A fist held in the air clutching at US monetary billsWhy did the rise of human rights language in Anglo-American and European states in the 1970s coincide with the institutionalisation of neoliberalism? And why has the neoliberal age also been the age of human rights? In this talk, I will address these questions, and discuss the key arguments of my recently published book, The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism. Drawing on detailed archival research on the parallel histories of human rights and neoliberalism from the 1940s onwards, The Morals of the Market uncovers the place of human rights in neoliberal attempts to develop a moral framework for a market society.In the wake of World War Two, early neoliberal thinkers saw demands for new rights to social welfare and self-determination as threats not only to rational economics but also to the moral and political order of ‘Western civilisation’. Yet, rather than rejecting rights, they developed a distinctive account of human rights as tools to depoliticise civil society, protect private investments and shape liberal subjects. Homing in on neoliberal political thought, the book shows that the neoliberals developed a stark dichotomy between politics, conceived as coercive, violent, and totalitarian and civil society, which they depicted as a realm of mutually-beneficial, voluntary, market relations between individual subjects of rights. In mobilising human rights to provide a moral language for a market society, the book argues that neoliberals contributed far more than is often realised to today’s politics of human rights.

Jessica Whyte (University of New South Wales)

Jessica Whyte is Scientia Fellow (Philosophy and Law) and Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Wales. Her work has been published in a range of fora including Contemporary Political Theory; Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development; Law and Critique; Political Theory; South Atlantic Quarterly, and Theory and Event. She is author of Catastrophe and Redemption: The Political Thought of Giorgio Agamben, (SUNY 2013) and The Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso, 2019). She is an editor of the journal Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development.