The Neoliberal Road to Serfdom

The oldest refrain of the Right is that socialism leads to tyranny. Yet for the last four decades, it’s neoliberalism that’s been inching us closer to a police state.

People walk by a surveillance camera along a street in the Financial District on April 24, 2013 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty

The fear of socialism is mostly based on one idea: that the end of the road of bigger government is the totalitarian horror of the early twentieth century.

Sure, there are other objections, usually involving muttered words like “market” and “efficiency.” But for the fathers of neoliberalism like Friedrich Hayek, what it really came down to was the fear that every increase in the role of the state was just one more step toward the chimneys of Dachau: power concentrated among a know-it-all elite deaf to the problems facing its people; ever-present surveillance of the population, whether “suspect” or not; a vast, armed bureaucracy ready to stamp out dissent; countless bodies locked and tortured in prisons; and a state that asserts the power to treat its citizens as mere subjects while demanding secrecy and impunity for itself.

It wasn’t just Hayek, writing in the shadow of the Second World War, who obsessed over this fear. Right-wing, anti-government rhetoric in the Obama years was saturated with talk of Nazis, Hitler, and tyranny, until those same people embraced a wannabe authoritarian of their own in 2015. Speaking of whom, in the midst of one of his recent anti-socialist broadsides, Trump recently asserted that “socialism eventually must always give rise to tyranny.”

Halting this threat was supposedly the great promise of capitalism. You might have had the freedom to starve and die from preventable disease, but you at least had all the political freedoms denied by authoritarian states.

Reality has proven this to be nonsense. The gulag hasn’t come to Sweden or Norway just because their governments pay for people’s medical bills. Not to mention that the society envisioned by socialists devolves decision-making power, whether economic or political, to working people, rather than concentrating it in the state.

But put this to one side for the moment, because it’s now clear — more than seven decades after Hayek worried that “what was promised to us as the Road to Freedom was in fact the High Road to Servitude” — that it’s neoliberal capitalism that has put us on that high road.

In the US, there now exists what Matt Taibbi has accurately described as an “authoritarian state-within-a-state,” and which Tom Engelhardt once termed a “shadow government.” It has the power to decide who lives and dies based on evidence that’s never seen and that the condemned can’t challenge, dispensing death to unknown numbers of human beings across the globe without trial or jury, including, sometimes, American citizens. This same shadow state operates a vast, global surveillance system that collects impossible amounts of data about our intimate, private behavior. Sometimes this information is collected to be used against political enemies.

It wasn’t a socialist strongman who oversaw its creation. Rather, the man who presided over much of this was the neoliberal Democrat Barack Obama.

It was under Obama that FBI informants and undercover agents infiltrated Muslim communities and urged, cajoled, and equipped young, desperate, sometimes developmentally disabled, and often mentally ill men into committing crimes they would never have otherwise carried out, then arrested them for it. It was Obama’s FBI that paid a visit to left-wing activists in the weeks leading up to the 2016 party conventions, that wrote the secret rulebook for spying on journalists and infiltrating activist groups, that on the eve of the 2016 election made the rounds of the country’s Muslim households to ask them a few friendly questions. It was that president, so different from today’s blustering strongmen, who launched a vicious war on government leaks no matter how trivial, tortured a whisteblower, spied on journalists, and tried to force another to reveal his source through threat of imprisonment.

It’s not all Obama’s fault. In many cases, of course, he was just ramping up (though often radically) trends that had been set in motion by those who came before. The sprawling deportation machine Obama inflated to never-before-seen size, with which he wrenched millions of people from their homes, separated families, and put kids in cages? It had been midwifed by the neoliberal Democrats of the 1990s. Ditto for the policies that have led the US prison population to now rival the gulag at its peak, and far exceed that of the largest communist dictatorship still in existence, a situation Obama largely left in place.

These have been bipartisan affairs in the neoliberal era. The shadow state Obama inherited was the doing of George W. Bush, an irrepressible pitchman for the brand of freedom beloved by Hayek. Joe Biden will tell you, with reason, that the PATRIOT Act now synonymous with Bush’s name was his baby all along. And Bush was only able to train the all-seeing eye of US intelligence on his own people in the first place because of an executive order issued by Hayek superfan Ronald Reagan, whose administration also drew up a secret contingency plan to replace democracy and the Constitution with military rule in the event of an “emergency.”

The US isn’t unique, unfortunately. The market-loving French president Emmanuel Macron was sold as a bulwark against fascist takeover, only to lay the potential foundations for it instead. He’s made permanent the emergency powers that allow authorities to sharply restrict the movement of suspected “terrorists” and raid homes without a warrant, upped funding for the military and glorified it with expensive parades, raided the homes of his political opponents and an opposition news outlet, and is planning to crack down on “unauthorized” protests. We snicker at the Roman Emperors who declared themselves gods, but what do we make of Macron’s declaration of a “Jupiterian presidency”?

In Israel, it has been under free-marketeer Benjamin Netanyahu that the country has moved in an alarmingly authoritarian and racist direction. In the last few years, Netanyahu has fearmongered about Arab voters to win an election, attacked journalists and tried to exert control over the press, briefly gave himself the power to unilaterally declare war, surveilled and worked to undermine left-wing political groups, and tried to weaken the power of the Supreme Court. He tried to deport tens of thousands of African migrants, passed a racist constitutional amendment that, among other things, downgraded Arabic from an official language, and has just allied with a fringe party of explicitly racist extremists.

One could cite example after example, such as Australia, which has in the last few years passed some of the most extreme, ostensibly anti-terror laws in the Western world. Even New Zealand, deep in the throes of neoliberalism, granted the power of warrantless surveillance to a spy agency that had spied on a Green Party politician from his childhood to his time as a sitting MP.

Or we could talk about the way we now live in arguably the most surveilled societies in human history, our daily movements constantly watched and tracked, whether by video cameras that pepper every corner of our cities, facial-recognition technology disguised as advertising, or even the cards we use daily to hop on public transport. We could even talk about the way that a supranational elite of tech billionaires — politically connected and active in influencing public policy — keep tabs on what we say and do in our most private moments, control what news and information reaches us, and even try to manipulate the way we feel.

None of this is exclusive to neoliberalism, of course. God knows one can flip open a history book and land on a description of any number of less market-friendly societies that have moved toward authoritarianism. But it’s time to discard the fallacy that there is something uniquely inherent in socialism that flowers into tyranny, and forget the canard that free markets will save us. They’ve plainly done the opposite.

For the past few decades, we’ve been sleepwalking our way toward a police state, cheerfully paving the way for any future tyrant to create the most repressive society in human history. The route we’ve taken to get here wasn’t socialism, but free-market capitalism. Hayek may have been wrong that letting governments take care of people and managing the economy democratically would inevitably create more Hitlers and Stalins, but he was right about one thing:

It was largely people of goodwill … who prepared the way, if they did not actually create, the forces which now stand for everything they detest.