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“Neoliberalism” Is a Delusion of Marxists

(President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher)

“I have written previously that much of this ‘neoliberal’ nightmare is a myth, not because the world is without problems, but because the problems of the world are much too multifaceted, internally complex, and situationally unique for each problem to regarded as just another mutation of an invincible neoliberal virus replicating across the globe.”

In the view of certain partisans on the Right, the chickens finally came home to roost following the horrific events of October 7th, when two prominent law firms decided to rescind job offers to three students at Harvard and Columbia law schools. The decisions by these firms came following the revelation that these students were affiliated with public statements blaming the Israeli government for the murder and kidnapping of Israeli citizens by Hamas terrorists. For once, words had consequences for left-wing activists after years of cancelation campaigns aimed at controversial (and often conservative) figures under the guise that “words are violence.” Activists on the Right appeared to find catharsis in trying to amplify the consequences by doxxing students who signed these anonymous letters strongly critical of Israel. 

Meanwhile, principled defenders of free speech held their fire. In keeping with its free speech bona fides, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) urged pause while acknowledging that firms have the legal right to rescind job offers. Then, among the usual suspects in academia where many complaints about free speech crackdowns have originated in recent years, leaders of the faculty senate at the University of Pennsylvania condemned the efforts of major donors to withdraw funds to protest the university’s inadequate response to anti-Semitic rhetoric on its own campus. 

In a letter, the three leaders wrote that “[a]cademic freedom is an essential component of a world-class university and is not a commodity that can be bought or sold by those who use their pocketbooks to shape our mission.” But this seemingly staunch defense of free speech against the priorities of Mr. Moneybags, by a university with a history of speech codes under former president Sheldon Hackney and a ranking of 247 out of 248 in the FIRE’s 2024 college free speech rankings, perhaps inadvertently shined light on another front in the contemporary culture wars about free speech—namely, the obsession among left-wing academics and intellectuals with the threat that “neoliberalism” poses to speech, freedom, equality, and just about everything else.

The Menace of “Neoliberalism”

As articulated by Tyler Austin Harper, assistant professor of environmental studies at Bates College, the controversies hounding Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and other campuses are not simply about inconsistency in their stances on free speech but the result of “wanting to cosplay rebellion while still churning out Wall Street–executive alumni who will one day pad endowments that are larger than Israel’s annual defense budget.” Universities are decidedly not “sites of far-left indoctrination.” They are, instead, “a breeding ground for ideological extremism” in the form of “corporate radicalism,” which he defines as a mix of “performative social justice” that speaks harshly but carries a small stick, and “the conviction that free-market neoliberalism is broken but that there is no better alternative so we might as well embrace it.” 

For many academics and intellectuals, “neoliberalism” is the great menace to social solidarity, democratic aspirations, and any set of aesthetics and values that seek to escape the groping greed of philistine capitalists. It has so pervasively and fundamentally reshaped the world, and has so burrowed its way into every nook and cranny of society, during the last half-century, that it has managed to neutralize every vestige of its opposition by co-opting its style, semantics, and semiotics just to make a buck. 

For Harper, it is a sign of the times that economics is the most popular major at Harvard, Yale, “and many other supposedly leftist universities,” and that 50% of graduating students at the University of Pennsylvania take jobs in finance and consulting. As an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania who became enamored with left-wing thinking during my undergraduate years after taking a few courses in postmodern philosophy, I once lamented the Wall Street ethos that permeated a campus in which the renowned Wharton School, a prodigious factory for producing young Wall Street analysts, stood front and center in all its shine on Locust Walk. Some 20 years later, I resigned from my position as an economist at Bloomberg LP and returned to government service after falling into profound dismay, within a matter of months, about the company’s raison d’etre of being the official “chronicle of capitalism”—in other words, helping rich people with short attention spans get richer. 

