by Sean Seeger
What is the relationship of queer theory to utopianism?
Given their mutual interest in challenging dominant norms, values, and institutions, it may seem obvious that queer theory would share affinities with utopian thought. Determining what precisely these affinities consist in is, however, a less straightforward matter. In order to understand them, we will need to consider the twin careers of queer theory and utopianism over the last few decades.
It is a striking fact that the flourishing of the first wave of queer theory in the 1980s and 90s coincided with the demise of utopianism within wider culture. Theorists from David Harvey to Fredric Jameson have explained this drying up of utopian energy in terms of the turn toward post-Fordism followed by the rise of neoliberalism. Others, such as Ruth Levitas and Slavoj Žižek, have emphasised the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as key factors in the widely proclaimed ‘death’ of utopia. Meanwhile, in their analyses of the cultural politics of the period, Franco Berardi and Mark Fisher each write of the widespread sense of ‘the cancellation of the future’ as it became increasingly hard to envisage plausible alternatives to capitalism during these decades.
As James Ingram notes, this anti-utopian sense of stagnation meant that critics of the status quo found it necessary to seize on ‘ever thinner, weaker, and vaguer’ utopian moments as the possibility of tangible, real-world change receded from view. Utopianism thus tended to become highly abstract and emptied of content: rather than anticipating a better society or the liberation of specific human energies, the focus of much utopian discourse increasingly became the bare possibility of change itself – the intimation that things might, somehow, someday be otherwise.
A case in point is that of Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, where it is suggested that, in light of the failed utopian projects of the twentieth century, ‘the slogan of anti-anti-Utopianism might well offer the best working strategy’ for those on the left today. On this view, rearguard action against the dystopian tendencies of late capitalism, combined with fleeting glimpses of utopian hope found scattered amidst works of literature and popular culture, may be as close to utopia as we are able to come.
This anti-utopian turn was arguably foreshadowed in certain respects by the work of Michel Foucault, who, in response to an interviewer’s question about why he had not sketched a utopia, notoriously replied that ‘to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.’
In their book, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora show that this outlook was the result of a growing sense of exhaustion with system building, utopian dreaming, and grand visions of the future in the latter half of the twentieth century. In place of revolution, they argue, Foucault proposed a turn toward the self and a focus on micro-political as opposed to systemic change. Foucault’s late masterwork, The History of Sexuality, published in several volumes between 1976 and 1984, is representative of this inward turn. It was also to be one of the main sources of inspiration for what was to become known as queer theory.
In this context, it is worth noting that a related criticism to that levelled by Ingram at the diminished utopianism of the 80s and 90s has also been made of first-wave queer theory. A good example of this is Rosemary Hennessy’s book Profit and Pleasure, in which Hennessy criticises what she sees as the tendency of theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick to separate gender and sexuality from capitalism and class. Such an approach is problematic, firstly, because it dehistoricises gender and sexuality by untethering them from the development of capitalism, and, secondly, because it dematerialises them by emphasising their cultural construction while neglecting socioeconomic factors such as the changing nature of wage labour or the origins of the modern family.
Hennessy is one of a number of critics who see queer theory’s way of engaging gender and sexuality as restrictive and as leading to difficulties in situating queer identity and politics in relation to broader social developments. Although they do not generally frame these limitations in terms of a failure of the utopian imagination, a parallel may be drawn between these writers’ critique of queer theory, on the one hand, and critiques of the turn toward micro-politics during the 80s and 90s by commentators like Dean and Zamora, on the other.
Just as utopianism dwindled to little more than a wisp of possibility during the neoliberal era, so first-wave queer theory represents for some of its critics a retreat from large-scale social critique in favour of a preoccupation with individual self-fashioning, leaving it susceptible to commodification and the dilution of its radical potential.
These are serious charges. There are nevertheless a number of replies that queer theorists might make in response to them.
A first would start by noting that, as queer theorists themselves, critics like Hennessy are contributors to the enterprise they find fault with. Insofar as their own class-based analysis of gender and sexuality is successful (as it arguably is), they thereby demonstrate that queer theory is able to encompass economic considerations. Although this does not constitute a defence of earlier theorists, it does help to demonstrate the flexibility of queer theory and the possibility of broadening its scope beyond the categories of gender and sexuality. Queer of color critique, which addresses the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race, has likewise contested some of queer theory’s guiding assumptions and highlighted further blindspots from a position within queer theory itself.
A second reply would be to point out that some queer theorists have been concerned with capitalism and class since the inception of the field in the early 1980s. To take one prominent example, John D’Emilio was producing groundbreaking analysis of socioeconomic factors in the formation of queer subjectivity in articles such as ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ as early as 1983. In the following decade, Lisa Duggan analysed the depoliticisation of gay identity in articles like ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.’
The main contention of D’Emilio’s ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ is that ‘only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity – an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to one’s own sex.’ This, in turn, ‘made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on a sexual identity.’
D’Emilio’s account of the origin of gay identity is not deterministic: he does not claim that an alteration in economic life caused gay identity to come into existence. Rather, his argument is that until specific historical conditions arose there was no ‘social space’ for such an identity to occupy. D’Emilio shows that while same-sex desire is present in the historical record prior to the nineteenth century, homosexuality as an identity – as a way of being and of relating to others – is not. As even this brief sketch hopefully illustrates, D’Emilio’s work provides a prima facie reason to think that queer theory need not neglect economic considerations.
A third reply to critics of queer theory’s limited political scope would be to reconsider some of its foundational texts. Reflecting on her classic study Gender Trouble a decade on from its original publication, Butler commented that ‘the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized.’ The possibilities in question have to do with ways of performing gender, and the scope for subversion of established gender roles and styles. It is true, as Hennessy argues, that both Gender Trouble and its sequel, Bodies that Matter, focus almost exclusively on gender and sexuality and that neither offers anything like a systematic analysis of their relationship to capitalism or class. Whether this constitutes as decisive a shortcoming as Hennessy believes is less clear, however.
‘One might wonder,’ Butler writes, ‘what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible,” illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.’ This is a suggestive observation that may point to a way of reappraising not only Gender Trouble but Butler’s work more generally. While taking the invalidation of certain ways of performing gender as its ostensible focus, the remark registers a concern with illegibility and illegitimacy that has continued to inform Butler’s work.
