Neo-Liberalism as Utopia

During the ‘Discourses of Dissent’ conference, in response to Ruth Levitas’ presentation about the continuing need for utopias, I observed that Neo-Liberalism is a very potent example of a utopian vision that through what might be reasonably called a ‘conspiracy’ has managed over the course of seven decades to become the dominant ideology in global political economy. It was a vision forged in response to the socialist turn taken in many capitalist nations after the Great Depression that appeared to be vindicating Marx’s view of history.

It all began with the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris in 1938, which after the Second World War was regularly convened (under the guiding influence of FA Hayek) as the ‘Mont Pelerin Society’, named for the Swiss resort location of the first meeting in 1947. A recent book canvasses the vast range of influences that have come from these meetings, which escalated once various welfare state and socialist regimes started to display cracks in the 1970s.

What makes neo-liberalism ‘neo’ is its explicitly positive attitude towards strong but focussed state intervention – namely, to ensure that markets enjoy maximum fluidity. This means, beyond traditional ‘security state’ notions of keeping the peace, the state also provides some minimal social services to the poor (but in much the same spirit) and importantly provides incentives that enable a critical mass of the population (say, 20-25%) to become middle class but in ways that keep their efforts focused on growing the economy (and reaping its benefits) rather than participating in politics (which is left to rather ideologically neutral professional politicians).

From a sociological standpoint, a striking feature of neo-liberalism is its withdrawal of state from the business of nation-building, or even society-building. Thus, today’s so-called ‘Big Society’ initiatives are largely a continuation of the Thatcherite devolution of the sense of ‘the social’ to spontaneously formed networks. However, it would be a mistake to see neo-liberalism as anti-sociological: Rather, it is fairly seen as an elaboration of the sociological vision of Vilfredo Pareto, now rarely taught in social theory courses but arguably deserving a new lease on life to understand the deep structures of neo-liberal thought.

Here it is worth noting that Talcott Parsons included Pareto as providing the bridgehead between neo-classical economics and classical sociology in The Structure of Social Action.

Categories: Rethinking The World

1 reply »

  1. Hi Steve,

    Have you come across this rather masterful book?

    I wrote an article about UK thinktanks last year:

    In many ways I think they are the intellectual successors of the Mont Pelerin Society. The model has been generalised and distributed across a range of institutions. They often get a lot of media traction with what is often crap research. A depressing state of affairs.


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