The Original Right-Wing Gramscians (Part I) | Jake Scott

There are many conversations being had on the Right in recent years, usually divided in two: what do we want to conserve, or build; and how do we do so? The former, I am glad to say, is no longer stuck in the stasis of Blairism, that tinkering with the edges of a hostile establishment is an hegemonic approach, and with Rishi Sunak’s call to revisit the Equality Act (2010) is an extremely welcome development; but the latter is still under-developed. Fundamentally, the concern here, of how we achieve what we want to achieve, is a question of strategy.

The question of strategy is one that the Right almost fears addressing. There are many reasons as to why, and I am pretty sure that a cowardly inability to accept the fundamentally conflictual nature of politics is one of them, instead retaining a small-l liberal belief in the neutrality of institutions. But this belief holds us back, because it prevents us from seeing these institutions as battle-grounds themselves, where the culture war takes its most concrete form; and it holds us back because the Left has committed itself to a conflictual vision of politics.

It is for this reason that the Right needs to adopt a Gramscian approach to retaking control of the institutions that have long been captured by the Left, an approach of ‘marching through the institutions’. The fundamentals of Gramsci’s theory are not our concern here, but what matters is that his theory of politics as a war of position has informed Leftist political strategy for a long time, nearly a century at this point, with Gramsci writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s about the need for the Left to inculcate a revolutionary attitude amongst the ‘subalterns’ via ‘organic intellectuals’. In other words, Gramsci advocated that the Left should not try to ‘lead’ the working class and try to capture institutions of power first, as the Leninists did in Russia, but instead should change our culture first, and capture institutions of power last.

Many on the Right dismiss this strategy, taking it to be Marxist all the way down, and that the Right should seek to create its own strategies. Perhaps; this argument certainly has its merits. But the weaker argument comes from a belief that this strategy could never work. This argument is weak because, importantly, it has already worked, and I don’t just mean for the Left. In the second half of the previous century, there was a major, successful and, some might say, permanent Gramscian revolution from the right. This came from the think tank world, begun in what might otherwise seem to be an incredibly unlikely place.  

History in the Long View

In 1947, a group of predominantly European intellectuals met at a Swiss lakeside conference centre at the base of Mont Pélèrin, whilst the International Trade Organisation met at the opposite end of the lake. Organised by Friedrich Hayek, the group that met at the base of Mont Pélèrin took it as their namesake and formed the Mont Pélèrin Society. In many ways, Mont Pélèrin is ‘ground zero’ of the great Neoliberal Revolution of the second half of the twentieth century; and yet, almost nobody knows about it.

Two years prior to the meeting, at the close of the Second World War, came a reckoning for intellectuals. For many people, political philosophy, political theory, grand narratives of history and abstract theorising had not only had their day but were increasingly thought of as dangerous; they had led Italy into fascism, Germany into National Socialism, Russia into Communism, and China into civil war, as well as pushing colonies into open revolt, and causing the proliferation of dangerous beliefs in what were thought to be safe, secure Western democracies. 

Not only that, but despite the defeat of Nazism, it seemed as though those Western democracies had adopted an uncritical collectivism, whilst the shadow of Bolshevism spread malevolently across Eastern Europe. In 1947, it would be some time before the Warsaw Pact or the Eastern Bloc became geopolitical realities, but nonetheless it felt that the fires of individual liberty were well and truly extinguished in the cradle of Western civilisation. 

But the Mont Pélèrin Society was not the birthplace of what came to be called neoliberalism. In fact, in many ways, the diagnosis of the problems across the world in 1947 was the long-view of history, begun in the 1920s in response to the Great Depression, at a time when global markets seemingly froze, collapsed, and could not be revived from within. Adherents to the nineteenth-century brand of liberalism that had seen a great liberalisation of markets across the world argued that, to revive the global market and ensure its survival, there was a place for State intervention to maintain its role as the defender of the market order and the provider of prosperity and stability. In this regard, those who consciously called themselves neo-liberals of the 1920s saw themselves as committed to individual liberty supported by statehood. 