Suffice to say, then, that I share an aversion to the life in which the prerogatives of financial spreadsheet analysis supersede, nullify, or, most ominously, subsume the free play of imagination that happily runs astray in the plays of Shakespeare. Yet, at the same time, there is something off-target about this complaint. After all, Shakespeare was not only an artist but also an entrepreneur and businessman. After buying shares in a theatre company during an Elizabethan age in which theatre was a popular form of entertainment, he gained independence from wealthy patronage and greater control over the writing and production process. Being in the entertainment business, however, he could not prosper if he could not appeal to both the high and low brow of a mass audience, and, in fact, there is as much raunch as there is royalty in the plays of Shakespeare.

The point is not to pick on Shakespeare or to praise capitalism but, rather, to emphasize that “the market” is never fully absent from human plans or design. Shakespeare may have lived when the world was a far cry from the interconnected, globalized flow of capital we see today, but the difference is one of degree and not of kind. So long as heterogeneity persists in human life, there will be an impetus for trade. “The market” reflects not a cabal of capitalists but a basic human appetite for trade stemming from differences in individual human preferences that evolve in tandem with changes in the technologies and resources available to society. Demand and supply are facts of life.

The Meaning of Markets

It is thus an odd thing that Marxist academic David Harvey claims that one of the defining features of neoliberalism is that it values market exchange as “an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide to all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs.” A market is the coming together of supply and demand as buyers and sellers signal their willingness to trade based on prevailing prices that signal the relative scarcity of goods and services. Given these signals and their own individual preferences, people make decisions about what they want to buy or what they want to sell. 

The essential feature to note is that we guide markets, not the other way around. At the most basic level, markets arise spontaneously from a desire to engage in trade. If there is a resource that one person wants to buy and another person wants to sell, a market is born. Of course, as society grows more complex, the specific organization of market activity is activated and defined by cultural practices, institutional norms, political preferences, and so on. It is not market exchange per se that is normative but the human values and beliefs that express themselves through market exchange or otherwise dictate how market exchange is to be organized and regulated. To turn Karl Marx on his head, it is not the “base” of productive relations between economic classes that shapes the superstructure of culture and politics. Rather, it is cultural and political values expressed through market exchange that shape how productive relations evolve.

For example, it is not the market for cigarettes that poses a threat to the health of a community. It is cigarettes—or rather the people who smoke them and people who sell them. The example of cigarettes may sound tautological until we recognize that banning cigarettes does not eliminate the market for cigarettes. It simply drives it underground where the material disruption is in the cost calculus for society, as anyone who has passing familiarity with the war on drugs can appreciate. The way to improve societal health outcomes is not to ban the market for cigarettes (and thus the owners and workers of cigarette factories) but rather, for example, to persuade people that smoking is harmful through public health campaigns. This effort entailed a decades-long campaign to overturn an entrenched culture of smoking memorialized in the hit television series Mad Men. Other cultural changes include workplace developments like remote work, “woke” DEI trainings, and growing resistance to vaccine mandates. 

As Robert Heilbroner explained in his classic 1953 book The Worldly Philosophers, societies may choose command or tradition as available ways to organize the allocation of resources. Yet command and tradition are not exactly alternatives to markets. They are ways of attempting to stymie or steer markets, which may be latent or actual, as a way of adapting to market realities given the state of preferences, technology, and resource availability. “The market” is a natural dynamic endemic to human affairs, if only implicitly in earlier societies when markets were undeveloped in the relative isolation of a manorial economy, and even if human choices, activities, and events may differ across societies and eras. When Chinese imperial authorities turned their back on foreign trade in the 15th century in deference to cultural chauvinism, they implemented stiff penalties and outright bans on any activities geared toward maritime trade, attesting to the impetus for trade already manifest in its society by taking severe measures to stifle it. But, in rejecting markets, they were failing to harness the potential of markets waiting in the wings.

