The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 1 (Spring 2015)

A Politics Without Politics: The Iconoclastic Turn in American Public Life

Ned O’Gorman

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 1)

The dress was a tapestry in black and white. Prepared and pressed for a fifteen-year-old girl who was about to walk into history—and into great danger—it hung squarely on the shoulders of Elizabeth Eckford as she headed to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was her first day of school, September 4, 1957. The dress had been made especially for the day, pressed that morning while images on the Eckford family’s television showed angry crowds gathering outside Central High. The dress, like the crowds, was intended to communicate. The checked pattern of the lower part of the skirt was like the American republic in and for which Eckford stood, black and white. The skirt’s wide border flowed outward, reaching toward the bystanders, bodyguards, belligerents, and photographers who surrounded her—as if to remind them that the threads of history, when woven together, create patterns that define our civic spaces. The many images of Eckford that day—published in newspapers and magazines and shown on television—communicated a similar message throughout the Republic and indeed the world, causing some to feel outrage, others resentment, others perplexity, and others even a curious indifference.

For President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, the images caused alarm, giving ample indication of the mob violence that would ensue that month. Eisenhower, who was quietly watching from quarters at the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, where he was vacationing, had been in one scholar’s characterization “profoundly ambivalent” about the 1954 Supreme Court decision that led to integration efforts in Arkansas and elsewhere.1 He had stated that he preferred an “evolutionary” approach, one that would avoid the need for any coercive measures on the part of the federal government with respect to race relations.2 In fact, in a July 1957 news conference, only two months before Eckford donned her checked dress, he had insisted in public, “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send Federal troops into a Federal court and into any area to enforce the orders of a Federal court, because I believe that [the] common sense of America will never require it.”3 American common sense having faltered, Eisenhower issued an authorization to the secretary of defense on September 24, 1957, to use “the armed forces of the United States as he may deem necessary” to put down the willful “obstruction of justice.”4 And so uniformed troops with helmets and rifles appeared in Little Rock in the middle of a Cold War in which Eisenhower was bent on subordinating American martial iconography to images of peace and prosperity.

It was an extraordinary measure, one—as Eisenhower explained in a televised address the evening of September 24—that had everything to do with repairing, in his words, “the image of America.” Little Rock was doing a “tremendous disservice…to the nation in the eyes of the world,” the president declared. It was, he continued, “difficult to exaggerate the harm that is being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world.”5 In the black-and-white images of racial hatred coming out of Little Rock, we were witnessing, Eisenhower suggested, an American crisis of global proportions, as all crises of the “image of America” in the Cold War would be.

Of course, Eisenhower was right to see in the images of violence against Elizabeth Eckford and other activists a challenge to the image of America. He was wrong, however, to suggest that these images “misrepresent[ed]” America.6 The pictures Eisenhower and countless others saw have been called “image events”: spectacles meant for public consumption and political deliberation.7 But they were image events emerging out of years of hard struggle for advocates of civil rights, When Elizabeth Eckford put on that dress, she offered it, and indeed herself, as a kind of image of America. Reflecting on its significance, political philosopher Danielle Allen has written:

The dress reports on the gap between ideals and actualities, and also on the importance of symbols to the efforts of democratic citizens to deal with that gap. Although her fellow citizens across the country did not, Elizabeth knew that the integration of the public school system would require a made-from-scratch reweaving of the relationships among citizens. When she made the dress, she expressed the autonomy of the democratic citizen who desires to be sovereign and to effect new political orders but also must confess her own disempowerment. She had at her disposal the means to reconstitute not the “fabric” of society but only her daily uniform, and hers alone.8

Before we romanticize this moment of democratic self-fashioning, it must be said that the spitting, the shouting, the slurs and shoving—all frozen in the chemistry of film—were also expressions of citizens seeking to effect, or at least protect, a social and political order. These were also images of America, a black-and-white tapestry woven in discordant threads. The result was a crisis that, as Hannah Arendt suggested in her essay “Reflections on Little Rock,” challenged the legitimacy of the entire “political and historical framework of the Republic.”9

It is little wonder that Eisenhower, trying to manage the ideology of the Cold War and offer the world a new look at America, saw in these images an attack on the image of America. His decision to intervene in Little Rock was driven largely, if not entirely, by these concerns, despite his aversion as a president to actions or symbols suggestive of American militarism. Enemies of America, he claimed in his televised speech, were seizing upon the images of racial strife to “misrepresent our whole nation.” Extraordinary emergency measures were necessary, extraordinary not least for their irony: A man, the president, would authorize another man, the secretary of defense, to send military men to Central High School so that it might be, in Eisenhower’s words, “demonstrated to the world that we are a nation in which laws, not men, are supreme.” Eisenhower would offer to the world his own accidental image of America: the troops of the 101st Airborne Division escorting Elizabeth Eckford and other black children to school in defiance of abusive white protest.