This ‘neoliberalism’ emerged as a response to both the First World War and the Great Depression and was emboldened (largely out of panic) by the emergence of the totalitarian governments of the late-1920s and 1930s. The political climate at the time, however, was not in their favour; obviously the totalitarian states of Europe would not be receptive to messages of individualism and liberty, but neither were the British or French imperialists of the time, who pursued preferential, imperial economic systems. Moreover, in the 1930s, the British economy was put into a state of paralysis that was later referred to as the Hungry Thirties, as this very imperial preference system saw increasing outsourcing of the textile industry to India and Africa, increasing union militancy, and a National Government riven with disagreement. So, the warning of the neo-liberals – that dynamic statehood was a necessary precondition of individual liberty – was ignored. 

It is important to recognise that the goals and aims of the Mont Pélèrin Society were achieved, but by no means overnight. It took over thirty years before a receptive government in Western Europe was prepared to pay attention to the ideas of the Society, during which time Britain experienced an enormous economic boom, then followed by decades of economic deflation that resulted in the dreaded stagflation of rising inflation and rising unemployment. But Britain was, of course, not alone in the 1970s – the Vietnam War, the Oil Shock of 1973, the near-collapse of industrial relations, and the complete exhaustion of the Keynesian model, which came to a head in the collapse of the Bretton-Woods monetary system in 1971.

All of this led to a sense that the current paradigm had failed. And whilst this was terrible for economists and politicians, for intellectuals their time had come. 

The Meeting at Mont Pélèrin

In many ways, we can see why intellectuals met at Mont Pélèrin in 1947; or at least, we have half-answered it. The problem of history is it is never neat, and we cannot know exactly the reasons that something happened, but we can establish two broad forms of cause. The first is the ‘push’ or the ‘negative’ factors: what had to go wrong for the event in question to take place? And, relatedly, we can establish the second, the ‘pull’ or ‘positive’ factors: what needs to change for the negative factors to be avoided or changed? We know the negative factors – a fear of collectivism, and its consequences – but what did the Mont Pélèrin Society want to achieve? 

This question can be understood best by considering another question first, specifically ‘who was there’? As mentioned, the principal figure was Friedrich Hayek, who rose to prominence in the 1940s for his work, The Road to Serfdom. Serfdom was known for its systematic analysis of how the forms of economic collectivism pursued in the West under the totalitarian government had lead to the death of liberty and, importantly, so too would other economically collectivisms. We can understand this by considering what Hayek considered the key features of the welfare state:

a.    ‘Central planning’ – Hayek’s opposition to this approach to economic organisation was essentially an epistemological one, which is that the knowledge necessary for an economy to function is so diffuse, and so minute, it is impossible to aggregate it into a single formula or under a single agency. 

b.   ‘The Redistributive State’ – Hayek believed that economic centralisation cannot be separated from the other areas of life. To quote Serfdom, economics is not ‘a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served’. 

This systematisation of the welfare state, of ‘welfarism’, is so much more extensive than merely the provision of services; indeed, as Hayek says, ‘the conception of the welfare state has no precise meaning… the phrase is sometimes used to describe any state that “concerns” itself in any manner with problems other than those of the maintenance of law and order’. 

Why is Hayek so concerned with welfarism? It is because, to him, neoliberalism in its pre-war form is what its name ought to mean quite literally: a liberalism that is modern. In this, Hayek proposes a return to classical liberalism via neoliberalism: as I describe above, liberal did and do not advocate for ‘individualist minimal government’, because the state is necessary for the protection of the conditions for individualism. He says, in a very Aristotelian fashion, ‘…there are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action… as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance […] which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise… and government may […] assist or even lead such endeavours’. 

