by Dennis Kölling

Research in the history of libertarianism can often be fun. Which other occupation would ever permit one to spend days reading into large bodies of speculative fiction or discussing the genealogy of Spider-Man’s moral compass, all while sifting through journals that hide notoriously crazy writing under a dry, academic exterior?

The other day, I was reading through a 1981 bibliographic review on libertarian utopias that beautifully illustrated this point. The writer, American literary critic Kingsley Widmer, rather elegantly led his audience through an overview of utopian debates, from Plato and More to Popper and Hayek, with the occasional Rothbard along the way. Only upon arriving in the 1960s did his writing suddenly derail. LSD-pioneer Timothy Leary became the “libertarian guru of the swiss-cheese-brain-generation”; Robert Anton Wilson, promoter of discordianism and father of the “23 enigma,” may end up “self-destruct[ing]” if it came to the “worldwide War Against Stupidity” he himself had called for.

While Marxism, libertarianism’s polar opposite, might exhibit the same proneness to polemics so entertaining to the reader (is it only me?), the abundance of lurid language and arcane conspiracy theories present in Widmer’s paragraph point to a severe problem when approaching libertarianism from the perspective of intellectual history: the importance of actors that fall just outside the definition of what constitutes an intellectual.

Even though the definition of intellectual history for a long time has come to include as objects of study even producers of popular culture, more often than not, histories of libertarianism and its ideological parent neoliberalism have focused on those actors embedded closely in the academic world or its outgrowth in policy-making circles. Even literary histories have primarily relied on historicizing the culture of these forms of market radicalism via high-brow culture, leaving the story of libertarianism’s popular culture roots to be told by self-interested hagiographers.

This over-fixation on conventional academic career paths has led to an imbalance in the recent history of market ideologies, gravitating notably towards understanding the slightly more respectable “neoliberal thought collective,” yet ultimately leaving historians unprepared for grasping the sudden popularity of an extreme right-wing libertarianism embodied in the rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, or Javier Milei. Focusing on their differences from institutionalized neoliberal intellectual circles while downplaying their overt adherence to longstanding libertarian iconography has misidentified these new right-wing archetypes as heralding the end of the neoliberal order instead of its radicalization.

When Trump’s 2016 election shocked the moderate liberal elite, and a paradoxically autocratic libertarianism was resurrected from the ashes of neoliberal ideology, many historians were caught by surprise, lacking the tools to understand the genealogy of the iconoclastic blend of racist bigotry, minimal state anarchism, and global anti-interventionism he appeared to promote. The initial reaction tended towards proclaiming the end of neoliberalism and invoking the specter of fascism. That, however, misses the historical roots the neoliberal movement shares with its more radical libertarian twin. Trump’s policies surely diverged from neoliberal economic doctrine espousing twin processes of globalization and deregulation to bolster the free movement of capital, goods, people, and ideas; nevertheless, Trumpist rhetoric closely mirrored a cultural strain of market radicalism pioneered by such writers as H. L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, or Henry Hazlitt in the interwar period and beyond, emerging alongside the neoliberal thought collective.

Leading voices in the historical study of neoliberalism quickly provided an indispensable corrective to the simplified narrative of Trumpism as a fascist revival: Intellectual historian Quinn Slobodian showed in an important research paper how a schism between neoliberals and libertarians had aided the creation of the Alt-Right and synthesized a thoroughly anti-democratic form of market radicalism, a thesis Slobodian emphasized again in his recent book Crack-Up Capitalism. Writer John Ganz traced the intellectual roots of Trumpism to a rogue form of right-wing libertarianism in an essay for The Baffler. Critical theorist Wendy Brown, in the meantime, came to regard the rise of anti-democratic politics as a consequence of neoliberalism’s nihilistic tendencies, escalating as the ideology entered its death throes.

These critical interventions have opened the field to embrace the possibility of a stronger connection between neoliberal intellectual culture and radical libertarianism than previously assumed, thereby paving the way for understanding the recent rise in autocratic governance not as a reaction against neoliberalism but as an outgrowth of its core tenets. They have shown that market radicalism of all shades was never conceived by its leading proponents as a defense of democracy (despite attempts to spin the narrative in that direction), that instead, democracy had always been just a necessary evil market radicals accepted as long as it contributed to upholding a global competitive order.

Many interventions bringing together neoliberalism with libertarianism and the crisis of democracy with the rise of market radicalism have investigated the role of economist Murray N. Rothbard. Rothbard, a disciple of Ludwig von Mises, had shaped the concept of “paleolibertarianism” and can be seen as a patron saint of modern libertarianism and an intellectual trailblazer for Trumpism in equal measure. His involvement in the foundation of far-right think tanks such as the Cato Institute or the Ludwig von Mises Institute places him at the heart of the American ultraright revival in the last few decades.

Despite being relegated to the fringes of American academia for most of his life, Rothbard marks an ideal object of study for traditional intellectual history. Educated in economics at Columbia University, Rothbard attended Ludwig von Mises’ seminar at New York University in the 1950s. He joined the Mont Pèlerin Society, worked with the William Volker Fund and the Foundation for Economic Freedom, and taught at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and later the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Never truly reaching the mainstream of the academic world, Rothbard still followed a relatively conventional intellectual career path, mirroring those of Friedrich Hayek or Karl Popper central to intellectual histories of neoliberalism.

