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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Richard Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style: An Interview with Andrew McKenzie-McHarg

By Grant Wong

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg is a research fellow affiliated with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies research team at Australian Catholic University (ACU) and based at the university’s Rome campus. His research focuses upon themes of conspiracy, secrecy, and anonymity as they were instantiated in early modern history and subsequently conceptualized in modern history under the influence of social science. Some of the results of this research recently appeared in the Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories, in which he served as a co-editor and contributor.

McKenzie-McHarg spoke with Grant Wong about his recent JHI article, “From Status Politics to the Paranoid Style: Richard Hofstadter and the Pitfalls of Psychologizing History.”

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Grant Wong: In your article, you trace American historian Richard Hofstadter’s intellectual development of the “paranoid style.” Hofstadter defined his psychological concept as a mode of individualistic and collective political thought characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Your study stresses that the idea did not emerge fully formed in 1963, but instead was an ongoing project refined by Hofstadter in response to the political events of his day, namely McCarthyism and the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater. How does your approach encourage us to think differently about the paranoid style?

Andrew McKenzie-McHarg: What made me realize that there was a story to tell here was the discovery of Hofstadter’s first presentation of the paranoid style. Some years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Manchester. After I presented a paper that simply elaborated upon the known facts, namely that Hofstadter had first outlined his understanding of the paranoid style at a lecture in Oxford University in 1963, I received a tip-off from another attendee that Hofstadter had in fact lectured on the paranoid style four years earlier in 1959. With the help of the archivists at the BBC Written Archives Centre, I located a transcript of this lecture, which has since been published in the Library of America volume of Hofstadter’s writings edited by Sean Wilentz.

Hofstadter is well-known for being somewhat dismissive of historians who bury themselves in archives—“archive rats,” he called them—and so on one level, I approached my article with a slightly ironic goal: what better way to vindicate the value of archival research than with a study devoted to Hofstadter himself? Admittedly, the discovery of the BBC lecture does not completely upturn our understanding of the paranoid style, but it definitely enriches our understanding of how Hofstadter formulated this concept and then presented it to the general public in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1964.

It also provides us with a revealing example of how Hofstadter engaged with the past. One of the most striking aspects of the BBC lecture is how it limited itself to the American Far Right in its McCarthyist and post-McCarthyist incarnations—in other words, to the recent past and the present, as seen from the vantage point of 1959. When Hofstadter returned to England four years later for the Oxford lecture, he did so with a lecture manuscript brimming with examples of this phenomenon drawn from far more distant episodes of American history. Clearly, this practice of discovering in the past earlier iterations of something originally observed in the present entails risks for the historian. As much as Hofstadter might have been aware of these risks, his interpretations were by no means fully immune to them. This also applies to his characterization of the paranoid style. Yet staging this conversation between past and present can also be very fruitful, and its potential is the source of much of the freshness and liveliness that Hofstadter’s work still retains—even if his present and the liberalism that dominated it have receded into the past faster than many might have expected. And even if the validity of historians taking their cue from the present remains contentious.

As for Goldwater, by the time the Republican Party nominated the senator from Arizona as their candidate for the 1964 presidential election, the essential elements of the paranoid style were already locked in place. The significance of Goldwater to the story seems to me that his candidacy helped Hofstadter overcome his reservations about exposing an American audience to the diagnosis of a paranoid style recurring throughout their history. We must remember that the first two occasions on which he presented the paranoid style were in lectures (for the BBC and Oxford, respectively) addressed to British audiences.

If I might indulge here in some counterfactual speculation, if the Goldwater movement had not taken liberals such as Hofstadter by surprise in 1964 by seizing control of the Republican party and elevating their leader to the party’s candidate in the contest for the presidency, it is not out of the question that the paranoid style might have remained an intriguing but largely forgotten conceptual experiment. The only evidence of the concept would survive in a lecture manuscript in the BBC Written Archives Center and another in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. From other documents, we can infer an initial reluctance on Hofstadter’s part to deploy the concept of the paranoid style, as he correctly foresaw the controversy it invited. The prospect of a Goldwater presidency spurred him into action. It is only necessary to read some of Hofstadter’s characterizations of Goldwater and the Goldwater movement, now easily accessed in Wilentz’s edited volume, to acquaint oneself with a less familiar Hofstadter, namely Hofstadter the deeply committed—and extremely panicked—intellectuel engagé.

GW: You note that historians and journalists who employ the paranoid style “tend to name Hofstadter as its source, perhaps out of a respect for ‘intellectual property’ or a desire to distance themselves from the concept’s implications.” I was struck by this fact, especially because the concept is still alive and well today, adapted by scholars to “numerous revisions and qualifications.” Could you speak more to this? Why is the paranoid style, a concept now older than half a century, still affiliated so closely with Hofstadter?

AM: One of the pre-publication readers of the essay objected to this point on the grounds that it is impossible to prove a negative—the negative being the statement that there are no occasions on which the paranoid style is invoked without also acknowledging Hofstadter as its originator. As valid as the objection might be, and as much as I am asking the reader to take this statement on trust, I have genuinely yet to find an appeal to the paranoid style that does not explicitly acknowledge Hofstadter as the concept’s originator. Since this article emerged from a larger inquiry into the language of conspiracy theory, it seems apposite to make the comparison to this somewhat synonymous or at least overlapping concept. “Conspiracy theory” is not a concept whose use imposes upon the user any obligation to reference the concept’s originator for the simple reason that no one person can lay claim to that honor. Instead, “conspiracy theory” entered our conceptual vocabulary in a process stretching approximately from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. There was no singular moment of creation. As for the paranoid style, the situation appears—at least at first glance—markedly different.

Part of why Hofstadter is always cited as the “inventor” of the concept of the paranoid style has to do, I suspect, with its polemical edge. It is certainly not a neutral concept, and Hofstadter was, in fact, quite candid about its pejorative connotations. Even if a subsequent commentator endorses the concept, pointing to Hofstadter as its originator provides a cover from some of the controversy that arises when one psychologizes and pathologizes participants in the sphere of democratic debate. As a fêted historian occupying a chair at a top Ivy-League university, his name obviously retains a cache of credibility which commentators gratefully avail themselves of when deploying his concept.  

A final observation is in order. If above I contrasted the “paranoid style” with “conspiracy theory” on the grounds that the former is firmly linked to its creator, I must qualify this comparison by pointing out that Hofstadter was, in fact, not entirely alone in alighting upon the “paranoid style” as a useful term. In 2017, cultural historian Alexander Dunst, in his highly stimulating book Madness in Cold War America, drew attention to the fact that Adorno had used the same combination of words in The Authoritarian Personality. To my mind, this does not justify a claim that Adorno, and not Hofstadter, was the originator of the concept, though it would be interesting to locate Hofstadter’s own copy of this seminal work; did he underline the term?

