Friday, November 22, 2019

Jessica Whyte's "The Morals of the Market"

Jessica Whyte is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. She is the author of Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben.

Whyte applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism, and reported the following:
In 1966, the Austrian neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an incoherent attempt to fuse a Western liberal tradition with the Marxist ideals of the Russian Revolution. Hayek singled out the Universal Declaration’s social and economic rights, arguing that they were a threat to the competitive market order and to ‘civilisation’ itself.

Page 99 of The Morals of the Market takes us to the centre of the book’s argument for why the social and economic rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration ultimately proved to be far less threatening to the market order than Hayek and his neoliberal collaborators assumed. It returns us to the late 1940s, when United Nations delegates argued over the best means to achieve these rights. While some argued that states should be legally required to provide their citizens with food, clothing, housing and medical care, the United States promoted a minimalist and privatized conception of social and economic rights, best realized through private consumption.

This gives us a good sense of my book’s broader argument that the seeds of what I call ‘neoliberal human rights’ were planted in the 1940s, even if they only flourished decades later. In the case of social and economic rights, I show that early neoliberal thinkers were also consumed with the question of how to respond to poverty in ways compatible with a competitive market order. They insisted that the provision of a vital minimum must not interfere with familial and individual responsibility and the will to work for a living. Poverty relief, the neoliberals believed, must not interfere with the inequalities of civil society.

Throughout the book, I show that while neoliberal thinkers looked with despair at attempts to enshrine new rights to social welfare, racial equality and self-determination, they also developed their own account of human rights as moral and legal supports for a liberal market order. The role of neoliberal human rights was less to protect the individual than to protect the market order and inherited status hierarchies in the face of political challenge. The neoliberals saw human rights as necessary to protect ‘civil society’ – understood as a realm of freedom, voluntary interaction, and distributed, private power – from the violence, conflict and coercion they insisted was endemic to politics.

This conception of human rights, I show, has been much more influential than most contemporary human rights defenders would like to admit—and not only on the political right or in the halls of power. Without coming to terms with that influence, social movements and struggles that wield the language of human rights to contest neoliberalism may find themselves strengthening its hold.
Learn more about The Morals of the Market at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue