Last weekend, I shared new work at the Society for Novel Studies’s biennial conference. The paper I presented, “Friedrich Hayek’s Novel Theory,” explores why novelists play villains in neoliberal economist and Mont Pelerin Society founder Hayek’s late theory. Here’s the abstract:
A popular strain of contemporary criticism approaches the novel with the historical conditions “neoliberalism” produces in mind. In a recent review essay in American Literary History, Leigh Claire La Berge and Quinn Slobodian celebrate literary studies’ attempts to develop such field-specific engagements with neoliberalism, but they argue some recent attempts to do so reproduce, rather than challenge, many of the ways of thinking (about subjects, markets, and the arts) neoliberal discourses promote. In order to avoid unwittingly endorsing ways of thinking oppositional critics hope to counter, La Berge and Slobodian urge us to read neoliberalism’s primary texts. They encourage us to pay attention to the foundational theoretical materials that have shaped both economic policies and structures of feeling across the West since the mid-twentieth century.
This talk takes up this challenge by examining how Nobel-prize-winning economist and neoliberal pioneer Friedrich Hayek theorized the nature and function of novels, literary texts, and of culture, more broadly. Hayek is best known for his influential contention that markets best organize human life without purposeful human intervention. In works early and late, he shares with many of his contemporaries on the left—and indeed, with the socialists he believed would doom the species if they triumphed—the view that humans are historical beings, shaped by cultural traditions we create. Hayek insists, however, that humans cannot, and should not try to, purposefully create and direct culture with identifiable collective interests or outcomes in mind. He thus simultaneously imbues culture with great power and denies we can harness that power for collective projects. This paper evaluates the consequences of this view of culture’s nature and function and compares it to competing views on the left. It suggests twenty-first century novel theory might account for dominant views of this kind, and considers how and why critics might.