Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Origin of neo-liberalism

“We have to adapt”

By Barbara Stiegler, Philosopher (Published Gallimard – NRF Essays)

Studies on the origin of neo-liberalism are rare that, without any restraint, I have drawn my comments from this book as well as from the author’s interviews at the Davos Economic Forum. (Radio Suisse Romande “Histoire vivante”, January 2019)

The backwardness of the human species

Where does this feeling of “lagging behind” reinforced by the permanent injunction to adapt  and to evolve comes from? It is a matter of surviving an unstable, complex, uncertain and rapidly changing environment. Is the acceleration of technological innovations the only reason for this? Mrs. B. Stiegler’s book reveals a powerful and structured political thought, that of Walter Lippmann. It was at the “Lippmann” colloquium held in Paris in 1938 that the word “neo-liberalism” made its first public appearance. This new liberalism owes much to his interpretation of Ch. Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Walter Lippmann, diplomat, journalist and essayist provided neo-liberalism with its theoretical matrix in 1937 with his latest book «The good society“. Very early he took a stand against Herbert Spencer and his ultra-liberal excesses: “Laisser-faire”, ie less state, eugenics (Social Darwinism). He believed that the industrial revolution, with its new technologies and the acceleration of flows, has created a maladjustment that explains the social and political pathologies aggravated by “Laisser-faire“. Political action must therefore be rethought as an artificial, continuous and invasive intervention on the human species in order to readapt it to the demands of the new environment.

The government must conduct a series of large-scale experiments to overcome the human species’ backwardness in its own evolution. W. Lippmann and all the neo-liberals after him theorized a regulation of society “from above” with the help of “experts” and the artifices of law. W. Lippmann believes that the people, by and large, are lagging behind science and new technologies so they cannot be entrusted with sound democratic decisions. He discredits slowness (stasis) and habits in the name of flow and adaptability.

It is then he came across one of the greatest American thinkers: John Dewey, who did not share his conception of “experimentation” at all! The conflict over democracy and the meaning of the Darwinian revolution has opposed these two men for decades. While J.D. saw an evolution starting from the bottom i.e. from the collective intelligence of the peoples, W.L. despised the uncultured “masses” and promoted a change from top down with the famous “experts“guiding the process.

For J. Dewey, on the contrary, it is governance that is lagging, i.e. unsuitable and out of step with the aspirations of the people, their rhythms, habits, memory, affects and sociability.

The modernity has not provided proof of its reliability. Economic and social theories have a very short life. On the other hand, the human species has shown its resilience over the last 200,000 years. It is implicitly the meaning of life and its evolution that is the subject of debate.

Adapting the humankind to the Great society

Around 1910 H. Spencer’s deterministic theories and the teleological illusion of fixing in advance a goal (telos) of the whole evolutionary process, has become the targets of the philosophers W. James, H. Bergson and J. Dewey. Henceforth W. Lippmann therefore tries to take advantage of the social and political consequences of this renewed conception of the living. Enlightened America no longer believes that “Laisser-faire” automatically creates harmony, equality of opportunity and democratic freedoms. Under the impact of the social and financial crises and the growing number of corruption scandals, it is calling for collective regulation.

The Darwinian revolution implies a definitive break with the static, conservative and routine conception of politics by realistically opposing the dynamism of nature and life and its unpredictability. From this stems a major political conclusion: the adaptation of the human species can only be creative and interactive. It must create its environment and continually transform it to suit its needs.

Lippmann has a personal interpretation of Darwin’s evolution theory. In order to fit his plan he proposes a new theory: “The sublimation” of impulses, hoping that negative impulses will be destroyed and replaced by positive ones. Unfortunately his conclusions are incompatible with the pragmatic philosophy of J. Dewey. Both agreed, however, that classical philosophy has remained blind to the reality of impulses. Impulses and desires are the only source of energy available to humans. Instead of trying to destroy them by repression when they are badly “domesticated”, it is better to “improve” them rather than destroy them. In the future the old moral prohibitions will be “sublimated”, in line with Freudian theories.

