You're a Slave to Money, Then You Die

The 1976 film Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, was a brutal and prescient satire of television, auguring everything from reality TV to the erasure of the line between pundit and reporter to the transformation of political discourse into infotainment. It is best remembered for its deranged news broadcaster, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), who incites his audience to go to their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Articulating widespread anger and frustration, Beale becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves” and his network’s premiere television hit. But in one of his tirades, he discloses an unscrupulous business deal that has been concealed by the network’s management, and its CEO, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), decides to instruct Beale in the ways of the world. After ushering the prophet into the corporate boardroom, Jensen preaches a sermon in the film’s most malevolent and portentous moment:

There are no nations, there are no peoples . . . there is only one holistic system of systems . . . one interwoven, interacting, multi-varied, multinational dominion of dollars . . . It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today . . . There is only IBM and IT&T, and AT&T, and Du Pont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. These are the nations of the world today . . . We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies . . . The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale.

Those are the gravitational principles of Jensen’s corporate cosmology, but it is also an eschatological narrative in which the kingdom of God has been replaced by capitalism as the consummation of history.

Delivered at the dawn of the gilded age inaugurated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, Jensen’s diatribe is a shameless compendium of the pecuniary ontology of neoliberalism. Of course, many intellectuals deny that “neoliberalism” is anything more than a cipher, an elastic anathema for whatever its users find objectionable in contemporary life: as the journalist Jonathan Chait (one of the term's most notorious critics) once wrote with impatient dismissal, it is “the left’s favorite insult.” Others contend that if “neoliberalism” means anything, it marks the resurrection of laissez-faire capitalism as an economic and moral ideal, the resurgence of the classical liberal commitment to unregulated markets and limited government. If that is so, then there is nothing “neo” about “neoliberalism” except its novelty to Cold War Boomers coddled by the welfare and regulatory state. And it has to be said that, often, even left intellectuals are not all that clear about what distinguishes “neoliberalism” from its ideological predecessor.

But neoliberalism is a thing, and it is more than a paradigm of politics and markets. Neoliberalism names an attempt to remake human life in the image and likeness of the market. It is a moral and metaphysical imagination in which capitalist property relations provide the template for understanding the world. “There is no alternative,” as Thatcher once declared, because there truly is no alternative; there is only one holistic system of systems, and it is capitalism all the way down. In this view, far from merely allocating goods, the market is the ontological architecture of the cosmos—an omniscient and infallible being more irreproachable than mere quivering, corporeal mortals. In other words, under neoliberal auspices, the Market becomes the latest modern surrogate for traditional divinity. The world is a business, Mr. Beale and everyone else; money is the sacramental token, the mana, the elan vital, and the Market is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things. In such a world, where the Abrahamic religions had once imagined men and women in the image and likeness of God, now you are what Philip Mirowski has dubbed an “entrepreneurial self,” a person—or perhaps a simulacrum of such—cast in the image and likeness of the market. Neoliberalism defines servitude to pecuniary values as the purest expression of freedom. As The Verve lamented 20 years ago, “you’re a slave to money, then you die.”

As historians such as Quinn Slobodian have taught us, the genealogy of neoliberalism can be traced the 1920’s. During the First World War, cooperation between government and industry conferred a new legitimacy on state regulation, supervision, and even planning—all anathema to the champions of the laissez-faire that had held sway in the 19th century. The postwar extension of the suffrage empowered the European working classes, jeopardizing both the distribution of wealth and popular acquiescence in the vicissitudes of the market—the hoi polloi might vote themselves welfare states or even socialism. (Indeed, as of November 1917, the Soviet Union loomed as an alternative). And the Treaty of Versailles, by affirming the “self-determination of peoples,” both augured the collapse of the prewar imperial order and validated the democratic nation-state as the central political actor in world affairs. Thus, a system of sovereign democracies posed an impediment to the resumption of capital accumulation along the lines drawn before 1914.