In her books Precarious Life and Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler incorporates economic marginalisation into her analysis and provides an insightful account of the condition of precarity, which she defines as differential exposure to economic insecurity, violence, and forced migration. In light of these and other works, it has become possible to identify a persisting preoccupation on Butler’s part with the ways in which social value and legitimacy are assigned to or withheld from different groups, whether on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class, immigration status, or some combination of these.
The examples of D’Emilio and Butler serve to illustrate the social and political reach of queer theory. Recent years, however, have seen the rise of a more overtly utopian style of queer theory. Work in this vein explicitly repudiates the anti-utopianism of the neoliberal era and is influenced as much by traditions of radical queer activism and historical events such as the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and Stonewall as by Foucault’s History of Sexuality.
Published in 2009, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, an important example of queer of color critique, articulates a hopeful, future-oriented alternative to what Muñoz sees as the resignation and political timidity of queer culture since the turn of the millennium.
Distinguishing between LGBT pragmatism and queer utopianism, Muñoz argues that in focusing on objectives like gay marriage or securing the right of trans people to serve in the military, the queer community has lost sight of the utopian aspirations that inspired activists of the 1960s and 70s. For Muñoz, the aim of queer politics ought to be nothing less than the achievement of a world no longer structured by heteronormativity or white supremacy, however remote such a goal may appear from our present dystopian vantage. Even if Cruising Utopia does not offer the kind of concrete detail required to realise such a project, it is clearly a long way from the micro-political tinkering associated with queer theory by some of its critics.
A very different but no less utopian form of queer theory is found in The Xenofeminist Manifesto, originally published online in 2015 and authored by a collective of six authors working under the name Laboria Cuboniks. Characterised by Emily Jones as ‘a feminist ethics for the technomaterial world’, xenofeminism is a queer technofeminism committed to trans liberation and gender abolition, by which is meant the construction of ‘a society where traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender, no longer furnish a grid for the asymmetric operation of power.’
The ethos of the manifesto is well captured by its subtitle: ‘a politics for alienation’. Those seeking radical change must embrace ‘alienation’ through the recognition that nothing is natural. While acknowledging the cultural construction of gender, the manifesto insists that materiality and biology must likewise not be taken as givens: they can be intervened in through surgery, hormone therapies, and alterations to the built environment. As experiments in free and open-source medicine on the part of feminists, gender hacktivists, and trans DIY-HRT forums demonstrate, technologies so far captured by capital may yet be repurposed as part of an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal project in which ‘women, queers, and the gender non-conforming play an unparalleled role.’
Written in a self-consciously hyperbolic style and blending promethean rhetoric with quasi-science fictional projections of post-capitalist emancipation, The Xenofeminist Manifesto is as exhilarating as it is wildly ambitious.
What, then, is the relationship of queer theory to utopianism? Based on our brief consideration of some of queer theory’s more utopian elements, it is reasonable to draw two provisional conclusions: that queer theory may have more in common with utopian thought than is often assumed, and that there are signs of a more explicit utopian turn taking place within queer theory today. It remains to be seen how far the latter will inform future queer politics.
My thanks to Daniel Davison-Vecchione for his helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.
 See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991).
 See Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia, 2nd edn. (Oxfordshire: Peter Lang, 2011), pp. ix–xv; and Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008).
 See Franco Berardi, After the Future, eds. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn (Edinburgh and Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press, 2011); and Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (London: Zero, 2009).
 James D. Ingram, Introduction, Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives, eds. S. D. Chrostowska and James D. Ingram (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. xvi.
 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007), xvi.
 Michel Foucault, ‘Revolutionary Action: Until Now,’ in Language, Counter-Memory and Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 230.
 Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution (London: Verso, 2021).
 Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 2017).
 Related issues have been raised about queer theory by James Penney in After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics (London: Pluto, 2014), which makes the case for the need for a critical return to Marxism on the part of queer theorists.
 John D’Emilio, ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’, in The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader, eds. Michele Aina, Barale, David M. Halperin, and Henry Abelove (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 467–476.
 Lisa Duggan, ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,’ in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, eds. Dana D. Nelson and Russ Castronovo (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175–194.
 D’Emilio, p. 470.
 Judith Butler, Preface, Gender Trouble, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. vii–viii.
 Butler, p. viii.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004) and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
 Emily Jones, ‘Feminist Technologies and Post-Capitalism: Defining and Reflecting Upon Xenofeminism,’ Feminist Review, Vol. 123, Issue. 1 (2019), p. 127.
 Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto (London: Verso, 2018), p. 55.
 Cuboniks, p. 17.
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.
by Bruno Leipold
Bruno Leipold: This book is the culmination of a long engagement of yours with the German council movement that emerged during the Revolution of 1918-19. You wrote your PhD on Hannah Arendt’s account of council democracy and have also edited two volumes on the subject: Council Democracy: Towards a Democratic Socialist Politics (2018) and, with Gaard Kets, The German Revolution and Political Theory (2019). What is it about the councils that keeps drawing you back to them?
James Muldoon: The councils offer an alternative vision of democracy that expands our political imagination and questions the compatibility of democracy with capitalism. This perspective helps us to see our political inheritance of liberal democratic capitalism from a new perspective. The council movements believed it was necessary to extend a program of democratisation into a range of social and economic institutions such as schools, universities, workplaces, industry bodies, economic regulatory institutions and the civil service.
Many political theorists and actors come back to some form of council model when they are searching for alternative forms of political organisation outside of the state. The classic image of a council democracy is of a federal structure of councils with local and regional councils electing delegates leading to a national council that would exercise political and economic powers.
For those interested in examining more democratic ways to organise the economy, the experience of the council movements still provides a guiding light for what could be possible. There are specific institutional features such as recallable delegates, imperative mandate and average wages for political representatives that I think should get more of a hearing in contemporary debates, but which aren’t necessary for some form of council system.
Studying these bottom-up democratic institutions might seem anachronistic today, but what I find most interesting isn’t necessarily the precise institutional features, but the unfulfilled aspirations for political transformation which remain alive in the present. They show that a participatory society with more institutions organised along democratic lines is not only desirable but could be within reach.
BL: The title of your book seems to be a sceptical nod towards John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, a book that encapsulated the anti-hierarchical ideology of the Occupy movements. Do you see your book as challenging that model of political organisation and strategy?
