LFC Seminar Series: Neoliberalism, Human Rights and the sweetness of commerce

LFC Seminar Series: Neoliberalism, Human Rights and the sweetness of commerce

Principal speaker

Ms Jessica Whyte


In his classic 1977 book The Passions and the Interests, Albert Hirschman identified a distinctive argument for the 'civilizing' effects of the market. On Hirschman's telling, in the lead-up to the French Revolution, the argument that commerce was a source of "sweetness, softness, calm and gentleness" (douceur) appealed to Europeans who longed to be free of warring passions. This celebration of the moral virtues of commerce became difficult to sustain in a context marked by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and the social dislocation of the industrial revolution; the subsequent period was dominated by anxieties that, far from promoting morality and "civilization", the market was undermining moral virtues, disrupting traditional forms of life and producing widespread anomie, atomization and class conflict. By the twentieth-century, Hirschman concludes, no observer could contend that the hopeful vision of the market had been borne out by events. This paper shows, in contrast, that, in the most inauspicious circumstances of the early twentieth-century, neoliberalism was founded on an attempt to revive the argument for the civilizing and pacifying role of the market. For Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, an unrestrained competitive market would replace violence, force and coercive colonial rule with peaceful, mutually-beneficial, voluntary relations, and foster individual liberty and human rights. Against this background, the paper further considers the relation between the rise of international human rights NGOs and the consolidation of neoliberalism in the 1970s. I argue that, if neoliberal thinkers and human rights activists could find common cause, as I suggest they could, this is largely because the concerns of twentieth-century neoliberals were far less narrowly economic than existing accounts tend to allow. What set the early neoliberals apart from earlier defenders of the sweetness of commerce was not their narrow vision of homo economicus but their belief that the market is a highly-fragile, artificial order that requires a moral foundation, a legal order and powerful state capable of securing what the German Ordoliberal Wilhellm Röpke called "respect for the rights of others."[1]

[1] Wilhelm Röpke, Economics of the Free Society, trans. Patrick M. Boarman (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963), 25.

About the speaker

Jessica Whyte is senior lecturer in cultural and social analysis at Western Sydney University, and an Australian Research Council DECRA fellow. She has published widely on human rights, humanitarianism, and neoliberalism, and on contemporary European philosophy. Her first monograph was Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben (SUNY, 2013). Her forthcoming book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, will be published by Verso in 2019. She is currently working the Australian Research Council-funded project "Inventing Collateral Damage: The Changing Moral Economy of War", which aims to produce a novel philosophical account of the invention of the discourse of collateral damage.

About the seminar

Jessica Whyte will present her Law Futures Seminar at the Griffith Law School (N61) Nathan campus with a videolink to the Griffith Law School (G36) Gold Coast campus. When registering for this seminar, please indicate in your email which campus you will attend.

Event categories

RSVP on or before Thursday 13 September 2018 , by email lawfutures@griffith.edu.au

Event contact details

Session 1

Session 2