The new Democracy

The whole question is: who can become the political operator of such sublimation? Who can decide what is good and what is bad? Should such an evaluation be carried out horizontally through the action of citizens and their social interactions, as J. Dewey wishes, or on the contrary through a vertical logic where the State decides for the citizens through the “excellence” (?) of the experts? For W. Lippmann, “the mass” is incapable of producing this necessary sublimation of impulses. Consequently, the vertical logic will apply: The State, i.e. the experts, will decide how to readapt the human species without the control of the citizens! Is this the first symptom of W. Lippmann’s anti-democratic convictions?  

In 1917, W. Lippmann had won the confidence of a close advisor to the new President W. Wilson, Democrat (In spite of the fact that he had supported the candidacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, Republican). He was entrusted with the coordination of an office responsible for developing American foreign policy. Surrounded by a hundred or so experts in the human and social sciences (economics, history, geography, psychology, etc.), they  drew the broad outlines of the post-war world in which America would be called upon to play the central role of “Leader” of the free world. We can see in this experiment a first form of this government of experts that he called for and which did oppose, head-on, the concept of democratic inquiry and experimentation defended by pragmatists like J. Dewey.

Propaganda or the manufacture of consent

The weight of war gives experts a new form of power. Their confidential work, beyond any democratic control, will lead straight to “The manufacture of consent”, which is nothing more than a set of propaganda techniques. Charged with developing these new techniques, W.L. hastens to clarify that it is not a question of sinister propaganda, but on the contrary an education of German and Austrian troops by explaining to them the lofty and disinterested nature of American war aims.

In 1919, at the great Paris conference charged with negotiating peace, President Wilson was determined to recapture the glory of the American victory. He landed in Paris with a thousand advisers, incompetent for the most part. They created an immense confusion during the negotiations. W. Lippmann’s positive propaganda image turned to the contrary. All the work of the inquiry, the 14 points, were trampled on by the official experts. To please the allies, the Treaty of Versailles organized the systematic and lasting humiliation of Germany by the victors. For W. Lippmann this was the scathing failure of the American commitment.

While the entry into the war in 1917 was perceived in America as the beginning of its glorious leadership over the world, the 1920s opened with immense disillusionment. The war was pointless. It meant the return of censorship and moral order; the fear of the Reds aroused by the October Revolution crystallized opinions, and conservative movements triumphed. In Europe governments were sliding toward totalitarian regimes. For W. Lippmann, all these appalling phenomena encouraged the people to re-examine their ideas, including the democratic credo that the citizen is competent to participate in public affairs.

In 1922 he published “Public opinion” with references to Plato, the allegory of the cave. Humans are passive, frozen, chained by nature. This fixity convinces him that our cognitive capacities condemn humans to a fixed idea of reality. He did take up certain elements of the allegory, however he completely diverted its meaning. The exit of opinion towards the light of ideas is ignored. So, he takes up and amplifies his thesis on the backwardness of humanity. Sweeping aside his earlier hesitations, he assumes his criticism of the democratic model.

How could this belief in the fiction of “effectiveness of democracy“, be imposed upon us? He explains that Greek theories on democracy have arbitrarily reduced the sphere of politics to the small scale of the perceived world, i.e. the city-state, which is autarchic and where public affairs are debated on the same agora by all citizens, on an equal footing. This cannot compare with the challenges of large-scale governance of modern times.

The brutal acceleration, in the industrial age, of the progressive enlargement of our environment, to the point of forming a “Great Society” has definitively changed the situation. The traditional democratic model, which grants political sovereignty to the people themselves, is being replaced by a new form in which an elective basis remains, but in which sovereignty is now in the hands of representatives and experts. Popular sovereignty is definitively bypassed. (Remember what happened later in Chile, in the early 70’s, when “Chicago experts” were put in charge of the economy)

W. Lippmann revived the idea of a great power machine designed to manufacture, on an industrial scale, the “consent of the people“. This is the new role of democracies! His book “Public Opinion” published in 1922, is a great disappointment as there is nothing “liberal” about this New Democracy, it makes a mockery of privacy, freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, emotional life.

In 1925, “Public Phantom” was published. Under pressure from critics, it considerably softened its position by giving “public consent” a specific role as a last resort in the event of a crisis.

