Slobodian argues that one of the neoliberal objections to socialism was that because we cannot see or predict the economy we cannot govern it or reform it democratically. The ‘economy’ as such does not exist. Partly because the term oeconomy comes from Greek and means the governance of a household, not the governance of a polis or a wider sphere, which cannot, according to neoliberals, be governed in any useful way for the populace.

Hayek, for example, “says more than once in his writings that one of the great fallacies of the twentieth century is the belief that there is something called the economy, that can somehow be seen and controlled and managed. And he could say that because the invention of the economy was mostly a social democratic, Keynesian project” aimed at maintaining full employment and survivable wages. Inventing the economy “was a project of governing and collectivizing risk.” [1]

As Hayek says in his Nobel speech, “it is ‘the pretense of knowledge,’ to think that you can actually have any kind of oversight over the economy as such.” [1]

As this economy does not exist (hence Hayeks use of the term ‘catallaxy‘ for what people would normally call the economy) we can only use very precise rules to protect the market and submit to it: “we must give ourselves over to the forces of the market, or the whole thing will stop working” [2].

The only neoliberal liberty is submission to the limited options the market allows. “The normative ideal for the individual is a kind of total subjection to the forces of competition. We gain our freedom insofar as we subject ourselves to that.” [1]

Neoliberalism needs a market police to prevent people from “kept trying to make the earth a more equal and just place.” This interest people might have in not being ripped off, is a special interest in neoliberal terms, whereas corporations do not have such special interests – their interests are just the market in action. [2]

The big public idea promoted by neoliberalism is that if the ‘catallaxy,’ or what people would normally call the economy, is defended, then all will work out well or at least as well as we can ever expect.

Social Life is Complex

A more recent way of dealing with this problem, is to realise that the ‘catallaxy’ is a complex system and it is embedded in other complex systems, which are important for its functioning and survival.

Crucially, it is helpful not to subscribe to a dogmatic optimism about complex systems. Complex systems, no matter how adaptive, will not always seek a balance, harmony and efficiency which are beneficial to humans; they may require some mild corrections or interventions to achieve anything resembling what we might consider beneficial for most people, never mind all people.

This presents a problem as complex systems cannot be governed rigorously or in a guaranteed manner, neither can specific events be predicted.

We can, however, seek patterns of complex behaviour, and we can make general trend like predictions, and adjust things accordingly and carefully, getting rid of what has not been working.

It may not have been possible to predict Trump or his specific actions and failures, but we can predict that if democratic control over the economy is completely surrendered we will likely head for plutocracy, as massive wealth is where the power is. Plutocracy will likely head towards autocracy, and autocracy can look like fascism, or arbitrary rule. Consequently, we need to be aware of this possibility, and do our best to prevent it in advance, should we wish to maintain freedom.

We can predict that neoliberal ‘free markets’, will lead to a decline in the share of the wealth, generated by society, going to ordinary people defeated by the market. This will almost certainly reinforce the power differentials, and likely lead to the problems of ordinary people being dismissed from consideration. Again we need to undermine this possibility, possibly by redistribution of wealth and inheritance.

We can predict that market crashes will happen more frequently, and that big business will get bailed out by the tax payers (as the point of agitating for what are called ‘free markets’ is to protect big business) and that small people will suffer. Again we can shift our focus from just protecting the “big end of town” and make sure we attend to people in general.

We could have predicted that neoliberals would try and force people to catch a pandemic in the hope of keeping the economy going, and that they will agitate for massive taxpayer support for industries which were already failing before the pandemic hit. Mass death, and long-term disease generated incapacity and injury in people, will not help the economy recover in a way which benefits everyone in the long term. The neoliberal method is not the best for dealing with all problems. The health of the economy, can depend upon the health of the social system and people in general. Free markets cannot be isolated from everyone.

We can predict that if we do not protect and regenerate environments and ecologies, that the survival system as a whole will crash and that large numbers of people will be displaced and die – we can also predict that neoliberals, devoted to protecting existing big businesses, will object to protecting environments as it is a cost to profit, and they will spend a lot of money to persuade people they are correct. However, we do not have to accept massive environmental destruction as a part of the capitalism we need to gain a working economy. We can probably solve this problem by regulating emissions and destruction for all companies equally, and making it easier for local people to take destructive and polluting companies to court. This way, people get to participate in deciding what kind of environment they have to live in. Capitalists get to solve the problem of keeping ecologies functional, by making destruction and pollution a cost, or potential cost, to them.

It may be impossible to completely regulate markets and ecologies, but that does not mean that we have to let the bad results completely triumph. We experiment, and try and see what works, and consider the possibility of stopping doing whatever delivers more harmful results.

There is no reason we cannot have freer markets than we have now, with democratic input into preventing harmful, monopolistic, ‘crony’ and authoritarian corporate behaviour as it evolves, and with a dedication for protecting life on Earth.

Neoliberals appear to want to stop that from happening, as it challenges corporate liberty to do whatever corporations want at the expense of the populace.

Liberty is necessarily a balancing act.