Neoliberalism, Slobodian contends in Globalists, arose not so much to rehabilitate free markets as to, in his words, “inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy.” Neoliberalism began as an attempt to reconstruct governance in capitalist nations in an age of mass democratic politics. In the view of neoliberals such as Ludwig Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Lionel Robbins, and Wilhelm Ropke, the state must enforce property and contract law and accommodate a bare minimum of working-class demands while expediting the movement of capital and commodities. The state must not only refrain from regulating business; it must desist from providing social welfare, since the workers of the world must be united in submission to the fluctuations of the world economy. Though ostensibly democratic, the neoliberal state must not be an instrument of popular will; it is more like a police station charged with managing and, if need be, repressing any uppity rabble: unions, especially, but any form of popular mobilization to tame or eradicate capitalism. Mises went so far as to define the market itself as a form of democracy; capitalism, he argued, is a plebiscite of money “in which every penny represents a ballot paper.” Capitalism is the democracy of Mammon.

The first three-quarters of the 20th century did not offer propitious conditions for the realization of neoliberal goals. But in the 1940’s, a rising bloc of business leaders, intellectuals, and politicians who had never accepted the New Deal and social democracy (many of them concentrated in the Mont Pelerin Society) began an eventually successful crusade to re-impose unfettered accumulation. For three decades, the relative prosperity and tranquility of what has been dubbed by historians “the golden age of capitalism” stymied their efforts to destroy the (always fragile) consensus; but the global economic crisis of the early 1970’s created the perfect conditions for an assault on New Deal liberal and western European social democracy and the restoration of the ancien regime—or at least what appeared to be the ancien regime. Sluggish growth rates and falling profits provoked capital throughout the North Atlantic to break the social truce between itself, the state, and organized labor. Where the state’s main focus had been on maintaining a high level of demand, capital now began to insist on more attention to supply—hence, the “supply-side” economics of Arthur Laffer, which entailed a dramatic lowering of personal and corporate taxes, draconian cuts in social spending, deregulation of business activity, and the weakening if not crushing of unions. The argument was that the enterprise and innovation unleashed by these policies would increase aggregate wealth that would “trickle down” from capital to (increasingly unorganized) workers. The upshot: stagnation of real wages for the last three decades, accompanied by increased worker productivity; Himalayan levels of personal debt to make up for wage stagnation; a shift in the trajectory of capital away from production to finance; a massive upward redistribution of wealth (socialism for the rich); and lower average annual growth rates.

Soon, spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980’s, and supplied with legitimacy by the new prominence and vigor of neoliberal academics and journalists—Hayek, the Chicago School of economists such as Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, evangelists of “globalization” such as the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman—the ensuing 40 year assault on organized labor and the welfare state issued in a resounding victory for corporate business, brought to a head in the late 1990’s by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Even those parties traditionally considered the vehicles of working-class interests—the Democrats here, the Labour Party in Britain (“New Labour,” as Blair anointed it), the various socialist or social-democratic parties elsewhere in Europe—rapidly recast themselves in terms of neoliberalism, redefining their objectives, not as regulating or abolishing capitalism, but as making the transition to a fully marketized world less painful and disruptive than it might be. Thus, when Thatcher was once asked what her greatest achievement had been, she said without skipping a beat, “New Labour.” As David Harvey has written, neoliberalism has been “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.” 

Harvey’s definition makes it easy to equate neoliberalism with “deregulation of business,” which we often consider synonymous with an attack on “big government.” It is important to keep in mind that neoliberals have sought not so much to limit state power as to redirect it toward the promotion and extension of market activity. Hence the privatization of many state services; the reconstruction of those remaining public to resemble the institutions of corporate enterprise (“running government more like a business”); the new porosity of boundaries between the state, business, nonprofit groups, and NGO’s, summarized in the term “public-private partnerships”; the attrition of the state’s welfare provisions and the dramatic augmentation of its facilities for coercion, punishment, and surveillance; and the insulation of the market from the nettlesome scrutiny and interference of democratic politics. Indeed, the redefinition and enclosure of democracy within parameters set by the market, not by citizens, has been an achievement proudly touted by neoliberal politicians. Witness German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in September 2011 to a session of the Bundestag:

We certainly live in a democracy and are glad about this. We will find ways to shape parliamentary co-decision in such a way that it is nevertheless market-conforming, so that the respective signals emerge on the market.

Note well: democracy must be “market-conforming.” That is about as bald a statement of democratic subordination to economic forces as you are likely to get.

