Neoliberal Ideas and Settler Colonialism

Mack Penner, McMaster University 

Questions about the relationship between the local and the global are among the most enduring issues in ongoing debates about neoliberalism. For the late historian and theorist Moishe Postone, who emphasizes the global, it is possible to view the history of the twentieth century in terms of the “rise and decline of the state-centred organization of socio-economic life, of the apparent primacy of the political over the economic.”[1] This pattern encompasses the period from the end of the First World War and the Russian Revolution (rise) through the crises of the 1970s and what we now call neoliberalism (decline). As Postone points out, this general pattern affected western countries, yes, but also the Soviet Union, colonized territories, and decolonizing nations alike. Perhaps, historians might be inclined to say, this kind of generalization only works insofar as it practices careful ignorance of countervailing tendencies and exceptions that appear below the global surface. More specifically, historians of neoliberalism might suggest that Postone’s reading obscures the real role of the neoliberal state, which is not to step out of socio-economic life but to reorient itself in the service of markets. Fair enough, but Postone does nevertheless correctly identify the core general tendency of twentieth century political-economic development at the global level.

Crucially, that such a pattern could be so broadly encompassing suggests a problem with historical theories of neoliberalism that emphasize contingency over and above structural determinants. “The general character of the large-scale historical pattern that structured much of the twentieth century suggests the existence of overarching structural imperatives and constraints that cannot adequately be explained in local and contingent terms,” Postone writes.[2] If Postone is right, or even just “right enough”— and I’d suggest that the burden of proving otherwise is substantial — historians of neoliberalism who work from any kind of sub-global perspective have some explaining to do.[3] One way to do this explaining is to point out that structure exists at many levels, not just the global. Nation states, for one, are characterized by political and economic structures which, without being altogether unique, play a sort of mediating role and have meaningfully affected the development of neoliberalism in both ideal and material terms. That is, while it may be unwise to attribute the arrival of neoliberalism in a given place to local contingencies, the particular form that neoliberalism takes in a specific context is in part determined by structural realties in that place. In Canada, not to mention the United States, one of these structures is settler colonialism.[4] 

Among the ways that historians of Canadian neoliberalism might intervene in ongoing historiographical debates is to begin asking questions about how settler structures influence neoliberal thought and policy. At the level of ideas, one good example along these lines is the political scientist Tom Flanagan, who of course is famous for both his educational and political role in the career of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But before he was behind the scenes of conservative politics in the 1990s and 2000s, Flanagan’s academic career at the University of Calgary had been largely characterized by an attempt to apply neoliberal ideas to the history of the prairies with particular attention to property and markets and their respective roles in structuring relations between Indigenous people, Métis, and settlers. In his efforts, Flanagan was aided especially by the thought of neoliberal paragon Friedrich Hayek, and particularly the concept of “spontaneous order.” 

For Hayek, briefly, a spontaneous order was to be distinguished from an organization or a “made” order. The latter was designed intentionally and thus limited by the imaginative capacities of its designer(s), while the former was the product of complex and widespread social interaction over time and thus theoretically unlimited in its complexity and beyond the design capabilities of a single human mind. Hayek’s preference for spontaneous order in economic and social affairs led to a defence of markets as the only sort of mechanism “in which so many activities depending on dispersed knowledge can be effectively integrated into a single order.”[5] Accordingly, the role of the state was simply to establish and enforce general rules designed to accommodate the functioning of markets. From these ideas in Hayek, Flanagan derived a defence of markets and property, and a notion of justice, all of which can be traced throughout his published works. 

Readers familiar with Flanagan may have particular texts in mind, but perhaps it’s useful, by way of example, to invoke a somewhat lesser-known book, Métis Lands in Manitoba. Published in 1991, it was an historical account of the Manitoba Act’s implementation, and especially in its analysis of land and scrip markets it is possible to identify what neoliberal judgement looked like when applied on the prairies. Determining that the Métis in Manitoba had been “showered with more land and scrip than they could possibly use,” Flanagan investigated the markets that emerged for this land and scrip to be bought and sold.[6] Especially on the question of whether these markets were the site of widespread fraud by buyers, Flanagan’s Hayekian view was on full display.[7] Market orders, like the one in which the Métis found themselves, “[arose] from human interaction but [were] not under the purposive control of any individual.”[8] For Flanagan, claims of extensive fraud in land and scrip markets were about trying to find bad intentions where there were none. Crucially, such identifications of systemic intent had the effect of encouraging ignorance about intentional activity “where it really existed,” among individual Métis engaged in the market.[9] In Flanagan’s view, the spontaneous order could not bear the burden of responsibility for problems that were the result of intentional action. 

I want to note that, for Flanagan, the supposedly spontaneous settler order that we call Canada is always already there. That is, Flanagan’s analysis is held together by the assumption that Canada can be accurately described as a spontaneous order. What Flanagan cannot acknowledge is that, insofar as Canada does constitute a spontaneous market order, it was substantially imposed. It seems that neoliberal ideas, at least Hayekian ones, can only defend existing settler societies, not settler societies in the making. What could be less spontaneous than the partly genocidal processes by which Canada became a settler state?[10]

By forcing a collision of the categories “neoliberalism” and “settler colonialism” we stand to learn a great deal about both, not just on their own but as historically and still imbricated structures. Taking Postone’s point that the general trajectory of twentieth century history was structurally determined, we can nevertheless make fruitful inquiry about what those structures were and how they operated both on the ground and in the realm of ideas.

Mack Penner is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University.

[1] Moishe Postone, “Theorizing the Contemporary World: Robert Brenner, Giovanni Arrighi, David Harvey,” in Robert Albritton, Bob Jessop, and Richard Westra, eds., Political Economy and Global Capitalism: The 21st Century, Present, and Future(New York: Anthem Press, 2010), 8. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] For the interested, a good resource on the question of how neoliberalism relates to local contexts is Cornel Ban, Ruling Ideas: How Neoliberalism goes Local (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016). 

[4] For a recent exercise in “thinking” the structural role of settler colonialism in Canada, see Fred Burrill, “The Settler Order Framework: Rethinking Canadian Working-Class History,” Labour/Le Travail 83 (Spring 2019): 173-197. 

[5] F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: A New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Political Economy (London: Routledge, 1982, originally published in three volumes, 1973, 1976, 1979), 41-42.

[6] Tom Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba (Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 1991), 230.

[7] Flanagan attempts to refute claims of fraud both empirically and philosophically. Here I am dealing only with the philosophical aspect. 

[8] Flanagan, Métis Lands in Manitoba, 231.

[9] Ibid, 232.

[10] See James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life, 2nd ed. (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2019).

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