The logic here, although purportedly liberal and democratic, was at first glance Hobbesian and authoritarian. Indeed, Eisenhower retold the Hobbesian story in his televised address: “Unless the President did so, anarchy would result. There would be no security for any except that which each one of us could provide for himself.”10 But I want to suggest that Eisenhower’s response to Little Rock, even with its expression of concern about wars of all against all, was less Hobbesian than one might think. In a certain sense it was even anti-Hobbesian, specifically in its implicit worry about the artificial nature of political spectacle. Eisenhower was concerned not just about the image of America but about the image itself: its production, its circulation, its authority, its power. In justifying emergency intervention by citing the harm being done to the image of America, Eisenhower expressed a more fundamental worry about the concentration of public energies on images, media events, spectacles, and such. And in arguing that the United States was “a nation in which laws, not men, are supreme,” he did more than speak out on behalf of the rule of law; he indicated a hierarchy of value, echoed throughout his presidency, in which the spiritual principles of the nation reign over the plans of men, invisible forces regulate our visible existence, and, in iconoclastic fashion, immaterial laws displaced mere fabricated images as sources of national meaning.

In what follows, I want to reflect on this particular hierarchy to outline the argument of my forthcoming book about iconoclasm and neoliberalism and the connection of both to a fundamental suspicion of politics, understood as the practices and processes whereby citizens discuss, deliberate, and debate the factors and forces they deem most consequential for their lives together in society.11 A core idea of the book is that while neoliberalism is a fraught term, it accurately captures an important development within liberalism—less for its economic innovations, at least in the US context, than for its social and political ones. I argue that neoliberalism relegated politics to a fallen world of tokens and idols, while moving market ideology to a transcendental realm of charismatic principles that can escape accountability while commanding sacrifice.

I have already introduced Eisenhower as a key figure in this development. I will now turn to two other figures, Friedrich Hayek and Walter Lippmann, both influential intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century. I do so because it is in the convergence of elite social thought and Cold War exigencies that we can identify the rise of that underlying system of meanings and values that can justly be called neoliberal.

A Stupendous Liberation

In 1937, Walter Lippmann, the renowned journalist, commentator, and cofounding editor of The New Republic, published An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, a book that he wrote after spending some time at the London School of Economics with the economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Received widely in the United States as a market-based critique of the New Deal, it represented a partial turn in Lippmann’s thought. Qualifying his earlier arguments for government as an administrative apparatus necessary for people to get on with their lives, Lippmann now attacked “planning” as a legitimate means of political rule and seemed to distance himself from technocratic ideals. Yet in other respects, The Good Society was the latest installment in Lippmann’s ongoing meditation on the problem of the gap between “the world outside” and “the pictures in our heads,” as he had put it in his 1922 book Public Opinion.

In The Good Society Lippmann argued that the central problem with “planning” was the inability of government administrators to “picture” social processes accurately. “Though the ruler may think he has his patents from God,” he quipped, “he does not have the wisdom or the power of God.”12 Indeed, Lippmann wryly noted, the social planner could not even picture the social and economic processes that went into the making of his own breakfast; such processes “would be beyond the understanding of any mind.” So how could the planner attempt to “draw up” plans for the direction of society?13 The limits of politics, Lippmann argued, must be proportionate to the limits of the human imagination and intellect: “The essential limitation of all policy, of all government, is that the human mind must take a partial and simplified view of existence. The ocean of experience cannot be poured into the little bottles of our intelligence.”14

By contrast, Lippmann argued, the rise of liberalism, especially economic liberalism, owed nothing to planning. “No government planned, no political authority directed, the material progress of the past four centuries, or the increasing humanity which has accompanied it,” he wrote. Rather, “it was by a stupendous liberation of the minds and spirits and conduct of men that a world-wide exchange of goods and services and ideas was promoted.”15 Thus, liberalism entailed the liberation of the human spirit, and the future of liberalism would likewise rest on government restraining its exercise of power in order to set the human mind and spirit free.