Adaptation after 1922

The eugenicist solution to improve the capabilities of the human species is clearly rejected by W. Lippmann. For him the best alternative is education. However, encyclopedic information to introduce citizens to the problems of the world, faces a limited attention span and can only lead to a sightseeing tour of global problems. Moreover, the pace of external changes (flows) is incompatible with the slow pace of educational transmission.

W. Lippmann then finds the solution: Citizens involvement will henceforth be reduced to a minimum, i.e. to their self-interests which are: their work, their consumption and their reproduction.

J. Dewey criticizes liberalism and its “atomist” postulate according to which man is a finished, isolated product (ready-made). Ch. Darwin and J. Dewey enjoin us to abandon such postulates; humans are social beings, not isolated individuals.

According to J. Dewey, this is the major error of liberalism, an error that W.L. finds hard to get rid of, because he still believes that the average individual is a passive element of a mass that should be readapted from above. For J. Dewey it is this misunderstanding of classical liberalism that has created the famous antinomy between the individual and the social. Society is a human modality of “association,” a universal phenomenon found throughout physical and biological nature. It is therefore a natural and already given evolutionary fact. Liberalism proceeds in reverse: it gives itself a ready-made individual and wonders how an association emerges. (Is’nt it obvious that the individual is the fruit of an association named: the couple?)

J. Dewey rejects back to back liberal individualism and organicist collectivism which commit the same symmetrical error: that of opposing the individual to society. If individuals no longer manage to emerge, it is not the social fact that is at issue, but the domination of a single mode of association, which deprives newcomers of the expression of their potentialities. The straightjacket of the family or the church is heavy, but so is liberalism, because it allows only one form of association to prevail: the economic, which stifles alternative forms of political interaction.

The moral   / ethics

Through the Darwinian fable of cats and clubs, Lippmann rejects the universality of the notions of “good and evil“. The story tells how the increase in the cat population indirectly favors the growth of the clover population: the more old ladies feed the cats, the more the cats eliminate the voles, the more bumblebees proliferate, the more the clover is fertilized and the more the livestock increases. From the point of view of the beef eater we have an intrinsically good “order” here. But W. Lippmann proposes, following Darwin, to vary the points of view and to adopt, for example, that of the vole.

If you are a vole, the rights and wrongs will be different in that part of the universe. What would a patriotic vole think of a world in which bumblebees do not exist for the sole purpose of producing white larvae for voles? It would seem to him that there is no law and order in such a world”.

In the evolution of living things, nothing is ever “good or bad” in itself. By revealing the plurality of points of view, Darwinism definitively undermines morality in general and, with it, the claims to the absolute of all moral values, without exception. Throughout this story Darwin is hailed as the one who had the lucidity to dismiss the teleological (deterministic) conception of evolution that had prevailed since Lamarck (this old conception allowed to save the metaphysical idea of a transcendental good).

J. Dewey had announced as early as 1910 that this revolution would have consequences in the moral and political fields. Henceforth W. Lippmann challenges any moral approach to problems. The substance of politics is the conflict of norms and standards. But Darwin teaches us that these conflicts of norms express nothing more than “conflicts of interest”. Farmers in the Southern States who fight against industrialists in the North prolong the biological struggle for survival between cats and voles. There is therefore no moral legitimacy in the expectations of each other!
(This simplistic view raises a question: What if the rights of some, encroached on those of others, without equal treatment? would there be no moral legitimacy in regulating relations?) Obviously, W.L. did not perceive this interrelation aspect.

In short, the citizen is just a single man fighting for his private interests, who is not aiming at the “good life” (Aristotle) nor at the “general interest or universal justice” (The Enlightenment), because he is incapable of grasping society as a whole.

Toward a new liberalism

After the financial crisis of 1929, reform is no longer an option, but a necessity.

The social, economic and political crises in which the world sank during the 1930s ended up inflicting a stinging denial on the liberal fiction of a spontaneous harmonization of economic and social interactions. The massive failure of economic liberalism leads to the gradual abandonment of the emancipatory ideals of the origins in favor of an authoritarian takeover of societies.

For W. Lippmann the great novelty of the interwar period is that the State now has economic responsibilities. This is the New Imperative (1935). In this new role, according to him, the State has the choice between two solutions: the system of directed economy or absolute collectivism and the system of compensated economy, which he also calls free collectivism. Of free collectivism, he writes: “its method consists in redressing the balance of private actions through public compensatory actions”. He thus accepts the interventionist ideas of J.-M. Keynes. He is aware of the need for the State to intervene in areas such as education, health and even the environment (creation of national parks).

