually an equilibrium will be reached, unethical capitalist practices will continue to be perpetuated, and a select few who purchase exclusively ethical products can be satisfied that they are not perpetuating any of the problematic externalities of capitalism that they have identified.
Indeed, it’s hard to view ethical consumerism as a wholescale critique of capitalism, because it works with and within the system, but it seems reasonable to see it as a critique—from any number of ideological standpoints—of the problems that capitalism perpetuates.
I propose that the best way to view ethical consumerism is as a belief that consumers have so that they can bridge a broad commitment to neoliberalism, capitalism, or market economics to more specific ideological environmentalism, anti-racism, feminism, etc. Participants view ethical consumerism as bringing these values into supply chains so that we eventually have a more moral global system of production and consumption. In this way, we might see ethical consumerism as a manifestation of a sort of intersectional capitalism.
The market itself does not yet actively reward ethical consumerism. Indeed, ethical consumers willingly pay a premium. But the market-based reward is not the point; instead it’s societal betterment that matters. Ethical consumerism does not (yet) have the power to reconstruct the structure of the market so that its guiding norms foster or indeed reward ethical-consumerist activism. But, in theory, it does seem to have that potential. This is why we can imagine ethical consumerism as a means by which consumers act as citizens, thereby breaking down the public vs private illusion and the individualist vs collectivist mentality that both liberalism and capitalism can perpetuate. More than the ethical consumerism itself, it seems to me that the ideological standpoint(s) from which ethical consumers make their purchases are more telling and what those purchases signify is more important.
Instead of seeing themselves as atomistic individuals being swept along by the tides of capitalism, ethical consumers are using the system to try to speak out and acknowledge some of global collective responsibility.
As any good economics student knows, however, the consumer (demand) side is only half of the story. Perhaps ethical consumerism is a radical instrument for change. But in order for the goals of ethical consumerism to be met, and for the market to truly be a meaningful tool of activism, both the supply-side conditions and the policy will have to be put in place, as well.
Other pieces in this series will include, a history of ethical consumerism, critiques of ethical consumerism, and a discussion of ethical consumerism’s varying ideological compatibility with some of the causes it purports to support.
 Note that while the markets for ‘ethical’ and ‘non-ethical’ goods are often treated separately in the literature, the goal for ethical consumerism is for ethical products to replace non-ethical ones in terms of demand. The degree to which we have separate markets seems to depend on the industry in which the ethical goods and services are being offered. Despite the separation of markets, the consumers are likely the same people. So instead of seeing ethical consumers and markets as separate entities, it seems more accurate to see them as counter-hegemonic tendencies within the bigger scheme of the global economy.