Once you realize that neoliberals reorient state power rather than diminish it, two phenomena become comprehensible that might appear anomalous: the maintenance and even the escalation of military spending after the Cold War, and the marked militarization of domestic police forces. On a parenthetical note, I live in Ardmore, PA, on the Main Line outside Philadelphia – not a place known for its mean streets. My township’s police force now proudly sports a “special operations” vehicle decked out as though it is ready for deployment to downtown Fallujah. There is absolutely nothing contradictory in the expansion of market freedom and the enlargement of the state’s capacities for violence. A global order of markets must be enforced upon recalcitrant peoples: as the New York Times’s eminent blowhard Thomas Friedman put in a famous, or, rather, infamous piece:

For globalization to work, America can’t be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is. The hidden hand of the market will not work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonell-Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technology is called the United States, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

It is no surprise that the United States, the mightiest and most prosperous neoliberal society on earth, should also have the largest leviathan on the planet: an enormous and growing prison system, a gargantuan military-industrial complex, a titanic apparatus of domestic and foreign surveillance. The greater the wealth, the greater the fear, and the greater the need to police and punish.

Now, so far, so politico-economic; but let us go back to David Harvey. In addition to calling neoliberalism a political project, he also describes it as “a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism.” As incisive as he is, Harvey does not fully appreciate just how utopian a project it is. The reverence for the Market among neoliberals is something more than a renaissance of laissez-faire or a desire for the liberation of capital from burdensome restraints. In the neoliberal cosmology outlined in the work of Mises and Hayek, and dramatized in the fiction and philosophy of Ayn Rand, the Market suffuses the cosmos; money is the benchmark of rectitude; financial, professional, or technological prowess is the empirical proxy for beatitude; and the aggressive, unapologetic entrepreneur is the icon of existential superlativity. Neoliberalism is a moral and metaphysical imagination in which capitalist property relations provide an all-encompassing template for understanding the world. As the political scientist Wendy Brown observes in her aptly titled Undoing the Demos (2015), “with neoliberalism the market becomes . . . the true form of all activity.” Once a forum for the production and exchange of commodities—a predatory but unavoidable ordeal of our bondage to the realm of material necessity—the Market assumes a Platonic character under the aegis of neoliberal ideologues, becoming an ontology, a hermeneutic, and an ethics for a guardian class of philosopher-capitalists.

In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2014), Philip Mirowski comes closest to capturing the supramundane ambitions of neoliberal ideology. In Mirowski’s account, neoliberals eradicate any lingering and nettlesome distinctions among the state, society, and the market, and reconfigure both personality and the cosmos in accordance with the logic of mercenary reason. Neoliberal humanism envisions an “entrepreneurial self,” Mirowski explains, a portfolio of salable talents and qualities: “a product to be sold, a walking advertisement . . . a jumble of assets to be invested . . . an offsetting inventory of liabilities to be pruned, outsourced, shorted, hedged against, and minimized.” According to this “catechism of permanent metamorphosis,” the neoliberal human must renounce “selfish arrogance”—i.e., resistance to the immutable by-laws of business—and “humbly prostrate . . . before the Wisdom of the Universe” registered in the vicissitudes of the market. In the neoliberal imagination, capitalism’s laws of motion partake of a supernal mysterium tremendum, and freedom is servitude to the regime of venality mandated and sanctified by the Logos.

Although purely metaphorical in intent, Mirowski’s reference to a “catechism” points to the religious qualities of neoliberalism. Of course, God has had several claimants to his throne since he (allegedly) expired in the 19th century; among the substitutes for the universal Truth and Goodness that he provided before the Enlightenment: Science, the Nation, Socialism, Fascism, and, as Terry Eagleton has argued, Culture. Although many think of our time as a secular age of irony, disenchantment, and suspicion of “metanarrative,” and despite its profane, technocratic veneer of econometrics and policy wonkery, neoliberalism is a story about the nature of reality, as well as a beatific vision of a heavenly city of corporate capital. As Eagleton might put it, neoliberals replace Culture with the Market as modernity’s surrogate for traditional divinity. Where the Abrahamic religions had imagined men and women in the image and likeness of God, neoliberalism sees entrepreneurial selves cast in the image and likeness of the Market. The Market suffuses the Great Chain of Being; it’s the marrow of neoliberal divinity. Far from merely allocating goods and resources, the Market is the ontological architecture of the universe, an inerrant, pansophical quintessence wiser than any errant human being.

