The best books on neoliberalism

8 authors have picked their favorite books about neoliberalism and why they recommend each book.

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A Brief History of Neoliberalism

By David Harvey,

Book cover of A Brief History of Neoliberalism

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.


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 Limits of Neoliberalism

By William Davies,

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

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.


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.

Undoing the Demos

By Wendy Brown,

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

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.


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.

Family Values

By Melinda Cooper,

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

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.


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.

Globalists

By Quinn Slobodian,

Book cover of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism

Globalists is the best book I’ve read on neoliberalism. It explores the character and context of neoliberalism’s geopolitical project. Neoliberals believed that markets could function effectively only if “encased” by the right political institutions—legal or political frameworks that would protect them from the forces of economic nationalism, Keynesian planning, socialism, or the democratic aspirations of postcolonial states. Neoliberalism emerged in the decades after WWI as a strategy to restore what its proponents saw as the best features of the nineteenth-century world order: free trade, hard money, and a laissez-faire state. It acquired new urgency as a reaction against the economic nationalism of the 1930s and the quest of decolonized nations for full economic sovereignty.


Who am I?

As a historian, I’ve always been fascinated by the mutual influence of power and economics. I’ve written about the political-economic origins of revolution, war, and the search for world peace. I believe that to understand the sweeping geopolitical transformations that have shaped recent centuries—imperialism, the world wars, decolonization, or the fall of the Soviet Union—we need to consider the deep pulse of economics. The books that really grab me open up the worldviews of people in the past, explain how they believed economics and geopolitics shaped one another, and show how these assumptions impelled their actions in the world.


I wrote...

Trading with the Enemy: Britain, France, and the 18th-Century Quest for a Peaceful World Order

By John Shovlin,

Book cover of Trading with the Enemy: Britain, France, and the 18th-Century Quest for a Peaceful World Order

What is my book about?

The book tells the story of officials, merchants, and intellectuals in France and Britain who worked in the eighteenth century to divert Franco-British geopolitical rivalry away from war into peaceful, if still ruthless, economic competition. Driven by a desire to contain the costs of conflict—exploding public debts and higher taxes—they pursued agreements to share access to contested markets and resources in the non-European world, to neutralize vast zones from future European wars, and to substitute free trade in Europe for restrictions on commerce. They imagined forms of empire-building that would be more collaborative than competitive, prefiguring the nineteenth-century world order.

The book speaks to perennial questions about the stability of geopolitics in a capitalist world, suggesting that eighteenth-century commercial capitalism not only spurred conflict, as historians have long known but fostered efforts to contain war and stabilize global politics.

Thiefing a Chance

By Rebecca Prentice,

Book cover of Thiefing a Chance: Factory Work, Illicit Labor, and Neoliberal Subjectivities in Trinidad

In Thiefing a Chance, Rebecca Prentice shows us what life is like for women who make clothing in a factory in Trinidad – a livelihood shared by more than 75 million people worldwide, most of them in the Global South. I recommend this book because although Prentice discusses the ways that late-capitalism and neoliberal structural reforms have produced the difficult economic and working conditions that her research participants must cope with, she also shows how the women are not passive subjects in these processes. She documents how they take every opportunity on the factory floor to informally gain skills and to make ‘illicit’ garments out of spare materials, which they can sell outside of work.

However, Prentice resists the temptation to analyze these practices as ‘social resistance,’ and instead shows how such informal practices actually encourage these women to embrace neoliberal identities of competitive, enterprising individuals.


Who am I?

I am a Canadian social anthropologist living in England, and my research is about material culture and heritage in Mexico. I have always been fascinated by the ways that people make their cultures through objects, food, and space; this almost certainly started with my mum who is always making something stitched, knitted, savoury, or sweet, often all at the same time. I hope that you enjoy the books on my list – I chose them as they each have something important to teach us about how our consumption of things affects those who make them, often in profound ways.


I wrote...

The Value of Aesthetics: Oaxacan Woodcarvers in Global Economies of Culture

By Alanna Cant,

Book cover of The Value of Aesthetics: Oaxacan Woodcarvers in Global Economies of Culture

What is my book about?

In The Value of Aesthetics, I explore the work of Oaxacan woodcarvers, whose craft began in the mid-twentieth century and has always been done for the commercial market. One family has become the most critically and economically successful, surpassing their neighbors who all depend on this work for their livelihoods. I link the dominance of this family to their ability to produce a new aesthetic that appeals to three key “economies of culture”: the tourist market for souvenirs, the Mexican market for traditional crafts, and the international market for indigenous art. My book shows how artisans’ aesthetic practices make and redefine social and political relationships, and that aesthetic change repackages artisans’ everyday lives into commodified objects in Oaxaca – and everywhere else in the world. 

Reclaiming Development

By Ha-Joon Chang, Ilene Grabel,

Book cover of Reclaiming Development: An Alternative Economic Policy Manual

Since John Williamson’s Washington Consensus and the structural adjustment reforms imposed on developing nations as a condition for IMF and World Bank loans, understanding and criticizing neoliberal development economics is important for a balanced perspective on the international political economy. Chang and Grabel perform this task of an incisive yet graspable critique of neoliberal development theory. Importantly they go further and suggest alternative approaches and policies.