JM: The title of my book, Building Power to Change the World implies a different strategy and approach to the ‘horizontalist’ tendency that was prominent in social movements in the 2010s. When I started this project on the workers’ councils of the 1917-1923 era, there had been a return to public assemblies and anarchist-inspired direct democratic methods as part of the global “squares movements”. Movements such as the Spanish 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street and other square and assembly-based protests sought to negate principles of hierarchy and representation and advocated for strategies of withdrawal and autonomous self-activity.
I participated in these movements as part of Occupy Melbourne and what many of us started to see was the limitations of such an ephemeral form of organisation. There was a sense in the neo-anarchist currents of these square movements that we could just re-create the world anew without having to engage with what was perceived to be an outdated and archaic form of democratic government. By refusing to engage with the domain of the state and parliamentary struggle these movements did not build up long-term organisational power or challenge the power of neoliberal capitalism head on.
In contrast to this strategy of refusal, the central point that most participants in the council movements of the inter-war period agreed upon was that in order to secure lasting social change the movement should develop the independent power of the working class. There were many disagreements over methods, but there was a shared horizon of acknowledging the importance of strategising ways in which workers’ power could be enhanced while diminishing the organisational and ideological power of the capitalist class.
BL: That would seem to involve a quite distinct understanding of organisation and power than we find in the horizontalism of Occupy and Holloway?
JM: There are many similarities between the approach of the Councils and that adopted by Holloway so the differences should not be overstated. However, his idea of “not taking power” relies on an ontological distinction between a “power to” (potentia) and a “power over” (potestas) and the presumption that there is some qualitative difference between the organisational form of parliaments versus other more grassroots forms of organisation. We can supposedly build our capacity for collective action (potentia) without creating new structures for controlling others (potestas).
I have always found this distinction dubious to hold in practice. It ends up valorising forms of political activity seen as “from below” or “of the people” while demonising strategies that involve forms of parliamentary struggle or action in and against the state.
Any movement seeking to form a more emancipatory society will eventually have to confront the question of which institutions will manage political conflict and enforce collective decisions in a post-capitalist polity. When you start to ask the question of how these institutions would be structured, what participatory rights and legal protections citizens would have, and how law would be created, the distinction between two separate kinds of power seems less helpful.
BL: One of my favourite lines that you quote in the book is by the Revolutionary Shop Steward Ernst Däumig who said he wanted ‘a Germany whose affairs are really determined by active people doing more than running to the ballot box every two or three years’, which sounds like the model of a good Rousseaian republican citizen! What role do you think republicanism plays in the ideology of the Council movement?
JM: The tradition of republicanism has some deeply conservative and even anti-democratic tendencies, but there are also prominent forms of radical republicanism. We are beginning to understand in more detail how the socialist tradition emerged from radical strands of republicanism in the 19th century.
Theorists of the council movements inherited a democratic republican legacy through the writings of Marx and Engels. Rosa Luxemburg is somebody who at different points has been seen as exemplary of a radical republicanism due to her calls for greater participation in public life and her defence of democratic freedoms. The council movements represent some of the more radical elements of the German socialist movement who favoured “bottom up” forms of socialist organising in comparison to the more statist versions of socialism in the German Social Democratic Party.
The real gambit of theorists like Anton Pannekoek and Rosa Luxemburg is on the question of citizen participation. Their entire political theory relies on a conception of democratic citizenship which demands a lot of citizens in terms of their commitment to public life. There is a kind of Rousseauian idea here of active citizens tending to public institutions, but it’s a form of republicanism beyond the state - a republic of councils perhaps.
BL: An important contribution of your book is that it reconstructs some of the core concepts of the ideology of the Council movements, including Rosa Luxemburg’s account of ‘socialist civic virtues’. How do these socialist civic virtues differ from what we traditionally understand by civic virtue?
JM: When I first read Luxemburg’s account of socialist civic virtues I was surprised by the use of such republican language. But the more closely I followed her thought in the 1917-1919 period, I began to see how much she had turned her attention to the cultural transformations that would be needed for a democratic socialist revolution to be successful. She thought that worker-controlled institutions such as workers’ councils would need to be accompanied by new social norms and widespread modes of relating to others that would protect and maintain these new institutions.
The content of these socialist civic virtues mirrors certain aspects of republicanism: the need for an orientation towards the common good, the negation of egoism, the development of political judgement and the importance of self-discipline and personal sacrifice. But the way these virtues figure in Luxemburg’s thought is very different to traditional republican theory. It’s not the state that cultivates these virtues in citizens through education, but the workers themselves that develop them in political struggle. They are also not oriented towards preserving the state as in republican theory, but towards an emancipatory political movement of overcoming relations of domination.
It’s for these reasons that I wouldn’t go as far as interpreters such as Hannah Arendt who sees Luxemburg as some kind of ‘republican’, however broadly understood. Although there are interesting elements of republican language and themes in her writings, they are thoroughly transformed and reconfigured within a revolutionary socialist outlook.
BL: Another important conceptual innovation of the councils that you highlight is idea of ‘freedom as collective self-determination’, which you particularly associate with Anton Pannekoek. Where does this conception of freedom lie in relation to some of the classic debates, including the distinction between positive and negative liberty?
JM: The council movements envisioned a new participatory society of democratic collectives involved in public life and democratically managing all of societies major institutions. Their ideal of political freedom involved democratic collective participating in their community and helping to shape its underlying character, laws and future direction.
The revival of republican accounts of freedom as non-domination have all been tied to negative ideals of liberty. Even radical republicans such as Alex Gourevitch – who has reconstructed the political thought of the Knights of Labour – situate their own interpretations primarily within the negative liberty tradition. For many of the radical council theorists, freedom was best understood as an activity – and indeed a movement – rather than a status or condition of non-domination. Democratic participation was seen as a necessary aspect of freedom rather than something auxiliary that was need to secure its conditions.
This view of freedom goes back to an older Athenian tradition (“the liberty of the ancients”) of active participation in exercising collective power. But this wasn’t just a nostalgic view of direct democracy. It was also attentive to how the state and modern labour market were two of the principal sources of domination in modern life.
It is a demanding view of freedom, but one that is too often discounted in debates between liberals and republicans as either conceptually incoherent or not worth considering. I think such a dismissal is too hasty. The ideal of freedom as collective self-determination has important resonances with a range of emancipatory social movements who see freedom as a collective practice and a constant struggle. It captures something attractive about our intuitive ideas of freedom that are left out of a purely negative lens.
BL: One subsidiary aim of the book is to rehabilitate the reputation of Karl Kautsky. You argue that during the German Revolution he advocated for a kind ‘socialist republicanism’ that combined elements of both parliamentary and council democracy. How does that position differ to some of the other positions taken by socialists and social democrats at the time?