Yet just as significant was my discovery that in 1965, the same year that the Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays appeared as a book, the psychologist David Shapiro published Neurotic Styles, a work drawing upon his clinical work at the famous Austen Riggs Center in Massachusetts. In addition to the “obsessive-compulsive style,” the “hysterical style,” and the “impulsive style,” Shapiro devoted a chapter of his study to delineating the “paranoid style.” Upon noticing this convergence, I took advantage of one of the affordances of modern history not available to students of early modern history (where much of my research is otherwise focused), namely that it is on occasions possible to reach out to still living witnesses of events and participants of debates. I spoke with David Shapiro, and he admitted to me that he had often pondered the convergence, not least because he had originally felt a certain proprietary pride in having coined the term “paranoid style.” But the discovery reminded me that what we consider to be instances of individual originality are often predicated upon diffuse cultural currents and semantic trends. In other words, society invented the phrase as much as any individual did.

GW: American politics are in a particularly contentious state today, given the Democratic Party’s tenuous majorities in Congress, the aftereffects of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think that the paranoid style remains an effective means to analyze American politics? Just as scholars have amended it over the years to fit the conditions of their times, how do you think they might continue to adapt it for future use?

AM: On the eve of the last presidential election, I grappled in a JHI blog post with the efforts of commentators to characterize Trump’s form of populist politics in terms of the “paranoid style.” Of course, one reason for skepticism might lie in the impression that Trump tends more to narcissism than paranoia. But the whole point of the paranoid style as a concept was that whoever might deploy it as a mode of political communication did not need to be personally paranoid. Hofstadter’s motivation for recruiting the notion of a style was to posit an analogy linking a neurosis familiar to us from psychology with cultural and communicative rhetorical patterns.

Another impression drawn from my research reinforced a point that other scholars had already emphasized in identifying the political agenda that informed Hofstadter’s writings. Although the description of Hofstadter as a “consensus historian” might sit uneasily because he was averse to celebrating this consensus, he showed himself to be one of its most stalwart defenders whenever he encountered political forces that seemed to threaten it. In this regard, his hope was that his denunciation of the paranoid style would help ward off incursions into the political center undertaken by those not committed to democratic civility and liberal rationality. But in 2022, is there still a consensus or political center to defend? In a period of entrenched division, in which the commitment of one of America’s two political parties to the democratic process is open to question and a large portion of the American population have no problems imagining a new civil war, one might be forgiven for entertaining doubts on this score. In light of this situation, when commentators reach for the notion of the “paranoid style” in today’s climate, it’s like using a prophylactic when what the body politic requires is a cure, or at least a very different treatment. Of course, what exact “treatment” the United States needs to overcome its hyperpartisanship and mend its political divisions is another matter entirely.

Perhaps I can conclude with two points directed more at the academic debate about conspiracy theories and the paranoid style: I am more than willing to agree with some of the criticisms recently formulated by Michael Butter and directed at the shortcomings of Hofstadter’s essay; undoubtedly, Hofstadter got a few things wrong, particularly his characterization of the paranoid style as a marginal phenomenon that was the “preferred style only of minority movements.” In this respect, his presentism genuinely proved misleading. But Butter also revisits the misgivings about Hofstadter’s appeal to paranoia that many others have expressed since Hofstadter published his essay. This raises the question of how appropriate this psychiatric concept is for the study of conspiracy theories. Does the concept of paranoia have the potential to be useful or helpful in this regard, or should we abandon it because it only creates confusion? I’ve come around to believing that it does have value. This is because subjects diagnosed with paranoia do indeed often manifest grandiose suspicions of conspiracy and manipulation. It is only necessary to read Shapiro’s description of the “paranoid style” in a clinical context to appreciate the parallel to Hofstadter’s rhetorical and cultural paranoid style.

One can bemoan the defects in Hofstadter’s account and link them to the blind spots of the cold-war liberalism that he so archetypally embodied. Nevertheless, it remains necessary to honor his achievement of recognizing the existence of a recurring pattern of political action and expression. Undoubtedly, Hofstadter’s investment in post-war social science instilled in him a confidence in making such generalizations. Even if today we often pay lip service to the interdisciplinarity that came to Hofstadter so naturally, there aren’t many contemporary historians willing to posit the kinds of general historical patterns that Hofstadter felt equipped to tease out from the historical record. Whatever issues one might have with the nomenclature, we—and “we” might even include the occasional “archive rat”—can recognize the discovery of such a pattern as an achievement in its own right.


Grant Wong is a Ph.D. student of twentieth-century American popular culture at the University of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in how popular culture in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s manifested itself in all aspects of American life, especially within music, capitalism, thought, and youth culture. Grant’s writing can be found in Slate and PopMatters.

Featured image: Campaign Buttons, Sam Teigen, Flickr, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/.

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Ephemeral Documents and Enduring Debates: An Interview with Daniel Blank

By Nuala P. Caomhánach

Daniel Blank is Assistant Professor in Early Modern Literature, 1500–1700 at Durham University. His main research interests include Shakespeare, early modern drama, and theater history, as well as the intellectual culture and classical heritage of the early modern period. His first monograph, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming next year from Oxford University Press.

Blank spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about his recent article “Debating Drama in the Early Modern University: John Case, Aristotle’s Politics, and a Previously Unknown Oxford Disputation,” which appears in JHI 83.3.

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Nuala P. Caomhánach: By focusing on a university student, you argue that Aristotle’s Politics was more influential in antitheatrical discourses than scholars have allowed. You show the impact that these controversies had by stating “[Edmund] Leigh’s notebook is a local document with universal implications” (405). What avenues does the university as a site of analysis in the early modern period open up for understanding the reception, dissemination, and longevity of debates about theatrical performance?

Daniel Blank: That’s a great question. One of the things I aim to show is that the universities had their own culture of antitheatricalism. My article refers to the famous 1590s dispute between John Rainolds and William Gager—an important episode not only in the history of debates about theatrical performance but also in the history of Oxford, when two prominent university figures clashed over the issue of student drama. As Leigh’s notebook attests, however, these academic debates were by no means limited to that episode: since Leigh seems to have been writing sometime at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we gain insight into how that quarrel continued to reverberate through the university sphere. And this is where the university becomes so important as an institution, as a coherent site whose members are interacting with each other in both formal and informal contexts. The fact that Leigh was Rainolds’s student allows us to think about how these debates might have seeped into the university’s pedagogical interactions. In Leigh’s notes we see him engaging with both Rainolds and John Case, two members of Oxford who had decades earlier found themselves on opposite sides of the theatrical question. So Leigh’s own views were shaped by his Oxford predecessors, and he himself may then have shaped the debate further—if indeed he broadcast his own antitheatrical views in the disputation that his notes suggest he was preparing to give.

But the wider impact of these institutional debates is also significant. They ultimately extended beyond the academic sphere, due largely to the publication of the correspondence between Rainolds and Gager under the title Th’overthrow of stage-playes in 1599. As I discuss at greater length in my forthcoming book, Th’overthrow had a significant impact far beyond the academic sphere (as did the student plays to which Rainolds objected). So focusing on the university allows us both to see the specific flavor of antitheatricalism that arose there and to understand better its engagement with, as well as its effect on, broader cultural discourses. Leigh’s notes illustrate this dual purpose: they bring the university scene into clearer view, but the discussion of the Politics in particular has much broader implications for the relationship between Aristotle and antitheatricalism.

