Review of Slobodian Q, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press 2018)

book review

Ciarán O’Kelly


January 2, 2023

I’ve been meaning for a long time to start recording quick book reviews on this site, as a personal record of things I’ve read (and when). A kind of note-to-self. So a long-awaited Christmas switch from Hugo to Quarto has given me the impetus to get going with a review of Globalists by Quinn Slobodian. My aim is to keep this short: a paragraph or so on what the book is about; what I think I learned/surprises; and a link to some thinking on accountability.

The book

Globalists is an intellectual history of neoliberals, specifically their roots in the decline and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in the apparent free-trading roots of empire in general.

The neoliberals argued that that democracy inherently trends towards collectivism and is as such the threat to market orders. They have busied themselves with trying to discover national and global institutional forms that would insulate markets from democracy.

They seek to “inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy, to create a framework to contain often-irrational human behavior, and to reorder the world after empire as a space of competing states in which borders fulfill a necessary function” (2). Slobodian provides a handy list of neoliberalism’s key characteristics as he understands them on page 271.

Front cover of Slobodian's Globalists

Slobodian traces the development of the movement from Von Mises and Hayek through to thinkers like Röpke (arguing against ‘collectivism’ because it undermined white empires and their legacy states in Southern Africa). From there we get to Hayek’s more interesting stuff on price mechanisms as information and on markets as reflective, not of heightened rationality but as guides in conditions of ignorance, helping discover “underutilized human knowledge” (225).

This brings us to a really interesting discussion of Hayek and Hardin on order and design:

Hardin defined planning as “the making of rather detailed, rather rigid plans.” By designing, he meant “much looser, less detailed, specification of a cybernetic system which includes negative feedbacks, self-correcting controls.” He added that “the classical market economy is such a design.” Whether or not Hayek was inspired by Hardin directly on this point, the distinction helps clarify his writings. It is not difficult to argue that in the 1970s in particular, what Hayek is engaged in was a project of system design. Hayek’s model is an economy of principles, or “rules of just conduct,” as he called them, derived from physiology, the accretion of human tradition and—the site of action—the thin line of deliberate design. (239).

As Slobodian says, Hayek (and the neoliberal mode in the Mount Pelerin sense) is not advocating market society as a ‘random walk’: society rests on “spontaneous order and deliberate organisation.” “Hard law encases the cosmos”:

Understood correctly, Hayek’s meaning is not that we cannot design the social system at all; it is that we cannot design the social system entirely—and that we must design part of it (239).

The part we must design however is the part that insulates the market from democratic control.

What I learned (about accountability)

The idea that markets need to be insulated from the collectivist tendencies of modern states is familiar but it is accompanied by the inverse: that state power must be constrained by “redesigning the state and … redesigning the law” (15).

I’m not sure that Slobodian is entirely focused on what that means, at least not on the mechanisms for making this work. The emergence of accountability as a cultural keyword at the same time as this neoliberalism comes to dominate policy is an important part of this story of containment I think. Report-interrogate-impose consequence relationships are actively disruptive of the kinds of state power that Hayekian neoliberals fear: not just of internal malfeasance, but of state competence too.

Not to say that transparency is a bad but that we should understand the turn in and towards accountability as part of the disciplinary toolbox designed to constrain the active state. An older planning state would be held to account for its use of power; for its results; for its intrusions.

And ultimately whereas neoliberals regard the economy as unknowable and unplannable and as human knowledge limited they are keen for the state’s apparatchiks to be increasingly knowable and legible to their publics.

So what does this say about the Marc Bovens (et al) sense of accountability as a concept? Not much perhaps, but is it possible to understand accountability, apart from all its promises, as aimed at throwing grit in the workings of state power? Perhaps not promising performance but actively working to limit it?


BibTeX citation:
  author = {Ciarán O’Kelly},
  title = {Review of {Slobodian} {Q,} {\_Globalists:} {The} {End} of
    {Empire} and the {Birth} of {Neoliberalism\_} {(Harvard}
    {University} {Press} 2018)},
  date = {2023-01-02},
  url = {},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Ciarán O’Kelly. 2023. “Review of Slobodian Q, _Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism_ (Harvard University Press 2018).” January 2, 2023.