Now seeing the Market as somehow divine or ontological is not new—certainly not in American history. From Puritans to Mormons to contemporary evangelicals, Protestants (and, especially after World War II, Catholics) have long believed that success in the capitalist marketplace is a sign of providential blessing. If most Americans have relied and continue to rely on Christian theology for their pecuniary moralism, an assortment of economists, philosophers, journalists, and other writers began to generate a more “secular” form of market cosmology in the mid-20th century. Sometimes fully cognizant of what they were doing, neoliberals elevated the market to a position of absolute ontological sovereignty.

The two great intellectual godfathers of neoliberalism were Ludwig Mises (an economist who taught at NYU’s Stern School of Business) and Friedrich Hayek (professor at the University of Chicago and author of The Road to Serfdom [1944], one of the canonical texts of neoliberalism). Both men fused hostility toward the economic strictures of traditional religion with obeisance toward the Market. In his book on Socialism (1922), Mises argued that since Jesus and his disciples had displayed “resentment toward the rich,” then “a living Christianity cannot exist side by side with capitalism.” Much later, Hayek contended in the third volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty (1979)—a kind of Summa Theologica of neoliberalism—that “the morals preached by prophets and philosophers” had inhibited the expansion of capitalism. Capitalism arose, he continued, only through “the disregard of these indignant moralists.”

Yet, Hayek and Mises’s account of political economy featured an ontological status for money and the market every bit as foundational as that of the God of Thomistic scholasticism. Deriding what they consider the presumption of social democrats and socialists who attempt to plan entire economies, neoliberals (and others) have praised Hayek in particular for emphasizing the limitations of human understanding. In this view, humility is the great virtue of capitalist markets, permitting the flourishing of entrepreneurial enterprise and the attainment of a “spontaneous order” without prideful and inept government planners. Yet, Hayek himself believed both that the “spontaneous order” emerged from human artifice and that this artifice must be hidden behind a beguiling veil of metaphysical enchantment. 

Hayek’s well-known aversion to econometrics and other forms of economic modelling was rooted in politics, not in epistemology: by making the market legible, econometrics thereby made it open to democratic inquiry and reconstruction. Empirical representation of economic activity, he warned in 1966, helped socialists and other antagonists of unregulated capitalism who wanted to transform the market into “a deliberately run organization serving an agreed system of common ends.” Hayek’s desire to make the market ineffable, even sublime, led him to create in his work one of the great masterpieces of ideological sophistry. There is the recourse to esoteric terminology: Hayek bandies about the word catallaxy, for instance, to describe the order created by individuals and groups participating in the global market. Influenced by the then-new science of cybernetics, Hayek imagined catallaxy as a gargantuan information processor, transmitting its delphic motions through the revelatory signals of prices and laws. In itself, catallaxy is, in Hayek’s own words, “sublime,” even “transcendent,” beyond the comprehension of the human mind.

Hayek distinguished between cosmos (impersonal, spontaneous order) and taxis (conscious, deliberate construction). To Hayek, the uncertainty of cosmos constituted a “higher, supraindividual wisdom” greater than that of any single human being or collective; indeed, it is because “we normally do not know who knows best” that most decisions should be left to “a process we do not control.” The metaphysical and vaguely theological character of cosmos could not be clearer, and Hayek did not hesitate to prescribe its import for economics. He excoriated the conviction (essential, he claimed, to any form of economic planning) that “reason is capable of directly manipulating all the details of a complex society.” Even the most astute planners could not anticipate all contingencies, perceive all connections, or identify all possibilities. Appalled at the insolence of bureaucrats, Hayek marveled at the felicitous ignorance of market competitors, “how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action.” What he called in The Road to Serfdom “the impersonal and seemingly irrational forces of the market” are rather, in his view, a cosmic, dispassionate, but progressive providence. “It was men’s submission to the impersonal forces of the market that in the past has made possible the growth of civilization.” As the most dynamic of “the products of spontaneous social growth,” the incalculable market of capitalism is the highest form of cosmos.

Hayek’s elevation of the unregulated Market’s core indeterminacy into a central ontological principle is key to understanding not only his perverse praise of ignorance as a virtue but also his ill-concealed antipathy to democracy. He condemned all attempts by government to disseminate knowledge about market conditions as “an incomplete and therefore erroneous rationalism.” Hayek objected to democratic restriction of the market not only because he dismissed the intellectual qualifications of ordinary citizens but because it amounted, in his view, to a futile act of insolence against the sacrosanct order of things—meddling with the primal forces of nature. “There is not much reason to believe,” he asserted in The Constitution of Liberty (1960), “that, if at any one time the best knowledge which some possess were made available to all, the result would be a much better society.” Although these statements have been lauded for their insight into human limitations and their preclusion of economic planning, Hayek intended them to preempt any democratic restraint on the power of capital and its managerial or technocratic expertise. “The best knowledge which some possess” became a positive danger when exercised to regulate the economy in the interests of a democratic polity. “It is at least possible in principle,” he mused in 1967, “that a democratic government may be authoritarian”—with “authoritarianism” defined as any unnatural attempt to obstruct or modify the impromptu order of the market. 