The Good Society became the occasion for a meeting convened by the French philosopher Louis Rougier in Paris in 1938. The twenty-six attendees included not only Hayek and Mises but also the likes of the philosopher Raymond Aron and the polymathic intellectual Michael Polanyi. The Colloque Walter Lippmann, as it was called, was a seminal event with regard to the entrance of neoliberalism into American political-economic thought. Indeed, the term neoliberalism was itself first seriously batted about at this meeting, where it represented the reconstruction of liberalism in a manner departing not only from technocratic “planning” but also from nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism, which, unlike this new liberalism, granted no role for government intervention at all.16 Neoliberalism would, on the other hand, endorse a modest policing role for the government: specifically, policing on behalf of the protection of markets. Neoliberalism would also allow for government intervention in cases of extreme human suffering and distress. A powerful but small government, we might say, would be the hallmark of this new liberalism.

The Colloque Walter Lippmann is historically significant not only for adding neoliberalism to the vocabulary of politics and economics but also for launching a process of networking, collaboration, and advocacy that achieved, in historian Angus Burgin’s words, a “great persuasion” that worked its way through that noted promoter of classical liberalism, the Mont Pelerin Society, and culminated with the radical liberal free-market advocacy of Milton Friedman.17

The neoliberal critique that began developing at the Colloque Walter Lippmann was not a narrowly economic one reserved only for economists. Rather, it began with a form of philosophical skepticism—one that stressed the limits of the human imagination and intellect—and moved through the language of economics to offer ultimately a critique of the means, and indeed the media, of social and political order. The pivotal binary in this broader social and political critique was not individualism versus collectivism, or state-centric versus market-centric ideas of social order, but, rather, that between visibility and invisibility. The neoliberal assumption, to draw a phrase from political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, was that politics was a matter of vision—and that this was precisely the problem with politics: It was limited to the world of appearances, even though the scale and scope of modern social forces were well beyond appearing in any meaningful and coherent representation.18

Eisenhower’s actions and public words were consistent with this critique, though he was no doubt motivated more by pragmatism than philosophy. His deep Cold War investment in the “image of America” paradoxically led him to the premise that no single image of America could be legitimate. “America” was both too diffuse and too “spiritual” to be subject to singular representations. Moreover, to concentrate national energies on a single image, person, or object was fascistic, socialistic, or even communistic.19 Finally, images always risked appearing forced, designed, or planned—and this in an era when liberal ideology was being pitted against Soviet ideology as the more natural and spiritual of the two. Yet Eisenhower was at the same time deeply committed to the proliferation of images of America: During his presidency, American peacetime propaganda became both more sophisticated and more expansive. Eisenhower was therefore caught historically and ideologically between two different approaches not only to the image of America but also to the image more generically.20

The first approach, what I will refer to as the liberal imaginary, takes the image seriously as a locus of political meaning and therefore invests a great deal of energy (even if that expenditure seems futile) in its production and control. The second, what I will refer to as the neoliberal imaginary, insists that too much “meaning” engenders political crises. This neoliberal logic critiques, even attacks, the role of the image in political life. Each of these imaginaries, in turn, has its own conception of those factors that put the authority of the government in crisis. Indeed, the question of political legitimacy, more than any other single question, defines the key differences between the liberal and neoliberal political imaginaries.

Liberal and Neoliberal Legitimation Crises

In addition to neoliberalism, the cluster of political and economic phenomena that began to unfold in dramatic fashion in the 1970s—among them the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of global monetary management, the rise of “free markets” as an ideological centerpiece in the discipline of economics, the political push for deregulation, an increasing global division of labor, the decline of unions, the minimization of substantive institutional investments by corporations, and corporate “diversification”—have been discussed under notions of “advanced capitalism,” “late capitalism,” “globalization,” “reflexive modernity,” and even “postmodernism.” Neoliberalism and its kin have been the subject of numerous analyses, ranging from those looking at the breakdown of the postwar liberal international system, to those concerned with the withering of the welfare state and social democracies, to those addressing the dissolution of established cultures and traditional social institutions, and even to those reflecting on the evaporation of the notion of “history” itself. Moreover, neoliberalism has been the subject of numerous attempts at definition. A theme running through all of these terminologies and analyses, however, is what social theorist Jürgen Habermas called, in 1973, only two years after the “Nixon shock” (President Nixon’s decision that the US Treasury would no longer trade dollars for gold) and the same year as the fateful Arab oil embargo, the “legitimation crisis.”21