For years John Dewey and W. Lippmann will exchange ideas, influencing each other. For example, J.D. asks if he has not seen that the dominant classes have retained their acquired advantages thanks to the reversal of meaning that liberalism underwent during the 19th century? While it had set itself the historical mission of promoting the liberation of the new, it became the instrument of domination par excellence of the immense conservative forces. These, favoring industrial concentration and the control of institutions, have rendered individuals incapable of acting on the course of social affairs. In most countries, the term “liberalism” is associated with conservatism and the defense of private interests; only the United States, in the wake of H. Spencer, continues to associate it with social progress and has begun to “accumulate delays” by continuing to refer to liberals as progressives.

It is tempting to say that J. Dewey is the real Democrat and W. Lippmann a fake, but let us not forget that W. L. had to deal with strong political forces.

J. Dewey therefore proposes a new “planning” that has nothing to do with W. Lippmann’s one, which advocates top-down planning, and even less with communism. J.D. calls for a “socialization of intelligence“, based on the model of inquiry, with a view to the emergence of a society capable of governing itself while planning continuously. Instead of the atomic withdrawal of the individual into himself, this new liberalism must liberate individual potentialities through a socialization of knowledge and experimental methods, which implies collective and democratic planning.

In his critique of planning W. Lippmann follows the analyses of L. von Mises and Friedrich Hayek who will participate one year later (1938) in the famous “Lippmann” colloquium in Paris. At a stroke of the hand, W.L. reduced J. Dewey’s new liberalism to the dominant models of top-down planning, “forgetting” to say that Dewey’s planning was to be done bottom up by the public themselves!

Hybridizing Adam Smith’s analyses of the “Wealth of nations” and H. Spencer’s analyses of the struggle for survival, W. Lippmann insists on the exponential growth generated by the division of labor in the era of advanced capitalism. This growth of the optimum enables him to make it the first principle of “The good society“, his reference work published in 1938 and which will serve as the “theoretical matrix” for “neo-liberalism“. By “Good society“, he means one that is removed from any collective or democratic discussion. One which is maintained in an ultimate and invariant term (telos) supposed to give meaning and purpose to evolution. The designation of “globalized capital” as the “transcendent end” of the evolutionary process renders any attempt at resistance null and void.

From now on, labor is disconnected from the collective aim of its meaning and is reduced to a “toil” that is subservient to survival or profit at best.

Regulation by Law

In 1937 there is no longer any question of philosophizing. For W. Lippmann the alternatives on the table are all problematic:

            a) Market self-regulation (providential action of an invisible hand – A. Smith)            
b) State interventionism (J.-M. Keynes and especially the 2nd New Deal 1936/38 by F.D. Roosevelt, which was heavily criticized)
            c) The collective intelligence of J. Dewey
(How to implement it considering W.L. prejudices about the uncultured masses ?)

In view of above W. Lippmann decides to rely on the artifices of LAW and, on the other hand, a forced readjustment of populations to the demands of globalization, through an invasive public policy by means of propaganda.

Reforming the human species through Law

In contrast to Keynesian planning, Lippmann hastened to demand that the government makes social relations generally subject to the law. This neo-liberal version is characterized by trials, a new art of governing without imposing plans. It is enough to regulate. The regulatory framework is being perfected through litigation and case law.

For W. Lippmann, to plan is, at worst, to allow oneself, as in totalitarian societies, to decide by the minutiae of all the details, the route and the goal of everyone.

When a conservative “Anti-New Deal” majority of the Supreme Court (USA) overturned one by one sections of social legislation in favor of workers, for example in the case of “Lochner v. New York (1905”, the Court invoked the “freedom of co-contractors” to invalidate the 60-hours limit on the weekly workweek of New York bakers. This is the return of the “Laisser-faire” approach. “The case is serious because the judiciary has placed itself above the legislature. It’s a setback for F.D. Roosevelt and progressives like J. Dewey.