NC: Your close reading of Leigh’s university notebook offers the reader an engrossing and exhilarating adventure through impressive sleuthing and deep archival analysis to understand the significance of our understanding of the debates over theatrical performance. What are the challenges of working with material from the early modern period? Are there any caveats with using one document for broader arguments?

DB: One of the main challenges is access to the archives where much of this kind of material can be found. I was fortunate to be doing a year of archival research in England when this manuscript first came to my attention, but it can be very difficult to view early modern documents in person, especially when they’re held in a repository across the globe. There are other challenges as well. Much of the business of the early modern universities was conducted in Latin, so you have to be able to overcome that linguistic barrier; and documents like student notebooks only survive in rare instances. Like university plays, the fact that many of these documents are in Latin and that most exist only in manuscript has contributed to their obscurity.

Handwriting can be another issue when dealing with materials from the period. Leigh’s notebook is actually quite readable by early modern standards, but he does seem to be writing in haste on the pages concerned with theatrical performance, and he’s liberal in his use of abbreviations and contractions—so it can still be difficult to decipher. And it’s important to get the transcription exactly right, or as close to it as possible: especially with such a brief passage, every word is necessary to fully grasp the meaning.

You raise an excellent point, too, about using a single document to make a broader argument. As I say in my article, it’s important not to extrapolate too far from one student notebook, illuminating as it might be. But at the same time, it is true that most archival work from the premodern period involves some degree of extrapolation. An archive like this one is never going to be complete, especially when dealing with ephemeral documents from the early modern university. You’re never going to have everything. The best you can do is to put together something like a complete picture from the relatively few puzzle pieces that remain. And Leigh’s notebook is a very important piece.

NC: Theatrical performance and concerns over morality go hand-in-hand during this period as your historical actors (no pun intended) worry over the impact on the most impressionable in society—young men. Comedy and obscenity are top of the list over fears of the youth slipping into “idleness,” “lustfulness,” and other “evil behavior.” In reading your article, it was easy to think about the current climate over the role of the state, for example, pedagogy and content in school classrooms, cancel culture in comedy, and disinformation during epidemics. In what ways do the debates over theatrical performance reflect the concerns over how to create, govern, and control the ideal state, and more importantly, who gets to decide what is required, and what needs to be “driven out of a well-governed commonwealth” (402)?

DB: It’s an important question, and I agree: it’s difficult not to draw those parallels, especially since one of the words that comes up again and again in these early modern discourses is “obscenity”—the same word that has been frequently deployed in the recent spate of book bans in schools and libraries (which you allude to and which, as a literature scholar, I find especially disturbing). In the early modern period, theatrical performance is merely one of the “obscene” activities to which figures like John Rainolds are objecting. I think these debates are absolutely about authority and control, but the context varies: for Rainolds, it’s about the preservation of an institution—he wants a university in which students aren’t exposed to the “evils” he perceives so they can continue into the clergy uncorrupted. For John Case, some theatrical performances (those put on by professional players) are “obscene,” but others (those put on by academics) are “dignified”; in his notebook, Leigh picks up on Case’s description of the former. On the national level, of course, the Puritans looked to outlaw theatrical performance as one facet in creating an “ideal state” that conformed to their own worldview. And I think it’s vital to recognize that, whether we’re talking about early modern antitheatricalism or modern book bans, the rhetoric is often the same: censors speak of “protecting” children from anything that might disrupt the specific identities that conservative ideologues deem acceptable.

But it is telling that, even going back to ancient Greece, antitheatricalism has often been about—or appeared in contexts concerning—something much broader than the theater itself. Even the Aristotelian passage cited by Rainolds and Leigh as a basis for their antitheatrical arguments appears amidst a discussion of the rearing of children, which itself appears amidst a larger work of political philosophy. Similarly, for some early modern antitheatricalists, the goal of eliminating theater is part of a much larger goal of reshaping, and ultimately controlling, society—the primary example being the closure of the London theaters near the beginning of the English Civil War. I wonder if that’s a bit of what we’re seeing today as well with the highly politicized banning of “obscene” books: the proponents claim these bans to be about the books’ content, but in reality they’re about promoting a larger ideological agenda.

If there is a link here, then as a vocal advocate of both theatrical performance and access to diverse literature, I take some comfort in the fact that antitheatrical movements have seldom succeeded. Rainolds’s diatribes did little to curtail dramatic performance at early modern Oxford; even during the English Civil War, drama continued to circulate in various forms. If history is any guide, then one can hope that this latest round of bans won’t succeed in the long run. It’s just a question of how much harm they will cause in the meantime.


Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).


Image: Ancient Roman theater in Mérida
user:Mimi-chan / Wikimedia Commons / public domain

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Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

The Far Right in Contemporary France: An Interview with Sarah Shurts

By Alexander Collin

Sarah Shurts is an intellectual historian of modern France and professor of history at Bergen Community College. In particular, she is interested in the construction of intellectual identity on the French extreme right during the periods of active intellectual involvement in public affairs known as “engagement.” Research in this area has led her to ancillary interests in the history and nature of fascism in Germany, France, and Italy; Holocaust studies; nationalism and national identity construction; and oppositional communities. She is the author of Resentment and the Right: French Intellectual Identity Reimagined, 1898–2000 (University of Delaware Press; Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), among other publications on French intellectual history.

She spoke with contributing editor Alex Collin about her recent article “Identity, Immigration, and Islam: Neo-reactionary and New-Right Perceptions and Prescriptions” in JHI 83.3.

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Alexander Collin: Thank you for agreeing to discuss your research with us, Sarah. I want to begin by asking about your approach to this article and how this plays into your work at large. The distinction between left and right has been central to your writing for a long time, from your first book Resentment and the Right through to this most recent article in JHI. Why is the right-left distinction important to you? What does it tell us that other lenses of political analysis might miss?

Sarah Shurts: This is an interesting question because one of the things that has fascinated me since the beginning is the movement across these left-right divides by intellectuals like Ramon Fernandez in the 1930s and Renaud Camus and Alain Finkielkraut today. There is also the phenomenon of works from one political extreme serving to inspire later intellectuals of the opposing extreme— the work of a socialist like Charles Péguy being cited by fascist collaborationist Robert Brasillach, for example, or de Benoist claiming to draw inspiration for his political approach today from the work of Antonio Gramsci. And, certainly, there is support for the argument, made by many scholars, that there is common ground in political extremism whether on the left or right and that many of these philosophies today opposing capitalism, globalization, or the establishment would find supporters on both sides.

The ni droite ni gauche argument—of a third way heavily dependent on intellectual and political sources from the left as well as the right—has been influential in studies of fascism since Zeev Sternhell first proposed it, and is today claimed with equal force by those like de Benoist for the Nouvelle Droite (New Right). So, despite recognizing these crossovers and blended influences, and trying to acknowledge them in my work, why do I still emphasize the division between left and right? In great part because the intellectuals themselves do, and they see this division, and their assignation to one side or another, as a formative influence on their lives as engaged intellectuals.

