Thanks to the Marxist Literary Group for including my presentation, “Friedrich Hayek’s Theory of Culture,” on the MLA 2020 panel, Contemporary Materialisms. I talked again about Hayek’s sense of culture and imagination, this time putting him in conversation with the New Left. Here’s the abstract:
In a recent review essay in American Literary History, Leigh Claire La Berge and Quinn Slobodian celebrate literary studies’ recent attempts to develop field-specific engagements with contemporary neoliberal political and economic conditions, but they argue some high-profile attempts to do so have reproduced, rather than challenged, ways of thinking neoliberal discourses promote. If oppositional critics want to avoid unwittingly endorsing views (of subjects, markets, the arts, and more) they hope to resist, La Berge and Slobodian suggest we go back and read neoliberalism’s primary texts. They encourage critics to engage with the foundational theoretical materials that have shaped both economic policy and structures of feeling across the West since at least the 1970s, instead of relying, as we often do, upon standard synthetic accounts of them, however powerful, by Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, or David Harvey.
In this talk, I suggest literary critics might take up this challenge in part by examining anew how influential neoliberal intellectuals theorize the nature and function of our field’s object of inquiry, broadly conceived as “culture.” How, we might ask, have dominant understandings of what culture is and does changed as economic and political conditions have shifted? And to what end, or, rather, in whose interest? Questions of this kind prompt us to extend into the present the narrative Raymond Williams offers in Culture and Society: 1780-1950, still the field’s standard history for how the concept of “culture” emerged and took hold as a term central for organizing life under liberal capitalist democracy.
Toward such a project, I elaborate the theory of culture Friedrich Hayek, Nobel-prize-winning economist and influential Chicago School intellectual, developed in his late work. Hayek is best known for his influential contention that markets best organize human life without purposeful human intervention. 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. I evaluate the consequences of this view of culture’s nature and function and compare it to competing views on the left.