Newsletter #73: Exiting Neoliberalism's Zones of Exception, with Quinn Slobodian

Editor’s note: In a few days, we will be piloting a new newsletter format that involves listeners who support The Dig on Patreon posing questions to Dig guests — in this case, Quinn Slobodian. If you’re not yet a patron and would like to ask a guest a question, now is the perfect time to support us on Patreon.

by Benjamin Feldman

In a celebrated clip from his capitalist propaganda documentary series “Free to Choose,” the economist Milton Friedman holds up a wooden pencil to illustrate what he describes as “the magic of the price system.” It is only “the impersonal operation of prices,” Friedman tells us, which is capable of marshaling the efforts of thousands of people to turn raw materials — wood from Washington state, graphite from mines in South America, rubber from trees in “Malaya” — into the everyday products on which we rely. In Friedman’s telling, the market is not only the source of all the conveniences of the modern age, but the only force capable of “foster[ing] harmony and peace among the peoples of the world.”

There are some gaps in Friedman’s story. To take just one example: the rubber industry of “Malaya” (which had ceased to be a nation nearly twenty years before the filming of Free to Choose) was built not by the impersonal forces of the free market, but by European colonizers, who grew rich off of the un- and underpaid labor of mostly migrant workers — many of whom died in service of British capital. As recently as 2018, the US Department of Labor included rubber gloves from Malaysia on a list of goods likely produced through forced labor. From the pencil industry, to the rise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the genocidal “settling” of the American West, markets have developed not through the magic of the price system but through coercion and racialized violence backed by state power.

In Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, historian Quinn Slobodian argued that paeans to cooperation and harmony aside, neoliberals often understood perfectly well that free markets built through coercion do not require free people, and that democracy might represent a threat to the smooth functioning of markets built and maintained through coercion. Thus, as decolonization began to upend the international order in the mid-to-late-twentieth century, neoliberals associated with what Slobodian calls “the Geneva School” sought to build supra-national institutions capable of encasing markets and protecting them from democratic oversight.

In his new book Crack-Up Capitalism: Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy, Slobodian brings the story into the present, writing about the neoliberals, libertarians, and anarcho-capitalists who, having come to see freedom and democracy as fundamentally incompatible, seek an escape through “zones”: subnational jurisdictions which work to attract investment by cordoning themselves off from the burdens of taxation, labor law, and democratic accountability.

From Hong Kong in the 1970s and London’s canary wharf in the 1980s, to twenty-first-century Dubai and the metaverse, these figures — including MAGA billionaire Peter Thiel, Milton Friedman’s grandson, leaders of the alt-right, and Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein — have celebrated these zones as models of a new global order on the rise, one characterized by “a radical form of capitalism in a world without democracy.”

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Quinn Slobodian here.

Both Slobodian’s book and his conversation with Dan are essential for leftists — not just for readers and listeners who want a better understanding of trends in global capitalism or more insight into the dystopian fantasies of the techno-libertarian fringe, but as what Slobodian calls a “negative model” of the sort of visions that those of us who want a more democratic and more equitable future might develop. After all, though their cyberpunk inflected-fantasies — from creating literal islands of white supremacy to colonizing Mars to living in the cloud — are by turns horrifying and ludicrous, they are both diagnosing something real in our current order, and searching within that order for the seeds of what might come next.

Taking these figures seriously allows us to hit on a key stumbling block on the path to libertarian exit, one which Slobodian discusses in the book’s conclusion. “Zones are everywhere,” Slobodian writes, “but contrary to the rhetoric of boosters, they do not seem to be creating islands of liberation from the state. Rather, states are using them as tools to advance their own purposes.” If the proliferation of zones has actually strengthened the state, then democratic mobilization within those states might represent the best chance to build a future defined not by authoritarianism and commodification, but by solidarity, mutuality, and reciprocity.

Further Reading Listeners who enjoy the conversation should check out Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism, as well as his earlier Globalists and Market Civilizations: Neoliberals East and South, co-edited with political scientist Dieter Plehwe.

Slobodian’s writing can be found in both academic and public forums. For those interested in reading more of his recent analysis on the anti-democratic impulses in neoliberalism, see essays in Fortune and the New York Times, and articles published in the Journal of Australian Political Economy and Cultural Politics. Check out Quinn’s 2018 interview with The Dig here.