When these public thinkers begin to express certain political or social or religious views, they are categorized by the general public and by their colleagues. As more people begin to attribute a right or left categorization to an intellectual for their views, the perception begins to dictate the professional networks, media outlets for expression, and social groups individuals can access or in which they feel welcomed. But it is not just external perception and attribution of a left or right categorization that creates the divide. We usually gravitate where we find sympathetic colleagues and our ideas are welcomed and supported.

All of those who are categorized as of the right that I have studied, from Maurice Barrès to Finkielkraut (who has just begun to express this frustration with his public disapprobation), have felt themselves excluded and alienated from what they consider to be the mainstream media and intellectual spaces. They have therefore worked to build spaces with like-minded people to better express their views—whether it is a political party like Camus’s In-nocence, a think tank like GRECE (Research and Study Group for European Civilization), a publishing house like Arktos, a journal like Éléments, stations or programs or podcasts, or just a sympathetic friendship like that between Finkielkraut and Camus. This segregation based on political affiliation reinforces the perception of difference and radicalizes the sense of separation from the opposing side—often nurturing a resentment of exclusion from this other—until perception of division becomes part of a distinct self-identification. This sense of self that comes from a perceived political isolation and divide between right and left has a strong influence on the transformation and radicalization of their philosophies, their networks of colleagues, and how they present themselves and their lived experience as intellectuals. It is this that intrigues me most and it is why I still keep the right-left divide at the forefront.

AC: You characterize the four thinkers at the center of this article—Guillaume Faye, Alain de Benoist, Renaud Camus, and Alain Finkielkraut—as belonging to the “New Right.” You also note, however, that they don’t always see their own work that way. What do we gain by considering these writings in contexts that the authors may not intend or even explicitly reject?

SS: I try in the piece to distinguish still between de Benoist and Faye who are founders of the Nouvelle Droite and the intellectuals who come from leftist and republican backgrounds like Camus and Finkielkraut whom I designate “neo-reactionary,” in keeping with the designation for them used by most scholars at the moment. However, I do attribute to them the same types of discourses about immigration and Islam despite these different political labels. And it is because they share these discourses that I categorize them, or more precisely their work, as belonging together under this right-wing umbrella, whether they would assign themselves this place in the spectrum or not. I am a strong proponent of letting the voices of these intellectuals do much of the speaking in my work and of trusting their writings to be reflective of their true philosophies and experiences. Usually this means accepting their own political self-designations at face value. Occasionally, however, it means letting their work speak for itself instead and categorizing it in a way that might not match the author’s own self-perception.

Just as people often don’t see themselves as clearly as those around them do, sometimes external and even scholarly perspectives can be an important contribution. This is particularly true when dealing with designation of a discourse as right-wing—a categorization that has a stigma in much of academia and in intellectual circles. Few French intellectuals of the 1930s or 40s publicly identified themselves as fascists and yet those who enthusiastically collaborated usually were, according to our historical definitions of fascism. Today someone in France supporting the anti-immigration policies and Islamophobia of Le Pen’s National Rally would be perceived as a far-right nationalist even if they did not claim this label, just as those advocating “Stop the Steal” or QAnon in the US would be categorized as right-wing even if they didn’t claim that affiliation. At some point, the job of the historian is not just to let the sources speak but also to analyze and make assessments about these ideas, including how they should be categorized and compared in the wider context of world history. However, I do try, whenever I privilege external assessment or an analysis of their work above their own self-designation, to at least acknowledge that this is not how they view their own work or their place within the political spectrum.

AC: Next, I am interested in some of the details of these thinkers and their ideas. How should we understand some of the more extreme statements these authors make, for example, Faye’s claim that he predicts “an ethnic civil war, and sound[s] the call to reconquering”? To what extent should we take that at face value as an analysis of the political situation and to what extent should we view it as a hyperbolic mode of emotional expression?

SS: Are Faye’s predictions of race war and militant reconquest and Camus’s theory of the great replacement and his envisioned solution of remigration just hyperbolic language for dramatic effect? To some extent yes, both of these discourses are certainly overblown rhetoric unmoored from reality or any statistical evidence. Both authors are emotionally overwrought, driven by irrational fears, which they translate into dire warnings and unhinged prescriptions for saving civilization. Is this rhetoric posturing for greater audience appeal? Possibly. But if they are using emotional expression to provoke their audience, it is because they truly believe they are making a reasonable assessment of a socio-political crisis.

They are not weaving words and fantasizing about future race wars and continental reconquest for the sake of a good narrative. They are actively seeking this reconquest by their readers. This is why I am drawn to working with intellectuals who engage in political affairs. Their engagement is not ivory tower abstraction. It is intentionally dispersed among the public and becomes a tool for immediate action—often violent action—or for legislative changes that shape our present. Faye and Camus may employ hyperbolic or emotionally dramatic expression, but they do so with a clear purpose of provoking the solutions they describe and with the clear intent that those who listen will take it at face value and will act on it.

AC: On a related note, alongside their polemical statements, your four writers sometimes raise questions which should be amenable to empirical testing, for instance, on the prevalence of antisemitism or gender-based discrimination within different groups in French society. To what extent are any of these claims empirically substantiated? And if so, to what extent can we separate those more substantive claims from the ideological conclusions that these authors draw from them?

SS: Empirical data, statistics, factual evidence, and any other form of scientific or sociological proof might be useful for these intellectuals, but it certainly is not required for them to make claims. The claims about migrants flooding into France, for example, upon which both Faye and Camus have based much of their work on the threats to native French society and the need for remigration or reconquest, have no foundation in reality. A quick look at the Migration Policy Institute website shows “More than 6.5 million immigrants resided in France as of 2018, the most recent year for which definitive census data are available, accounting for about 10 percent of the total population. Of these immigrants, 37 percent were naturalized citizens.” Only 54,000 requests for asylum were approved in 2021.

These numbers hardly evidence an overwhelming flood that is destroying native French culture. But these intellectuals are not interested in the realities of immigration data, nor are their audiences. They have only a fear, a perception of change occurring in their nation that they don’t like. Camus and Finkielkraut do not provide statistics or data sets in their books, instead they describe feeling alienated walking through a town with a large Muslim population or tell stories of teachers struggling with the religious requirements of Muslim students in the school. It is the perception of a change, a crisis, and a threat, rather than the reality, that matters. This corresponds to the increasing right-wing rejection of scientific evidence, historical facts, legal evidence and court rulings, and judgment based on erudition or academic credentials.

AC: Next, I have a few questions on the broader context. As you described the French right’s liberalization on some issues, like gay rights, in parallel with less tolerance for religious or cultural differences, I was reminded very much of the Dutch politics of the 90s and figures like Pim Fortuyn, who began on the left, was openly gay, and moved right as his politics focused more on opposing immigration and multiculturalism. To what extent do these French writers operate in a strictly French context and to what extent are they drawing on figures like Fortuyn from outside France?