Thus, democratic control over the market represented an attempt to substitute taxis for cosmos—a scandalous feat of ontological sacrilege. Yet, cosmos itself turned out to be itself an invention, as Hayek made clear that that capital and the state lay behind the magic of market contingency. As he rather brazenly admitted, “an order which would have to be described as spontaneous rests on rules which are entirely the result of deliberate design.” Cosmos was nothing more than taxis occluded by philosophical palaver about “spontaneity.” Humble deference to the Market was not, in fact, recognition of the Wisdom of the Universe; rather, it was “a method of social control,” Hayek conceded in The Road to Serfdom, that “should be deemed superior because of our ignorance of its precise results.”  Who had “deemed” the market order “superior”?  Everyone, according to Hayek; “once we have agreed to play the game and profited from its results, it is a moral obligation on us to abide by the results even if they turn against us.” Now I certainly do not recall having “agreed to play the game,” but notice something else here: Hayek—like his neoliberal disciples and descendants—has erased the distinction between liberty and compulsion in the mechanisms of the market. If we freely “submit to the adjustments which the market forces” upon us, Hayek implicitly admitted that the market was a latticework of coercions from which the powerless were unable to dissent. You are told in the first week or so of economics class that there are free economies, such as capitalism, and command economies, such as those in the former Soviet Union. You were misinformed:  capitalism is a command economy of freedom.

What if the market’s losers reject the edicts of the Market and its unaccountable will? Hayek proposed that the authoritarian nature of the free market could be shrouded most effectively in the incense of religion and tradition, and that if those did not work, there is always the employment of state violence. Hayek aligned religion and tradition with the imperatives of market cosmology. “Submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand, this reverence for tradition, is indispensable for the working of a free society.” Hayek openly acknowledged that the rules of competitive enterprise endure both because “the groups who observed them were more successful and displaced others” and because these winners drape their triumph in the robes of “tradition and custom” (There is no alternative because there never has been any alternative; It has been since man crawled out of the slime). If tradition failed to elicit an unquestioning subservience to the wisdom of the Market, God—properly shorn of his disapproval for acquisitiveness—could be resurrected and instrumentalized from the depths of the historical mausoleum. “The only religions that have survived,” Hayek reflected shortly before his death, “are those which support property and the family.” And if tradition or God were not enough, fascism was a crude but reliable expedient. In the 1920’s, Mises had applauded Benito Mussolini’s imposition of a business-friendly dictatorship and wiping out the socialist opposition. Later, Hayek, Friedman, and other Chicago School economists were admirers of General Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1990, who enlisted them to turn the country into a laboratory for neoliberal experimentation. 

What I want to underscore about Hayek is that he presided over what William Cavanaugh has called a “migration of the holy,” a forced march of sanctity and reverence from the sacred to the ostensibly secular. Inheriting the duty of divine vindication from a waning Protestant hegemony, Hayek illustrates how capitalist economics has always been a kind of theodicy: what seems irrational to mere mortals is actually the emanation of a superior, unaccountable wisdom—a modern analogue to the pre-modern theological concept of providence. In Hayek’s pecuniary ontology, ignorance is bliss and servility is freedom; the more we bow to the logos of the Market in subservience to its mandates, we will be rewarded with riches in the sublunary realm of business. And those mandates are promulgated in the canonical idiom of money, the mercenary emblem of the cosmos. Neoliberalism is not just the highest stage of capitalism; it’s the highest stage of capitalist enchantment, when money comes into its own as the anima mundi of a marketized planet.

