The neoliberal self: some observations on the psychology of contemporary neoliberalism

Koltai Mihály szerkesztőnk a moszkvai “Человек vs. отчуждение” konferencián (Rosa Luxemburg Alapítvány Moszkva) angolul elmondott előadása.

Talk delivered at the conference “Человек vs. отчуждение” in Moscow (supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Moscow) by our editor Mihály Koltai.

In my talk I would like to provide some observations and intuitions on what one might call the psychological basis of contemporary neoliberalism. These are attitudes and engrained habits that one is essentially forced to adopt, contributing to the day-to-day reproduction of the current form of highly unequal and – as I would argue – more and more sadistic form of capitalism, that we can call neoliberalism. As a foreword, I would emphasise that what I present here is a set of intuitions that I cannot adduce systematic evidence for due to lack of space/time and expertise. However, my aim is not scientific here, but concerns political strategy, that is, I hope to contribute to a better understanding of neoliberalism, so that the anti-capitalist Left is better suited to undermine and eventually overthrow it. If at least some of these intuitions are correct and can be usefully applied in strategic thinking, then the risk of making these (largely) unsubstantiated claims is worthwhile.

First, I would argue that we have witnessed a mutation in neoliberal ideology in the last two decades. In the 1980s and 1990s neoliberalism was a triumphalist ideology, that simply promised more material welfare and a better life, by extending market mechanisms both spatially (expanding free trade around the globe) and to new spheres of social life (health care, education, new financial markets etc.). The dominant tone of Blair-Clinton Third Way-ism, or of Eastern European neoliberal ideologues of ‘shock therapy’ was that of optimism, excitement, celebrating and relishing risk-taking. The ideology and imagery of the ‘entrepreneurial self’, the idea of thinking of oneself as a bundle of marketable skills, that one has to ‘promote’ as a product started to spread and penetrate everyday life. Social media is a prime example of this: a constant effort to project a glamorous image of one’s life on Facebook and carefully orchestrated self-advertisement of LinkedIn are more or less compulsory requisites of survival for an average college graduate at least in developed countries. The pervasive vocabulary of neoclassical (micro)economics that talks about ‘investment’ in one’s skills, in one’s social or cultural ‘capital’ (blurring the distinction between actual capital, that is power over others, and personal skills, that do not have much to do with one another) naturalises this idea of objectifying oneself as a ‘product’ or a ‘resource’, and not simply in economic life (ie. on the labour market). A whole new terminology has emerged to discuss romantic/sexual life in similar terms, where the idea is to maximise ‘sexual market value’ and not to commit any strategic mistake (similar to a misbegotten business merger) by engaging with ‘inferior’ partners.

This pervasive world-view, terminology and forced practice of the ‘entrepreneurial self’ and the permanent deluge of images of glamour and success through ruthless individualism that is supplied by the media system definitely has a very powerful effect on our psyche, the political consequences of which the Left might not pay enough attention to. Moreover, I think important mutations have occurred in how the ‘subaltern classes’ are drawn into supporting reactionary, neoliberal political projects. In the heydays of what I called ‘triumphalist’ neoliberalism, people were mainly appealed to support policies against redistribution and for more marketisation and individualism on the basis of essentially rational economic calculations. The promise was: if you make the right decisions, ‘invest in yourself’, you can ‘make it’ – in fact you’ll be better off freed from the shackles of high taxes and extensive regulations. I think even then there was an often not explicit undertone of appealing to envy and Schadenfreude. In a more unequal society, if you do make it, you can enjoy your privileges even more so in view of the misery of those, who did not make the right ‘investment in themselves’. However, the emphasis and appeal of neoliberal politics in the years of the asset-inflation-driven boom of the 1990s was more immediate economic gain. It is my impression, that since then, and especially following the onset of the global economic crisis, there has been a shift in the tone of neoliberal discourse and popular culture, amplifying its dark, sadistic and often also self-destructive tendencies.