JM: Karl Kautsky is little read today, even by Marxists. Mostly he is associated with the rigid orthodoxy of the Second International. He is said to have vulgarised Marxism into a crude economic determinism in which revolution was seen as a historical inevitability and all the party needed to do was passively wait for capitalism’s downfall. The book attempts to show that Kautsky was a far more sensitive and dynamic thinker than this characterisation implies.
I focus on his writings leading up to and during the German Revolution. During this period, Kautsky found himself occupying a middle position between two different groups. The moderate social democrats wanted the workers’ councils demobilised and for a speedy transition to a parliamentary republic. The radicals in the party called for a council republic with the workers’ councils forming the basis of the new structures of political authority.
In many ways, Karl Kautsky was the goldilocks of the German Revolution. He supported the workers’ councils and thought they played a valuable role in the initial phases of the revolution. But he didn’t see the councils as sufficiently universal or indeed that well suited to administering a future socialist society. In practice, rule by the councils had excluded many groups of people from any form of political suffrage: from many women, to the unemployed, peasants and even some male workers outside densely populated industrial areas.
But he didn’t think the councils should disappear after the revolution. He advocated for retaining the workers’ councils alongside parliamentary institutions to maintain an institutionalised power base for safeguarding workers’ interests and for the organisation of the economy.
BL: What did this ‘goldilocks’ position on the councils mean for Kautsky’s relations to those political factions, such as the leaders of the SPD, that rejected this hybrid approach?
JM: The leadership of the SPD at the time represented a social democratic compromise with capital and the state. They wanted to take over the reins of power but for private property to remain largely unchanged and for German industry to continue on as before. Kautsky is widely seen as going along with this basic idea and as having effectively sold out his radical roots by the time of the Revolution. His writings during this period show this not to be the case. Kautsky still advocated for a thoroughgoing socialisation of the economy and a transformation of the state.
One of the more innovative aspects of his program was his call for the radical decentralisation of the administrative apparatus and for power to be devolved to municipal apparatuses including the power of taxation, policing and the delivery of basic services. The radical housing projects and cultural life of “Red Vienna” in the 1920s stands as a living experiment of the kinds of policies Kautsky was advocating at the time.
Kautsky could be criticised for his naivety in relation to the true intentions of the SPD leadership, but he was pushing for far more radical policies than what he is usually given credit for.
BL: And what about Kautsky’s positioning beyond Germany? How did his socialist republicanism influence his view of the concurrent revolutionary events in Russia?
JM: What makes Kautsky’s position a socialist republican one is its starting point of political democracy, universal suffrage, parliamentary elections, a multi-party electoral system, and its insistence on maintaining civil and political rights. Kautsky was therefore critical of the Bolsheviks for what he argued were the use of ‘methods of violence’ which he contrasted with the ‘methods of democracy’.
One of the key points of difference between Lenin and Kautsky is on the role of the state. Lenin models the Russian soviet system on the Paris Commune with workers’ councils as the main institutions of political power. Kautsky doesn’t think the state should be abolished, but rather transformed into a democratic and then socialist republic. Kautsky finds in Marx a distinction between a “military autocratic” aspect of the state which should be abolished, and the democratic republican institutions which would need to be transformed for a future socialist society.
He argues that institutions such as a parliament with free elections, a multi-party system, a civil service and some kind of basic administrative apparatus would be necessary in a future socialist society. The purportedly “anti-bureaucratic” institutions of the Commune were simply no longer suitable for a large, complex and industrialised nation state. The socialist party needed to take what was best from the tradition of democratic republicanism and push it to its radical edges.
I think the identification of socialist republicanism as an ideology is a useful way of revealing significant differences within socialist ideology and an under-examined strand of democratic socialism in contrast to the more insurrectionary communism of the Bolsheviks.
BL: The Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution have, of course, played a much greater role in the political imagination of the Left. What do you think explains the relative neglect of the Councils of the German Revolution?
JM: The various strands of socialist democracy that existed within pre-revolutionary Germany were eventually overtaken by the communism of the Bolshevik Party.
The experience of the councils was also not well incorporated into the history of political thought. Every historical event will be subject to partisan interpretations, but as John Medearis has shown, three of the most well-known interpreters of the councils, V. I. Lenin, Hannah Arendt and Joseph Schumpeter, each offer distorted readings of the councils that have led to confusions over their reception.
Lenin’s admonishing of the ‘infantile leftism’ of council theorists such as Anton Pannekoek had perhaps done the most to sink the reputation of theorists associated with this strand of socialism. Contrary to Lenin’s interpretation, many of the council theorists made significant theoretical innovations within Marxism, particularly by advancing democratic republican aspects of Marx’s political thought.
BL: Do you think that anything has been lost in our political vocabulary as a result of that neglect?
JM: I think the biggest neglect has been of these more ‘bottom up’ and democratic approaches to socialist organising which have been marginalised both with social democratic and communist discourse.
This relates to both strategy and institutions. On the strategic front, we have seen insurrectionary forms of socialism and vanguardist theories of political parties dominate for most of the twentieth century. For the most part, parliamentary politics has been seen as corrupted and not worth pursuing leading to a marginalisation of small socialist groups.
In terms of institutions, there has been very little theorising about what these would look like in a future socialist society or how you would practically organise the economy and manage political conflict. The idea that with the end of capitalism the majority of conflict would disappear has never really been plausible. In this respect, socialist republicanism adds an important political and institutional dimension to the socialist tradition.
BL: Finally, if you could pick out one text from the German council movement for people to read today, what would it be?
JM: I’ll cheat slightly and recommend one in German and one in English. For those who read German, I would get a copy of the stenographic report of the National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers Councils which met from 16-20 December 1918. This was dubbed the “Parliament of the Revolution” and was the meeting at which the councils decided on a number of important questions such as whether Germany would be a council republic or a liberal democracy and how far it would go in socialising the economy. The debates at the Congress are insightful for how the workers and soldiers understood their choices.
It was republished on the centenary of the revolution in 2018 by Dieter Braeg and Ralf Hoffrogge as Allgemeiner Kongress der Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte Deutschlands. Unfortunately, it’s yet to be published in English, although certain speeches have been translated in Gabriel Kuhn’s All Power to the Councils! A Documentary History of the German Revolution of 1918-1919.
