The best books about how neoliberalism f*&ks up democracy

Who am I?

I came to activism at a young age, inspired by a book given to me by a friend in Grade 10. I also grew up poor; my trajectory into university was unusual for my demographic, a fact I only discovered once I was doing my PhD in the sociology of education. By the time I started interviewing activists for my doctorate, I had a burning desire to understand how social change could happen, what democracy really looked like, and who was left out of participating. I am still trying to figure these things out. If you are, too, the books on this list might help!


I wrote...

Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era

By Jacqueline Kennelly,

Book cover of Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era

What is my book about?

What are the ties that bind the 'good youth citizen' and the youth activist in the twenty-first century? Contemporary young people are encouraged—through education and other cultural sitesto 'save the world' via community projects that resemble activism, yet increasingly risk arrest for public acts of dissent. Through an ethnographic study of young people working on activist causes across the three largest urban centres in one of the wealthiest nations in the world (Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, Canada), this book unpacks the effects of neoliberalism on democratic participation and explains what it means to be a certain kind of youth citizen in the twenty-first century. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West

Jacqueline Kennelly Why did I love this book?

I’ve loved Wendy Brown’s work since I started reading it while I was doing my PhD back in 2003. I cite her stuff in almost everything I’ve written. This recent book pulls together her vast expertise and insights about political theory, inequality, and democratic practices to explain how neoliberalism has always been anti-democratic, and how it continues to prop up authoritarian styles of leadership, like that of Donald Trump in the US. Key to this, she argues, is how neoliberalism has always made an appeal to ‘tradition,’ which smuggles in patriarchal, classist, and heterosexist notions of the nuclear family, the supremacy of Christian ideals, and a sort of rugged individualism that denies the necessity of a welfare state.

By Wendy Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Ruins of Neoliberalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Across the West, hard-right leaders are surging to power on platforms of ethno-economic nationalism, Christianity, and traditional family values. Is this phenomenon the end of neoliberalism or its monstrous offspring?

In the Ruins of Neoliberalism casts the hard-right turn as animated by socioeconomically aggrieved white working- and middle-class populations but contoured by neoliberalism's multipronged assault on democratic values. From its inception, neoliberalism flirted with authoritarian liberalism as it warred against robust democracy. It repelled social-justice claims through appeals to market freedom and morality. It sought to de-democratize the state, economy, and society and re-secure the patriarchal family. In key works…


Book cover of The Human Condition

Jacqueline Kennelly Why did I love this book?

Hannah Arendt is one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century. I love her ability to weave together continental philosophy, in which she was trained, with the dilemmas of the modern world. Arendt grapples with the origins of our actions, which belong to us but also precede us, as we are all embedded in the march of history. This is fundamentally a critique of both liberalism and neoliberalism, which celebrate the individual at the expense of the relational. Arendt makes the case for why humans can only express their ‘who-ness’—their identity and humanityby participating in the public sphere, within the ‘web of relations’ between individuals who come together at a ‘shared table.’ This is a book I return to again and again, each time getting more insight into the complex ideas of this gifted philosopher.

By Hannah Arendt,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Human Condition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The past year has seen a resurgence of interest in the political thinker Hannah Arendt, "the theorist of beginnings," whose work probes the logics underlying unexpected transformations-from totalitarianism to revolution.

A work of striking originality, The Human Condition is in many respects more relevant now than when it first appeared in 1958. In her study of the state of modern humanity, Hannah Arendt considers humankind from the perspective of the actions of which it is capable. The problems Arendt identified then-diminishing human agency and political freedom, the paradox that as human powers increase through technological and humanistic inquiry, we are…


Book cover of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity

Jacqueline Kennelly Why did I love this book?

Wacquant was educated in France, under Pierre Bourdieu. He brings his French sensibilities and training to the United States, asking fundamental questions about the massive inequality there, how it came to be, and who it is serving. This is one of the books he has written in answer to those questions. I started teaching chapters from this book in a graduate seminar on Urban Inequality. No other scholar does such a precise job of tracing the connections between neoliberalism and inequality in the USA, which pushes poor Black men into prison and poor Black women into the welfare office. It is a sobering but powerful read that really helps you understand how neoliberalism is lived by those who suffer the most under its auspices.

By Loïc Wacquant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Punishing the Poor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The punitive turn of penal policy in the United States after the acme of the Civil Rights movement responds not to rising criminal insecurity but to the social insecurity spawned by the fragmentation of wage labor and the shakeup of the ethnoracial hierarchy. It partakes of a broader reconstruction of the state wedding restrictive "workfare" and expansive "prisonfare" under a philosophy of moral behaviorism. This paternalist program of penalization of poverty aims to curb the urban disorders wrought by economic deregulation and to impose precarious employment on the postindustrial proletariat. It also erects a garish theater of civic morality on…


Book cover of Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action

Jacqueline Kennelly Why did I love this book?

I have an intellectual crush on Pierre Bourdieu. He has a sexy mind. Unfortunately, he passed away just as I was getting to know his work, back in 2002. Bourdieu wrote a mind-boggling number of books, but I have chosen this one as a good introduction for people who’d like to get to know his work. Practical Reason is actually made up of a series of lectures, all written relatively late in his career. They do quite a good job of accessibly summarizing his key ideas. Bourdieu supported the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was a vociferous critic of neoliberalism. Bourdieu’s work helps to explain how inequality is recreated across generations, and why dominant interests tend to shape the trajectory of the state. 

By Pierre Bourdieu, Randall Johnson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Practical Reason as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Do social classes really exist? Is disinterested action really possible? What do the family, the church, and the intellectual world have in common? Can morality be founded on hypocrisy? What is the "subject" of action? In this new volume, one of France's foremost social thinkers of our time responds to these major questions and to others, thus tracing the outlines of a work that could be called "Pierre Bourdieu by himself."

In these texts, the author tries to go to the essential, that is, the most elementary and fundamental, questions. He thereby explains the philosophical principles that have led to…


Book cover of Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy

Jacqueline Kennelly Why did I love this book?

The important argument lying at the heart of this beautifully written book is that the trajectory of the current global economy, driven by neoliberal logics, is fundamentally one of expulsions: that is, expelling the poor, the biosphere, democracy, and anything else that gets in the way of maximizing profit. This book takes massive case studiesfrom palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia to water bottling by large corporations in the USand demonstrates how they are ultimately about pushing people out instead of inviting people in. It raises important questions about who the economy is for, and what ends we are ultimately building toward as a global society. I don’t have a pithy personal story about this book; I just think you should read it.

By Saskia Sassen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Expulsions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soaring income inequality and unemployment, expanding populations of the displaced and imprisoned, accelerating destruction of land and water bodies: today's socioeconomic and environmental dislocations cannot be fully understood in the usual terms of poverty and injustice, according to Saskia Sassen. They are more accurately understood as a type of expulsion-from professional livelihood, from living space, even from the very biosphere that makes life possible.

This hard-headed critique updates our understanding of economics for the twenty-first century, exposing a system with devastating consequences even for those who think they are not vulnerable. From finance to mining, the complex types of knowledge…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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