Markets in the “Age of Neoliberalism”

The notion that “the market” reigns supreme in a “neoliberal” age has become a common refrain in the cultural and political discourse coming from the Left in recent decades. For commentators on the Left, many if not all our institutions have been captured by the “neoliberal” spirit of an era in which right-wing politicians, lobbyists, corporations, think tanks, and publications conspired to take over the globe and undo the golden age of Post-World War II New Deal Keynesianism. 

The “neoliberal” apotheosis arrived when President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher formed their unholy alliance to deny the existence of “society,” deregulate the state, privatize everything, and usher in an era of trade liberalization, market competition, and free enterprise. This “neoliberal” awakening emerged during the malaise of stagflation in the 1970s, not because stagflation hurt middle-class America but, instead, because it put a major dent in the bank accounts of wealthy elites. The latter then cooked up a fantasy about unleashing the creativity, freedom, and happiness of individual American and British citizens long suffering under statist incompetence, not because it was true but because it was a persuasive narrative that enriched the coffers of the wealthy elite. President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher were happy to oblige.

When Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the “end of history” had arrived in the 1990s, with the triumph of Western liberal capitalism over the statist communism of the Soviet Union, it seemed that “neoliberalism” had won. History had reached its consummation. All we had to do was sit back, relax, and enjoy our life in paradise. But a lot has happened since those days of glory. 

Not long after the days of President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the Washington Consensus, the world witnessed the tragedy of the September 11th attacks and the fiasco in Iraq that ensued. The global financial crisis nearly brought down the house of capital. The Arab Spring toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s government in Egypt and sparked a murderous crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. The European debt crisis brought sovereign governments to their knees, forced to imbibe the bitter medicine of austerity measures perceived to smooth the flow of the golden river of capital even if it flooded the villages of the working man. Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump kindled a reactionary populism that had been simmering for several years, if not decades. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic brought death, lockdown, and a controversy over vaccines. This poured gasoline on the fires of already heated social division.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of crises the world has witnessed since the fabled end of history. But it is a vivid, representative catalog of momentous events that provoke not only the virulence of tendentious indignation that has a venomous cadence on the Left but also is presumed to illustrate the violence of “neoliberalism,” at whose door the Left is prone to lay the blame with a grudge as strong as the grip of a bulldog. 

For the Left, we are living in what Wendy Brown calls the ruins of “neoliberalism.” What is this scourge they are so keen to hold up in effigy? Characterizations of neoliberalism run the gamut. Is it the smug lionization of “rugged individualism” and personal responsibility? Is it the “competitive ethos of the market”? Is it trade liberalization policies that promote the downsizing and offshoring of unfettered globalization? Is it neoclassical economics? Is it anything that former United States Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers says? 

Perhaps its internal coherence is ultimately held together by its incoherence. In what David Harvey calls the “contradictions” of neoliberalism, “neoliberalism” talks out of both sides of its mouth by calling for the state “to take a back seat,” while also calling for a “collective corporation” that actively tries to create a lucrative business climate. On the one hand, it celebrates individual freedom. On the other hand, it calls for authoritarian enforcement of market operations. On the one hand, it calls for market competition. On the other hand, it tolerates industrial consolidation. 

Pointing out “contradictions” is standard Hegelian fare in the old Marxist playbook, but for all the contrasting varieties of social and economic policies, mores, and habits that are supposed collectively to instantiate the “age of ‘neoliberalism’,” there is a clear and consistent focus on the general notion that neoliberals love the “free” market as an elixir for social problems. In the 21st century “age of ‘neoliberalism,’” the “free market is spreading to all areas of economic, political and social life,” a development so insidious and pervasive that “the growing popular demand for corporate social responsibility to personal desire for ‘work-life balance’” indicate that “neoliberalism strategically co-opts traditional ethics to ideologically and structurally strengthen capitalism.” 

And there we have it: For the Left, “neoliberalism” is the modern-day resurrection of an age-old devil. Namely, capitalism. 

