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Neoliberal psychology

Why do we allow the logic of the market to occupy our minds?

Credit: By Guillaume Paumier (Own work) CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

All too often, critics speak of neoliberalism as a coercive, external force lying somewhere ‘out there’ in the political landscape. But many of us increasingly and voluntarily govern our lives in a manner mirroring the logic of the market. Is it any wonder, then, that this ideology has become so naturalised, and the alternatives so hard to see?

Neoliberalism is an elusive term, typically used to describe such processes as privatisation, deregulation, the cutting back of social and welfare provision, the retraction of the state, and the idealisation of free-markets: ideas thought to have been born in the minds of scholars in Paris in the 1930s before they emerged as a political reality in the 1970s.

But this definition ignores the fact that this movement has dug its ideological roots deep inside each one of us. Neoliberal rationalities are both political and psychological, serving to create a utopian free-market order with the power of the state and to extend this logic to every corner of society. As the sociologist Loïc Wacquant puts it, neoliberalism represents an “articulation of state, market and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third.”

Early neoliberal theorizing recognised that creating an environment that cultivates Darwinian-like competition actually requires a far broader set of rules. Thus, a key aspect of neoliberalism is not so much the rolling-back of regulation, but the type of society the rolling-out of state power is designed to uphold: striving to preserve whatever unequal distributions of talent and capabilities we are born with and whatever good or bad luck happens upon us through the chaos of life; frantically trying to fabricate an illusion of a level playing field; and disciplining those that break the rules or don’t even want to play.

But neoliberal theory didn’t only reject the earlier economic liberals’ belief that competitive free-markets emerge in a spontaneous natural order; it also extended this logic to the personal level, to the citizen, concluding that the rational, self-interested individual at the heart of neoclassical economics doesn’t ‘naturally’ emerge either. This gave rise to an even more active and insidious project to cultivate citizens who seek to compete in every aspect of their lives, chillingly captured by Margaret Thatcher in 1981 with her infamous statement: “Economics is the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

This model of neoliberal citizenship has received wide-ranging attention from sociologists and political scientists to psychoanalysts and anthropologists. Michel Foucault conceived this new homo economicus as an entrepreneur of himself, shifting the liberal vision of people owning themselves as if they were a piece of property to a neoliberal vision of people owning themselves as if they were a business.

As property, people become devoid of notions such as duty, compassion and solidarity. They gain an artificial sense of separation from other people and from the ecology that supports all life, and seek fulfilment in increased wealth and consumption—a way of living that Aristotle and Siddhartha (the Buddha) would have dismissed thousands of years ago as thoroughly as any modern critic.

But within Neoliberalism there’s a shift: the world is no longer perceived simply as property to be consumed, but as an opportunity to be captured in order to increase returns to financial, social or human capital—a trickle down of capitalist rationality without a trickle down of wealth.

As a result, people become not only separated from each other and ‘nature’ in space, but also projected in time in a process of constant self-improvement, self-investment and the efficient application of one’s bundle-of-skills to maximize future returns. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean commodification, which is essential for capitalism's survival, but also the economisation of areas of human society in which no formal commodities are found. Thus, traditional non-market social norms are displaced by the cold-hearted, means-ends calculus of efficiency, investment, productivity, growth, costs and benefits, and calculated exchange—and along the way the quest for happiness is inverted: want to get rich? Get happy first.

What was once merely theory is now widely practiced. The neoliberal vision of the citizen was first made explicit in the abstract idea of human capital, but now it’s exemplified in more concrete ways every time volunteering in Africa is construed as a great thing to have on your CV; or when nine out of ten arguments for fighting patriarchy in the boardroom are appeals to efficiency; or where morning raves are promoted for their ability to improve productivity at work; or when the first thing on a list of 21 reasons to have sex is looking younger. Neoliberal rationality has become stunningly efficient at reproducing itself.

We can use Google Ngrams to visualise how this collective psychology has swept through society by tracking the frequency with which different words and phrases have been used in English-language books since the 19th century. By carefully selecting words and phrases that we encounter on a daily basis and which embody the spirit of neoliberal rationality, we find some fascinating patterns emerging near the beginning of the 1970s.

For example, there has been an explosion in usage of the phrase ‘sell yourself’—an unsettling sign of the way in which we have learnt to speak of ourselves in the language of the market. Now, we’re even encouraged to sell ourselves on our first dates. It’s as if we have abolished slavery only to replace it with a system of entirely voluntary self-commodification. Aside from the relatively chilled-out decade of the 1960s, time has also become a commodity that we buy, and in which we invest.

Politicians and policy makers make endless attempts to align self-interest with more desirable social or environmental outcomes (rather than appealing to collective responsibilities), a shift that’s manifested in the rapidly-expanding discourse around incentives. And the increasing usage of phrases like ‘it’s none of your (or my) business’ in contexts in which nothing is actually bought or sold shows how the idea of managing life as an entrepreneur has taken hold. Even in fervently anti-neoliberal writings we hear such phrases as ‘bang on the money’ applied to ideas about social justice.

Despite the tendency to see so much of personal, social and economic life as a calculated investment for future returns, contemporary societies don’t appear to have significantly increased their capabilities for solving their long-term problems. Threats such as climate change, exhausted food production systems and water supplies, antibiotic resistance, economic collapse, and the arms race remain mostly un-mitigated. So why do we still fail to react properly to such threats?

It appears that our lives have become almost permanently projected into a place lying somewhere between the present and the future. Our hopes, dreams, and quests for a meaningful existence are cast into a space in time that never actually arrives. It’s as if we’ve fabricated a kind-of secular afterlife—an imaginary destination that justifies the struggles of the present—although, unlike religious afterlives, this is one that we have to believe we’ll reach before our deaths.

These psychological impacts also seem deeply problematic in themselves. By cultivating the antithesis of a mindful, grounded way of living, it’s no wonder that we now hear talk of epidemics of depression, demoralisation, narcissism and other psychological disorders. But perhaps such issues have been breeding for far longer than the word ‘epidemic’ implies. Authors like Charles Eisenstein argue that a process of separation between people and nature began with the development of agriculture thousands of years ago, developing via the separation of the Gods from within nature to become forces of nature themselves, extending into the notion of human dominance over the natural world, and culminating in the neoliberal idea that we are not only separate from nature and each other but from our present selves.

Today, there does at least appear to be a growing recognition of the need to counter these trends, as evidenced by the surge of interest in mindfulness and meditation, which are becoming increasingly demystified by a growing body of scientific research. Predictably, the response of capitalism has been to appropriate these practices and direct them towards productivity and profits, nicely captured by Google’s ‘head of mindfulness training’ in a brand new neoliberal aphorism: “mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness, which is at the heart of business success.”

But the contradiction between the projected, atomised self of neoliberalism and the grounded egolessness of mindfulness is glaring. Business managers may believe that investing time in meditation will “pay dividends” in the form of increased employee productivity and reduced healthcare costs, but could a truly mindful consumer or investment banker ever exist? Perhaps such cultural appropriations will prove fatal to the psychological basis of neoliberal capitalism itself.

About the author

Joel Millward-Hopkins is a postdoctoral research associate in environmental sciences and economics at the University of Leeds, attempting to resist the neoliberal, elitist, and monodisciplinary tendencies of academia. He also wishes to thank Julia Steinberger for valuable feedback on this article.


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