For W. Lippmann, Conservative, the return of “laisser-faire” seems to be the lesser evil… What matters in the generalized judicialization of social relations, is above all to remove the law from the incompetent hands of the “mass” and its political representatives, and thus to remove the capitalist mode of production from any public deliberation.

W. Lippmann deterministic view fixes in advance the economic ends of evolution which imposes the reform of the social order, but not capitalism, which is at the service of a transcendental (arbitrary) goal. Political deliberation must be limited to reforming the social order, in order to adapt it to the new environment defined by a globalized capitalist mode of production. Erected as “telos”, i.e., the goal of evolution, this capitalist mode of production is not destined to be transformed!

By this coup de force, the “Great Society” finds itself reduced to the capitalist mode of production and becomes, by this very reduction, the source of a necessary jurisdiction. It justifies the conquest of the “backward” nations by the more “advanced” nations on the road to the globalized economy. W. Lippmann (like H. Spencer) prefers to the brutal colonial wars that all nations enter the capitalist system of production, which is supposed to represent our common “superior law”.  This fundamental law requires respect for the fundamental rights of the individual. It imposes the cooperation of everyone and implies a judicial regulation of this cooperation through fair and loyal competition.

For J. Dewey, on the contrary, the human species must always remain in an active relationship of interaction and transformation with its economic and social environment.

While some see in the laws of nature a lawless competition, a struggle for existence, a war of all against all, Lippmann opposes his “superior law” which denounces the savage competition celebrated by the decadent form of liberalism.

Based on the “nature of things“, this civilized form of competition makes it possible to establish a natural hierarchy in which inequalities are based, not on arbitrary artifices, but on the “intrinsic superiority” of everyone. W. Lippmann’s new liberalism, under the guise of equal opportunities, justifies social inequalities by declaring them “natural“. (Social darwinism again)

The paradox of this new liberalism is that this “natural inequality” cannot emerge spontaneously, without rules! Yet the artificial arsenal of law is always requisitioned by capitalism, to favor some, to the detriment of others, and to distort the natural game of competition. It is therefore necessary, according to W.L, to reorient the law in the direction of a fair competition governed by fair rules of the game according to the principles of “fair play” prevailing in sports competitions.

In his view, the concentration of profits does not belong to the essence of capitalism. It is the product of a determined legal system that distorts the rules of the game by favoring certain players. The enemy is therefore not capitalism, but state capitalism made iniquitous by its arsenal of unjust laws.

This analysis allows him to impose two theses:

            1) Capitalism is not responsible for misery and inequality.

            2) it calls into question the big corporations and fights against monopolies in favor of fair competition between small individual units. (A level playing field)

The Lippmannian concept of “equal opportunity” takes on a very different meaning with J. Dewey. It is not a difference between concrete vs. abstract equality, but two concrete yet incompatible conceptions. For J.D., “equal opportunities” refers to the social and collective conditions for releasing the creative impulse of everyone to transform the social environment, by helping collective habits to reorganize themselves.

For W.L., “equal opportunities” are understood within the very limited framework of a competition, itself responsible for establishing a hierarchy between the most gifted and the least gifted. He believes that his vision, better than those of Dewey and Spencer, is in line with the Darwinian revolution and its questioning of Providence.

Even though Lippmann acknowledges the normative side of the economy, his texts do not contain in-depth reflections on the values and standards that are indispensable to accompany freedom and formalize the law. Certainly, he recognizes a principle of restricted equality (equality of opportunity, fair competition) whereas his superior law should require a principle of generalized equality. It says nothing about other values, because it relies on competition and on the experts responsible for drafting the law and enacting standards.

Unfortunately, the law cannot become a reality without fundamental reflection on ethics and values. Without ethical references, law loses its legitimacy and becomes the instrument of the strongest. These ethical choices can only be found in a true democratic process. J. Dewey did draw his attention to these shortcomings.

The forms of public action in favor of the human species, its health and the quality of the natural and urban environment testify more to a continuity with classical liberalism than a rupture. And yet there is a break in the conception of human nature. While the biopolitics of the first liberals were based, according to M. Foucault/JJ Rousseau, on confidence in the good nature of the human species, W. Lippmann’s neoliberal agenda is based on the opposite conviction of a defect in human material and enshrines the return in force of surveillance and punishment.