The Specter of Marxism

It was the infamous Marx who cast the eye of the revolutionary Left on the idea that all aspects of modern life are commodified and contaminated by the drive to amass capital by a nefarious bourgeois class of non-producers who ride their ownership of the means of production to riches by plucking surplus value from the field of exploited labor. The “capitalist” society thrives on the institution of private property in a system of market exchange in which money is used to buy labor, which then employs the means of production to produce commodities that the capitalists can sell for more money than they started off with. This circular process of capital accumulation is facilitated by a race to the bottom for wages as the coercive laws of competition force down wages to subsistence levels. The “capitalists” are so busy churning out capital that they are oblivious to their own subservience to these laws of competition. But if they do not grow happier, they at least grow richer. As such, they make up the ruling class of society, which means it is their ideas about how to exploit labor and sell commodities in the accrual of capital that constitute the governing ideas of society. 

It thus makes sense for a “soft Marxist” like Harper that studying the subject matter that is apparently tailored to churn out “Wall Street-executive alumni who will one day pad endowments that are larger than Israel’s annual defense budget”—i.e., economics—is to study how to succeed as a member of the ruling bourgeois class in the neoliberal age. Economics is the study of resource allocation. Under the neoclassical “marginalist” paradigm of modern mainstream economics, this means the study of incremental value creation within the context of market operations. 

It is a central premise of contemporary economic science that property rights are essential for markets to work efficiently (i.e., maximize value). For Marx, the establishment of property rights (and, consequently, the ownership of means of production) is also a crucial plot point in a story of “primitive accumulation” that began with the forced separation of labor from the land. As I have explained, the role of property rights in the rise of modern “capitalist” prosperity was not a Marxian tale of villainous, zero-sum accumulation by outright theft through land seizure. It was a piecemeal outgrowth of Malthusian changes in the relative prices of land and labor as the latter grew scarcer with the growth in population. I wrote in 2022:

“In general, population growth over the long run spurred the growth of trade and commerce. The division of labor, regional specialization, and entrepreneurial enterprise arrived on the scene as market-based activities and institutions like regional fairs, urban markets, banking deposits, insurance, and commercial law helped solidify an increasingly interconnected Europe. The customs of the manor slowed down the process, but as the Middle Ages gradually gave way to the modern world, the feudal world broke down as ‘a natural process of production and exchange’ took its place.”

Surely, property rights were key, but it was the design of property rights—not property rights per se—that mattered. The case is laid out in meticulous detail by economic historians Douglass North and Robert Paul Thomas in The Rise of the Western World. In their 1973 book, North and Thomas make a convincing case that institutional arrangements to enforce efficient property rights is the key factor that explains the prosperity of Western societies in the modern world. In other words, property rights per se are no guarantee of prosperity. 

The Spanish Crown conferred an exclusive right to the shepherd’s guild (Mesta) to let its sheep graze wherever they pleased, which led to damaged crops and a decline in the productivity of arable land. Meanwhile, the Stuarts in England reversed Tudor opposition to enclosure when the impetus for exclusive rights on previously common land became more imperative, especially given the fiscal needs of the state when feudal sources of revenue were dwindling or in precipitous decline. Enclosure generated revenues while facilitating incentives to align private and social rates of return from the harvesting of cash crops cultivated on arable land. 

The diverging paths of England and Spain in the rise of prosperity in the West illustrates not only the specific importance of the design of property rights but also the general importance of the design of markets. Economists not only study how markets work but also how markets can work better. This may sound as if the neoclassical orientation of modern economic science provides the theoretical platform for a “neoliberal” ideological presumption that markets are best, except that there is no Panglossian presumption among economists that “free markets” invariably generate or guarantee the best social outcomes. There is only a commonsense recognition that it is a feature of human nature to seek gains from trade. Hence, the study of supply and demand. Economists love markets, not as “free market fundamentalists” oblivious to the existence of market failures, but as scholars simply trying to understand how they work or can work better.