In Habermas’s view, the road to legitimation crises begins as the state, an administrative apparatus, expands the scope of its activities in order to serve the private goal of capitalist profit maximization by applying Keynesian principles to economic management. But this expansion does not overcome the tensions and contradictions of a class-based society. Hence, met with its inevitable failures, the state appears as overreaching, unable to manage the demands it has assumed. As a consequence, it attempts what Habermas called “ideology planning”—the management of “meaning” in order to maintain legitimacy. But as Habermas wrote, “There is no administrative production of meaning.”22 That is, the sort of substantive meaning that lends legitimacy to government is derived, in his view, from culture (in a kind of bottom-up manner), not bureaucracies, and culture is “peculiarly resistant to administrative control.”23 Consequently, the state’s effort to win legitimacy for itself through the management of meaning in ideology and symbol is “self-defeating.”24 At the same time, advanced capitalist societies tend to erode the “cultural traditions” that lent legitimacy to the state in the first place. As a result, advanced capitalist societies fall into “legitimation difficulties,” indicative of an even more basic “motivation crisis.”25 Capitalist interests, in turn, approach this crisis as a short-term opportunity to be exploited by, for example, taking advantage of the relative weakness of the state to manipulate laws in the interest of further profits.

Several decades before Habermas’s account of the legitimation difficulties felt by late-twentieth-century advanced capitalist societies, the story of legitimation crisis was told differently, and far more effectively, by Friedrich Hayek. His neoliberal account of legitimation crisis not only is unlike Habermas’s liberal one; it anticipated the cultural-political logic that began to take hold in the 1970s in the United States, but was already at work in the crisis at Little Rock.

In the mid-1940s, as war was wrecking Europe, Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, warning socialist intellectuals in Great Britain (where he had been teaching at the London School of Economics) of the dangers of extending Britain’s “planned” war economy into the postwar period. Published by the University of Chicago Press, The Road to Serfdom gained startling traction in the United States, to a degree that left even Hayek surprised. After the editors of Reader’s Digest, the most widely circulated magazine in America, read the book, they promptly published a condensation of the text as the lead article in the April 1945 issue.26 The condensation—more of a re-creation of Hayek’s text than a mere weaving of excerpts—was sent to newsstands as Hitler’s forces were crumbling in Europe. This gave the Reader’s Digest editors room to turn their sights on the threat posed by the Soviet Union.27 Indeed, the Reader’s Digest version of The Road to Serfdom stressed “the extraordinary similarity in many respects of the conditions under ‘communism’ and ‘fascism.’”28 As the magazine’s readers were told:

The question is whether we should create conditions under which the knowledge and initiative of individuals are given the best scope so that they can plan most successfully; or whether we should direct and organize all economic activities according to a “blueprint,” that is, “consciously direct the resources of society to conform to the planners’ particular views of who should have what.”29

The Reader’s Digest’s condensation was so successful that the magazine quickly found itself facing requests for more than one million reprints of the article, many of them ordered by corporate and political crusaders against the New Deal.

Earlier in 1945, Look magazine had offered a cartoon version of The Road to Serfdom, which General Motors, led by Eisenhower’s future secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, would reprint and disseminate as part of GM’s “Thought Starter” series of publications. The Look version departed far enough from Hayek’s original text that it hardly merited the same title. Nevertheless, it did present the outlines of a popularized version of the neoliberal account of legitimation crisis Hayek had articulated. Hayek had argued in The Road to Serfdom that the path to totalitarianism passes from the “will of the people” through a technocratic regime that progressively morphs into an autocratic one:

It may be the unanimously expressed will of the people that its parliament should prepare a comprehensive economic plan, yet neither the people nor its representatives need therefore be able to agree on any particular plan. The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will inevitably cause dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. Parliaments come to be regarded as ineffective “talking shops,” unable or incompetent to carry out the tasks for which they have been chosen. The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done, the direction must be “taken out of politics” and placed in the hands of experts—permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.30

In Hayek’s original account, this autocratic, technocratic regime—in contrast with what Habermas would argue—could in fact win legitimacy through something like the administrative production of meaning. Propaganda, oratory, rallies, party pamphlets, etc., could generate broad assent among the people. (For Hayek, the capacity of the state to produce such meaning was seemingly affirmed both by fascism and by the war efforts of the Allies.)