It is on this conception of human nature and that of the meaning of evolution that the new liberalisms of J. Dewey and W. Lippmann are clashing. J.D. trusts in the ever-renewed creative potential of human nature, whereas for W.L. human nature implies a coercive and disciplinary re-education imposed from above. (In favour of investors ?)

The markets and their efficiency are largely failing. They must therefore be regulated, but to do this it will be necessary to transform the law itself and put it at the service, no longer of stability, but of the liberation of new forces.

W. Lippmann then argues for a broad use in education, health, infrastructure, market control, social insurance and environmental protection. This is a break with the “laisser-faire” approach. In fact, the wealth created by the market can be reinvested in these areas, because there will be a “return on investment”.  

L. Rougier who organized the famous Lippmann colloquium, pointed out that the great lesson of Lippmann’s book “The good society” was to reveal the historical role of law and its legal instruments. Throughout the nineteenth century, the LAW defended the status quo, the liberal fiction and its corollary: misery and injustice, which it was supposed to denounce. In fact, thanks to the legal interventionism of the state and a huge arsenal of regulatory artifices, the liberals were able to consolidate their acquired advantages.

In this process of emergence of a new theory, there is no lack of ambiguities and contradictions. And sometimes W. Lippmann also contradicts himself.

The social agenda

Above all, public policies must not be reduced to income redistribution that maintains poverty. Rather, they should aim to redistribute “equal opportunities” in competition. For W.L., this is part of the “foundations of the social economy“. In fact, it is a social action that tends to reduce all social interactions (education, care, culture, work) to the economic relations of cooperation/competition governed by a globalized market, which must be readjusted. Naturally decreed from above, they are never subject to any democratic discussion.

In terms of employment W. Lippmann asserts the superiority of capital over labor. Men must be made “adaptable” at the place where they were born. The mobility of human labor will never be equal to the hypermobility of capital. Humans are territorial, weighed down by their habits, they will be put under “house arrest” to better ward off the risks of uncontrolled mobility. However, the best among them will escape, on principle, from this coercion. What is needed, therefore, is a social control that fixes populations while avoiding the “evil” of immigration on the one hand and, on the other, making the mass of individuals more malleable, docile and versatile in the place where they were born.

In the field of education, a conflict opposes W. Lippmann and J. Dewey, along the same lines as the discussions on democracy and liberalism.


Barbara Stiegler, author of “ Il faut s’adapter  / We must adapt” questions this widespread sense of humans “lagging behind” and the need to adapt. From the outset it would be necessary to respect the irreducible differences in rhythm that structure any evolutionary history. And we should avoid focusing on a single cause.

There is therefore no question of designating neo-liberalism as the sole and exclusive cause of this new way of feeling time, which is both unprecedented and inherited over a long period of time.

Evolution requires changes that allow us to survive and adapt to the new environment of increased competition. How can we explain this colonization of all areas of life and politics by this “biological” lexicon? Is it necessary to see the deaf persistence in our contemporary world of social Darwinism (eugenics) and its sinister relents of which in Europe we hoped to have expunged all survival?

J. Dewey has put forward his own interpretation of the retardation of the human species, which is incompatible with that of W. Lippmann.

From my point of view, one might also ask whether the weakness of “neo-liberalism” comes not only from its narrow conception of man, but also from the outright evacuation of the ethical frame of reference. It is understandable that traditional religious ethics and their moral prohibitions were unsuitable to accompany the “Great Society”, but, in my opinion, a wide-ranging reflection on fundamental values is unavoidable.

Fortunately there is a new generation of citizens who no longer accept the lifestyles of the last century and who will undoubtedly find a real answer to the current challenges. Lets hope that, unless, like “Happy Sisyphus” (A. Camus), they do not fall back into absurdity: the trap of protecting the strongest, for example.

Reducing a 300-page book to 9 pages does not do justice to the very meticulous and profound work of Mrs. Barbara Stiegler, author of “Il faut s’adapter“. Nevertheless, I hope that this abridged version and comments will encourage you to read her complete work. I sincerely thank her for opening my eyes to the origin of this dominant ideology, which is seductive for some and oppressive for others.

Trelex, 6th October 2022                                                                      

Jean-Jacques Pernet

Automatic translation French to English by: “DeepL”

Next: back home