The best books for understanding neoliberalism

Who am I?

I grew up outside of Flint, Michigan, which during my lifetime went from being a pretty nice place to live to being a perpetual basket case that still doesn’t have clean water. I’ve always been very concerned with the question of what went wrong, and very early in my graduate education, it became clear to me that the neoliberal agenda that started under Reagan has been at the root of the economic rot and destruction that has afflicted Flint and so many other places. That personal connection, combined with my background in theology, makes me well-suited to talk about how political belief systems “hook” us, even when they hurt us.


I wrote...

Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital

By Adam Kotsko,

Book cover of Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital

What is my book about?

Most books on neoliberalism focus on public policy and economic statistics, without really addressing the core question: if neoliberalism has failed so spectacularly to deliver economic stability and shared prosperity, why do we keep going along with it? My answer is that neoliberalism is not just a political or economic system, but a moral one based on the value of free choice. But the freedom it offers is a trap – the system gives us just enough freedom to take the blame for bad outcomes, but not enough to really change our circumstances.

The books I picked & why

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A Brief History of Neoliberalism

By David Harvey,

Book cover of A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Why this book?

This is the book that put “neoliberalism” on the map in contemporary debates. Published years before the Global Financial Crisis, it offers a global and historical perspective on the neoliberal order. I have some questions about Harvey’s definitions—especially his claim that China is a neoliberal country—but no one can beat him for mastery of economic data and trends.


The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition

By William Davies,

Book cover of The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition

Why this book?

Davies offers an exceptionally clear and useful definition of neoliberalism: “the disenchantment of politics by economics.” But what really makes this book valuable is the research he has conducted on the office culture of the government officials who are actually implementing neoliberal policy—how they think, what they believe they’re achieving, and how they sometimes deviate from the letter of neoliberal theory while remaining true to its spirit.


Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution

By Wendy Brown,

Book cover of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution

Why this book?

More than most authors on neoliberalism, Brown takes it seriously as a philosophy and worldview that aims to reshape human society and our individual sense of self. Drawing on classic philosophers like Aristotle, Marx, and Arendt, she argues that neoliberalism is hollowing our sense of what it means to be human by turning us all into hyper-competitive, self-marketing, self-branding drones. I wind up arguing with her a lot in my book, but whether you wind up agreeing or disagreeing with her, she’s an essential point of reference.


Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism

By Melinda Cooper,

Book cover of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism

Why this book?

Most commentators see neoliberalism as primarily an economic project that tries to overcome old cultural prejudices and divisions. Cooper shows us that beneath this cosmopolitan façade, neoliberalism has always been about reinforcing traditional hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality. Through a painstaking review of the actual roll-out of neoliberal policy from Reagan to Obama, she shows that racism, sexism, homophobia, and nationalism are not outdated “leftovers” from a previous era but an essential part of the neoliberal order.


The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

By Karl Polanyi,

Book cover of The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Why this book?

This is an older book that doesn’t address neoliberalism directly, but it has been really important for people who are trying to think about how to get past neoliberalism. Polanyi shows that the free market is not some spontaneous, “natural” thing, but requires massive state action and support. He also shows how destructive market forces can be to society if left unchecked and argues that the state’s duty is to find ways to constrain the market’s worst impulses.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in neoliberalism, economic history, and economics?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about neoliberalism, economic history, and economics.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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