My personal favourite from this period that has been translated in English is a short pamphlet by Karl Kautsky written in January 1919 entitled “Guidelines for a Socialist Action Programme”. It provides an overview of how a democratic republic could be expanded into a socialist republic through a dual strategy of democratisation and socialisation and offers a different perspective on Kautsky’s political views during this period.
by Emily Katzenstein
In a recent piece in ROAR Magazin, William Callison and Quinn Slobodian make a provocative claim: they argue that a short-lived German leftists’ populist experiment, Aufstehen (literally: ‘Stand Up’ or ‘Get Up’), and the far right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) both lay claim to ordoliberalism, a German variant of neoliberalism. Callison and Slobodian argue that “while the partial symmetry between new would-be populist movements on the left and right is often observed—and the similarities often exaggerated—the curious fact that both the AfD and Aufstehen [draw] on the heritage of the German form of neoliberalism, better known as “ordoliberalism,” is often overlooked.
As Callison and Slobodian point out, the AfD’s neoliberal leanings are well known. Aufstehen’s ordoliberal overtures, on the other hand, seem not just surprising but quite perplexing. What, one might ask, is going on with the German Left? Why would a nascent left populist movement turn to a variant of neoliberalism as a source of inspiration?
The political figure that best represents this ordoliberal turn on the German Left is Sahra Wagenknecht, the former parliamentary chairperson of the Die Linke, and a co-founder of Aufstehen. In fact, Callison and Slobodian are not the first to point out Wagenknecht’s turn to ordoliberalism. While the scholarly literature, especially in English, has only remarked in passing on Wagenknecht’s ordoliberal turn, Wagenknecht’s appeals to ordoliberalism have been widely noted and discussed in the German press, especially in reviews of Wagenknecht’s recent books, Freiheit statt Kapitalismus (2011) and Reichtum ohne Gier (2016). The titles alone foreshadow a shift in Wagenknecht’s rhetoric--Freedom instead of Capitalism is a play on the 1976 CDU campaign slogan Freedom instead of Socialism (it sounds catchier in German, I promise), and Prosperity Without Greed evokes the Christian-democratic former German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s Prosperity for All, published in 1957.
But one hardly needs to decipher clues like these in order to notice Wagenknecht’s—some might claim fatal—attraction to ordoliberalism. In both Freedom instead of Socialism and Prosperity without Greed, Wagenknecht draws heavily on the writings of ordoliberals such as Walter Eucken, Alexander Rüstow, and Alfred Müller-Armack, and evinces a certain nostalgia for the so-called ‘golden years,’ the ‘economic miracle’ of postwar West Germany, when ordoliberalism, as a political ideology, was arguably at its most influential. Wagenknecht portrays ordoliberalism as an alternative to neoliberalism understood as a doctrine of market radicalism, the destruction of the welfare state and rampant privatization, and sees Eucken, Rüstow, and Müller-Armack as proponents of a third way between capitalism and a planned economy. In other words, Wagenknecht contests the understanding of ordoliberalism as a German variant of neoliberalism by interpreting it as a German alternative to neoliberalism. She strongly implies that her own political vision of a “creative socialism” has more in common with the ordoliberal tradition than the current neo-liberal policies of the FDP, CDU, and SPD.
She has also repeated these claims in interviews and political speeches. In a 2017 interview with WirtschaftsWoche, for example, Wagenknecht argues that “if you take Ludwig Erhard seriously, you have to vote for Die Linke”. Similarly, in a 2010 speech before the Bundestag, Wagenknecht cited Eucken and Erhard in support of her own proposals, and suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that none of her conservative or liberal colleagues had ever even bothered to read Eucken’s work. Wagenknecht, in other words, presents herself as the better heir of ordoliberalism.
Wagenknecht’s turn to ordoliberalism has gained her some new—and quite unlikely—fans. After the publication of Prosperity Without Greed, the well-known conservative newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), published an article entitled: Über diesen Kommunismus könnte man reden (This is the kind of communism we could talk about). Similarly, Peter Gauweiler, a prominent member of the arch-conservative CSU not exactly known for his leftist views, found much to like in Wagenknecht’s Freedom Instead of Capitalism (), welcomed her turn to ordoliberalism, and seems to have had to try hard to find anything to criticise in Prosperity without Greed. To the collective astonishment of the German press, even the economist Hans-Werner Sinn, who is commonly seen as a die-hard neoliberal, found common ground with Wagenknecht’s new political vision and welcomed Prosperity without Greed as a “hymn to ordoliberalism”.
But not everyone is equally delighted with Wagenknecht’s appropriations of Eucken and Rüstow. Some of her critics—mostly, but not exclusively from the right—have criticised Wagenknecht’s ordoliberal manoeuvres. Some have argued that Wagenknecht is an anti-capitalist wolf in ordoliberal clothing (“im Schafspelz des Ordoliberalismus”), and that her engagement with ordoliberalism is a marketing ploy at best and a transparent attempt at political deception at worst. A commentator in ORDO, the flagship ordoliberal publication, for example, warns Wagenknecht’s readers not to be “seduced” by the “intellectual charms” of the “Jeanne d’Arc of anticapitalism” and imagines the ordoliberals’ horror-stricken exclamation in the face of any ‘ordo-socialist’ appropriations: “What would Walter Eucken and Alfred Müller-Armack have said to [Wagenknecht’s] […] proposals? Probably: Divine Comedy, Inferno III: All abandon hope, ye who enter here.”.
Some of these critiques are, no doubt, hyperbolic, but they do raise a set of tricky questions: Firstly, has Wagenknecht actually taken an ordoliberal turn? Or is she merely deploying ordoliberalism strategically, cherry-picking her way through a tradition so routinely invoked in German politics that some have compared it to liturgy? Secondly, how expansive or flexible is the ordoliberal tradition? Can it be appropriated for Wagenknecht’s “creative socialism?” Or is any attempt to appropriate the ordoliberal tradition for a left project “perverse”? What does it mean—and what does it do—to claim ordoliberalism for a left political project? In other words, Wagenknecht’s self-representation as the “better” ordoliberal raises some pressing questions about what ordoliberalism is, and, maybe more importantly, what it is good for.
One way of assessing the plausibility of Wagenknecht’s self-representation as the better, if unorthodox, heir of ordoliberalism—as an “ordo-socialist,” as Callison and Slobodian quip—is to define ordoliberalism in terms of its core policy positions, preoccupations, questions or “problematic”, and then to show that Wagenknecht, in her recent political writings, has not merely claimed ordoliberal ideas strategically and superficially in support of positions that she already held, but has engaged seriously and substantively with ordoliberalism in a way that has influenced her political thinking.