What matters is that we must be vigilant towards the methods of provision, especially where welfarism is concerned, as it is the mindset that only the state can provide minimal services, as ‘…though effective for particular purposes, they would in their aggregate effect destroy a free society’. The coercion involved is concealed by their presentation in terms of public service.  The illusion is public service; the reality is state coercion: ‘though they are presented as mere service activities, they really constitute an exercise of the coercive powers of government’. 

This is why Hayek’s presence at the Mont Pélèrin Society matters: even more so as the instigator of this group, as his desire was to bring together intellectuals – and specifically intellectuals – to address the challenges of collectivism, amongst which was counted National-Socialist as well as Soviet totalitarianism, but also American New Deal liberalism, British social democracy, and continental Christian democracy. 

Those intellectuals that Hayek gathered were, predominantly, economists, but importantly a lot of them were people who lived under National-Socialist collectivism. As a result, they witnessed the terrible power of totalitarianism, but also adopted what we might consider a semi-irrational suspicion of the state as a mechanism by which totalitarianism became possible – but significantly, this created the grounds for a specifically transnational form of free market activism that both recognised mechanistic statism but also refused to be subordinate to it. 

What is most interesting, looking at the speech delivered by Hayek at this first meeting, is that he consciously notes the predominance of economists, and the lack of sociologists and philosophers. What Hayek desired, in terms of those in attendance, is clearly more diverse and, in our post-modern language, ‘intersectional’. He also notes, importantly, the lack of lawyers. We can discuss the potential consequences of this composition, but I think the likely reason for the predominance of economists is that those economists in attendance were anti-statist, and most governments were not receptive to their messages, as I say. 

What needs to be drawn attention to, is the presence of businessmen and journalists from the start – which Hayek intended; and the reasons why Hayek intended this, helps us to explain what the Mont Pélèrin Society wanted to do.

A Meeting of Minds

A close reading of the speech given by Hayek shows his intended and preferred strategy. Hayek lays clear that he rejects mass movements – probably due to his rejection of collectivism – but prefers instead the power of both ideas and individuals. In this regard, he suggests an extremely closed shop: he says ‘the immediate purpose of this conference is… to provide an opportunity for a comparatively small group of those who in different parts of the world are striving for the same ideals’ but, ‘we should probably not include any name unless it receives the support of two or three members of our present group… it must remain a closed society, not open to all and sundry, but only to people who share with us certain common convictions’. But, for those in attendance and whose specialism he values, he remarks that ‘we have among us a fair number of regular writers for the periodical press, not in order that the meeting should be reported, but because they have the best opportunity to spread the ideas to which we are devoted’. 

It is in regards to this that we can understand what the Mont Pélèrin Society was truly intended to be: it was not a ‘think tank’, though Hayek hinted at a journal or similar publication, but was what one writer has called a ‘thought collective’, a space for ideas to be generated, shared, refined and disseminated. But it was that final point that is most important; disseminated. The Mont Pélèrin Society was not just a talking shop. It fully intended for the ideas it generated to be shared, and widely. An important development is the recognition of what we call ‘opinion formers’, of people who are not necessarily at the wheels of power but have the ear of those who are, in an attempt to create a web of institutions that would make neoliberalism a ‘natural’ alternative to social democracy.

To this end, the Mont Pélèrin Society aimed to do something quite radical in the history of political activism: transcend national borders in an intellectual manner. Whilst we can reasonably assert that the communist movements of the mid-nineteenth century aimed at the international proliferation of their ideas, the Mont Pélèrin Society was the first to actually achieve this. Amongst their numbers, they counted British MPs such as John Enoch Powell and Sir Geoffrey Howe – Howe of course becoming Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor – German Kanzler Ludwig Erhard, Italian Presidente Luigi Einaudi, and 22 of Reagan’s 76 economic advisers in his 1980 presidential campaign team – a quite impressive stat in itself. 

But it is the founding members themselves that probably brings home just how influential this group became. Alongside Hayek, was Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman, three of the most important social, political and economic theorists of the twentieth century.

Photo Credit.

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