I think a prime example of this ‘régime change’ from triumphalist to sadistic neoliberalism is the emergence of authoritarian governments and régimes in Eastern Europe, specifically Hungary. Of course there are ‘objective’ factors to be considered as well, which are probably even more important: the emerging right-wing régime offered material benefits to its base in the domestic bourgeoisie and some sections of the middle-class even if these contravened the expectations of the EU etc., something that the ‘pure neoliberals’ who had used to be the dominant political bloc refused to do. But besides that I think the disintegration and replacement of the political project of ‘triumphalist neoliberalism’ was the main driving force. The promises of convergence, welfare etc. touted by ‘pro-Western’ neoliberals, coupled with confused and anyway rather inconsistent human rights rhetoric simply lost its mass basis, making the country ungovernable in the years following 2006, as the government lost its mass support and a convincing hegemonic discourse it could rely on. I think it is fair to say however that the kind of governance (or the kind of régime) that ensued after 2010 still stays within the neoliberal framework, as its main policies are dismantling the welfare state, reducing corporate taxation to raise profits, demobilisation of the population and the general asphyxiation of democratic politics (and especially potentially radical counter-culture) as such. In other words, while the integration of Hungary in global capitalism has also not changed significantly, the main objectives of the post-2010 régime still center around the safeguarding of capitalist hegemony and successful capital accumulation, that is, it is still a neoliberal project. However, what did change is that this form of neoliberalism that is coupled with permanent nationalist/racist hysteria, anti-feminism, paranoid conspiracism etc. is capable of putting together a workable political coalition within the framework of democracy redux. Moreover, the reason why it can do so is not so much that it can offer tangible benefits to its ‘subjects’, but that it can offer many plausible targets to hate, using popular ressentiment masterfully.

I have the impression of witnessing a similar shift in mainstream politics throughout much of Europe and especially the United States as well. On the one hand, the popular culture of neoliberalism encourages extreme individualism and ‘self-valorisation’, while the constant bombardment of our minds with images of success and glamour by the media raises expectations to an unrealistic level. On the other, post-2008 neoliberalism barely offers any promises of general welfare anymore, as austerity and authoritarian crisis management fills the political horizon. This creates frustration and bitterness that is then used by political movements that are almost exclusively based on hatred and contempt for others, be them immigrants, ‘chavs’, ‘parasites’ depending on welfare, feminists (or more generally independent – and unattainable – women) and so on. I would even venture to say that we observe political behaviour on a mass scale that is also self-destructive, perhaps even masochistic: when we see for example struggling American workers (typically white workers) enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump, a billionaire born into wealth, proposing further tax cuts for the oligarchs, it is hard to come to a different conclusion. One particularly chilling example is the wild popularity of Donald Trump’s TV-show, The Apprentice, where the orgasmic pitch of each episode is the billionaire dismissing (firing) one of the contestants by barking at them his trademark sentence ‘You’re fired’. Millions of American workers who had probably experienced the same (or are fearful of doing so), frantically enjoyed this show and many were apparently drawn to supporting the Trump campaign specifically because of this aspect of Mr. Trump’s persona, which is truly a matter for psychoanalysis.

If my observation that contemporary neoliberalism creates a more and more violently selfish and in some ways sadistic individualist subjectivity, what conclusions can we draw from all this with regard to political strategy? First of all, I do not believe that the subjectivity created by ‘everyday neoliberalism’ is all-powerful, that we are helpless slaves to these habits and attitudes. I think that in general, the political passivity of neoliberalism’s victims largely reflects a real diminution of political options, and the strategies of extreme individualism one has to resort to for surviving are expressions of a dire economic situation, especially for young people entering (or trying to enter) the labour market and finding much of their generation simply not needed by ‘the economy’, that is, profit-making. In short, the self-abasing rituals of ‘selling ourselves’ would hardly be an attractive choice for most of us, had we better options. In this sense, the strategy of the anti-capitalist Left should still be focused on arguing for the possibility and necessity of a democratic society, based on production for human needs, and not profit, and trying to undermine the belief that a workable alternative to capitalism is impossible. Beyond that however, maybe one can draw a more specific conclusion from the above as well. In contemporary capitalism it is particularly clear, that it is not simply a civilisation of unnecessary misery and deprivation amidst unprecedented (technological) potential to create wealth, but more and more it is a civilisation of cruelty, of lack of compassion for others, of ultimately self-defeating and intolerable selfishness. Fighting against neoliberal capitalism (and there is no other version of capitalism at its current stage of historical development) is then not only a fight for more physical goods, comfort and welfare (not to say that this is not important as well). It is also a struggle for a more healthy, and – considering that we are social beings by our biological nature – more natural social and psychological existence, for reinstating in its right the basic human need (one might even say ‘human nature’) to feel sympathy and affection for others.

Koltai Mihály