JULY 18, 2022
INTELLECTUAL HISTORIES OF recent American public life typically foreground disintegration in order to capture the mood of a country on the brink. These moments are not only about the United States’s ongoing culture wars or its “hyper-politics” but also evidence of how the nation explains social and political change to itself with a turn of phrase or analytical framework.
For historian Gary Gerstle, such moments of rupture and conceptual birth are fundamental to understanding what he calls “the neoliberal order” in The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era. He is less interested in partisan explanations and more concerned with developing an academic category for measuring political shifts over multiple election cycles, arguing that there have been two phases of the American polity: the New Deal order and the neoliberal order. Party affiliation dating back to the 1920s becomes relative once compared to more capacious neoliberal assumptions shared by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in the name of economic freedom.
Compared to the New Deal order, which assumed that capitalism had to be managed in light of the demands of the public interest, the neoliberal order “was grounded in the belief that market forces had to be liberated from government regulatory controls that were stymieing growth, innovation, and freedom.” Over time, neoliberalism would become a “creed that prizes free trade and the free movement of capital, goods, and people; it celebrates deregulation as an economic good that results when the government can no longer interfere with the operation of markets.”
Despite the principled coherence of American neoliberal thought, much of it was based on a paradox: that government intervention was necessary to free individuals from the government. The first reform was counterintuitive: to “encase free markets in rules governing property and exchange and the circulation of money.” The second principle required market principles to be applied to all areas of human endeavor — quite literally. And the third strategy promised utopian freedom to those who would believe in it and live by its principles.
Gerstle seemingly goes out of his way to avoid using words like conservative or neo-conservative to describe any part of the rise and fall of the neoliberal order. This is in stark contrast to the seemingly endless number of publications exploring the ways in which American conservatism has devolved to its lowest yet most anti-democratic forms at the expense of the American republic itself and its constitutional protections. In Gerstle’s account, conservatives are concerned with order, tradition, and the embedded self. As such, they are virtually incapable of adapting to neoliberal capitalism’s creative destruction.
Gerstle’s analysis joins several others, however, in trying to make sense of the last 50 years of the American past. Historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer have described “fault lines” that divide the American populace by race, gender, and technology. More than a decade ago, in his award-winning Age of Fracture, historian Daniel T. Rodgers explored a similar postwar moment that witnessed the “fracturing of the social” in favor of more fluid conceptions of race, gender, and society itself. In essence, this moment represented what cultural theorist Stuart Hall once referred to as a break in space and time: “[W]here old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.”
According to Gerstle, the neoliberal order began to unfold under the careful watch of Ronald Reagan and then flourished after the fall of the Soviet Union and in tandem with Bill Clinton’s firm belief in deregulation, combined with his willingness to “end welfare as we know it.” His decision to “unshackle” both telecommunications and financial markets by eliminating federal regulation revolutionized the country in the name of what could be called the neoliberal sublime. The expansiveness of the internet, it was promised, could be experienced by all, and it almost was.
A moral code accompanied the neoliberal order to protect itself against its worst excesses and moral failures. Many Americans were perfect matches for neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial politics, its promises of unbridled freedom once remade in the image of homo economicus; many were not. For Gerstle, the neoliberal order produced two interrelated modes of citizenship within the body politic: conservative neo-Victorianism and liberal cosmopolitanism. The former encouraged self-discipline in the name of market austerity and the proverbial Christian family. The latter privileged diversity, self-expression, and socioeconomic mobility. As Gerstle describes, “It celebrated the cultural exchanges and dynamism that increasingly characterized the global cities — London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Toronto, and Miami among them — developing under the aegis of the neoliberal order.” This much is most certainly true circa 1975: the beginnings of neoliberalism’s deregulatory ascent.
Within the same moment, however, neoliberalism would also help give birth to additional forms of religiosity including the “Prosperity Gospel,” replete with global communication networks, acts of spiritual exuberance, and larger-than-life television personalities. While this tradition of health and wealth dates back to the late 19th century, it found its domestic stride in the United States within the postindustrial conditions of the neoliberal order in the 1980s and 1990s. The fact that prosperity gospel healer Paula White-Cain has rekindled her relationship with former president Donald Trump’s communications team speaks to the intimate relationship between neoliberal success, political freedom, and spiritual prosperity in American political life — especially in 2022.
The rise and fall of the neoliberal order has curtailed some religious ideals and formulations in the name of neo-Victorian morality, but it also cultivated equally powerful forces that promised to liberate true believers from their respective experiences of spiritual captivity. Until such forces of neoliberal freedom are understood and diagnosed as complex forms of economic captivity themselves, there is no telling how much longer the neoliberal order can remain fractured yet deeply informative of our collective political imaginations.
L. Benjamin Rolsky is an affiliated fellow at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University and a history teacher at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey. His work has appeared in a variety of academic and popular venues, including the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, The Marginalia Review of Books, CNN Opinion, and the Religion and Cultural Forum at the University of Chicago.