Quinn Slobodian on taking on the crack-up capitalists

The leftist historian describes his adventures in marketopia—and how libertarians turned against him

March 29, 2023
Quinn Slobodian
Quinn Slobodian

For a long time, Quinn Slobodian—a leftist scholar of the neoliberal movement—couldn’t believe how popular he was with his subjects. 

The luminaries of the Mont Pelerin Society, the talking shop founded by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, didn’t balk as he exposed the “antagonism” of their marketopian ideas to “republican democracy”. Instead, he tells me over Zoom, “they admired the fact I’d done the work; I knew the debates, and was parsing things out, not lumping things together.” 

One member, the polymathic historian Deidre McCloskey, even produced a rave review of his last book, Globalists. She took him, Slobian says, not merely as analysing but as “advocating” schemes to put “global economic governance” beyond the reach of politics. This was, he says, an “extraordinary misreading” of his critique. He reflected that if even those within the school of thought he was writing about recognised his description, then “I must have come very close to the bone.” 

Today, however, as his new book Crack-Up Capitalism (out with Allen Lane in April) turns to the wilder shores of libertarian thought, the mood has soured. 

He’s now less concerned with Milton Friedman than his “more eccentric and more interesting” anarcho-capitalist son David, and his grandson, Patri Friedman, whose big idea is “launching ‘sea-steads’ as floating polities upon the Ocean.” (The grandson’s vision is of floating cities upon the high seas which are beyond the writ of any territorial government—and as such a safe harbour for anyone with a yacht to take them beyond the reach of their state). 

Where Slobodian used to study people who wanted to encase a free market in a strong state, this new cast of characters want to let the market rip by tearing everything down—people who “actually want to do away with the state.” Some are paranoid and far from friendly. Others have made common cause with racists. At the same time, other “more academically engaged” and respectable figures resent being tainted by association through the intellectual lines of connection that Slobodian sketches between them and the real fringe. 

“Relationships have cooled—and that’s a very mild way of putting it,” Slobodian says. “There have been several ‘hit pieces’ about me and my work written on the websites of the market thinktanks.” Time-wasting complaints have been lodged with academic presses, one claiming that Slobodian had defamed Ludwig Mises, the great interwar high priest of capitalism. This necessitated a “long and cumbersome investigation into whether I’d misread some line” by the Austrian economist who’s been dead for 50 years, which eventually concluded that “no, I didn’t misread him.”  

The libertarian constant, Slobodian says, is the conviction that “safeguarding capitalism is the most important thing for civilisation’s survival.” It is amid growing fears that trans-national institutions are “not getting the job done” that the next generation is getting tetchy—and shifting its focus, from building new structures to tearing things down. 

The specific impulse Crack-up Capitalism concentrates is the desire to shatter the political map, a desire long aired by Peter Thiel. The openly anti-democratic PayPal and Facebook billionaire has suggested that the cause of “freedom” requires moving from today’s world of 200-odd countries to a globe where thousands of them compete to offer money a comfortable home. 

Slobodian is the son of a Canadian doctor who took his services to the ends of the earth, and hence as a schoolboy was himself “exposed” to the sort of statelets that might pepper a libertarian future. From age six, he lived for three years in Lesotho, an independent enclave in apartheid South Africa. During his late teenage years he lived 14 in Vanuatu, a Pacific archipelago nation that emerged from a weird Anglo-French condominium in 1980. The big lesson, he says, is that “geography is very provisional.” 

Lesotho was a “great laboratory” for progressive foreign aid types. But their efforts to escape the racist republic beyond failed completely, because—he says—of “the way money moved and the way people moved.” With the “nation goggles on,” Lesotho looked like a country. But when the adult Slobodian reflects, he realises that today’s libertarians are on to something in grasping just how profoundly “those goggles mislead.” 

“Nation goggles” are increasingly distorting in a world where supposedly-sovereign nations scramble to spur growth and attract investors by carving holes in their own economic authority. Witness schemes like Boris Johnson’s freeports and the “investment zones” Jeremy Hunt just launched in the Budget

This “zoning” could have gone an awful lot further and faster if only the financial markets hadn’t rudely interrupted the work of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng: the pair envisaged sweeping opt-outs from taxes, labour standards and environmental rules across great tracts of the country. It sounded like an agenda to put Britain on a course where the nation state would steadily wither away, leaving the market sovereign. But as so often, to the libertarians’ chagrin, the nation reasserted itself. 

If zoning falters, there’s always secession. One of the case studies in Slobodian’s book is Orania, a city founded by Afrikaners seeking an opt-out from Nelson Mandela’s new South Africa in the 1990s. Much more generally, Slobodian suggests, we shouldn’t assume that libertarians are liberals as we would ordinarily define that. Many of the ultras “openly admit” that their vision does not guarantee “high levels of personal freedom.” Restrictions on sex lives and dress codes could happen, so long as—Slobodian underlines—they are settled on between property-owners through “commercial-style transactions,” rather than “citizen-style” democratic decisions. 

We shouldn’t assume it’s all fantasy stuff. The crack-up capitalists notched up one of their greatest victories to date with Brexit. The mainstream neoliberals who’d built the single market were routed by radicals so allergic to its “social Europe” flipside that they were willing to smash everything up. The zealots, like the anarcho-capitalist architect Patrick Schumacher, even smile at the prospect of breakaways of the left, such as the independence some hope for in Scotland—because the socialists will fail and leave the door open for the true prophets of crack-up. 

But Slobodian spies a problem. “The notion of ‘taking back control’ has within it democratic ownership,” he says. “And if you don’t do away with democracy all together, it is quite likely that your radical libertarian vision will be rejected.” Let’s hope so.