Skip to content
Department of History

Imagining the free market Eden

In this interview, History researcher Dennis Kölling discusses his research on libertarian fictions between the 1930s and the 1960s, and their relevance to understand today’s radical free market ideas, policies, and cultural practices.

22 April 2024 | Research

19.04.24 HEC Research Highlights_Rudy-issa-unsplash

What are the libertarian fictions you are researching on? And what was their role in popularizing neoliberal economic conceptions?

In my PhD thesis, I examine the works of three iconic American libertarians: Henry Hazlitt, Ayn Rand, and Robert A. Heinlein. While they belong to various schools of libertarian thought, they also have much in common. Firstly, they relied on science fiction to describe a utopian vision of the United States at the height of the Cold War. Secondly, their stories sought to rescue utopianism from what they saw as ‘totalitarian intuition’. Thirdly, they challenged the conventions of utopian thought dominated by socialist writers such as Edward Bellamy or William Morris in the preceding century.

Their battle against socialist utopianism made them fellow travellers to the ‘neoliberal thought collective.’ Today, neoliberalism has become a catchall term for criticising everything from dating apps to mindfulness practice. Yet, its earliest proponents saw their mission as a sort of ‘anti-utopian utopianism’ grown out of their concern with totalitarian ideologies. Intellectuals such as Friedrich A. Hayek and Karl Popper advocated against any sort of planning in favour of the impersonal forces of the market. The authors I study helped popularize this philosophy by showing their readers how utopian societies could emerge through spontaneous order without following a deterministic plan. Whether it was Hazlitt’s imagination of a disillusioned dictator who accidentally reinvents capitalism, Rand’s entrepreneurs on strike who build a new Eden in the Colorado hinterland, or Heinlein’s lunar colonists who fight for access to intergalactic commerce—their stories suggested that the market ‘knew’ best how to create the best of all possible worlds.

Do you see books in contemporary literature that somehow fall within the category of cultural history of neoliberalism?

The relationship between contemporary literature and neoliberalism is complicated. In my opinion, there is a tendency to overinterpret far too much of current culture as neoliberal without employing a historically grounded definition of the term. Nevertheless, I can think of a recent example that is, in a way, reflecting the neoliberal utopian vision I describe in my research. In The Book of Ayn (2023), Australian author Lexi Freiman follows the story of the writer Anna, who is ‘cancelled’ when The New York Times dismisses her satirical novel as classist. Alienated from the New York literary establishment, Anna discovers the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which leads her on a journey of self-healing and radicalisation. Freiman’s sardonic novel is satire (or so I hope). Yet, still, it points to a characteristic of neoliberal fiction rarely studied as such, namely, the idea that novels can function as guides for individual improvement.

Ayn Rand constructed an uncompromising philosophy of individualism as the antidote to the totalitarian ambitions of ‘collectivists’ and ‘looters’. She developed this didactic approach to fiction to its highest form. Her books have been called neoliberal ‘self-help novels’ by the economists Clara Mattei and David Maddy for their tendency to teach a sense of ‘poverty shame’ that blames non-success in the market on the individual's failure to work on themselves. Rand, indeed, is a pioneer in this form of writing. Her influence can be found in today's ubiquitous non-fiction self-help literature—from the canonic Atomic Habits and The 5 AM Club to the more dangerous self-help-tirades of right-wing influencers such as Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate. If I were to look for neoliberal writing today, that is probably where I would start.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, libertarian or neoliberal economic theories have been more and more subject to critical scrutiny. And yet, as you discuss in your recent article, radical free market ideas seem to be gaining new tracks. What do you think the main new directions are?

As neoliberal ideology is struggling in the realm of political economy, I see a dangerous potential for its radicalisation in the field of culture. The ‘spectre of totalitarianism’ that Hayek evoked is returning to our public discourse with a vengeance. It is increasingly weaponised to promote radical right-wing libertarianism that goes further than anything respectable neoliberalism ever advocated. The concept of totalitarianism is leveraged in the debate around so-called ‘cancel culture,’ for example. Libertarian politician Javier Milei employed it to denigrate feminists, ecological activists, and the academic establishment as sworn enemies of freedom and progress, as I show in my article. Milei’s case illustrates how free market economics and authoritarian politics can form a symbiotic relationship by using economic reasoning to justify culture wars.

Whether this can still be called neoliberalism or might already be considered the beginning of something else is certainly up for debate. I think the neoliberal interpretation of history as an eternal struggle between the enterprising individual and the totalitarian collective certainly provides the basis for a confrontational culture—grown from the fear of an external enemy in the Cold War. Once this logic is turned against ‘internal enemies,’ it may quickly degrade into a conflict of all against all, in which disruption turns into demagoguery. We are witnessing the final stages of a cultural turn among market radicals, which harbours the potential to designate all kinds of new ‘enemies to freedom.’ Such bogeyman rhetoric presents an acute danger to democracy, still too often overlooked. Only an appealing utopia of democratic solidarity that does not cave in to fatalism or blind Manichaeism could help us overcome it.

Last update: 22 April 2024

Go back to top of the page