So what is ordoliberalism? Many of the most recent attempts to define ordoliberalism have taken place in the context of trying to explain Germany’s “inflexibility on austerity measures” and its punitive stance during the Eurozone crisis. In this context, ordoliberalism is commonly described as a German variant of neoliberalism that prescribes a strong regulatory state, strict anti-trust policies aimed at bolstering competition in the market, and a commitment to price stability that is guaranteed by an independent monetary authority. In Austerity: The History of A Dangerous Idea, for example, Mark Blyth has claimed that ordoliberalism was the “instruction sheet” for “Germany’s response to the [Eurozone] crisis”.
If one understands ordoliberalism primarily as an “instruction sheet” for austerity, Wagenknecht’s ordoliberal overtures appear deeply misguided. Wagenknecht, after all, was highly critical of the German government’s push for austerity politics during the Eurozone crisis and sharply criticised Schäuble’s punitive stance with regards to Greece. So why should she, of all people, turn to the authors of the “instruction sheet” for austerity for inspiration?
But we don’t have to understand ordoliberalism as a blueprint for austerity politics. As many scholars of ordoliberalism have argued, ordoliberalism is more than a set of principles for economic policy making, austerity politics or not, and can be best understood as a social and political theory. Walter Bonefeld, for example, has argued that ordoliberalism cannot be reduced to a set of policy prescriptions. While ordoliberalism does focus on the economic sphere, he claims, it does not “conceive of the free economy in narrow economic terms” but sees it as a “universal form of life,” a “definite moral order” that requires a political and social framework which has to be created and sustained by the state.
So, if we understand ordoliberalism as a social and political theory does it become easier to spot the ideas that might have attracted a “Jeanne d’Arc of anti-capitalism”? At first glance, it doesn’t seem so. Ordoliberalism is most commonly seen as centrally concerned with limiting or constraining the power of mass democracy; as having an elitist and technocratic view of political decision-making; and a conception of the social order that is both “patriarchal” and has undertones of a “natural hierarchy” to boot. Ordoliberalism—or rather the strand of neoliberal thought that would later be called ordoliberalism—emerged out of a deep sense of crisis in the 1920s. Ordoliberals recognised that the Great Depression had made the weaknesses of a laissez-faire economy painfully obvious, and sought to articulate a new liberalism that would no longer adhere to the fallacy that markets were quasi-natural phenomena that emerged as long as the state got out of the way. They developed the idea of the market as a “political event” to be carefully staged by a strong state. The state’s decision-making processes, the ordoliberals argued, had to be protected from the constant clamouring of special interests; a threat that had emerged full force with the development of pluralist mass democracy, according to the ordoliberals. Economic freedom thus had to be protected by a strong state and an economic constitution that would insulate the market economy from excess demands of pluralist mass democracies.
This account of ordoliberalism as a political theory with strong anti-democratic and technocratic tendencies doesn’t seem very promising for a left reimagination of the present economic order. So far, it’s difficult to see how and why Wagenknecht would look to such a political program for inspiration, especially since Wagenknecht, on her own account, understands her own political project in opposition to the present subordination of democratic self-determination to the whims of the markets. She opposes further European integration precisely for this reason—because she sees the EU as a political instrument that will dethrone democratic self-determination in favor of market rule. Whatever one’s quarrels with Wagenknecht’s political program might be, it is difficult to see her agenda as animated by the ordo-/neo-liberal “problematic” of safeguarding the market from the greedy tentacles of a mass-democratic kraken.
In order to understand why Wagenknecht chooses to venture into this seemingly hostile ideological territory, a closer look at her own reading of ordoliberalism is needed. In Freedom instead of Capitalism and Prosperity without Greed, Wagenknecht reads ordoliberalism as a political theory of a market economy with a human face. She draws on three aspects of ordoliberal thought for her own vision of creative socialism, namely on the ordoliberal theory of an active regulatory state, on ordoliberal critiques of the monopolistic and neo-feudal aspects of actually existing capitalist markets and the ordoliberals’ commitment to meritocracy, competition, and innovation; and, finally, on the ordoliberal concept of the social market economy, which Wagenknecht reads as entailing a commitment to a robust social welfare state and a mixed economy.
Wagenknecht portrays the current economic order as a system, in which inherited wealth, concentrated private economic power, and limited liability have distorted a competitive order and have abolished any relationship between merit, effort and reward: a neo-feudal rather than neo-liberal order that no longer serves the common good. She claims to derive this critique of actually existing capitalism from the ordoliberal critique of the monopolistic and neo-feudal elements of capitalist markets. For example, in support of her own critique of concentrated private economic power she draws on Eucken’s commitment to strong anti-trust policies and his insistence that the state has a primary responsibility to avert the very emergence of concentrated economic power in the form of monopolies, rather than merely seeking to control the abuse of monopolistic power.
Wagenknecht takes this concern with private economic power to what she claims is its logical conclusion—she argues that in order to foreclose the kind of concentrated private economic power that Eucken was worried about, one has to strictly limit the size of firms and transform them into worker-owned coops. Similarly, Wagenknecht explicitly draws on Rüstow’s critique of the “feudal-plutocratic” inequality of opportunity that is brought about by inherited wealth. She approvingly cites his claim that “inherited [my emphasis] inequalities of opportunity are the most important institutional features through which feudalism continues to live on in the market economy. It transforms the market economy into a plutocracy, a system governed by private wealth.”
Wagenknecht argues that Rüstow sought to limit inherited inequality of opportunity by radically curtailing cross-generational wealth transfers. In fact, Wagenknecht derives her own proposals for changes to the German inheritance law—namely, her proposal to tax all inheritance above €1 million at 100%—from this claim. And she takes up Eucken’s call for unlimited personal liability as the final pillar in her effort to abolish “unearned income”—i.e., income that is not generated by work performed or risk taken. Wagenknecht further argues that the ordoliberals were committed to robust social legislation, social welfare provisions, and a mixed economy that recognises the limits of markets instead of aiming at the marketization of everything.