While the growing interest in Rothbard and the broader intellectual history of ultraright libertarianism is laudable, a simple focus on intellectual biographies analog to that of Rothbard falls short of explaining the popularity of right-wing libertarian ideas evident today. I argue that the history of ‘moderate’ neoliberalism has already slipped into the trap of neglecting the study of what Philip Mirowski has called “everyday neoliberalism” in favor of examining neoliberalism from above. To repeat this mistake in the study of radical libertarianism would be a farce, given that the roots of modern libertarianism can clearly be traced back to American popular debates of the New Deal era.

Instead, when tracing the genealogy of today’s autocratic libertarianism, intellectual historians should go where it hurts and follow a rogue band of pseudo-intellectuals and autodidacts that widely diverge from customary conceptions of the intellectual. To do so ultimately carries a high political significance as it challenges two opposed simplifications of the discourse around recent autocratic revivals: that either these movements were imposed entirely from above and based on intricate astroturfing efforts or that they were indeed manifestations from below, representing the outcry of a “basket of deplorables,” beyond the influence of education and argument. Both interpretations are to be rejected, as the answer lies somewhere in between.

A nuanced intellectual history of libertarianism should engage more closely with the twilight of pseudo-intellectualism to uncover attempts to build a libertarian ‘counterculture’ that would fulfill the role of a radical “market populism.” Scholars of neoliberalism have done a fantastic job following those that Hayek called “professional secondhand dealers in ideas”; to understand more radical libertarianism, it is essential to go a step further and follow even thirdhand or fourthhand dealers in ideas, professional spin doctors making intellectual discourse more “palatable” (to borrow from Mises) for mass consumption.

Notable underexplored examples for such a study abound. After all, even libertarians lament that academics have almost entirely ignored their creed’s literary and cultural roots. This statement seems contradicted by the fact that a whole field of studies (including a specific, mostly hagiographic journal) has been dedicated to Ayn Rand, the “goddess of the market” and harbinger of modern libertarianism. Still, a systematic and non-sympathetic intellectual history of how Rand’s life and work fit into the wider canon of market radicalism has been largely missing, save for Jennifer Burns’ intellectual biography and her article linking Rand to her friends Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson that sadly never evolved into a book-length treatment.

Rand, fleeing the rabble of the Russian revolution as a young graduate and embarking on a career as a (relatively unsuccessful) screenwriter in Hollywood before finding fame with her two novels The Fountainhead (1943)and Atlas Shrugged (1957), is the most apparent figure in the popularization of modern libertarianism. However, there are other “thirdhand dealers in ideas” that are less explored, even largely absent from intellectual histories of libertarianism today. Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of prairie novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote (partially fake) biographies of American great men such as Charlie Chaplin or Henry Ford, that sought to bring together the rugged individualism of her mother’s generation with the blooming capitalist modernity in the American West. Similarly, science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein combined recollections of his rural Missouri childhood with the growing techno-optimism of the latter half of the twentieth century, embarking upon lengthy digressions into libertarian economics throughout his novels.

Taking these popularizations of libertarian thought seriously reveals a close connection to the iconographic repertoire of Americana and the politics of American cultural soft imperialism. No wonder libertarian thought appears to be radicalizing in an era marked by a significant decline in the US claim to global hegemony, challenged by the rise of China and the emergence of a multipolar international order.

One last example underscores the importance of loosening the definition of “intellectual” when approaching the topic of libertarian thought: The autodidact journalist, economist, and novelist Henry Hazlitt embodies the connection between popular culture and intellectual networks that characterizes the history of libertarianism. A founding member of the Foundation for Economic Education and the Mont Pèlerin Society, Hazlitt has almost entirely been ignored by academics due to his untypical biography. Raised the son of a poor family in pre-Depression Brooklyn, Hazlitt abandoned pursuing a formal academic education in his early twenties, beginning to write prolifically instead to support himself and his twice-widowed mother. Hazlitt became a literary and economic columnist for publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, The New York Times, and Newsweek (where his column was taken over by Milton Friedman later) and wrote over twenty books on topics as diverse as Austrian economics, popular literature, and self-help stoicism. He embarked on lecture tours around Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala—one of libertarianism’s academic strongholds—named a center for Austrian economics after him. Hazlitt’s story, intertwined in many ways with such notable figures of libertarianism, neoliberalism, and Cold War liberalism as Ayn Rand, Friedrich A. Hayek, and Ronald Reagan, could be the entirely unexplored key to an integrated history of modern libertarianism, explaining its popular roots without neglecting the intellectual context to which they related.

Researchers in the intellectual history of libertarianism should embrace the challenge of dealing with intellectual misfits such as Hazlitt or Rand in more detail to further nuance the simplified stories that miscalculate the dangerous influence of right-wing libertarianism on today’s global political stage. Not only might this whole new body of sources open the genre of intellectual history to new interdisciplinary connections in the field of literary or cultural studies, but it might also help to understand better the rise of Trumpism and its apparent connection to market radicalism, appearing oxymoronic only in a surface-level reading, ignoring longer discursive trajectories of American right-wing libertarianism.

Dennis Kölling is a researcher in intellectual history at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, Italy, and a doctoral fellow at the Leibniz Institute for European History (IEG), Mainz, Germany. His research traces how neoliberal and libertarian ideas have been popularized and legitimized in American popular culture, specifically science fiction. He writes about American politics, culture, and literature for various popular publications and has moderated several talks and podcasts for the project Conversations on New Histories of Capitalism (CNHC) at the EUI.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Atlas sculpture in New York City by Lee Lawrie. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.