SS: Despite the ultra-nationalist and isolationist rhetoric of these right-wing parties, there is no longer any possibility of remaining isolated as a nation or completely unaffected by the intellectual and social currents of the rest of the world. The power of transnational currents of right-wing thought as early as the 1930s for the fascists has been well documented by scholars like Andrea Mammone, and Arnd Bauerkämper. Today, thanks to a heavy right-wing presence on the internet, these exchanges and influences are even more prevalent, constant, and immediate.

Occasionally these intellectuals will address figures and influences from beyond France directly. Camus has written an open letter to Viktor Orbán full of admiration and crowing about Orbán’s use of his concept of the great replacement. He is also a great admirer of Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, Camus, and Alice Weidel of AfD in Germany, as well as Marine Le Pen, and even Éric Zemmour are evidence of one of the more interesting shifts of the far-right community. The far-right’s focus on opposing immigration and Muslims has led it to find new allies among its erstwhile targets by supporting women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Jewish community all of whom it feels are threatened by fundamentalist Islam. This is both a reflection of the changing social attitudes of the new generations in France and a recognition of these currents among the right-wing intellectual milieu in other nations, even if the debt they owe to these external inspirations is never explicitly stated.

AC: To what extent do you see this as a particularly modern phenomenon? A number of historians have stressed use of pre-modern history by recent right-wing movements, for example, Krisztina Lajosi-Moore’s work on Hungary. Is this a feature of the French right? If so, to what extent do you see that as a real manifestation of older ideas and to what extent is it just giving historical trappings to distinctly modern phenomena?

SS: There has always been a great interest on the far-right in historic symbolism and references to the pre-modern past. Right-wing nationalists from Barrès to Le Pen have celebrated the life and inspiration of Joan of Arc, the Maurrassians glorified the ancien régime, the fascists celebrated medieval warriors and Roman virtues. The European far right and the American alt-right both have a fascination with Roman history, Nordic mythology, and all things medieval. All of this, in my opinion, is just the use and abuse of symbolism and the manipulation of history as window dressing rather than any true philosophical inspiration, particularly as it percolates down to the general public.

However, other premodern themes found circulating among the European New Right intellectuals, like paganism and ethnic communitarianism and traditional roles for men and women, have had more influence in shaping the philosophies of the far right and the policy proposals of those who follow them. And, of course, the very concept of blood and soil or blood and the dead nationalism that drives the protection of borders and the fear of deculturation and replacement is predicated on a sense of national lineage, bloodlines, heritage, memory, and ancient history in a people and a space. But even then, if we look at nationalism in general, the construction of nationalism in Europe was a nineteenth-century phenomenon despite the claims to a primordial national identity, as numerous scholars like Jo Tollebeek and Roderick Beaton have shown. So while they may utilize the symbols and reference the regimes of the past or even borrow from ideals and values of the past, the far-right as we see it today is a modern phenomenon.

AC: Lastly, a question on your experience working on this article and your previous research. How does being based in the US affect your perspective on France? What do you learn from that extra distance and, conversely, is there anything you think you miss by not always being on the ground?

SS: I always tend to think I miss more than I benefit from being in the US. While well-educated Americans might know the name Le Pen, they would not recognize any of the right-wing intellectuals and writers engaging in French political affairs today, so these individuals and their work are not part of the common conversations here. I miss the kinds of exchanges with colleagues, casual conversations, and constant news stories on right-wing politics, leaders, and ideas that would be prevalent in France the way conversations about Trump and January 6 are at the moment here in the US.

I do have the benefit of seeing some of these French ideas cross the Atlantic and become powerful tools here. This gives me a different perspective perhaps on the transmission of ideas that begin in books or articles or interviews and the transnational networks at play in spreading them to the masses worldwide (in podcasts, chats, and messaging platforms as well as in forums and conferences where these groups and speakers meet and merge and exchange ideas). And as a historian I always feel it is beneficial to have some distance from the object of study—since in this case I cannot have temporal distance, geographic distance helps to keep me out of the fray and allows me the analytical distance needed to view the forest rather than the trees.


Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. 

Categories
Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

William Callison on Max Weber, Ludwig von Mises and State Economic Planning

William Callison is a political theorist with research interests in the history of political and economic thought, democratic theory, and critical theory. His work explores dilemmas of neoliberal capitalism, democratic crisis, political subjectivity, conspiracy theory, climate change politics, and far-right nationalist movements in Europe and the Americas. With Zachary Manfredi, he is the editor of the recent collection, Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture. He is a member in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

He spoke with contributing editor Alex Collin about his essay “The Politics of Rationality in Early Neoliberalism: Max Weber, Ludwig von Mises, and the Socialist Calculation Debate” in JHI (83.2).

***


Alex Collin: Firstly, a very general question. I’d like to ask how you came to write this piece, and how it relates to your research more broadly?

Will Callison: I came to this through my dissertation research on twentieth-century conceptions of rationality, technocracy, and politics, with a focus on the Austrian, Freiburg, and Chicago Schools of neoliberalism and the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism. At the time I was interested in the origins and critique of what we could call neoliberal anti-politics: the transformation of political economy into economics and the displacement of “the political” through notions of rationality. One thing I discovered through reading primary texts—and many dusty books with old German typeface—was the central if muted role Max Weber played in these intellectual traditions. This is perhaps unsurprising. But some key parts of that story have been overlooked. For example, an important point of departure for each of these schools was the so-called “socialist calculation debate”—a debate in which Weber was an early participant. Examining Weber’s place in the calculation debate became important for my dissertation; it also became the basis for this article. My work has changed as times have changed. But that research informed part of my current manuscript, which is a historical and theoretical study of what I call “haywire liberalism.” The book examines the evolution of different currents of neoliberalism, their tangentially authoritarian foundations, their distinctive constructions of (anti-)socialism, and their hybridization with far-right politics. This article explores one part of its epistemological and methodological backdrop.

AC: Your article alludes to the social context between Weber, Mises, and other scholars living in and around Vienna, as well as groups and institutions like the Verein für Sozialpolitik and the Mont Pelerin Society. How important were the social and intellectual dimensions for these developments?

WC: Incredibly important. The article begins by highlighting the significance of the Methodenstreit, or methodological dispute, between Gustav von Schmoller’s German Historical School and Carl Menger’s Austrian School. That debate concerned the epistemological basis of the interdisciplinary economic sciences, including law and the “state sciences,” pitting German approaches to historicist institutionalism against Austrian formalistic subjectivism or “marginalism.” But the social dimensions were key to these intellectual developments. Here I draw on some excellent historians of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century political economy, such as Johanna Bockman, Bruce Caldwell, Erwin Dekker, Stefan Kolev, Niklas Olsen, Pavlos Roufos, Quinn Slobodian, Keith Tribe, and Janek Wasserman, among others. The debates of that time developed through social, political, and academic organizations, especially the Verein für Sozialpolitik.

