The myth of the free market and the rising popularity of The Communist Manifesto

The radio program On The Media had an excellent show where host Brooke Gladstone talked with two authors about their recent books.

The first interview was with Naomi Oreskes about “The History of Free Market Fundamentalism in the US”.

For decades the so-called “free market” has been seen as a fundamental part of American society, often lauded in debates about the success of capitalism. But with wealth inequality in the U.S. at an all-time high, debates about capitalism have ramped up.  This week, Brooke sits down with Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the co-author with Erik M. Conway of “The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market,” to trace the evolution of what Oreskes calls “free-market fundamentalism” back to a century-old public relations campaign that still impacts American politics.

Oreskes says that it used to be the case that children as young as two years old were used as labor in textile mills and mines and factories, and employers used free-market fundamentalism rhetoric to argue against laws forbidding that practice, saying that it violated freedoms by depriving them of a source of labor as well as infringing on the rights of parents, especially fathers, to send their children to work. That century-old propaganda campaign, that any attempt by the government to institute health and safety safeguards is a violation of free-market principles and and an attack on fundamental freedoms, continues today.

Listen (20 mins):

The second interview was with China Miéville where they discussed “The Communist Manifesto Through the Ages”.

The Communist Manifesto was first penned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, a year simmering with revolutionary possibility in Europe. In the years since, the text has served as a refuge, and an inspiration, for those betrayed by the free market. It has ebbed in and out of popularity, its sales rising by 700 percent in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, and may be, according to some accounts, the second best-selling book in the world after the Bible. It’s a phantom, always lingering, not quite out of sight. China Miéville writes speculative fiction, but his latest book, “A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto,” traces the subversive text’s place in the world throughout history. This week, he chats with Brooke about why the text refuses to fade from our consciousness, and how best to read it at this moment in time.

Listen (20 mins):

Both interviews are well worth listening to. I have been inspired by them to seek out both books to read.


  1. flex says

    I’m in the middle of another book which deals with similar topics, The Capital Order by Clara E. Mattei.

    This one traces the development of austerity policies as a method to protect capitalism, and traces the beginnings of the austerity theories as a response to governments regulating (and even controlling) production during WWI.

    My reaction so far is that the author is a bigger fan of centralized economic control than I am, but they make some pretty good points. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it means that a lot of the history is either viewed through a different lens (always interesting) and a lot of it is new to me.

  2. says

    I’ve read a few items from Oreskes as well as the CM. I like Oreskes. I did not find the CM all that shocking, but that’s probably because I had read about it and its ideas previously. Today, much of it seems kind of obvious to me, but hindsight, as they say, is 20-20. In any case, recently I was saying to a friend that I had noticed more and more people talking openly and negatively about capitalism. I’m hearing things I rarely would’ve heard even 20 years ago. It seems that a lot of people see the wealth inequality and economic traps in the system that might not have been quite so apparent a few decades ago, and they are not afraid to voice that. Maybe it’s just that the everyday reality has worn off the image presented by consistent propaganda. And when people say “capitalism”, I think they are specifically referring to the no-holds-barred free-market fundamentalism that the right wing loves so much.

    Interestingly, Bernie Sanders has just released a new book “It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism” (received my copy just the other day). Of course, the conservative talking heads are up in arms about it, but you’d never have seen a book with that title as a mainstream release 20 years ago. Sanders refers to this form of capitalism as “uber capitalism”. Another book I can recommend is Stephanie Kelton’s “The Deficit Myth”, which, among other things, is an explanation of MMT (Modern Monetary Theory). Of course, there’s always Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” if you really want a deep dive.

    Ultimately, I think the best take on the idea of unrestrained free markets with limited government involvement and minimal taxes on corporations and the rich was given by economist Paul Krugman, who described it as a “zombie idea” because it just won’t die in spite of the fact that it has NEVER been shown to work in practice (and we can thank former senator and governor Sam Brownback for definitive proof of that a few years ago in Kansas).

    Kelton’s book will probably be useful when the inevitable budget ceiling BS comes up later this year.

  3. Tethys says

    I read The Communist Manifesto way back in High School. It is quite short, and certainly did not live up to my expectation of ‘ extreme subversive leftist politics’.

    Whoever owns the means of production, controls the economy isn’t remotely revolutionary, or extreme. Bourgeois capitalism has vastly increased ever since the U.S. outsourced manufacturing to create cheap disposable goods, and developed a disdain for any sort of physical labor.

    After they’re done with Marx, I recommend some Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
    ‘ One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ is a good beginning. ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ will drive home the lesson, and provide a much clearer idea of the difference between actual Leftist social policy in democracies, and the not at all leftist or Marxist governments of Soviet Russia.

    ‘When you live in a graveyard, you can’t cry over each grave.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *