‘Morals of the Market’: When human rights cover for neoliberal hegemony
Morals of the market: A homeless man sleeps outside of a Wall Street subway station in New York. | Mark Lennihan / AP

With the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, Russia attacked the hypocrisy of the United States and what it saw as its lack of human rights: racial segregation in the South; the lack of women’s right to choose; its numerous invasions of foreign countries; the shoddy treatment of its workers; and the treatment of its Indigenous peoples. In retaliation, U.S. economists argued that economic freedom, through neoliberalism, was built upon a moral and institutional framework based upon a free market order. This moral framework was built into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), enshrined in the human rights promoted by neoliberalism. Whyte blends historical inquiry with theoretical critique to analyze “hegemonic conceptions of human rights, rather than uses of human rights by marginalized and subaltern groups.”

In this fascinating study, Whyte looks at whether neoliberalism and human rights are actually independent, with an in-depth “investigation of the historical and conceptual relations between human rights and neoliberalism.” She argues that neoliberalism was a moral project from its inception, and this moral dimension saw it promote human rights. A capitalist economy, argued the conservative economist Friedrich Hayek, calls for the “morals of the market,” with its pursuit of self-interest, individual and familial responsibility, and submission “to the impersonal results of the market process.” Neoliberal thinkers enlisted human rights “to challenge socialism, social democracy, and state-planning,” claiming that human rights became the “moral language of the competitive market.”

Hayek’s argument opposed the pursuit of collectively formulated political and economic policies followed by the USSR and China. Hayek saw the redistribution of wealth as threatening the moral foundations of the capitalist system. Whyte sees Hayek’s morals as a “system of informal rules of conduct that guide individual actions.” Neoliberals developed their own variety of human rights as moral and legal supports for a neoliberal market order.

These human rights sought to preserve the market order and inherited social hierarchies against any political opposition. Neoliberals depict political arenas as a locus of never-ceasing conflict and the market as having anti-political virtues based upon cooperation and individual liberty and institutionalized rights. It is the free markets’ virtues that separate politics from economics, thereby bringing about a “taming of the state.” Neoliberalism sees the state “beating into submission” anyone who threatens the free market order. Neoliberal human rights were constituted by the rights to hold private property, engage in foreign investment, and limited controls over market order. These legal institutions severed the connection of political participation in a civil society.

The major international human rights and humanitarian Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) embraced the dichotomy of a commercial or civil society that checked the centralization of state power, on the one hand, and coercive politics on the other. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders, MSF) draw on the definition of human rights as put forward by neoliberals at the end of World War II. These organizations put forward the same anti-political virtues as the neoliberals: restraining political power and the enhancement of individual freedoms. Some of these groups have also called upon the most powerful states to use military intervention to secure human rights and to enforce the morals of the market around the world. Therefore, in capitalist economies, human rights, as defined by neoliberals, have been far more influential than human rights as defined by socialist states.

Whyte further argues that the morals of the market and its values for post-colonial Western powers were threatened by the growing power of the post-colonial states, the Global South. In drafting the UDHR the former metropole and its periphery ensured that individual market freedoms were not overwhelmed by universal socio-economic and political rights. Individualistic human rights would prevail through international trade and the exploitation of natural resources in Third World countries, while these countries demanded secure political and resource sovereignty. This accepted definition of human rights by capitalist countries reflects the victory of neoliberalism over socialist human rights.

A classic example of neoliberal human rights under U.S. hegemony is Pinochet’s Chile. The “Chicago economic model” was adopted as part of the “Shock Doctrine” to cure Chile’s economic woes. Neoliberalism is only adopted by a Third World country after a major catastrophe destroys the national economy. Alongside the vicious state-sponsored violence was the presence of Amnesty International, with its own clearly defined human rights. Whyte sees the public agenda of Amnesty International as fitting between the conclusions of Naomi Klein’s highly influential Shock Doctrine and Samuel Moyn’s less known “Powerless Companion” arguments. Klein argues that humanitarian advocacy in Chile obscured the links between neoliberal economic agenda and political violence, whereas Moyn argues that the incapacity of the Left to mobilize popular support was in itself partially responsible for the success of an apolitical model of the human rights movement.

Whyte seeks a middle ground between Klein and Moyn, recognizing the importance of the pragmatic approach sought by human rights organizations as complementing the “critiques of economic shock treatment.” She concludes that by explicitly having a narrow focus and not getting involved in a country’s internal politics, human rights advocates enabled neoliberal economics to grow, supported by its moral grounds and definitions of human rights. As long as obedient individuals were protected from torture and the denial of free speech, neoliberalism flourished.

Whyte opposes Moyn’s view of human rights as the “powerless companion,” using the origins and activity of Liberté sans Frontières (Freedom without Borders, LSF). She identifies the explicit inclusion of the neoliberal dichotomy between politics and markets into the human rights discourse, which can be identified with humanitarian organizations based in the Global North. By protecting the individual against specified harms, in opposition to structurally induced dangers, advocates of human rights reinforced the dichotomy being experienced at the political level. This undermined post-colonial reparations and the rights-based approach of the New International Economic Order (NIEO), creating “the morals of development.”

Whyte finally examines the symbiotic relationship between human rights advocates, who challenged the totalitarian inspiration of redistributive projects, and neoliberal economists who employed the language of human rights, to entrench “the institutional and moral foundations of a competitive market economy and to shape entrepreneurial subjects. In contrast to those anti-colonialists who had fought to establish the right to self-determination, the neoliberals saw the promise of human rights in constraining sovereign power, especially in the post-colony, and in restraining the politicization of the economy.”

Together they provided the criteria for the discourse in North-South relations since the 1950s.

By defining hegemony as a function of geopolitical power relationships, Whyte implies that human rights were deployed within post-colonial struggles. “Human rights” prevailed through the use of violence and its socio-economic consequences. While making her methodological statement in addressing specific hegemonic forms and conceptions of human rights, Whyte views the prevailing conceptions of “human rights” in capitalist societies as being rooted in the hegemonic power of neoliberalism. In 2018 the U.S. withdrew from the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Commission). The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations denounced the UN as a “cesspool of political bias.”

This book is brilliantly researched and invites ongoing debate in the field of neoliberalism and human rights. It is this dichotomy that allows further academic inquiry and debate into the morals of the market. It is a timely book, as shown by the escalating accusations between the U.S. and Chinese governments over what constitutes human rights: neoliberalism vs. socialism. The U.S. sees China as violating human rights in the treatment of its Muslim population, the One Child policy (now obsolete), and the surveillance of its own citizens. Whereas China sees the U.S. as violating human rights by the systemic racism in its judicial and policing systems, the treatment of its poor and homeless, and violation of the rights of its Indigenous peoples. This debate will continue long into the future.

The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism
By Jessica Whyte
London: Verso Books, 2019

Available in paperback and Kindle editions

Originally published in Australia’s The Guardian August 23, 2021


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Graham Holton
Graham Holton

Dr. Graham E.L. Holton writes on global political economy.

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