Who am I?

I have been studying neoliberal political economy and its future transformations since I wrote Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy. One major insight has been the deep entanglement of neoliberal political-economic practices with de facto power relations. The liberal normative bargaining characterizing Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations yields to coercive bargaining in which threats of harm are the surest and best means to get one’s way. If one seeks to understand how systems will evolve when governed by strategic competition, then orthodox game theory is useful. However, if one seeks to live in a post-scarcity society in which genuine cooperation is possible, then we can enact solidarity, trust-based relationships, and collective moral accountability. 


I wrote...

Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

By S.M. Amadae,

Book cover of Prisoners of Reason: Game Theory and Neoliberal Political Economy

What is my book about?

Is capitalism inherently predatory? Must there be winners and losers? Is public interest outdated and free-riding rational? Is consumer choice the same as self-determination? Must bargainers abandon the no-harm principle? Prisoners of Reason recalls that classical liberal capitalism exalted the no-harm principle. Although imperfect and exclusionary, modern liberalism recognized individual human dignity alongside individuals' responsibility to respect others. Neoliberalism, by contrast, views life as a ceaseless struggle. Agents vie for scarce resources in antagonistic competition in which every individual seeks dominance. Money becomes the medium of all value. Solidarity and goodwill are invalidated. Relationships are conducted on a quid pro quo basis. However, agents can freely opt out of this cynical race to the bottom by embracing a more expansive range of coherent action.

Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings

By Mari Ruti,

Book cover of Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life

Although Ruti’s book is not directly about capitalism, it includes perhaps the best psychoanalytic proposal of confronting the imperatives of capitalist society that I have ever read. Ruti discusses how sexism operates within capitalism primarily in the book, but her point is always about how concepts from psychoanalysis that seem retrograde—such as penis envy—can actually be the basis for a critique of capitalism and sexism. 


Who am I?

I have spent a great deal of time exploring how psychoanalytic theory might be the basis for a critique of capitalism. I had always heard the Marxist analysis of capitalist society, but what interested me was how psychoanalytic theory might offer a different line of thought about how capitalism works. The impulse that drives people to accumulate beyond what is enough for them always confused me since I was a small child. It seems to me that psychoanalytic theory gives us the tools to understand this strange phenomenon that somehow appears completely normal to us. 


I wrote...

Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

By Todd McGowan,

Book cover of Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets

What is my book about?

Despite creating vast inequalities and propping up reactionary world regimes, capitalism has many passionate defenders—but not because of what it withholds from some and gives to others. Capitalism dominates, Todd McGowan argues, because it mimics the structure of our desire while hiding the trauma that the system inflicts upon it. Capitalism traps us through an incomplete satisfaction that compels us after the new, the better, and the more.

Capitalism's parasitic relationship to our desires gives it the illusion of corresponding to our natural impulses, which is how capitalism's defenders characterize it. By understanding this psychic strategy, McGowan hopes to divest us of our addiction to capitalist enrichment and help us rediscover enjoyment as we actually experienced it.

The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism

By David M. Kotz,

Book cover of The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism

In addition to its excellent coverage of the economics of this transformation, its historical account of the shift in class partnerships makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the period. In the Golden Age of the previous period Big Business maintained a fraught alliance with its unions willing to pay growing wages closely aligned with labor productivity growth with the grudging acceptance of higher taxes and regulations of the Keynesian era leaving small business to fend for itself. Once Japan and Germany reindustrialized creating a more competitive economic landscape Kotz describes the full-blown class warfare identified by Buffet as Big Business realigned with small business to fight for cuts to its wages, taxes, regulatory costs and unions, and progressive politics.


Who am I?

Neoliberalism and I have grown up in opposition to one another over the past four decades. As a professor of economics, union, and political activist I have observed, wrote about, and resisted its effects on the life chances of the great majority of its citizens with particular focus on the United States as its primary protagonist and gatekeeper. The opposition to this transformative epoch included writing about the significant contributions of my profession to Neoliberal economics in two previous books; The Profit Doctrine: The Economists of the Neoliberal Era and Economics in the 21st Century: A Critical Perspective.


I wrote...

Neoliberal Lives: Work, Politics, Nature, and Health in the Contemporary United States

By Robert Chernomas, Ian Hudson, Mark Hudson

Book cover of Neoliberal Lives: Work, Politics, Nature, and Health in the Contemporary United States

What is my book about?

In Neoliberal Lives we decided to write a different kind of book one which not only contained an overview of Neoliberalism but the changes that took place in the lives of Americans at work, their income and wealth share, debt levels, schools, hospitals, environment, political capacity, and perspective. After all the Business Roundtable established in the 1970s representing what some would call a more organized American oligarchy set out to change the rules the rest of us live by and were remarkably successful in what alternatively has been called the new Gilded Age. As Warren Buffet made clear “it’s class warfare and my side is winning.” We set out to examine the interconnected results.

In the Ruins of Neoliberalism

By Wendy Brown,

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

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.


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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