Adam Kotsko, author of The Prince of This World, on why we are less free than we think we are.
Ever since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, neoliberalism has been an object of increasing debate and critique. Since the late 1970s, neoliberalism has reshaped public policy and arguably every area of life on the model of market competition, which it presents as the most authentic expression of human freedom. But the term itself has largely been the province of academic analysts, and it was arguably only in the wake of the contentious Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that it entered the mainstream political lexicon. Still, the debate over neoliberalism has in many ways been a missed encounter. On the one hand, left-wing critics of neoliberalism have used the term, with varying degrees of precision, to characterize everything that is wrong and unjust in the political-economic system. On the other hand, mainstream liberals, far from defending neoliberalism, insist that it simply does not exist. We are faced with a bizarre situation wherein the ruling ideology of our age is either viewed as destructive or completely disavowed.
This strange phenomenon points to the core question that drove my research in Neoliberalism’s Demons: if everyone either hates neoliberalism or denies that it exists, then why do people go along with it? I presuppose that the neoliberal order has been dominant for at least a generation (roughly since Thatcher and Reagan) and that it has had the destructive effects that its critics attribute to it—of which the Global Financial Crisis is only the most spectacular example—and ask how such a system could be regarded as legitimate and binding upon populations that have for the most part grown more materially insecure and politically disempowered under its sway.