On Neoliberalism’s Inexorable Ties to Military Dictatorships (and Vice Versa)

Corey Robin points to this excellent article detailing the extent to which in practice neoliberal economic theory is tied to authoritarianism rather than more democratic systems. The article’s authors (Andrew Farrant, Edward McPhail, and Sebastian Berger) show that the sympathies of Friedrich Hayek, one of the key figures of neoliberalism from the Austrian school, with the Pinochet regime were much deeper and clearer than previous work had suggested. To be clear, the article doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel – Hayek’s connections (and neoliberalism’s ties to Pinochet, best symbolized by the presence of the “Chicago Boys”) have long been a significant part of the narrative on the Pinochet regime, even before scholars and writers like Greg Grandin or Naomi Klein brought that narrative to wider audiences. Indeed, as Brandi pointed out earlier this year, the legacies of Pinochet-era neoliberalism still loom large in social mobilizations in Chile today.  However, Farrant’s, McPhail’s, and Berger’s article does show that Hayek’s sympathies to the Pinochet regime that committed human rights abuses ran even deeper than previous works acknowledged, revealing just how deeply entangled neoliberalism policies/theories and authoritarian regimes that violated human rights were. Robin’s post has some telling excerpts:

Hayek—writing to The Times in 1978 and explicitly invoking Pinochet by name—noted that under certain “historical circumstances,” an authoritarian government may prove especially conducive to the long-run preservation of liberty: There are “many instances of authoritarian governments under which personal liberty was safer than under many democracies.”


As Hayek notes, “democracy needs ‘a good cleaning’ by strong governments.”


The Pinochet junta “enacted a new constitution in September 1980. . . . The constitution was not only named after Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, but also incorporated significant elements of Hayek’s thinking.”

These comments tap into a broader rethinking of neoliberalism’s ties to authoritarianism that not only make clear they are closely tied; they shatter any understanding of neoliberalism as being inherently “small government.” As Hayek makes clear, and as scholars such as Michel Foucault discussed as early as the 1970s, the project of a “free market” inherently implies the presence of a heavy-handed government that actually imposes itself on the lives of its citizens in a variety of ways in order to ensure that a particular economic model can operate.

Robin himself emphasizes this contradiction of neoliberal’s alleged theoretical inclinations to “democracy” in the midst of decreasingly democratic states:

[I]n the course of defending Pinochet and Salazar—and the whole idea of temporary dictatorship— Hayek was prepared to entertain an even deeper betrayal of his own stated beliefs. As he said to Sallas in 1981, when any “government is in a situation of rupture, and there are no recognized rules, rules have to be created.” That is what a dictator does: create the rules of social and political life. (Again, Hayek is not referring to a situation of civil war or anarchy; he’s talking about a social democracy in which the government pursues “the mirage of social justice” through administrative and increasingly discretionary means.)


Hayek was hardly the first conservative intellectual to write paeans to the slow accumulated wisdom of the ages by day, only to  praise Jacobin interventions of the right by night. Edmund Burke, I’ve argued, did much the same thing. Hayek even went so far as to defend his preferred brand of politics as a kind of dogmatic utopianism.

Robin doesn’t provide any immediate answers about how to reconcile neoliberalism’s very contradictory positions of politics in theory vs. politics in practice, but his comments highlight the broader reconceptualization and understanding of neoliberalism’s theoretical and practical failures that historians have been tracing for several decades. That neoliberal economists like Hayek and Milton Friedman made no qualms about supporting regimes that were willing to commit widespread human rights abuses and violations has long been known within historical scholarship, but new work on neoliberalism and its thinkers is reinforcing just how deeply those ties ran. Far from leading to a more democratic society, neoliberalism had the exact opposite effect, decreasing social equality and supporting authoritarian regimes that displayed little regard for human rights. Military regimes didn’t necessarily need neoliberalism – with Brazil’s military dictatorship provides a useful counterpoint to Chile – but neoliberalism did need military regimes. And thinkers like Hayek and Friedman had no problem supporting these undemocratic regimes, so long as they adopted the neoliberal economic policies and theories that the Austrian and Chicago schools advocated.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Economics in the Americas, Human Rights Violations, Latin American Economies, Neoliberalism. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Neoliberalism’s Inexorable Ties to Military Dictatorships (and Vice Versa)

  1. buddyhell says:

    Isn’t it funny that when you confront neoliberals with these facts, they’ll always try and turn the conversation around and make some spurious claim about how it was “necessary” for Pinochet to apply such brutality in order to rid Chile of ‘communists’.

    If the people could choose between neoliberalism and another, more equitable, system in a referendum, they would reject neoliberalism every time.

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