My article explains how Weber’s frustration with the Verein’s overtly political debates spurred his famous formulation of “value neutrality” (Wertfreiheit)—a way of carving science off from politics. It also led his thinking about methodology and economic theory from the views of German Historical School toward those of Austrian School. Not coincidentally, Weber was invited to Vienna, where he delivered lectures on “Economy and Society: Positive Critique of the Materialist Conception of History” to university students and a talk on “Socialism” to military officers and Austro-Hungarian royalty. The time he spent in Vienna and elsewhere, with Austrians like Friedrich von Wieser and Ludwig von Mises, was significant for their work in general and for the socialist calculation debate in particular. Mises and Hayek’s ability to form intellectual and political alliances, many of which began in the Verein, laid the interwar basis for the postwar founding of the Mont Pelerin Society.

AC: In the socialist calculation debate, you describe Mises as having ‘radicalized’ Weber’s ideas about formal rationality. Could you introduce that debate and explain why their respective notions of rationality were important to it?

WC: Under the revolutionary conditions that obtained at the end of the First World War, the socialist calculation debate concerned the theoretical foundations of socialist planning. In the framing of Weber, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich von Hayek, it concerned whether socialism is possible at all. Their shared target of critique was Otto Neurath, a positivist philosopher, proponent of socialist rational planning, and a former classmate of Mises. Neurath also led the Central Planning Office for the Bavarian revolutionary workers’ council before it was crushed by state and proto-fascist paramilitary forces in 1919. The conceptualization and critique of “planning” in Weber and Mises made the logic of market exchange into the criterion of formal rationality. Weber posited state planning as inherently less rational than markets, whereas Mises radicalized the concept of formal rationality in Menger and Weber to make state planning definitionally irrational. This set the conceptual architecture through which the debate would unfold. While participants like Karl Polanyi and Felix Weil rejected some of this framing, market socialists like Lange, Lerner, and Dickinson largely worked within it. Lange even praised Mises’ scientific contribution, suggesting there should be a statue of him in the future Central Planning Board of the socialist state! Through a close reading of certain texts, particularly the second chapter in the posthumously published manuscripts titled Economy and Society, one can see how Weber’s binary typology of rationality shared a great deal with and even contributed to the Austrian framing of the calculation debate. Accordingly, if suspiciously, Hayek later argued that Mises, Weber, and the Russian economist Boris Brutzkus all “independently” arrived at the same conclusions about the “irrationality” of socialist planning.

AC: In the conclusion, you describe the calculation debate as ‘modelled on the Methodenstreit’. To what extent should we see the calculation debate as a unique phenomenon, and to what extent does it sit within a longer tradition of argument in the history of ideas.

WC: In addition to the Austrian School’s views on politics, culture, and civilization, the tradition was built on a series of epistemological interventions. Beyond Menger’s own writings, it was formed through his methodological polemic against Gustav von Schmoller and the German Historical School. In other words, a tradition of political and economic thought emerged through a critique of its alleged opposites. I argue that Mises, Hayek, Lionel Robbins and others learned a great deal from Menger’s maneuvering in the Methodenstreit. This form of critique was continued and transformed through Mises’ attack on socialist planning. In the early 1930’s, the neoliberals made “socialism” and “planning” into sliding signifiers for irrationality and existential danger, which were soon applied to Keynesianism as well. As I explain in the article, it’s important to track how that discursive maneuver was carried forward. But it’s also imperative to understand the history of such concepts, methods, and strategies—that is, how they develop within and between different traditions of thought.

AC: It has been argued lately, for instance by Gary Gerstle, that neoliberalism is coming to an end in many countries today. Do you agree, and if so, how does that affect our assessments of the importance of the calculation debate?

WC: We are surely witnessing a set of fundamental transformations to political and economic, order that are at once locally rooted and yet global in scope. But for reasons my current manuscript will explain, and Mutant Neoliberalism already indicated, I disagree. In our introduction to that edited volume, Zachary Manfredi and I offered a critique of kneejerk narratives proclaiming the “death” of neoliberalism. These began with the global financial crisis of 2008 and were run on repeat after the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, we again observed the implicit hope that declaring neoliberalism over might make it so. Gerstle is a renowned historian of the twentieth century. Yet with this book, I fear he has written a certain version of this story—the post-election version equating neoliberalism with free markets and rightwing populism with its assumed opposites—backward in time. Gerstle takes neoliberalism to be a combination of free-market globalization and cosmopolitan culture. This interpretation may allow for an accurate account of neoliberalism’s uptake by New Labour and the New Democrats, one which can also be found in Stephanie Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented, among other books. But as a century-spanning intellectual and political history of neoliberalism, that rendition is far too simple and does not adequately track the internal diversity of neoliberal thought or the evolution of neoliberal practice, as captured by books like Melinda Cooper’s Family Values, for example. Gerstle is right that there is an important connection between classical liberalism and neoliberalism, as my manuscript also argues. But for precisely this reason, one needs to account for longer and more global histories of political-economic struggle. As my article suggests, the socialist calculation debate is a part of that history. And as libertarian disciples and contemporary socialists like Evgeny Morozov and Aaron Benanav reconsider some lingering questions in that debate, it is also critical to political-economic struggles today.


Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. 

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Max Weber, Creative Commons.

Categories
Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Jacob Jensen on Repurposing Mises: Murray Rothbard and the Birth of Anarchocapitalism



Jacob Jensen is an historian of modern America with special interests in the intellectual history of the public sector. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Saxo Institute of the University of Copenhagen. His fellowship is part of the “Key Actors – Peopling the Neoliberal Economy” project, which examines how imaginary characters like the consumer, the entrepreneur, the investor, and the debtor have been articulated as role models of social behavior to legitimize the neoliberal economy.

He spoke to Elsa Costa a contributing editor about his essay, “Repurposing Mises: Murray Rothbard and the Birth of Anarchocapitalism,” which appeared in the JHI (83.2).


***


Elsa Costa: The “myth of the American frontier” occupies an ever greater position in Rothbard’s imagination over the course of his career. I was reminded, while reading your account, of recent journalism and scholarship on the connections between Rose Wilder Lane, who co-wrote the Little House on the Prairiebook series with her mother Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the libertarian right. Wilder Lane has even been called one of the “founding mothers” of libertarianism along with Ayn Rand, with whom she corresponded for about a decade. The association between the pioneer era and radical libertarianism is, in other words, larger than just Rothbard, and appears to have been circulating as early as the 1930s, when Wilder Lane wrote her Credo, and certainly by the 1950s. Yet Rothbard does not appear to have settled on homesteading as the central image of his philosophy until much later. Instead, your piece speaks of a sustained engagement with the highly cosmopolitan Mises and, in the era of Left and Right, a tendency to focus on urban issues. Did Rothbard’s interest in homesteading predate the manifesto of 1973? And how do you think he came to see it as reconcilable with Mises?

