skip to content

Cambridge Centre for Political Thought


The J.R. Seeley Lectures 2019

Professor Elizabeth Anderson
(Department of Philosophy, University of Michigan)


The Great Reversal: How Neoliberalism
turned Classical Liberal Principles Against Workers


Tuesday 7 May
Neoliberalism and its Puritan Roots: A Tale of Two Work Ethics

Thursday 9 May
Locke and Classical Liberals through the Lens of the Work Ethic: A (Mostly) Progressive Tale

Tuesday 14 May
Bentham and Malthus through the Lens of the Work Ethic: A Conservative Tale

Thursday 16 May
Neoliberalism as a Reversion from the Progressive to the Conservative Work Ethic

The lectures were delivered at 5pm in the Runcie Lecture Theatre in the Faculty of Divinity (entrance opposite the entrance to the History Faculty, map here).

Neoliberals deploy their ideology to justify public policies that put the interests of capital owners ahead of the interests of workers.  The roots of this ideology can be traced to the Protestant work ethic, as advanced by 17th c. Puritan minister Richard Baxter.  A close reading of Baxter's theology reveals two contradictory sides of the work ethic: a progressive side exalting ordinary workers, and a conservative side rationalizing harsh treatment of poor workers.  I re-interpret classic figures in the history of political thought through the lens of the work ethic, demonstrating how Locke and successors developed the progressive side of the work ethic, and Bentham and Malthus the conservative side.  The subsequent history of social and economic policy in Europe and North America reflects the conflict between these two sides of the work ethic.  Contemporary neoliberalism represents a victory for the conservative side.  Yet from the start, the conservative work ethic contained contradictions, now on display in neoliberal theory and practice.


Professor Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. Her work in moral and political philosophy focuses on democratic theory, with a particular focus on equality, race and the ethical limits of markets. She is currently working on a history of egalitarianism, examining the epistemology of moral learning through the prism of the history of abolitionism.

Value in Ethics and Economics (Harvard, 1993)

The Imperative of Integration (Princeton, 2010)

Private Government: How Employers Rule our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It) (Princeton, 2017).

The Seeley Lectures, our premier lecture series, are given every two years. They are open to all and free of charge.