Would-be readers of Adam Kotsko’s valuable book may be hindered at the outset by disbelief in its subject. A sort of faux-rationalist prejudice has arisen in recent years against believing in what we can’t see. We often seem to feel the presence of a hostile cast of mind at work in our institutions and politics, sowing dissension, turning us against ourselves and each other, but prideful Modernity dismisses such notions as leftovers from the nursery room.
Alas, reader, neoliberalism is real. Here is Milton Friedman, writing in 1951: “Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual, but it would substitute for the nineteenth century goal of laissez-faire as a means to this end, the goal of the competitive order.” (Friedman, like the Friedrich Hayek of The Road to Serfdom, admitted some small role for the government in relief of “acute misery and distress”; some of his descendants forget that part.)
Kotsko, a professor at the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College and the author of popular works on political philosopher Slavoj Žižek, on theology, and on the television antihero, among other subjects, finds in Friedman’s 1951 paper a perfectly serviceable description of the overall direction of Western political and social life for the past forty years or so: Everything, even those social and intimate relations that nineteenth-century liberalism wanted to exempt from market discipline, will be brought under competitive order. But neoliberalism is a complex phenomenon, embraced and rejected in pieces by both of America’s major political parties. Here is Kotsko on, for instance, Obamacare and “the peculiar nature of neoliberal freedom”:
One of [the Affordable Care Act’s] most controversial provisions was a mandate that all Americans must have health insurance coverage. From a purely libertarian perspective, this is an impermissible infringement on economic freedom—surely if I am free to make my own economic decisions, I am also free to choose not to purchase health insurance. Yet the mandate fits perfectly within the overall ethos of neoliberalism.… Within the market created by Obamacare, I was free to choose whichever health plan I might want, but I was not free to opt out of the market altogether. If I am not inclined to express my economic freedom in that sphere, then I must be forced to be free.
This forced freedom replicates itself, Kotsko writes, “throughout neoliberalism at every level,” from countries passed over for intervention by the World Bank to workers locked in “perpetual competition” with each other.