The Remnant: “Neoliberalism” Before Its Time in Latin America


My current research examines the history and development of the Austrian School of economics in Latin America as read against the backdrop of anti-neoliberal scholarship. It is an inquiry into the mobility and sedimentation of knowledge and an exploration into how distinct epistemic landscapes may emerge from the political, sociocultural, economic, and legal filters that mediate the ongoing interplay of people, objects, texts, and ideas. The research responds to recent calls for geographers to pay greater attention to elite social actors in Latin America and, in so doing, reveals new regional nodes in the transatlantic network responsible for disseminating the ideas of classical liberalism. At the same time, the research challenges the ways in which the Austrian School has been inscribed in anti-neoliberal scholarship and urges reflection on the potential for epistemological dissonance – broadly conceived as the friction resulting from an encounter with a competitive or discordant worldview – to skew not only our understanding of the world, but also the ways in which knowledge is collected, translated, packaged, disseminated, and reproduced by the academy.


I consider myself a liberal and I know many others who are – and many, many others who are not. But in all of my years, which are now many, I have still yet to meet even one neo-liberal. Who and what is a neoliberal, and what does a neo-liberal defend and oppose?
Mario Vargas Llosa, El liberalismo entre dos milenios

If scholars were to mount a response to Mario Vargas Llosa’s question based on the expanse of existing literature, it would – at best – seem confused. What is neoliberalism? The authors of two of the most theoretically robust and empirically rich investigations of the development of neoliberalism are at odds over its epistemological foundations: For Timothy Mitchell (1999, npn; see also Harvey 2005), author of the widely cited “The Work of Economics: How A Discipline Makes Its World” (2005), neoliberalism is “a triumph of the political imagination,” which “frames public discussion in the elliptic language of neoclassical economics.” By contrast, in his recently published historiography of neoliberalism, Daniel Stedman Jones (2012, 17) argues “it is a mistake to reduce neoliberal ideas to neoclassical economics,” therein reinforcing the position of Philip Mirowski (2009), whose work on the contemporary history of political economic thought has become central to scholars interested in the intellectual genealogy of neoliberalism.

In geography, there seems to be an epistemological rupture between Marxist interpretations holding neoliberalism to be “a coherent, purposive programme of socioeconomic and political transformation” and feminist and other post-structural approaches that struggle to explain how neoliberal subjects are “hailed, more or less successfully, to order” (Barnett et al. 2008, 3; see also, Larner 2003; England and Ward 2007). We appear to know very little, then, about what a neoliberal might defend or oppose. But two things seem clear: first, whether it zigged and zagged or took a straight line, neoliberalism traces its intellectual roots to the Austrian School of economics (Barnett 2010; Harvey 2005; Haselip 2010; Peet 2003; Peet 2007; Peck 2008; Peck 2010; Stedman Jones 2012); and second, the “first experiment in neoliberal state formation” was conceived in the United States and rolled out in Chile in the latter part of the twentieth century, during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (Harvey 2005; Klein 2007).

In the years since Juan Gabriel Valdés (1995, 6) first proposed that neoliberalism introduced into Chilean society “ideas that were completely new, concepts entirely absent from the ‘ideas market,’” the question of how ideas travel (e.g., Shapin 1998) – and, more specifically, how (neo)liberal ideas travel (e.g., Sheppard 2005) – has been of growing concern to geographers and other scholars. Recent attempts to build a “spatialized genealogy” (Peck 2008, 3) of neoliberalism have implied a shift from the “ideological heartlands” (Larner 2003) of the United States and the United Kingdom to neoliberalism’s “polycentric” origins (Peck 2008). And yet, for all of the lip service paid to polycentricity, scholarship remains largely focused on the power geometries of what is billed as a “transatlantic” (read: northern transatlantic) neoliberal network (Mirowski and Plehwe 2009; Peck 2010; Stedman Jones 2012).

The proposed research is motivated by a nagging doubt: If, as has been argued (Barnett 2010; Harvey 2005; Haselip 2010; Peet 2003; Peet 2007; Peck 2008; Peck 2010; Stedman Jones 2012), the Austrian School gave birth to the neoliberal agenda, which was formalized as state practice for the first time in Chile (Harvey 2005; Klein 2007), why has so little work been done to place the school, conceptually and historically, in Latin America? Moreover, if we accept that what manifested in Chile marked the outcome of the long march of Austrian ideas, how do we explain that the Chilean experiment was spearheaded by a group of neoclassical economists from the University of Chicago who were openly dismissive of the Austrian tradition (Harberger 2000)? In thinking through these questions, the proposed research seeks to provide a more theoretically rigorous, historically accurate, and spatially expansive engagement with the Austrian School than is currently available in geography and cognate disciplines.