In Freedom instead of Capitalism, Wagenknecht approvingly notes that “the ordoliberals assumed that a social market economy that is governed by strict rules and robust social legislation is no longer opposed to the common good but can serve it. But they also understood that the state had a primary obligation to ensure a social equilibrium [sozialer Ausgleich], and that this couldn’t be left to the market.” She goes on to quote Müller-Armack’s definition of the social market economy as a “consciously steered, social economy” as opposed to a “laissez-faire, liberal economy”. “The proponents of ordoliberalism,” she maintains, lobbied for robust social legislation, including “a functioning pension system and health insurance system [and] robust unemployment provisions.”
This reading of ordoliberalism does indeed seem much more promising for left appropriations than interpretations of ordoliberalism as an “instruction sheet” for austerity or an anti-democratic political theory. But Wagenknecht’s reading simply ignores many aspects of ordoliberal thought that are incompatible with her own political agenda. For example, Wagenknecht, unsurprisingly, makes an argument in favour of strengthening organised labour but doesn’t discuss the fact that ordoliberals saw organised labour as a prime example of the special interests from which the state had to be insulated. Similarly, she overestimates the extent to which the ordoliberals supported interventionist policies—or maybe misreads the nature of the interventions that ordoliberals supported. And she ignores the anti-democratic tendencies of one of some of the core ordoliberal commitments, namely that the ordoliberal insistence on an “economic constitution” was meant to serve as a bulwark against “excess” democratic demands.
Finally, while Wagenknecht is right that ordoliberals paid more attention to the “social question” than other variants of neoliberal thought, she nonetheless overestimates the concessions that ordoliberalism made. It is misleading to present ordoliberals as proponents of robust social welfare provisions and a mixed economy given that ordoliberals were strictly opposed to a strong welfare state. Wagenknecht’s reading of the ordoliberals as the “fathers of the social market economy” accepts a common but misleading narrative about the emergence of the social market economy that describes the social market economy as it actually existed as an ordoliberal achievement.
While it is true that the concept of social market economy was first popularised by Müller-Armack, the social market economy that actually came to be had relatively little to do with the original ordoliberal vision. In fact, the concept of the social market economy had been conceived as a conceptual and political alternative to the social welfare state; a way to make a market economy more palatable to the German public at a time when its fate seemed highly uncertain. As Ludwig Erhard once put it to Friedrich Hayek: “‘I hope you don’t misunderstand me when I speak of a social market economy [soziale Marktwirtschaft]. I mean by that that the market economy as such is social not that it needs to be made social”. Politically speaking, the concept of the social market economy proved a success, but it did so precisely because it did not stay ‘ideologically pure.’ Instead, it was subject to appropriations by the left, as social democrats, organised labour, and their political allies learned to appeal to the concept of the social market economy in order to do what the ordoliberals had sought to stave off—namely, to bring about a stronger welfare state.
In reading the ordoliberals as the “fathers of the social market economy,” Wagenknecht thus reproduces a historical narrative that underplays the contribution of the political left to the emergence of the social market economy as an actual historical phenomenon (rather than an ordoliberal counter-idea to the social welfare state). Admittedly, reading ordoliberalism in this way—a reading that enables Wagenknecht to draw a direct line from Walter Eucken and Ludwig Erhard to her own political project—has some key political advantages: Wagenknecht mobilises a language and an image of the past—a nostalgic vision of postwar West Germany—that has resonated broadly with the German electorate. She presents her own ambitious vision of the transformation of the German economic order as the logical conclusion of an interrupted ordoliberal project and portrays Die Linke not as the party of GDR-apologism but as the only party committed to realising the FRG’s original promise.
Her success in the German feuilleton and on the political talk show circuit shows that this strategy has been partially successful—at the very least, it makes it harder for her political opponents to dismiss her, and her ideas, as permanently stuck in a romanticised socialist past. Similarly, Wagenknecht’s appropriation of the ordoliberal language and her newfound focus on competition, individual effort, and just reward, for example, has some major strengths. Her takedown of liberal appeals to meritocracy that somehow never get around to tackling the issue of inherited wealth or what Wagenknecht calls “leistungsloses Einkommen” (unearned income that cannot be justified in terms of work performed or risk taken), for example, is a critique worth making in today’s German political discourse.
But there are costs to this strategy, too: First, by moving to an (ordo-)liberal language of effort, merit, and individuality, solidarity as a political principle no longer seems to have much of a presence in Wagenknecht’s political imaginary. This is unfortunate, especially at a moment where new left imaginaries of practices of solidarity that can integrate and connect struggles against different kinds of dominations are urgently needed. Second, by replicating the conservative narrative of ordoliberalism as all that was good and just in post-war West Germany, and by representing the social market economy as it actually existed as an ordoliberal achievement instead of seeing it as the outcome of processes of contestation that required a strong political left, Wagenknecht obscures the contribution that the political left made to the very system she invokes as the better alternative to the current economic order. And finally, by adopting the ordoliberal vision of a strong regulatory state—a state that is strong because it is sufficiently insulated from the noxious influence of special interests—Wagenknecht is less likely to stress the necessity for the mobilisation of countervailing forces that could contest the power of capital; the very forces that could back Wagenknecht’s proposal for a fundamental reorganisation of the economy.
In conclusion: It’s clear that Wagenknecht’s engagement with ordoliberalism, whatever its weaknesses, cannot be dismissed as a mere “marketing ploy”, as some of her critics have alleged. Wagenknecht’s engagement with the ordoliberal tradition seems both genuine and serious, and appears to have transformed her political language to significant degree, introducing a stronger focus on competition and innovation, merit and individual effort, as well as a mode of anti-capitalist critique that focuses primarily on the critique of concentrated economic power and unearned income (“leistungsloses Einkommen”) and sees these as contingent rather than necessary features of a market economy. On the other hand, Wagenknecht’s readings of Eucken, Rüstow, and Müller-Armack ignores core aspects of ordoliberalism that are in conflict with Wagenknecht’s vision, rather than engaging them critically. This move risks acquiescing to a conservative narrative about the economic successes of post-war (West-)Germany and underplaying the importance of a broad-based left movement that can win significant concessions from the right. Whether the political advantages of appealing to ordoliberalism from the left are worth the risks is yet to be seen.
 William Callison and Quinn Slobodian, “A Tale of Two Ordos: German Nationalism in Brown and Red”, ROAR Magazine 10 (2020), 3.
 Gareth Dale, “Justificatory Fables of Ordoliberalism: Laissez-faire and the ‘Third Way’”, Critical Sociology 45(7–8) (2019), 1049; Werner Bonefeld, The Strong State and the Free Economy (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 5; William Callison (ed.), Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2019), 69.
