Strange Freedom: The Origins of the Neoliberal Leviathan

by Tom Mills

The political repression so endemic to contemporary neoliberalism is no aberration. It is the logical endgame of a strange vision of freedom crafted in opposition to democratic advances.

First published: 01 January, 2014 | Category: History, Philosophy and Theory, Politics, The Right

What happened to our dream of freedom? This is the question posed by Adam Curtis in his 2007 documentary The Trap. Curtis describes how, with the rise of neoliberalism, a particular vision of human freedom came to dominate our politics; one which promised liberation from staid post-war bureaucracy and class strictures, but resulted in ‘new and increasingly controlling system[s] of management’ and ‘a return of the power of class and privilege.’  It was, Curtis notes, a ‘very strange kind of freedom.’ 

In the first episode of The Trap, Curtis details the origins of this strange freedom in the quintessential Cold War think-tank, the RAND Corporation.  The brain trust of the US military-industrial complex, the RAND Corporation grew out of wartime collaboration between the US Air Force and the Douglas Aircraft Company.  Though it started life as a research and development institute for military hardware, RAND was most successful in its development of systems analysis and game theory—the mathematical modelling of strategic decision-making.  RAND analysts used game theory to model the logic of nuclear strategy; a rational madness made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s dark satire Dr Strangelove, the eponymous anti-hero of which is said to have been modelled on RAND consultant Herman Kahn.  The influence of RAND’s models, however, was much broader than dubious strategic doctrines like Mutually Assured Destruction.  As Sonja Amadae has detailed, RAND research was central to the development of rational choice theory, the assumptions of which now dominate economic textbooks and increasingly the other social sciences.[1] 

Adam Curtis’s account of RAND focuses on the figure of John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician portrayed by Russell Crow in A Beautiful Mind.  Nash specialised in modelling ‘non-cooperative games,’ lending his name to the ‘Nash equilibrium,’ in which no player in a game would benefit by unilaterally changing their strategy.  Nash also suffered from mental illness and experienced paranoid delusions of communist conspiracies.  Curtis sees Nash’s paranoid and misanthropic worldview reflected in his research and, he seems to suggests, in the rational choice vision of humans as isolated, calculating individuals.  This is an engaging narrative, but Nash was only one of a host of gifted and politically committed mathematicians, logicians and economists at RAND who contributed towards the development of rational choice theory.  Foremost among them was Kenneth Arrow, whose ‘impossibility theorem’ showed that it was impossible to arrive at a rational outcome on the basis of a set of individual ranked preferences.  Arrow later developed with Gérard Debreu a proof of ‘economic equilibrium’, that is, a model of the perfect free market.  The particular vision of politics and human freedom developed by these organic intellectuals of the US corporate-state elite was crafted in opposition to Marxist ideas and was all the more powerful for, like Marxism, its purported objective and scientific nature.  Implicit in these rational choice models was a view of politics, not as a realm for deliberation and cooperation, but a site of conflicting claims by isolated, calculating actors.

Rational choice theory, of which RAND was formative, overlapped with and influenced the neoliberal movement.  It had a particularly strong influence on the field of public choice, which was founded by leading Mont Pelerin Society members James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the former of whom studied under Milton Friedman and also spent time at RAND.  Public choice theorists applied rational choice models to democratic politics, viewing all actors as self-serving utility maximisers and rejecting altogether the notions of public service which underpinned the embedded liberalism of the post-war period.  Another particularly influential public choice theorist was William Niskanen, a former RAND analyst who, inspired by Ludwig von Mises’s classic 1944 polemic Bureaucracy, developed a rational choice model of public sector bodies which argued that state officials would naturally act as ‘budget maximisers’ and tend towards the oversupply of services.  Though a relatively small faction of the ‘neoliberal thought collective’, the public choice school would prove highly influential in shaping neoliberal policies because of its more developed conception of politics and the state, a political vision crafted in opposition to both the post-war expansion of the public sector and the radical egalitarian movements of the 1960s. 

The founding fathers of public choice, Buchanan and Tullock, were essentially chased off the campus of the University of Virginia by the New Left, from where they decamped to Virginia Tech.  There they founded the Center for the Study for Public Choice.  Partly in reaction to the social upheavals of this period, members of the Center for the Study for Public Choice subsequently spent considerable time studying theories of anarchy and addressing the question of whether the state was necessary to preserve economic freedom.  They were almost unanimous in reaching the conclusion that a world of voluntary associations was not realistic and that the state was necessary to protect private property and enforce contracts.  Buchanan’s own conclusion to this effect was based on a Nash equilibrium which proved that individuals would always be better off plundering rather than respecting each other’s property.  In 1986, addressing a closed meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, Buchanan declared that: ‘Man is, and must remain, a slave to the state.’[2]  Mark Olssen contrasts the public choice perspective on markets and the state with ‘the classical liberal tradition’ which ‘had stressed the role of markets as “self-regulating” and as supported by arguments based on the freedom of the individual from the state’:

Buchanan distrusted that the required efficiency gains would emerge through automatic mechanisms of the market and supported efficiency achievements through a tightening of state control.  In this, Buchanan introduced a major shift from liberal to neoliberal governmentality...  In Buchanan’s view, then, the state should tighten the screws on individuals and encourage supply-side monitoring in the interests of promoting efficiency in market terms.[3]