Jacob Jensen: This is a terrific question. As you point out, the myth of the frontier serves an important ideological purpose within libertarian thought. Rose Wilder Lane is an important early example. The current libertarian fascination with seasteading is a more recent one. Libertarianism is a very American body of thought in the sense that it relies so heavily on an idealized image of rugged individualist settlers. This also points to an important difference between neoliberalism and libertarianism. Neoliberals emphasize entrepreneurship and universalized conceptions of entrepreneurship, meaning that everyone has the potential for innovation. Their concern is with market processes and their extension to all spheres of life. Libertarians rely on a more heroic vision of homesteaders claiming their land. Their concern is not really with markets. They are concerned with property rights – to individuals’ right to possession of land and material goods, on the one hand, and to individuals’ right to their own body, on the other. Property rights were also a cornerstone in Mises’s work, but for a very different purpose. Mises responded to interwar Viennese debates about the collective ownership of the means of production. Though they overlapped in their concern with property rights, Mises’s intention was to prove the superiority of free enterprise compared to public production. By contrast, Rothbard came to homesteading in the early 1970s in response to the egalitarian thrust of the New Left. Whereas he was enthusiastic about Black Nationalism, the anti-war movement, and aspects of the counter-culture (especially the call for free drugs), he despised the egalitarianism of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. These movements sought a leveling of social hierarchies that went against Rothbard’s biological individualism. He believed that nature determined inequality. This emphasis on nature, I think, ultimately led him to homesteading as the core expression of individual property rights. It allowed him to isolate the individual in an unregulated frontier setting where only the strongest would survive.

EC: Following up on my first question, you clearly show the degree to which Rothbard’s commitments stayed substantially unmoved following his conversion to libertarian anarchism around 1950. However, there seems to be some internal tension in Rothbard’s belief system, as well as those of his successors, between the individual or family unit and the community unit, as well as some ambiguity in how the latter is circumscribed. The racially-defined community shows up early in Rothbard’s thought, in his approbation for both the Black Panthers and for the white power movements which opposed them. Rothbard appeared to believe that both movements were hardly political movements at all, but were rather accessing a simple truth about the human tendency to assort into self-governing ethnic communities. However, at other times, Rothbard seems to have imagined the community in terms of neighborhood governance rather than racial movements, which is a different heuristic, however much the two may have seemed compatible during Norman Mailer’s 1969 bid for Mayor of New York. Both conceptions of community, the racial and the hyperlocal, also appear to clash with the family unit in the ‘homesteading’ model, which has very little patience for community. How did Rothbard, and how do his intellectual heirs, deal with that tension?

JJ: I think this reflects a general, and very productive, tension within liberal thought. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s infamous refrain about society: “There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Similarly, Melinda Cooper’s groundbreaking work shows the affinities between neoliberalism and the new social conservatism in their concern with family values. Rothbard and his heirs did not really deal with this tension. I think it speaks more to the different contexts in which his thought developed. In the 1960s, his hopes were high for neighborhood governance, which would allow ethnic communities to regulate their own affairs free from government interference. But as the 1960s came to a close, he became ever more concerned with the civil rights, women’s, and gay movements’ calls for egalitarianism. Whereas he saw in Black Nationalism a call for segregation similar to his own, the call for leveling social hierarchies was a direct challenge to his conception of individualism. That is why, I think, he went from emphasizing the isolation of the individual in ethnically defined nations, or communities, to emphasizing the isolation of the individual within the parameters of the household. Against the women’s rights movement, the man reigned supreme in this oikos.

EC: If I read it correctly, The article concludes that Rothbard was in large part responsible for the tendency of modern radical libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and members of the alt-right to substitute the “covenant” among members of a small, ethnically linked community for the traditional institutions of society: law, government, and even perhaps for the market itself. “Covenant” is here a secularized religious term and also recalls the Mayflower Compact, as well as the charters of the joint-stock companies, such as the Massachusetts Bay Company, which first colonized New England. Arguably, these early modern corporations were in turn economized versions of medieval corporate forms such as the confraternity or religious order. Rothbard’s persistent interest in communities and the ties which bind them, over and against the state, is often reminiscent of a neo-medieval corporatism, with race or ethnicity substituted for religious affiliation (for example, a confraternity’s devotion to a particular saint). This would explain his fascination with the Black Panthers. Yet this conflation of community ties with racial ties is far from natural or intuitive, and it is unclear how Rothbard would circumscribe ethnic identification (going by the simple black-white divide, the ensuing communities would be impossibly large). Nor does race seem to have any intuitive link with individualism, despite Rothbard’s insistence on deriving the latter from biological inequality. Can you speak a little on how Rothbard’s beliefs came to be so heavily racially inflected?

JJ: The point about the similarities between the libertarian covenant and neo-medieval corporatism is brilliant. As you point out, the intellectual origins of the covenant spring from the myth of the American frontier. In the absence of a state, the covenant becomes a crucial element in the maintenance of order. This seems like an odd position for a thinker who barely left New York because of an anxiety disorder. But I think it was a reflection of the very racially divided neighborhoods of that city, and the urban riots of the 1960s led him to the conclusion that the best thing would be for communities to divide along racial lines and govern their own affairs. Rather than having the central, or city, government intervene, he saw segregation as the way forward. His emphasis on biological inequality reinforced this position. The resort to biology is quite common among economic liberals, and it reflects the paradox of competition. On the one hand, for competition to work, competitors need to start from the same position. On the other hand, competition needs to result in an unequal outcome. Some liberals recognize that government intervention is necessary to level the playing field to make competition meaningful. Others, like Rothbard, simply point to spurious theories of biology to avoid opening the Pandora’s Box of government action. In that sense, they do not really care about competition. That is why he ends up emphasizing the frontier where land, in his idiosyncratic version of history, was plentiful and unused (sidestepping, or perhaps even celebrating, the violent appropriation of native land). In this vision, homesteaders banded together in contractually binding communities to protect their property. It is a vision that only makes sense against the background of the myth of the American frontier.


Elsa Costa is a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her Ph.D in 2021. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy. She begins as Assistant Professor in Atlantic history at Fulbright University Vietnam in 2022.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Murray Rothbard. GNU Free Documentation License

Categories
Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Niklas Olsen and Quinn Slobodian on Locating Ludwig von Mises

Niklas Olsen is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the SAXO-Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Among his publications are The Sovereign Consumer: A New Intellectual History of Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (Berghahn, 2012). He has edited volumes about themes such as the memory of ‘68’ in Denmark, twentieth century German intellectuals, the challenge posed to Danish Universities by National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s, critical theories of crisis in Europe and Scandinavian knowledge societies.

Quinn Slobodian is the Marion Butler MacLean Associate Professor of the History of Ideas at Wellesley College. His most recent book is Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018). He is also the author of Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Duke University Press, 2012), and has edited and co-edited volumes on race in East Germany, the intellectual and moral breadth of neoliberalism, and neoliberalism’s proselytizers in Eastern Europe and the Global South. His new book, on capitalist exit fantasies, will appear in 2023.

Olsen and Slobodian spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about their introductory essay “Locating Ludwig von Mises: Introduction,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.2).

***


Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction to this fascinating and generative cluster of essays on “Locating Ludwig von Mises,” you explain the inherent contradiction about Mises and his liberalism— as a historical figure, a historiographical conundrum, and his contemporary status in politics today. What collaborative process led to this decision to explore Mises, and what is at stake here? You note that Mises is virtually absent from the substantial historiography on liberalism (footnote 12) and I was curious about who and how this “cult of personality” was constructed and through what means of legitimacy?