In this respect, it is significant that the story in Look followed Hayek’s logic quite closely, beginning not with the state’s efforts to mediate capitalist accumulation but with war. “War forces ‘national planning,’” the account began. As a result, “you gladly surrender many freedoms” to planners who are put in power to regulate and regiment the war economy. However, as the planners go about their work they come to cherish their power, encouraging its extension beyond the war’s end. Through wartime propaganda, they offer utopian visions of a postwar planned economy, and campaign to have politicians elected to office who will support those postwar plans. Yet the planners soon find that they cannot themselves agree on any single plan, let alone a vision for society. So they begin to vie for power. Citizens likewise fight over plans and policies, joining special-interest groups to push for programs that would serve their own interests over those of others.

Here begins a legitimation crisis of the order Habermas would later describe. Planners, being, in Look’s words, “well-meaning idealists,” are reluctant to force their plans through. They begin to piece together a “patchwork plan” in the vain hope that they might establish a planned economy that could satisfy most, if not all, citizens and interest groups. However, the patchwork plan, because it is so broken, requires an extra measure of “selling,” leading the planners to make use of “a giant propaganda machine.” The propaganda machine soon comes under the control of a political party, the party growing through it and “by fiery oratory” into a powerful force that captivates the “least educated” and “gullible.” Meanwhile, the economy falls into shambles and “everybody suffers.” In an act of “desperation,” the planners “authorize the new party leader to hammer out a plan and force its obedience.” The party and its leader assume authoritarian power. Soon they identify a “scapegoat minority” on which to blame social and economic ills, and “inflame the majority.” Opposition to the party is now “suicide,” and “all freedom is gone.” The planned economy has become a totalitarian state, one that plans—as Look offered in a succession of frames—“your profession,” “your wages,” “your thinking,” “your recreation,” and, ultimately, “your disciplining.”31

Of course, this totalitarian dystopia, however cartoonish, had in general form, if not in exact detail, a real-world parallel in Nazi Germany—as evoked by Look in illustrations showing a Führer-like figure. Habermas, too, was profoundly aware of this historical possibility, seeing the totalitarian state as one possible perverse outcome of legitimation crises. But the Hayekian neoliberal account differed from the Habermasian liberal one in two significant respects.

First, in beginning with a state of war, the neoliberal version aligned “the state” with “necessity” (that seventeenth-century basis for the raison d’état—also, by the way, rooted in epistemological skepticism). In a Hobbesian manner, a state of war “forces” the state to establish a planning regime—or, as the case might be, forces the establishment of an extraordinarily strong state. Significantly, the neoliberal account offered by Hayek did not refute this necessity. While it may be true that, as Hayek’s biographer Bruce Caldwell writes, “Hayek’s message was to be wary of…martial invocations,” so also was Eisenhower’s. Hayek and Eisenhower nevertheless both strongly associated the powers of the state with the powers of war making.32 Indeed, Hayek’s anxieties about the expansion of the state grew in part out of this association. As Caldwell writes of Hayek, “His specific fear was that, for a war to be fought effectively, the power and size of the state must grow. No matter what rhetoric they employ, politicians and the bureaucracies over which they preside love power, and power is never easily surrendered once the danger, if there ever was one, has passed.”33 (Recall Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex.) But while Hayek began where Hobbes did, with a state of war, he did not end with a Leviathan. Rather, he constructed an anti-Leviathan philosophy by associating war with “politics” rather than “nature.” Eisenhower, a true Clausewitzian, did too.34

It is, Hayek maintained, the artificial, planned, and intentional quest for power that leads to social conflict both within a society and among societies. “Democracy,” he would argue in his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, is but a method for arbitrating such artificial conflicts, a peaceful substitute for violence.35 But democracy should not be the only—and not even the primary—means of creating and sustaining social order in liberal societies, for democracy is itself the source of many social crises. Rather, Hayek argued, we should turn to economy, a “spontaneous order.”36 This unplanned order paradigmatically circumvents social conflict by replacing contention over “plans”—whether this struggle be violent or democratic—with market competition regulated by impersonal, spontaneous forces.37