For his part, Mises explicitly identified reason with capitalist calculation. In the absence of a competitive market whose processes are ordered by money, “there would be no means of determining what was rational.” Without money, Mises contended, it is “impossible to speak of rational production”—“rational” defined in monetary terms. Note how the entire argument turns on a subtle conflation of reason with mercenary valuation; if money determines both the value and the rationality of human creativity, then both morality and reason are defined in its terms. Mises insisted further that all obstacles to efficiency and expansion had to be eliminated. “No religious or ethical tenet,” he declared in 1958, “can justify a policy that aims at the substitution of a social system under which output per unit of input is lower for a system in which it is higher.” Even Adam Smith did not make the grade in Mises’s estimation. Mises rued in 1957 that Smith did not “free himself from the standards and terminology of traditional ethics” which set limits on material accumulation. To Mises, the market was a medium of aesthetic assessment as well. “There is no yardstick to measure the aesthetic worth of a poem or of a building” other than money, he maintained. “What counts in the frame of the market economy are the valuations actually manifested by people in buying or not buying.” Outside of money there is no beauty.

Mises’s convictions were dramatized by Ayn Rand—mentor to former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, favorite novelist of former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and the Silicon Valley whiz kid Peter Thiel, one of the worst writers of the 20th century, and guru to the cult of “Objectivism.” Despite her brash and belligerent atheism, Rand often wrote of Objectivism as a kind of alternative faith. “A new faith is needed,” she once wrote, “a definite, positive set of new values and new interpretation of life.” Objectivism was, as she put it, “a spiritual, ethical, philosophical groundwork for the belief in the system of free enterprise.” One of many heralds of the death of God, Rand was indeed a pioneer in her nomination of the dollar as a worthy and durable surrogate. At the risible conclusion of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt makes the sign of the dollar, not the sign of the cross, in the empty heavens.

In “Objectivism,” mercantile exchange is the paradigm of human life. As the tycoon Francisco d’Anconia says in Atlas Shrugged, “money is the barometer of virtue.” Like Hayek and the principle of cosmos, Rand turned the trucking and bartering of the market into a universal catechism. Trade, she believed, is “the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.” The Randian individual “does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues”; a meticulous accountant of morality, he “earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.” Unlike saints or other “moochers” (one of Rand’s signature reproaches), Randian individuals seek the only real meaning of life in exchange value and rates of profit; “we exist for the sake of earning rewards,” as Galt explains. As Rand’s disquisition on love demonstrates, for her even the most intimate affairs find their finest consummations in a monetary nexus. Love and friendship, she argued, are “spiritual payment” exchanged for “the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another’s character.”

In line with this imprimatur on callousness, Rand’s denigrated Christianity for its exaltation of charity, “the best kindergarten for communism possible,” in her words, which might rather be taken as a compliment. In her journals, she denounced charity as a form of malevolence, as Christians and other undiscriminating lovers of humanity threatened to abolish those distinctions of merit necessary for any functioning society. Charity, Rand asserted, should be bestowed like gold from a tightwad’s purse; it should mark and augment both the power of the giver and the impotence of the recipient. “Charity to an inferior does not include the charity of not considering him an inferior,” she explained; the lowly object of charity should “remember and acknowledge his position.” To give anyone something for nothing—something called “grace,” in classical theology—was an act of malice inflicted on the meritorious. “The ultimate viciousness of charity,” she reflected, resided in its indifference to work and achievement as criteria for human worth. “Ignoring his actual worth as a man”—a worth forged solely in the agon of the marketplace—one lavishes on the weak “the moral and spiritual benefits, such as love, respect, consideration, which better men have to earn.” 

Critics of Rand at the time dismissed her fiction and philosophy as piffle—“sophomoric,” as Whittaker Chambers wrote in his review of Atlas Shrugged in the National Review, “patent medicine,” he scoffed, that was “probably without lasting ill effects.” No one in the 1950’s imagined how quickly and widely Rand’s appeal would grow and flourish, animating much of the decimation of the welfare state pioneered, (but certainly not undertaken solely) by neoliberal Republicans such as Ryan. Today, the most radical disciples of neoliberal divinity reside in Silicon Valley, where a paradise of “innovators” and “disruptors,” epitomized by PayPal cofounder Thiel, beatify themselves as the avant-garde of the species. Some even aspire to attain eternal life in the firmament of the technological singularity, uploading their consciousness to the Cloud before their material bodies expire.

