Neoliberalism as economic theory was always an absurdity. It had as much validity as past ruling ideologies such as the divine right of kings and fascism’s belief in the Übermensch. None of its vaunted promises were even remotely possible. Concentrating wealth in the hands of a global oligarchic elite—eight families now hold as much wealth as 50 percent of the world’s population—while demolishing government controls and regulations always creates massive income inequality and monopoly power, fuels political extremism and destroys democracy. You do not need to slog through the 577 pages of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” to figure this out. But economic rationality was never the point. The point was the restoration of class power.
As a ruling ideology, neoliberalism was a brilliant success. Starting in the 1970s, its Keynesian mainstream critics were pushed out of academia, state institutions and financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and shut out of the media. Compliant courtiers and intellectual poseurs such as Milton Friedman were groomed in places such as the University of Chicago and given prominent platforms and lavish corporate funding. They disseminated the official mantra of fringe, discredited economic theories popularized by Friedrich Hayek and the third-rate writer Ayn Rand. Once we knelt before the dictates of the marketplace and lifted government regulations, slashed taxes for the rich, permitted the flow of money across borders, destroyed unions and signed trade deals that sent jobs to sweatshops in China, the world would be a happier, freer and wealthier place. It was a con. But it worked.