Misunderstanding Markets

Moral philosopher though he was, Adam Smith is generally credited as the father of modern economics for being the first to describe the systematic operation of market forces by way of an “invisible hand” (the price mechanism). It was likely no accident that the writings of Smith arose when market organization had reached a mature state after the medieval feudal order broke down, but this should not be taken to mean that the world of trade and commerce characteristic of so-called “capitalistic” societies reflect historical circumstance rather than a natural state of human affairs. 

Markets are endemic to human affairs because they are a natural outgrowth of the pursuit of gains from trade in the context of constraints of income, wealth, and various institutional barriers. The goal of contemporary economic science is to study and understand the extraordinarily rich complexity of human activity in the context of optimizing behavior under constraints. 

The dearth of visible market activities in the feudal isolation of a manorial village or in the command economy of 20th-century communist societies does not show that the market exchange is a historical development that could have been otherwise. It only shows that the potential for trade was either latent or developed in primitive form. Black markets are a feature of any command economy, and when population growth resulted in the settlement of lands in the wilderness during the High Middle Ages, comparative advantages from regional differences in lands and resources provided opportunities for gains from trade that organically gave rise to modern market economies.

For the enemies of neoliberalism, however, the market is a perennial object of suspicion, if not an invariable source of friction in the human cosmopolis. The market may be harmless within a delimited realm in which enterprising bourgeoisie try to make mint from catering to the human appetite for novel goods and experiences so long as they are relatively inconsequential, but otherwise it is a prescription for the ordering of human affairs that runs on an ethos of egotism, dog-eat-dog competition, and entrepreneurial provincialism that undermines, if not destroys, the prospect of a more humane, environmentally-friendly, and cosmopolitan social order. 

Absent the constraints of enlightened regulation and democratic oversight, market economies are destined to enrich the robber barons whose rapacious hustles come at the expense of honest, hardworking hirelings who do all the work and get none of the rewards. It is a recipe for gaping inequality that leads to social instability. It avoids social revolt only so long as we fail to challenge the free-market ideology of the ruling bourgeois class by succumbing to it. The free market of the neoliberal era lies at the root of all our social, political, and economic evils since at least the 1990s. It is the obligation of anyone concerned with making a better world to overturn this neoliberal monstrosity.

The Myth of Neoliberalism

I have written previously that much of this “neoliberal” nightmare is a myth, not because the world is without problems, but because the problems of the world are much too multifaceted, internally complex, and situationally unique for each problem to regarded as just another mutation of an invincible neoliberal virus replicating across the globe. As I have noted, “[l]ong before anyone had even coined the term ‘neoliberalism,’ the world,” to quote the lyrics of Billy Joel, “was always burning since the world’s been turning.” That is, “[t]he tides of history ebb and flow, along with doctrines such as neoliberalism, modernism, postmodernism, and whatever it is that follows postmodernism….But the lesson for conservatives may not be any more profound than that ‘the end of history’ will never truly be upon us.” The implication is not that we should give up looking for explanations, only that we should resist the caricature that most, if not all, details of modern life are centripetally drawn into, and centrifugally spill out from, a neoliberal control room where Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek had been running the show since 1947. 

In general, it is true that Friedman, Hayek, and others were deeply skeptical of the virtues of collective agency in the form of state policy; it is true that in the 1970s there was an undeniable shift away from New Deal Keynesian fiscal policy within academic and public policy circles; it is true that the elections of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher accelerated an ongoing push to streamline government and reign in its intrusion into the affairs of private business; and it is true that the fall of communism in the East ushered in a celebratory mood in the 1990s that animated and consummated the triumphal march of globalized free trade that been chomping at the bit for several years. 

Yet it is also true that economic policy has always been a mix of private and public initiative. The momentum in favor of one or the other has swung along a spectrum of public opinion or when evidence accumulates that the cost-benefit no longer works—for example, when the Great Society policies of President Lyndon Johnson did nothing to stem the tide of stagflation in the 1970s. It is also true that the Federal Register grew under President Reagan’s administration that also spearheaded ambitious, comprehensive tax reform legislation that increased the capital gains tax and repealed the investment tax credit for business. It is also true that the increase in income inequality over the last half-century is as much a result of structural changes in the returns to different sets of skilled labor as it is an inevitable result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), outsourcing, and the decline of unions.  

