The best books for understanding neoliberalism

The Books I Picked & Why

A Brief History of Neoliberalism

By David Harvey

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.


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

By William Davies

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.


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Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution

By Wendy Brown

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.


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Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism

By Melinda Cooper

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.


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

By Karl Polanyi

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.


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