It is strange to continually see references to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Hayek’s support of a brutal dictator like Augusto Pinochet shows that, in practice, he had nothing against going down the road to serfdom, in terms of his own confused use of that word. Such support demonstrates that he was morally insane and politically evil, and yet right-wingers continue to use that book like a magical talisman to wave away all alternative leftist possibilities.
Even ignoring the real world context of Hayek’s life, the title of his book is plain bizarre. He is arguing against oppressive centralization of power in large governments. But historically speaking, serfdom was part of feudalism. The one thing feudalism wasn’t is a national dictatorship like that of Pinochet’s Chile. Feudal lords were violently oppressive authoritarians that operated locally and on the small scale. Most of their power came from tradition and brute force at their command, not government and official laws. Feudal lords often fought against the centralized power of kings.
Let me put that in a modern context. There are two examples that come to mind that most closely approximate feudalism and serfdom.
The most obvious example was the plantation slave system, the aristocratic slaveholders having been the direct inheritors of the aristocratic feudal lords. I mean that literally and directly. Feudalism morphed into slavery with the one constant being the aristocracy, with a couple of centuries of overlap between the two systems. Interestingly, in the colonies, many of those slaveholding aristocrats fought against the British Empire in the American Revolution because they didn’t like a distant large centralized authoritarian government usurping their despotic power and overruling their own authoritarian aspirations within their local fiefdoms.
A more recent example is that of company towns. They aren’t as common these days, at least not in the Western countries, but from the 1800s to the early 1900s many of them were built in the United States. Before labor laws and protections, which is to say before much labor organizing, company towns were sometimes very much neo-feudalism with the ownership class having near total power over their workers. In company towns, workers were often in debt peonage/slavery and this was used as a form of rigid social control. Their entire lives were dominated by the company. They were required by the company to live in company housing, buy from the company store, go to the company doctor, send their kids to the company school, etc.
All of this relates to what is called corporatism (Southern Californian Birth of Salvific Corporatism; & Fascism, Corporatism, and Big Ag). It was a key pillar of fascism. And of course mass slavery was brought back under fascist states. One might note the growing role of prison labor in the US economy, a tradition that followed directly from slavery (From Slavery to Mass Incarceration).
Both of those examples came at a time when government was immensely smaller and less centralized. Feudalism and neo-feudalism is the very vision of authoritarian libertarianism, if we are to coin such a misnomer. This is is also the era that neoliberals love to fantasize about. It’s unsurprising that neoliberal superstars like Friedman, Reagan, and Thatcher loved Pinochet and any other right-wing authoritarian who came along. Neoliberalism has always depended on the alliance of fascist and theocratic states.
The first and only necessary principle of corporatist neoliberalism (or rather soft fascism) is the plutocratic privilege to deny everyone else’s rights and freedoms. Hayek didn’t care about civil rights and democratic systems of any sort and saw them as potentially dangerous. His so-called liberalism was (and still is) defined by one ideal, that of supposedly freedom of action in terms of unmeritocratic capitalism, but it didn’t apply to the freedom of action of anyone who disagreed with him, especially those not part of the oligarchy (the Golden Rule, those with the gold make and enforce the rules). So, he only believed in freedom of others to do what he thought they should do. Otherwise, they must be stopped from acting freely, even if it involved violent oppression, from mass killings to torture (thousands died, were harmed, went missing, and were made into refugees under Pinochet’s regime).
Of course, this oppressive unfreedom was supposedly only a temporary situation, until the malcontents were taken care of, the anti-capitalist obstacles removed, and the new social order was put in place. Then and only then would freedom reign. That was the dogmatic ideology of laissez-faire capitalism that captured power in Western countries and was violently enforced around the world. It was a serfdom made global, not limited to mere local authoritarianism and a quaint aristocracy. This is why spreading Western freedom around the world has required trillions of dollars of military force and millions killed — bombs and blood. It was Manifest Destiny at a larger scale, with even better rhetoric.
Some call this liberty.
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Nietzsche, Hayek, and the Meaning of Conservatism
by Corey Robin
Hayek von Pinochet
by Corey Robin
by John Médaille
The road to serfdom and taking the country back
by citizen k
Hayek and Pinochet
by John Quiggin
Capitalism is Not Meritocracy
by Frank Moraes
The New Road to Serfdom
by Christopher Hayes
The Road from Serfdom
by Greg Grandin
Why libertarians apologize for autocracy
by Michael Lind
Friedrich Hayek: in defence of dictatorship
by Benjamin Selwyn
The Mad Dream of a Libertarian Dictatorship
by Jesse Walker
Money won’t compensate for my torture in Chile
by Leopoldo García Lucero