 Sahra Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier: Wie wir uns vor dem Kapitalismus retten (Frankfurt: Campus, 2018), 15–17.
 Sahra Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus (Frankfurt: Campus, 2012), 62–8.
 Ibid., 70.
 Christian Schlesiger, “Wer Erhards Anspruch Ernst nimmt, müsste Die Linke wählen”, WirtschaftsWoche (22 June 2017).
 Deutscher Bundestag, “Stenografischer Bericht der 59. Sitzung, 16. September 2010”, Plenarprotokoll 17/59. Internetpräsenz des Deutschen Bundestages, 2010 (accessed online: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btp/17/17059.pdf), 6161, as cited in Moritz-Peter Haarmann, Wirtschaft – Macht – Bürgerbewusstsein: Walter Euckens Beitrag Zur Sozioökonomischen Bildung (Wiesbaden: Springer Fachmedien, 2015), 85.
 Markus Günther, “Über diesen Kommunismus könnte man reden”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (28 May 2016). All translations of the original German texts are mine, except where otherwise noted.
 Peter Gauweiler, “Die mit dem Wolf tanzt: Sahra Wagenknechts Plädoyer für Freiheit statt Kapitalismus stützt sich auf die marktwirtschaftlichen Theories der alten Bundesrepublik”, Süddeutsche Zeitung (11 June 2012); Peter Gauweiler, “Die Entfremdeten: Sahra Wagenknecht beschreibt die Welten der Real-und Finanzökonomie und entwickelt ihre Idee vom Kapitalismus. Die Analyse ist links—aber nicht nur. Der Politikerin geht es auch um die Marktwirtschaft und die Rettung der Demokratie”, Süddeutsche Zeitung (29 March 2016).
; Jörg Schindler, “Die Gewendete: Von der Kommunistischen Plattform in den Wohlstand für alle – Sahra Wagenknecht hat einen langen Weg hinter sich. Er könnte sie an die Spitze der Linkspartei führen”, Frankfurter Rundschau (30 May 2012).
 Pascal Beucker, “Vergiftetes Lob”, taz–die tageszeitung (14 April 2016).
 Norbert Häring, “Linkes Hohelied auf den Nationalstaat”, Handelsblatt (11 March 2016); Hauke Janssen, “Muenchhausen-Check: Was Sahra Wagenknecht bei Ludwig Erhard entdeckt”, Spiegel (30 January 2013) (accessed online: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/fakten-check-sahra-wagenknecht-ludwig-erhard-und-die-linkspartei-a-880253.html); Philip Plickert, “Kreativer Sozialismus: Sahra Wagenknecht und die Erhard Masche”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (19 December 2011); Ulrich van Suntum, “Für eine Absicherung der Sozialen Marktwirtschaft im Grundgesetz”, ORDO 70(1) (2019), 293.
 Wilhelm Meyer, “Marx Reloaded. Anmerkungen zu dem Buch von Sahra Wagenknecht: Freiheit statt Kapitalismus”, ORDO 63(1) (2012), 505, 508, 510. Meyer’s quote is in German and the translation is mine except for the Dante quote, which I borrowed from H.F. Cary’s English translation of the Divine Comedy. See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy; Or Vision of Hell, Purgatory, Paradise, Henry F. Cary (tr.) (New York: Cassell, 1891), 10:9.
 Dale, “Justificatory Fables of Ordoliberalism”.
 Callison, Mutant Neoliberalism, 69.
 Thomas Biebricher, The Political Theory of Neoliberalism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).
 Sebastian Dullien and Ulrike Guérot, “The Long Shadow of Ordoliberalism: Germany’s Approach to the Euro Crisis”, Policy Brief: European Council on Foreign Affairs (February 2012), 1.
 cf. Mark Blyth, Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dullien and Guérot, “The Long Shadow of Ordoliberalism”.
 Blyth, Austerity, 141.
 Werner Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology: On the Government of Stateless Money”, in Josef Hien and Christian Joerges (eds.), Ordoliberalism, Law and the Rule of Economics (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2017), 280–1. For ordoliberalism as a political theory, see also Thomas Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”, in Hien and Joerges, Ordoliberalism, Law, and the Rule of Economics, 103–14; Biebricher, Political Theory of Neoliberalism.
 Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology”; Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”; Biebricher, Political Theory of Neoliberalism; Ralf Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany: Revisiting the Ordoliberal Foundations of the Social Market Economy”, in Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe (eds.), The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98–138; Ralf Ptak, “Der Staat im neoliberalen Denken”, in Thomas Biebricher (ed.), Der Staat des Neoliberalismus (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2016), 31–73.
 Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”; Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”.
 Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”, 100–6.
 Ibid., 108–9.
 Ordoliberalism, as a term, only emerged in the 1950s, but I’m here using it to refer to individuals and ideas that were later closely identified with ordoliberalism even when I’m referring to a period prior to the 1950s. It’s anachronistic but hopefully makes for easier reading. See Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”, 108.
 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, Graham Burchell (tr.) (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 75ff.
 Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology”, 274.
 Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”; Ptak, “Der Staat im neoliberalen Denken”; Biebricher, “Ordoliberalism as a Variety of Neoliberalism”; Bonefeld, “Ordoliberalism and Political Theology”.
 Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 31.
 ibid., 22–31.
 Biebricher, Political Theory of Neoliberalism.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 56–7, 61.
 Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 71ff.
 Walter Eucken, Grundsätze der Wirtschaftspolitik (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 360; Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 58.
 Alexander Rüstow, Die Religion der Marktwirtschaft (Münster: LIT, 2009), 96, as cited in Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 95.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 95.
 Wagenknecht, Reichtum ohne Gier, 71ff, 281, 310.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 52–70.
 Ibid.,, 56.
 Blyth, Austerity; Quinn Slobodian, The Globalists: The end of empire and the birth of neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
 Walter Eucken, “Staatliche Strukturwandlung und die Krisis des Kapitalismus”, Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv 36 (1932), 297–321; cf. Janssen, “Muenchhausen-Check”.
 Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”.
 cf. Angela Wigger, “Debunking the Myth of the Ordoliberal Influence on Post-war European Integration”, in Hien and Joerges, Ordoliberalism, Law and the Rule of Economics, 161–178.
 Wagenknecht, Freiheit Statt Kapitalismus, 54.
 cited in Ptak, “Neoliberalism in Germany”, 107.