IN 1947, Friedrich von Hayek invited 39 scholars to the Hotel du Parc in the Swiss village of Mont Pelerin. The intellectuals, mostly economists with a smattering of upper-class historians and philosophers, discussed the fate of classic economic liberalism in an era of central planning. The prospects, they agreed, were not good. The individualism that had built capitalist civilisation was in danger of being swamped by the new demands of trade unions and other collective organisations.

Out of these discussions was formed the doctrine of neoliberalism, the idea that market reforms can improve any social institution in both practical and moral terms. It proved to be the most spectacularly successful ideology of the last half century, until, in 2008, its main ideas crash-landed with the financial crisis. Today, even the International Monetary Fund admits that neoliberalism is part of the economic problem. But it has proved almost impossible to dislodge and it remains – inexplicably – unconquered.

Nobody has really explained what Colin Crouch called the “strange non-death of neoliberalism”. I can’t claim to solve the problem either, but I believe part of the answer can be traced to the earliest history of the movement, and its uncanny overlaps with some of today’s centre-left and liberal moral sentiments.

To understand the tangled history of neoliberalism’s success, you must first appreciate the innovative use of political tactics. Hayek wasn’t interested in trying to shift mass opinion, which changed too slowly to be worthy of organised focus. Instead, he targeted the politicians, journalists and policy elites who might be sympathetic to his programme. In practice, this initially meant targeting very right-wing thinkers who were naturally sympathetic to any ideology that portrayed existing wealth inequalities as natural and any intervention against them as harmful.

Neoliberalism thus began as counter-revolutions organised by displaced members of the upper class, often in the Third World military caste. General Pinochet’s coup in Chile was the first real practical case, but others quickly followed.

In western democracies, neoliberalism made alliances with reactionary social movements who wanted to reverse the sexual freedoms and racial tolerance they associated with the sixties. Specifically, neoliberals joined forces with the “religious right” and the “white flight” movements in America. In Britain, they banded together with an ultraconservative band of British Empire loyalists who had been prepared to overthrow Labour governments by force.

Since their economic policies spelt disaster for ordinary living standards, they appealed to voters with an anti-liberal, tough-on-crime, jingoistic cultural politics. Throw in some brash commercialism (and a dash of Page 3), and Thatcherism was born.

This history leads many to associate neoliberalism with ultra-reactionary xenophobia. In this sense, it appears to predict the politics of Donald Trump.

But that is only half the story. The forty thinkers who started Mont Pelerin were not, on average, culturally conservative. They certainly were not closed-border xenophobes, nor were they anti-intellectual or brashly commercial. Largely they thought of themselves as high society liberal cosmopolitans. Philosophically, their defence of “open societies”, their contempt for the “deplorable” cumbersome masses, their love for borderless trade and their hand-wringing elitism would make them better candidates for the genealogical line leading to Hillary Clinton.

This problem had always worried Hayek: who were his real supporters, the liberals or the conservatives? While he knew that the Blimpish right and crumbling, conservative aristocrats were his natural base, his contempt for these characters was clear. In his famous preface to the American edition of The Road to Serfdom, Hayek outlined the differences between a “[neo]liberal” and a “conservative”. He admits that “the true liberal must sometimes make common cause with the conservative, and in some circumstances, as in contemporary Britain, he has hardly any other way of actively working for his ideals.”

However, he goes on to fiercely criticise conservatism: “In its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place”.

Conservatives are “bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege”. Liberals, by contrast, deny “all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some which are not available on equal terms to others”. Hayek sensed that the liberal left should be his allies. He wasn’t entirely wrong in this assumption: George Orwell and John Maynard Keynes were among the early fans of The Road to Serfdom.

Today, after decades in which the centre-left parties abandoned collectivism for neoliberalism, Hayek’s rhetoric is difficult to distinguish from an article you might read in The Guardian or the Independent. The liberal left’s highest values, increasingly, are opposition to privilege, nationalism, traditionalism and “power-adoring tendencies”, the same values spelt out by Hayek. Neoliberalism’s real success was in conquering the elite of centre-left opinion, a process that began with Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schroeder and has proved difficult to dislodge since.

Donald Trump, with his ketchup-on-steak commercialism and his willingness to lower himself to any level of bigotry, is the bastard offspring of Thatcher and Reagan. But the liberal left’s critique of Trump and right-wing populism could have been written by Hayek himself. It wouldn’t be stretching matters too much to speak of an elitist, cosmopolitan “Hayekian Left” as the dominant style of liberal opposition to Trumpism.

And this goes some way to explaining our current misery. Mainstream debate leaves us trapped between a Thatcher-Reagan devil child and a post-Hayekian liberalism. Sadly, Hillary Clinton’s abysmal campaign only seems to have reinforced a lot of centre-left complacency: the idea that the Democrats were “cheated” by an evil pawn of Putin rules out any organised self-criticism for the fallout of 2008. It’s particularly bad in America, but America remains the dominant imperial power, and its influence spreads everywhere.

Have the centre-left, then, saved neoliberalism from its inevitable death? That might be too simplistic, because Donald Trump’s bigotry is itself a product of the half-witted commercialism that emerged as neoliberalism’s by-product. But it’s probably correct to say that the two cultures reinforce each other. And I believe, sadly, that a real debate on world history is impossible unless a collectivist left displaces the neoliberal left.