Thus, to the dialectic between the state of war and artificial political power Hayek added a third order—what he would at one point term the “cosmic” order (rather than “natural,” “cosmic” being intended to “convey a sense of admiration and awe”), which Hayek strongly associated with a free-market economy.38 He had a far more benign view of “nature” or “cosmos” than Hobbes, one that was in a certain sense reminiscent of Lockean and later eighteenth-century British understandings of the state of nature, in which humans were envisioned as being naturally social.39 Although Hayek was fond of citing “British philosophers,” his sense of a “cosmic” social order was more organicist, even romantic, and certainly more informed by social evolutionism. Of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Smith and Hume’s contemporary Adam Ferguson, Hayek wrote, “They find the origin of institutions, not in contrivance or design, but in the survival of the successful.” As a result, “what we call political order is much less the product of our ordering intelligence than is commonly imagined,” and civilization has “evolved by a process of cumulative growth” quite apart from human reason and intentionality.40 Echoes of Lippmann are everywhere in Hayek.

But “neo-liberals” like Lippmann, Hayek, and Milton Freidman (at least the Friedman of the 1951 essay “Neo-Liberalism and Its Prospects”) explicitly differed from their nineteenth-century laissez-faire predecessors in advocating that the state play an intentional “police” role in maintaining conditions conducive to the spontaneous order of Hayek’s “survival of the successful.” Moreover, writing as they were in the wake of the Great Depression, these neoliberals argued that the government could legitimately intervene in situations of “acute misery and distress,” as long as free-market alternatives were not interfered with.41 They contrasted their thinking with nineteenth-century laissez-faire thought by giving the state a well-defined, legitimate role as a protector of market forces and as a corrective power in situations of great social crisis. But the state must be limited to these roles; otherwise, it would be tempted to overreach, extending their artificial order into realms reserved for spontaneous, evolutionary, and unplanned social order, and crossing the line of legitimacy.

The second way in which the neoliberal account of the legitimation crisis differed from the Habermasian one has to do with the question of “meaning.” Hayek, in the unabridged The Road to Serfdom, and Reader’s Digest and Look in their condensations, located the specific source of the totalitarian threat not in the contradictions of capitalism but in the inherent instabilities of parliamentary democracy and the consequent threat of the overproduction of meaning. While, for Habermas, the legitimation crisis would be rooted in the state’s inability to produce “meaning” effectively, despite its best propagandistic efforts, the neoliberal account worried about the production of too much meaning, together with the inability of citizens to “see through” it. That is, it worried about “idolatry.” Look’s cartoonish rendering of The Road to Serfdom made the point graphically, portraying a citizen surrounded by party propaganda, unable to get outside it, let alone see through it. Here citizens ended up in a posture of reverence, even worship. In a similar way, Hayek’s original text wove a tale of the over-determination of meaning, as a myriad of sources—from the popular press to political prejudice to state propaganda—threaten to put “politics over economics” and “planning” over markets.42 Hayek argued in The Road to Serfdom that late-nineteenth-century liberal societies, overly anxious to achieve the progress liberalism had set in motion, began to lose faith in “the basic tenets of liberalism” and sought instead to engineer solutions to social problems by “collective and ‘conscious’ direction of all social forces to deliberately chosen goals,”43 so that “the eyes of the people became fixed on the new demands” and, indeed, on new idols.44

Here again, Hayek worried about the artificial. Whereas Habermas took the artificiality and arbitrariness of political order as reason for democratic deliberation—“Legitimacy means that there are good arguments for a political order’s claim to be recognized as right and just”45—Hayek found in the artificial and arbitrary character of political order reason for prioritizing non-deliberative, a priori market principles over parliamentary democratic processes. For the market, he argued, unlike politics, is natural, spontaneous, impersonal, anonymous, and “blind.”46

Indeed, the problem of vision was at the center of Hayek’s concern with meaning and critique of deliberative politics, as it had been in Lippmann’s The Good Society. “It is impossible,” Hayek argued, for planners “to gain a synoptic view” of all the relevant facts entailed in ordering a society economically.47 Deliberation regarding the future entailed for Hayek the assumption, severely problematic, of an ability to imagine particular social ends and the specific means to those ends. The problem with most policy and nearly all planning, and therefore with any elevation of politics over economics in society, was, in this neoliberal account, inseparable from the limits of the imagination and, indeed, the image—we simply cannot “picture” social processes.

