The ‘Optimistic Cruelty’ of Hayek’s Market Order: Neoliberalism, Pain and Social Selection

Ibled, Carla. 2023. The ‘Optimistic Cruelty’ of Hayek’s Market Order: Neoliberalism, Pain and Social Selection. Theory, Culture & Society, 40(3), pp. 81-101. ISSN 0263-2764 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

This article argues that cruelty, as a willingness to see or orchestrate the suffering of others, is not an unfortunate side-effect of neoliberal theories put into practice but is constitutive of the neoliberal project from its theoretical inception. Drawing on Lisa Duggan’s concept of ‘optimistic cruelty’ and treating the canonical texts of neoliberal economic theory as literary artefacts, the article develops this argument through a close reading of one of the central architects of the neoliberal project, the philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek. The first part of the article examines how Hayek attempts to justify the brutality of the market order he imagines – the catallaxy – by arguing that this brutality is the natural consequence of the spontaneous evolutionary processes that move civilisation forward. The second part brings to the fore the eugenicist undertones that suffuse this vision, despite Hayek’s apparent rejection of Social Darwinism. I analyse how Hayek’s market order operates through a series of disciplinary and biopolitical technologies that use pain, frustration, punishment and stigmatisation to eliminate bad habits, practices and subjectivities. These cruel mechanisms enable the catallaxy to sort between productive and unproductive lives to ensure that available resources are directed towards the former – even if it means that the others might be left to die. As such, cruelty is an affective atmosphere that permeates the catallaxy.

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affect, biopolitics, cruelty, eugenics, Hayek, neoliberalism

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28 April 2022Accepted
21 October 2022Published Online
May 2023Published

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Date Deposited:

29 Nov 2022 16:17

Last Modified:

05 May 2023 09:55

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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