There is widespread recognition that neoliberalism’s rhetorical valorization of freedom through markets stands in considerable tension with “actually existing” neoliberalizing processes. Nevertheless, despite how things have turned out in practice, there is still underlying respect for such claims; that is, the market principle is understood to be axiomatic for neoliberals. In contrast, this essay contends that a reexamination of neoliberal thought—here, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman—reveals that neoliberalism has never been about markets in the manner indicated by the rhetoric. Instead, envisioned in canonical neoliberal texts are specific and particular conceptualizations of markets, states, and households, which means that neoliberalism is fundamentally about the remaking of states and households in the name of markets rather than about markets per se. As a result, retaining respect for the rhetoric makes it difficult to acknowledge the beating heart of neoliberalism: the coercive, nondemocratic, and unequal reorganization of societies. In particular, we need to recognize that authoritarian forms of neoliberalism—increasingly visible in the current period—bring societies closer to, not farther from, the project as it was originally articulated. This has significant implications, because the widespread perception that neoliberalism is fundamentally interested in markets is an obstacle to developing more informed understandings, more appropriate critiques, and more effective resistances.

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