Quinn Slobodian and Niklas Olsen: Ludwig von Mises (born in Lviv, Austria-Hungary in 1881 and deceased in New York City in 1973) is a curious character because so far he has really only been taken seriously by people who see themselves as self-consciously working inside of his intellectual tradition. From the outside, Mises is often rendered in caricature as simply staked out at the most extreme end of libertarianism. A commonly repeated anecdote is how when Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, George Stigler and others gathered in Switzerland to form the Mont Pelerin Society, the flagship organization of the neoliberal intellectual movement, Mises supposedly left the room angry at some point shouting “you’re all a bunch of socialists!”

Anecdotes like this have been used to dismiss Mises as a relic of a superseded 19th century version of laissez-faire liberalism not worthy of closer attention. His failure to secure a regular position in U.S. academia as an émigré is implicitly taken to confirm his irrelevance. At the same time, within the world of the so-called Austrian School of Economics, especially in the United States, Mises has an almost godlike status. His big book, Human Action, published in 1949, is treated with reverence and granted the annotations and exegeses worthy of a masterpiece. The creation of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama in 1982 as a self-consciously more radical think tank than the Beltway counterparts like the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and the subsequent establishment of copycat Mises Institutes worldwide since 2008 has served as the institutional basis for the lionized version of Mises.


Our collection was trying to follow the recent comprehensive work of the historian Janek Wasserman to find a middle space between these two extremes. We think that Mises is underrated as a thinker on his own terms and offers a crucial bridge between the so-called Socialist Calculation Debate of the 1920s and the broader conversations within the neoliberal movement that picked up steam at mid-century. We are also fascinated by the diverse appropriations of Mises, from the engagement with his writing in China during the time of reform and opening described in this issue by Isabella Weber, his influence on postwar development debates in Mexico explored in the unfortunately still untranslated book by María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, and the influence of his writings in the recent right-wing libertarianism of Brazil outlined by scholars like Camila Rocha. As scholars working to historicize the diversity and the depth of the neoliberal movement, we find it worthwhile to expand the canon, as it were, and take seriously thinkers who may have had traction for reasons not yet understood.

NC: This cluster of essays offer three methodological starting points to form a novel foundation from which future analytical studies in the field could commence from. Where do you think the field is going, or needs to go?

QS & NO: So, to paint with a broad brush, there has been a tendency in the field to write separate histories of different strands of liberalism – of social liberalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, libertarianism etc. – and to ascribe to each a unique canon of key thinkers, ideational features, and events and contexts. These histories are all somewhat exclusionary in terms of neglecting protagonists that do not fit easily into the respective canons.

Mises, who rejects easy categorization, is a case in point. His liberal thought and the reception of it has never been explored in depth in any of the mentioned literatures. We think there is a need to bring discussions, contexts, and protagonists from the various strands of scholarship into conversation with each other not only to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding Mises, but of liberalism more generally. What our cluster of essays shows is that liberalism ought to be regarded as a complex set of dynamic discourses that constantly change in time and place, as the historical actors, who articulate them, encounter new political challenges, institutional contexts, and social networks. It also shows that we should be open to the idea that thinkers, or movements for that matter, can straddle and move between different liberal languages. So, our plea is for a truly historical approach that resists easy classifications of a complex past, analyses the formation of ideas within multiple contexts, and acknowledges that ideas are continuously being reworked and recalibrated to address new problems. Having said that, we do think the field is currently moving towards more historical approaches to liberalism – and hopefully our essays can be read as a small contribution to this change. One of the stories that is yet to be written by scholars in the field is a synthesis of twentieth liberalism conceptualized along these lines. Here lies one of several challenges, or opportunities, for further research.

NC: Reading the introduction and the essays left me curious about the category of gender across multiple registers with the (1) authors of the cluster, (2) historical actors under analysis, and (3) historiographical sources being predominantly male. Does this inadvertently signal the need to explore gendering principles across all of these registers? Additionally, appropriating Mises seems to mobilize masculinity as technology, in what ways does the canon create exclusions or on the other hand impede inclusions? Does this highlight the challenges of analyzing the relationship between neoliberalism, femininity, masculinity, and the capitalist economy?

QS & NO: This is a great question. It offers a chance to mention one of the particularities of the Austrian school of economics that Mises is closely associated with. Austrian economics is focused on the question of the individual. For the most part, one has to read in questions of gender and the family through their absence. A recent book by a leading Austrian scholar began by noting that in all of the thousands of pages from work in his own field, one would be hard-pressed to find more than a few mentions of gender in the family. This stands in contrast to other schools of thought within the neoliberal tradition. In the Chicago school for example, Gary Becker, Richard Epstein and others have explicitly sought to use an economic lens to understand choices people make in marriages and as children and parents. We can thank the work of the Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper above all for laying out in detail the intellectual movements and the political projects of social conservatism at free-market neoliberalism are reconciled precisely in the space of the heteronormative nuclear family onto which state financial obligations can be offloaded onto intergenerational debt and unpaid labor.


It is worth mentioning in this context that one of the misconceptions about Austrian economic thought and indeed libertarianism in general is that it seeks to universalize the commodity relation by putting a price tag on everything on earth. This is not quite right—at least looked at from within the ideology itself. It is more correct to say that Austrian libertarians seek to universalize the contract relation—and make all human relations freely chosen by supposedly autonomous free-thinking agents. This follows through to the framing of marriage which is advocated as a contractual arrangement. Obviously this construct reaches its limits with matters of childbirth and childrearing. For his part, Mises affirmed the idea that mothering and childrearing remained an essential and inextricable biological obligation of women. This passage from Socialism (1922) is telling:


“Just as the pseudo-democratic movement endeavours by decrees to efface natural and socially conditioned inequalities, just as it wants to make the strong equal to the weak, the talented to the untalented, and the healthy to the sick, so the radical wing of the women’s movement seeks to make women the equal of men… But the difference between sexual character and sexual destiny can no more be decreed away than other inequalities of mankind. It is not marriage which keeps woman inwardly unfree, but the fact that her sexual character demands surrender to a man and that her love for husband and children consumes her best energies.”


Mises saw the attempt to collectivize childrearing as one of the missteps of socialism and a damaging application of egalitarianism. Some later thinkers working self-consciously in Mises’s intellectual tradition, namely Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, have clung to Mises’s idea of the biological basis of inequality also to embrace a race science of group differences in aptitude, especially intelligence. As described by Jacob Jensen in his contribution to this special issue, the so-called paleolibertarianism of the Mises Institute was expressly designed to reconcile conservative social values, including anti-feminism, with anarcho-capitalism. In that sense, the resistance to (and silence around) claims of gender equality in Austrian School discussions is a feature — not a bug, and may help account for the limited representation of female scholars within the orbit of Mises-derived scholarship.


Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Edited by: Tom Furse

Featured Image: Ludwig von Mises in his later years. Creative Commons.