This was true even for the economist, perhaps especially so. In his famous essay “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” Milton Friedman would argue that every economic theory necessarily amounts to a “false image of reality.”48 It is impossible, Friedman argued, for even the economist to see economic processes as they exist in reality. Thus, he or she must construct knowingly false images of such processes and continuously expose them, negatively, to “repeated failure of its implications to be contradicted.”49

Far more than an argument pertaining to the relationship of politics to economics, Lippmann, Hayek, and Friedman found in the limits of the powers of imagination the basis of economic science and, more broadly, a comprehensive, non-egoistic (i.e., non-Hobbesian) philosophy of individualism. As Hayek wrote:

This is the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted, that man is egoistic or selfish or ought to be. It merely starts from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole society, and that, since, strictly speaking, scales of value can exist only in individual minds, nothing but partial scales of values exist—scales which are inevitably different and often inconsistent with each other.50

The market, through such spontaneous mechanisms as the price system and the division of labor, represents a means of social order that depends not on vision but on invisible forces. Any claim to “picture” social forces is illegitimate. As Joseph Schumpeter also suggested, economics—in theory and practice—offers reliable mechanisms of motion (e.g., hypotheses and laws), but none of representation.51

Hayek suggested that the need for legitimation was itself a problem. A society preoccupied with the question of legitimacy is a society as yet unconverted to the particular power of “impersonal and anonymous social processes” to bring its own distinct form of social order to the world.52 Consequently, for Hayek, as had been for Hobbes and Habermas, legitimacy was an “artificial” problem.53 But for Hayek, unlike Hobbes and Habermas, this artificiality meant that legitimacy was a problem to be overcome rather than simply lived with as an integral feature of political society.

Democratic Vistas?

So when President Eisenhower wished for solutions to American racism in accord with “free enterprise,” he wished for the problem to work itself out, over time. However, in the images of Elizabeth Eckford and the angry mobs in Little Rock he found his wishes being challenged—we might even say attacked—by performances of racial animosity and injustice in the American South. While Eisenhower was hardly a consistent “neoliberal,” his approach to the Little Rock crisis reverberated with the basic assumptions and arguments of the neoliberal theory of legitimation crisis I have just outlined: Little Rock was producing too much “meaning,” meaning that was itself determined at least in part by what Eisenhower probably thought was the overreach of government in social affairs. Little Rock was therefore creating a crisis for government, but one—importantly—derived as much from its effects on “the image of America” as from tensions in federal-state relations. Although for Eisenhower the role of the federal government was at best murky with respect to racial injustice, it could unequivocally assume a policing function amid what was for the president a national emergency, if only an emergency resulting from the overproduction of meaning. The same basic approach was reflected in Eisenhower’s handling of the Sputnik crisis a month later: The president was dismayed at the “over-reaction” of Americans to a speck in the sky. Confronted with the overproduction of meaning, the president was spurred to take emergency action.

At the same time, however, in a much more “liberal” vein, Eisenhower recognized that part of what was at issue in Little Rock and with Sputnik was the “image of America,” and that politics—or at least geopolitics—would be contested in and through images. So while it would be nice and easy to set neoliberalism over and against democracy and leave it at that, we cannot simply portray neoliberalism as the anti-democratic bugaboo. Doing so would misrepresent the situation historically and currently. Because neoliberalism as a social and political imaginary grew out of the soil of liberal democracies, it has an equivocal relationship to liberal democracy. On the one hand, it represents a strong critique of deliberative democratic politics, activated especially by concerns about political representation; on the other, neoliberalism represents the realization of a certain liberal democratic desire for “direct” or immediate participation within the social forces that give order to our lives.