This conception of the human person as an infinitely fungible entity underlies what Mirowski has dubbed “the entrepreneurial self.” You are a utility-maximizer with a gradient of preferences; you are a human resource, human capital, an impresario of identity, a brand, “Brand You,” a package of vendible talents and qualities, a walking, breathing resume, a bundle of assets to be invested or hedged, or of liabilities to be cut, outsourced, or hidden, a skill set to be cultivated, or abandoned in accordance with the vicissitudes of the marketplace. To display your “individuality,” you must be a rebel, a rule-breaker, a “disrupter” of conformity and “average.” You must be heedless of whose lives you disrupt—they are, after all, the losers, the mediocre collateral damage of your quest for productivity and innovation.

This redefinition of the self is made possible, not only by economic and political changes, but by contemporary communications technology. We should start to see Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other venues not just as “social media” but as “technologies of the self,” to use Michel Foucault’s phrase, material implements for the creation of neoliberal personalities. Facebook, for instance, is an exemplary neoliberal technology. It is an extremely successful business that instructs its users in the fabrication of entrepreneurial identities. It requires the user to create a “profile” from a limited repertoire of stereotypes, which in turn are supposed to attract “friends” and “hits” to their blogs. It employs algorithms that force users to periodically change their profiles and thus destabilize their “identities”—an education in marketized personhood. 

Like the student and other forms of personal debt that prepare undergraduates to say two words—“Yes, boss”—the ideal of the entrepreneurial self serves a fundamentally disciplinary function: reinforcing the precarious nature of work in today’s digitalized, low-wage, precariously employed, and increasingly automated capitalism, one in which you are casually expendable and which places a premium on everlasting metamorphosis: upgrade your skills, your profile, your resume. But don’t worry, complain, or God help you, call a union: losing your job or seeing your skill set rendered obsolescent is an opportunity for “growth,” creativity, empowerment. When your own exploitation can be recast as a project rather than a problem—a source of fulfillment rather than an instance of injustice—then solidarity with others can be vilified as conformism, the herd instinct of normies, the last refuge of losers and mediocrities. And what happens to the losers and mediocrities, especially to the new class of unfortunates who populate the food pantries and homeless shelters? Inoculated against empathy by the regnant business culture and by our digitalized social media, we are enjoined to adopt the haughty, insouciant, and dismissive perspective of the boss, to revel in his (or her) ostentatious contempt for the incompetent and the unsuccessful. As Mirowski has observed incisively, neoliberal culture exhibits a punitive sado-moralism toward the poor and the weak. The Apprentice, Shark Tank, Undercover Boss, comprise a veritable theater of cruelty. Witness as well the increasingly militaristic and gladiatorial ambience of our fitness programs; or the casual barbarism of “reality television,” in which everything (from cooking to running a restaurant) becomes an internecine contest of wills in which cruelty and humiliation await the weak. Such is the psychopathology of the neoliberal moral imagination.

The rising generation is in desperate need of a revitalized moral and political imagination. As Fredric Jameson once ruefully observed, it seems easier now to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. The ubiquitous but unavowed despair of many who long for something different is camouflaged rhetorically by calls for “subversion,” “transgression,” or “resistance”—none of which amount to a clear and convincing project of social and political transformation. At some point, you have to be for something, not simply (and rightly) against something horrible; but it is the very capacity to imagine alternatives that neoliberalism seems to have effectively paralyzed. What was and is still called “the left” was marked, in part, by faith in the ability of human beings to collectively construct a world in which all of us could live and flourish—but it is precisely that ability that neoliberalism’s capitulation to the market has so successfully called into question. 

So perhaps the thing most needful right now is imagination, not resistance, or, perhaps better, the imagination of a future in terms of which resistance makes sense. As in eros, so in politics:  you are what you desire. Right now our desires are not strong enough, not large enough, not bold and generous enough. And they are not strong and large and bold enough because we seem to have forgotten who we are; but let C. S. Lewis be kind enough to remind you, in that magnificent last paragraph of his essay, “The Weight of Glory”:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare . . . It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal . . . It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit . . . Your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

The spirit of that paragraph is the basis of the most radical critique you can make of neoliberalism, and it should send all of us out marching against every injustice and indignity in the world. It demolishes every idol of “progress,” every shibboleth of “productivity,” and every banality of “value” and “innovation.” And it is the spirit from which any alternative to neoliberalism must draw its imagination.

EDITORIAL NOTE: The video of this Church LIfe Journal Lecture is now avalable here:

Featured Image: George Frederic Watts, Mammon, 1885; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Eugene McCarraher

Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity,

Read more by Eugene McCarraher