Olssen contrasts this perspective with ‘Hayek’s naturalist faith in markets as spontaneous self-ordering systems.’  But in fact Hayek, like Buchanan, believed that a world without law and order would result in the erosion of individual freedom, though he saw the threat emanating from humanity’s natural inclination towards cooperative behaviour, rather than the rational interest in violating property rights.  Writing in 1986, Hayek lamented the ‘failure of a large number of people to accept the moral principles which form the basis of the capitalist system.’  This failure, he believed, was the result of the revival by socialists of ‘primitive instincts and feelings’ which had hitherto been suppressed by ‘commercial or mercantile morals.’  He believed that our distant past in ‘primitive small society’ had left ‘very strong emotional feelings which we all have in our bones and of which we cannot entirely rid ourselves’—feelings which led us to interfere with the market system.  Though Hayek held a quite different view of human nature to the public choice theorists, he arrived at the similar conclusion that what was necessary was to ‘confine yourself to creating an institutional framework within which the price system will operate as efficiently as possible.’  To do otherwise would only frustrate the working of the ‘price system’ and undermine the interests of humanity as a whole.  Crucially, then, all neoliberals shared an understanding that a ‘free society’ would not emerge spontaneously, but would need to be instituted through a particular legal and political framework—and not one to which the population as a whole would necessarily accede. 

Neoliberalism in general, and public choice in particular, possessed a well developed diagnosis of the pathologies of democratic politics in the 1970s—an overloaded state captured by special interests and populated by self-serving bureaucrats—as well as an awareness of the necessity of state authority to redress this and realise their strange vision of human freedom.  Methodologically, the public choice philosophy of society and the state owed a significant debt to the intellectual work of the RAND analysts, but its starting point was Hobbes’s Leviathan, and the mathematical modelling of Hobbesian anarchy undertaken by Winston Bush (who had been instrumental in organising the public choice seminars on anarchism).  This debt to Hobbes is particularly revealing.  As Quentin Skinner has detailed, Hobbes in his own time pioneered an innovative reactionary reimagining of the concept of freedom as consistent with both fear and repression.  Writing at the time of the English Civil War, Hobbes rejected the newly revived Roman conception of liberty as freedom from the power of another, arguing instead for a narrow definition of freedom as unrestricted motion. 

Whilst the neoliberals did not wholly embrace Hobbes’s Leviathan,[4] there are clearly echoes of this reactionary conception of freedom in the neoliberal worldview, which despite its populist gloss is at root an anti-democratic vision.  This impulse has been most comprehensively exposed by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine and is most starkly illustrated by the neoliberals’ collaboration with the Pinochet regime in Chile.  In a 1982 letter to Hayek, Thatcher wrote, ‘I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable.’  Yet the same authoritarian tendencies were also present in Thatcherism, which Andrew Gamble influentially characterised as ‘the free economy and the strong state’; a marriage which, like the Pinochet collaboration, only seems ironic if the neoliberal rhetoric of freedom is left unexamined.  Consider, for example, Nigel Lawson’s remark that democracy is a ‘greatly over-hyped blessing’ and ‘clearly less important than freedom, the rule of law and constitutional government.’  For Lawson, the ‘strong government’ of which he was a part was necessary to impose ‘unpopular policies,’ and its ‘contempt for consensus was at that time both important and fully justified.’   Lawson is here clearly influenced by the emphasis placed by public choice theorists, and the German neoliberals, on a strong legal framework to support ‘free enterprise.’  It is an unusually honest expression from a key protagonist of the true dynamic of neoliberal governance, which, as Alasdair Roberts details in The Logic of Discipline, was built upon a ‘deep scepticism about the merits of conventional methods of democratic governance.’  Public choice theorists and conservative political scientists like Samuel Huntington, Roberts notes, thought democracy tended ‘to produce policies that are short-sighted, unstable, or designed to satisfy the selfish concerns of powerful voting blocs, well-organized special interests, and the bureaucracy itself.[5]  Their proposed solution was to ‘transfer authority to new groups of technocratic guardians,’ an obvious example being the granting of ‘independence’ to Central Banks.[6]  In reality though, ‘the logic of discipline’ led not so much to the rise of a new technocratic elite, but the near total dominance of policy making by big business, from monetary policy to infrastructure development and art and culture.  Moreover, realising the ‘free society’ required not just the dismantling of the partially democratised functions of the state, but also the, often violent, disciplining of populations into the new arrangements.  Hence why for all the rhetoric about freedom, neoliberal governments have in practice overseen a strengthening of repressive state apparatuses, including an expansion of police powers beyond the classic liberal democratic framework and the increased, and racialised, incarceration of the urban poor. 

With the collapse of global financial markets in 2008, in Britain, as elsewhere, we have seen the neoliberal state’s coercive apparatus in full swing, from its harsh treatment of the young people involved in the English riots of 2011 to the callousness of the Coalition Government’s dismantling of the welfare state.  There is no irony in this state of affairs.  The rise of ‘technocratic government’ in response to the Euro crisis and the increasingly violent repression of political dissent is no aberration.  It is the logical endgame of a dark political vision crafted in opposition to democratic advances; the realisation of a strange freedom which lies at the root of the neoliberal dystopia, from which the political establishment offers no deliverance.

Tom Mills is a researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of New Left Project.

[1] S.M. Amadae, Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2003)

[2] James Buchanan, ‘Man and the State,’ MPS Presidential talk, 31 August 1986,  cited in Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso, 2013), p. 41

[3] Mark Olssen, Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Social Democracy: Thin Communitarian Perspectives on Political Philosophy and Education (Routledge, 2009), p. 17

[4] See James M. Buchanan, The limits of liberty: Between anarchy and Leviathan. Vol. 714. University of Chicago Press, 1975.

[5] Alasdair Roberts, The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 4

[6] Ibid., p. 6

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