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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Why did I love 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.

By David Harvey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Brief History of Neoliberalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Neoliberalism - the doctrine that market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action - has become dominant in both thought and practice throughout much of the world since 1970 or so.
Its spread has depended upon a reconstitution of state powers such that privatization, finance, and market processes are emphasized. State interventions in the economy are minimized, while the obligations of the state to provide for the welfare of its citizens are diminished. David Harvey, author of 'The New Imperialism' and 'The Condition of Postmodernity', here tells the political-economic story of…

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

Why did I love 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.

By William Davies,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Brilliant...explains how the rhetoric of competition has invaded almost every domain of our existence."
-Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything, Click Here"

"In this fascinating book Davies inverts the conventional neoliberal practice of treating politics as if it were mere epiphenomenon of market theory, demonstrating that their version of economics is far better understood as the pursuit of politics by other means."
-Professor Philip Mirowski, University of Notre Dame

"A sparkling, original, and provocative analysis of neoliberalism. It offers a distinctive account of the diverse, sometimes contradictory, conventions and justifications that lend authority to the extension of the spirit…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Wendy Brown,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Neoliberal rationality ― ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, and culture ― remakes everything and everyone in the image of homo oeconomicus. What happens when this rationality transposes the constituent elements of democracy into an economic register? In vivid detail, Wendy Brown explains how democracy itself is imperiled.

The demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice cede to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; liberty submits to the imperative of human capital appreciation; equality dissolves into market competition; and popular sovereignty grows incoherent. Liberal democratic practices may not survive…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Melinda Cooper,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An investigation of the roots of the alliance between free-market neoliberals and social conservatives.

Why was the discourse of family values so pivotal to the conservative and free-market revolution of the 1980s and why has it continued to exert such a profound influence on American political life? Why have free-market neoliberals so often made common cause with social conservatives on the question of family, despite their differences on all other issues? In this book, Melinda Cooper challenges the idea that neoliberalism privileges atomized individualism over familial solidarities, and contractual freedom over inherited status. Delving into the history of the American…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Karl Polanyi,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The Great Transformation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this classic work of economic history and social theory, Karl Polanyi analyzes the economic and social changes brought about by the "great transformation" of the Industrial Revolution. His analysis explains not only the deficiencies of the self-regulating market, but the potentially dire social consequences of untempered market capitalism. New introductory material reveals the renewed importance of Polanyi's seminal analysis in an era of globalization and free trade.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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