One major implication is that “neoliberalism” is more accurately depicted as a projection of left-wing intellectuals, with their seemingly insatiable appetite for any hint in world affairs that the ideas of Marx have turned out to ring true, rather than a valid explanation for why things happened as they did. Indeed, it is hard to run into a Marxist who does not in some way resort to the visceral grievance that the failures of socialist ideals, that great egalitarian dream of a “rational plan” for society that progressives desire with all their hearts, are to be blamed on the institutionally entrenched power of capital, threatening to demoralize rather than galvanize their quest for collective agitation and social democratic change. “Neoliberalism” is a contemporary rendition of the perennial villain of capitalism, cooked up by left-wing intellectuals who cannot let go of the belief that not only can they discern the causes and consequences of world events but also that they can then swoop in, put their heads together, and create heaven on earth, if only “market ideology” would get out of the way.

One of the ironies that one finds in critiques of neoliberalism is that, despite the ubiquitous charge that neoliberalism has manufactured consent in true Gramscian fashion by infiltrating the dominant cultural and political institutions of society, one finds more than a healthy dose of such critiques in one of the premier institutions of society. Namely, in academia, as evidenced by the plethora of books by the likes of Harvey, Brown, and innumerable academics who have felt motivated to write about the effects of neoliberalism on everything from education to media to government. An important but neglected implication of this cottage industry of academic critiques is that it illuminates the dominant conservative status that Marx now possesses in the modern academy. As Isaac Gottesman writes in his 2016 book The Critical Turn in Education

“To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?,’ the most accurate answer,” noted Paul Buhle (1991) in his classic Marxism in the United States, “would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom.” After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist thought, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor. 

Indeed, Marx is far from being a pariah on the American university campuses that Harper designates as “a breeding ground for ideological extremism” in the form of “corporate radicalism.” As a historical figure whose works are among the most cited on college syllabi, Marx is far from an insignificant figure in the course content of supposedly neoliberal universities and is undoubtedly quite welcome among professors whose areas of expertise span the full range of specialties in the humanities and social sciences. In fact, one of the few places in the United States where it seems one has a non-negligible probability of running into a Marxist—or at least can be assured that an allusion to Marx in polite conversation is not awkward or impermissible—is on a college campus. 

In other words, when the Right claims that American universities and American institutions at large have become infected by a vehement strain of “cultural Marxism,” they have a point. This is true if they have in mind, at least in part, the not-incorrect impression that Marxist ideas now exert a reactionary and conservative force within American academic institutions to the extent that the critical tradition his ideas inspired, by facing off against “capitalism,” has positioned Marxism as a status quo ideology in many academic departments across American universities, particularly after a global financial crisis that left many college students doubting the long-term viability of capitalism—in particular, its alleged late-20th-century variant, dubbed “neoliberalism.”

Tolstoy and the Delusions of Marxists

So why does this belief persist? Recall the Hegelian view of human history as inexorable progress in humanity’s consciousness of freedom. Hegel’s conception of historical progress through resolution of conflicts in human affairs profoundly influenced Marx, except that for Marx, it was development in the material conditions of our existence, rather than progress in the consciousness of “spirit,” that constituted the animating charge energizing a dialectical movement of class conflicts destined to dissolve in the utopian finality of a classless society. Historicism of this kind is still a powerful tonic for “progressive” intellectuals in left-wing circles of the academy where Marxism has found refuge from an American society that otherwise treats it as a pariah. 

The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin pointed out, in his classic essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, that “…in one of his letters [Leo Tolstoy] described Hegel’s writings as unintelligible gibberish interspersed with platitudes.” Tolstoy is not the only one to take issue with the verbosity and viscosity of Hegel’s prose and the dubious depth and lucidity of his ideas, but suffice to say that, influential as Hegel has been, it is not influence that provides an irrefutable grounds for truth. 

