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Re: A neo-liberal nihilism?

George Gabriel
21 June 2009

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Thomas Ash > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > this post > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel]

In our ongoing exchange concerning the nihilistic implications of neo-liberalism, Thomas Ash challenges my suggestion that “the congregation believes in neo-liberalism as a social vision”. Is it true that anger from the bailout is because public money was used to compensate private liability or is it, as Thomas puts it, because it was “our money”?

The question is however too simplistic. People’s social visions are normally not highly defined, signposted, or even coherent. My own contains as many contradictions as opinions, despite the ongoing struggle for consistency. The point is that the neo-liberal social perspective informs individuals’ social visions. Neo-liberalism espouses a pure cause and effect individualist paradigm of responsibility; quite simply “I am responsible for what I do freely”. A public bailout to privately incurred risk is a clear violation of this ethic. So though few define themselves as neo-liberals many continue to be profoundly defined by elements of this neo-liberal social vision.

Thomas rightly observes that the logic of the market is not itself nihilistic, nor is contractualism for that matter. But this is a part of what I described as the “social vision”. Neo-liberalism as an individual code of ethics is stridently nihilistic. Why? Because of its utter subservience to the concept of “rational self interest” – the cornerstone of most contemporary microeconomic analysis, the justification of a hyper-individualist money-obsessed life, and at the same time the death of values.

This term literally translates as the most effective pursuit of one’s own self-interest. As I keep pointing out, nowhere is this logic clearer than in Robinson Crusoe’s decision-making process – to go fishing or climb for coconuts, now that is the question. Man is thus defined, his will to power knows no bounds in the pursuit of his self interest. This is nihilism. He is relentlessly driven to effect his desires, all of which are part of his self interest.

As I pointed out, this does not mean that bankers don’t care for their kids. It means that this concern is still considered reflexive from the neo-liberal perspective, based solely and exclusively on their own welfare concerns (subconsciously rooted or not).

More importantly it implies that the two halves of neo-liberalism, its social vision and its conception of man conflict. They use different moral languages; the social vision providing a justification for neo-liberalism – a concern that is utterly unimportant to neo-liberal man. Neo-liberal man is concerned with how the market affects his interests and indeed would condemn neo-liberalism where it fails to meet them.

So here is the real crux of the matter. Which individuals have had their self interest overwhelmingly favoured by the neo-liberal paradigm of recent years? Who is such that they can espouse the social benefits of neo-liberalism while staying true to its conception of man? Bankers. Bankers reconcile the conflict at the heart of neo-liberalism by believing themselves to be Robinson Crusoe while calling for the ever greater expansion of the market. A mediocre, grasping selfishness theorises itself into the extremes of psychological egoism and reaches the depths of nihilism, compensated by paltry millions. That others don’t short sell a productive company into oblivion, reap obscene payments for failure, and gamble the money of others is no counter evidence to the psychological egoist. Ordinary people are no more decent that buccaneer capitalists, their self-interest is simply more complex…

Do bankers believe in psychological egoism? Their conception of man can leave no doubt. Are they psychological egoists? Do they live their beliefs or leave them in the study? Of this we can debate.

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