Niklas Olsen is Professor of the History of Political Thought at the SAXO-Institute, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Among his publications are The Sovereign Consumer: A New Intellectual History of Neoliberalism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (Berghahn, 2012). He has edited volumes about themes such as the memory of ‘68’ in Denmark, twentieth century German intellectuals, the challenge posed to Danish Universities by National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s, critical theories of crisis in Europe and Scandinavian knowledge societies.

Quinn Slobodian is the Marion Butler MacLean Associate Professor of the History of Ideas at Wellesley College. His most recent book is Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018). He is also the author of Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany (Duke University Press, 2012), and has edited and co-edited volumes on race in East Germany, the intellectual and moral breadth of neoliberalism, and neoliberalism’s proselytizers in Eastern Europe and the Global South. His new book, on capitalist exit fantasies, will appear in 2023.

Olsen and Slobodian spoke with contributing editor Nuala P. Caomhánach about their introductory essay “Locating Ludwig von Mises: Introduction,” which has appeared in the current issue of the JHI (83.2).


Nuala P. Caomhánach: In your introduction to this fascinating and generative cluster of essays on “Locating Ludwig von Mises,” you explain the inherent contradiction about Mises and his liberalism— as a historical figure, a historiographical conundrum, and his contemporary status in politics today. What collaborative process led to this decision to explore Mises, and what is at stake here? You note that Mises is virtually absent from the substantial historiography on liberalism (footnote 12) and I was curious about who and how this “cult of personality” was constructed and through what means of legitimacy?

Quinn Slobodian and Niklas Olsen: Ludwig von Mises (born in Lviv, Austria-Hungary in 1881 and deceased in New York City in 1973) is a curious character because so far he has really only been taken seriously by people who see themselves as self-consciously working inside of his intellectual tradition. From the outside, Mises is often rendered in caricature as simply staked out at the most extreme end of libertarianism. A commonly repeated anecdote is how when Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, George Stigler and others gathered in Switzerland to form the Mont Pelerin Society, the flagship organization of the neoliberal intellectual movement, Mises supposedly left the room angry at some point shouting “you’re all a bunch of socialists!”

Anecdotes like this have been used to dismiss Mises as a relic of a superseded 19th century version of laissez-faire liberalism not worthy of closer attention. His failure to secure a regular position in U.S. academia as an émigré is implicitly taken to confirm his irrelevance. At the same time, within the world of the so-called Austrian School of Economics, especially in the United States, Mises has an almost godlike status. His big book, Human Action, published in 1949, is treated with reverence and granted the annotations and exegeses worthy of a masterpiece. The creation of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Alabama in 1982 as a self-consciously more radical think tank than the Beltway counterparts like the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and the subsequent establishment of copycat Mises Institutes worldwide since 2008 has served as the institutional basis for the lionized version of Mises.

Our collection was trying to follow the recent comprehensive work of the historian Janek Wasserman to find a middle space between these two extremes. We think that Mises is underrated as a thinker on his own terms and offers a crucial bridge between the so-called Socialist Calculation Debate of the 1920s and the broader conversations within the neoliberal movement that picked up steam at mid-century. We are also fascinated by the diverse appropriations of Mises, from the engagement with his writing in China during the time of reform and opening described in this issue by Isabella Weber, his influence on postwar development debates in Mexico explored in the unfortunately still untranslated book by María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, and the influence of his writings in the recent right-wing libertarianism of Brazil outlined by scholars like Camila Rocha. As scholars working to historicize the diversity and the depth of the neoliberal movement, we find it worthwhile to expand the canon, as it were, and take seriously thinkers who may have had traction for reasons not yet understood.

NC: This cluster of essays offer three methodological starting points to form a novel foundation from which future analytical studies in the field could commence from. Where do you think the field is going, or needs to go?

QS & NO: So, to paint with a broad brush, there has been a tendency in the field to write separate histories of different strands of liberalism – of social liberalism, classical liberalism, neoliberalism, libertarianism etc. – and to ascribe to each a unique canon of key thinkers, ideational features, and events and contexts. These histories are all somewhat exclusionary in terms of neglecting protagonists that do not fit easily into the respective canons.

Mises, who rejects easy categorization, is a case in point. His liberal thought and the reception of it has never been explored in depth in any of the mentioned literatures. We think there is a need to bring discussions, contexts, and protagonists from the various strands of scholarship into conversation with each other not only to arrive at a more comprehensive understanding Mises, but of liberalism more generally. What our cluster of essays shows is that liberalism ought to be regarded as a complex set of dynamic discourses that constantly change in time and place, as the historical actors, who articulate them, encounter new political challenges, institutional contexts, and social networks. It also shows that we should be open to the idea that thinkers, or movements for that matter, can straddle and move between different liberal languages. So, our plea is for a truly historical approach that resists easy classifications of a complex past, analyses the formation of ideas within multiple contexts, and acknowledges that ideas are continuously being reworked and recalibrated to address new problems. Having said that, we do think the field is currently moving towards more historical approaches to liberalism – and hopefully our essays can be read as a small contribution to this change. One of the stories that is yet to be written by scholars in the field is a synthesis of twentieth liberalism conceptualized along these lines. Here lies one of several challenges, or opportunities, for further research.

NC: Reading the introduction and the essays left me curious about the category of gender across multiple registers with the (1) authors of the cluster, (2) historical actors under analysis, and (3) historiographical sources being predominantly male. Does this inadvertently signal the need to explore gendering principles across all of these registers? Additionally, appropriating Mises seems to mobilize masculinity as technology, in what ways does the canon create exclusions or on the other hand impede inclusions? Does this highlight the challenges of analyzing the relationship between neoliberalism, femininity, masculinity, and the capitalist economy?

QS & NO: This is a great question. It offers a chance to mention one of the particularities of the Austrian school of economics that Mises is closely associated with. Austrian economics is focused on the question of the individual. For the most part, one has to read in questions of gender and the family through their absence. A recent book by a leading Austrian scholar began by noting that in all of the thousands of pages from work in his own field, one would be hard-pressed to find more than a few mentions of gender in the family. This stands in contrast to other schools of thought within the neoliberal tradition. In the Chicago school for example, Gary Becker, Richard Epstein and others have explicitly sought to use an economic lens to understand choices people make in marriages and as children and parents. We can thank the work of the Australian sociologist Melinda Cooper above all for laying out in detail the intellectual movements and the political projects of social conservatism at free-market neoliberalism are reconciled precisely in the space of the heteronormative nuclear family onto which state financial obligations can be offloaded onto intergenerational debt and unpaid labor.

It is worth mentioning in this context that one of the misconceptions about Austrian economic thought and indeed libertarianism in general is that it seeks to universalize the commodity relation by putting a price tag on everything on earth. This is not quite right—at least looked at from within the ideology itself. It is more correct to say that Austrian libertarians seek to universalize the contract relation—and make all human relations freely chosen by supposedly autonomous free-thinking agents. This follows through to the framing of marriage which is advocated as a contractual arrangement. Obviously this construct reaches its limits with matters of childbirth and childrearing. For his part, Mises affirmed the idea that mothering and childrearing remained an essential and inextricable biological obligation of women. This passage from Socialism (1922) is telling:

“Just as the pseudo-democratic movement endeavours by decrees to efface natural and socially conditioned inequalities, just as it wants to make the strong equal to the weak, the talented to the untalented, and the healthy to the sick, so the radical wing of the women’s movement seeks to make women the equal of men… But the difference between sexual character and sexual destiny can no more be decreed away than other inequalities of mankind. It is not marriage which keeps woman inwardly unfree, but the fact that her sexual character demands surrender to a man and that her love for husband and children consumes her best energies.”

Mises saw the attempt to collectivize childrearing as one of the missteps of socialism and a damaging application of egalitarianism. Some later thinkers working self-consciously in Mises’s intellectual tradition, namely Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, have clung to Mises’s idea of the biological basis of inequality also to embrace a race science of group differences in aptitude, especially intelligence. As described by Jacob Jensen in his contribution to this special issue, the so-called paleolibertarianism of the Mises Institute was expressly designed to reconcile conservative social values, including anti-feminism, with anarcho-capitalism. In that sense, the resistance to (and silence around) claims of gender equality in Austrian School discussions is a feature — not a bug, and may help account for the limited representation of female scholars within the orbit of Mises-derived scholarship.

Nuala P. Caomhánach is a doctoral student in the Department of History at New York University and evolutionary biologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on the concept, meaning, and construction of biological Time and Space across three bodies of scientific knowledge—Ecological, Malagasy, and Phylogenetic—as applied to conservation ideology and policy from the late nineteenth century to present day. In short, her dissertation aims to understand how Madagascar became the botanical museum to save all of nature (and thus, humankind).

Edited by: Tom Furse

Featured Image: Ludwig von Mises in his later years. Creative Commons.