Tolstoy was the great Russian novelist of the 19th century who objected to the whole enterprise of attempting to discern fundamental, underlying causes in the march of events we call history. It was not that such causes do not exist. What Tolstoy assailed with relentless tenacity was the presumption that we could know them. Tolstoy argued that the great events which manage to inscribe themselves into the annals of history are only a small smattering of the infinite details of human incidents that may be forgotten but which, in their multiplicity and totality, are collectively responsible for the turn of events through which we live and which, because of their vast multiplicity, we are never able to apprehend or record in their full completeness and finality.

The point was not to give up on the search for explanations but, rather, to appreciate our inability to grasp the full infinitesimal variety of causes that converge from all directions in pushing forward the march of events. Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace is notorious for its length, but its length is indicative of the excruciating detail with which Tolstoy wanted to depict the chaotic kaleidoscope of ideas, emotions, and environmental contingencies within which human history evolves.

It is not that Napoleon was irrelevant, only that his genius had to contend with the entangled skein of disorder and disarray that can occur in the unfolding of events, which cannot be fully foreseen or forestalled by the force of his intellect or will. The world-historical man of Hegelian idealism, in whom is embodied the crescendo of progress of spirit coursing through the history of the world, must inevitably run up against the tumult of events that seem to have a mind of their own or, at least, not a mind keen to accommodate automatically a rational world spirit walking the straight path. The best we can do is strive for that inscrutable wisdom that intuitively discerns how to be in harmony with the turn of events without knowing every detail of how those events will turn out.

Tolstoy’s theory of history illustrates the vitality of markets in action. It is impossible to discover the true, inner laws of economic history and society that would allow us not only to anoint ourselves as omniscient but also to employ such omniscience in striving for a radical and “rational” overhaul of society that would come with the guarantee of a better world. However, we can try to find solutions at the margin of situational problems where costs and benefits can be ascertained. 

Deciding whether to buy a Tesla or a BMW, whether to eat at home for Thanksgiving or reserve a table at a fine restaurant. Figuring out whether it makes sense to hire an extra worker. Analyzing the balance sheet of a large corporation to decide whether to buy a share. Devising tax credits to spur clean energy investments. These are among the innumerable decisions that people make every day in society, based on information that is available in “the market” (e.g., prices, advertisements). Collectively, the information is too vast for any central planner successfully to absorb and apply to the implementation of a grand plan for society. But contextual information at the margins allows individuals to make decisions that collectively manifest the aggregate preferences of people in relation to the technology and resources available in the economy. Markets, as if by an invisible hand, guide the allocation of resources, not de jure or by fiat, but de facto.


“The market” is not an ideology. It is life. It may express, but it does not engender, a “cultural logic.” It does not impose values on people but rather gives voice to the values manifest in their choices. Markets are nothing more than people coming together to seek gains from trade based on the priorities of personal, cultural, political, and other preferences, in tandem with the prevailing technologies of the day.

The idea that the world has suffered from a disease of blind “neoliberal” faith in “free markets” reflects only the reactionary heart of post-Soviet Marxism which, despite its failures throughout history, is impressively opportunistic in seeking its perpetual resurrection in the identification of “market” scapegoats. We live in a messy and complex world gone awry not from the bugbear of “neoliberalism” but from the fact that history is Tolstoyan rather than Hegelian, a march of events that, in its vast multiplicity of causal factors, cannot be predicted or understood solely in terms of class conflict, “capitalist” villains, or other moralistic projection bred from a generation of intellectual who still want to believe that, but for markets, we can create heaven on earth.

Jonathan Church, a contributing editor at Merion West, is also a government economist and author. He is author of Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality, as well as Virtue in an Age of Identity Politics: A Stoic Approach to Social Justice. He can be found on X @jondavidchurch 

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