The image—in a generic sense—not only is a means of political contest, something Elizabeth Eckford certainly came to understand, but also is a pivotal point of contestation within the history of liberalism. The image, indeed, is “the image” that underlies our ideas of political representation: representation makes visible the represented in a figure, icon, or image. Representation is thus critical to political contestation. Just as you cannot well joust with a ghost, so you cannot easily discuss and debate invisible forces. Liberal thinkers of all stripes have never denied this. Their point of difference, rather, has been what kinds of the forces, factors, and powers that shape our lives—and how many of them—should be made publicly visible, and thus politically contestable. On one end of the spectrum, classical liberals have typically believed that free political societies best arbitrate power as citizens discuss and debate representations and representative figures. The messy work of politics is integral to a classical liberal order. Neoliberalism sits at the other end of the spectrum, claiming that the most consequential social forces—paradigmatically, economic forces—must be left unrepresented, and thus uncontested, if they are to function well. Politics gets in the way of a well-functioning society. By offering the market as the “invisible hand” that can assure a well-functioning society apart from politics, neoliberalism calls for citizens to put their hopes for society in something other than their fundamental citizenship.


  1. Cary Fraser, “Crossing the Color Line in Little Rock,” Diplomatic History 24, No. 2 (2000) 234.
  2. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Remarks at Meeting of Negro Leaders Sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association,” May 12, 1958. Accessed at The American Presidency Project, See also Steven R. Goldzwig and George N. Dionisopolous, “Crisis at Little Rock: Eisenhower, History, and Mediated Political Realities,” in Eisenhower’s War of Words (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994), 190.
  3. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “The President’s News Conference,” July 17, 1957. Accessed at The American Presidency Project,
  4. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Executive Order 10730—Providing Assistance for the Removal of an Obstruction of Justice within the State of Arkansas,” September 24, 1957. Accessed at The American Presidency Project,
  5. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Radio and Television Address to the American People on the Situation in Little Rock,” September 24, 1957. Accessed at The American Presidency Project,
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kevin DeLuca and Jennifer Peeples, “From Public Sphere to Public Screen: Democracy, Activism, and the ‘Violence’ of Seattle,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19 (2002): 125–51.
  8. Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 21.
  9. Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock,” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 198.
  10. Eisenhower, “Radio and Television Address.”
  11. Ned O’Gorman, The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2015.
  12. Walter Lippmann, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society (Boston: Little, Brown, 1937), 24.
  13. Ibid., 30.
  14. Ibid., 30–31.
  15. Ibid., 20.
  16. Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 71–73..
  17. Ibid., 186–214. Friedman used “radical liberal” to describe his own economic philosophy; see also see Burgin, 176–77.
  18. Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  19. For an extended version of this argument concerning Eisenhower’s worries about the concentration of national energies in a single image or representation, see the chapter “Eisenhower and the American Sublime” in my book Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011).
  20. Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008).
  21. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975). Published in German in 1973.
  22. Ibid., 70.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 73, 75.
  26. My account here relies on that in Burgin, The Great Persuasion, 87–90. Bruce Caldwell also provides a helpful overview of the publication history of The Road to Serfdom in his introduction to the 2007 edition published by the University of Chicago Press.
  27. Ibid., 89.
  28. Friedrich A. von Hayek, The Condensed Version of The Road to Serfdom, by F.A. Hayek, April 1945 issue of Reader’s Digest, 45.
  29. Ibid., 36.
  30. Friedrich A. von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 104.
  31. The Look version of The Road to Serfdom was published in February 1945. Accessed at
  32. Caldwell, “Introduction,” The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 32.
  33. Ibid.
  34. For a discussion of Eisenhower and Clausewitz, see Peter J. Roman, Eisenhower and the Missile Gap (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 65, 83–84, 111, and John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 133, 173, 187.
  35. Friedrich A. von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 107.
  36. The phrase “spontaneous order” appears often in The Road to Serfdom; see, e.g., 73.
  37. Friedrich A. von Hayek, The Confusion of Language in Political Thought (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1968), 10–11.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), 305.
  40. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 57.
  41. Milton Friedman, “Neo-Liberalism and Its Prospects,” in The Indispensable Milton Friedman: Essays on Politics and Economics (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2012), 7.
  42. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 139.
  43. Ibid., 73.
  44. Ibid., 72.
  45. Jürgen Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), 178.
  46. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 134.
  47. Ibid., 95.
  48. Friedman, “The Methodology of Positive Economics,” in Essays in Positive Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 15.
  49. Ibid., 23.
  50. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 102.
  51. Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2003), 83.
  52. Habermas, Communication and the Evolution of Society, 179.
  53. Friedrich A. von Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 8.

Ned O’Gorman, associate professor of communication and Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy and the forthcoming The Iconoclastic Imagination: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America Since the Kennedy Assassination.

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