Neoliberalism defines human beings as homo economicus, a perfectly rational and narrowly self-interested machines devoted to maximizing their personal well-being by choosing to buy stuff in markets that sell stuff. Ideas like of seeking self-knowledge, or trying to be self-consistent over time, or trying to be a responsible person in a complicated society, these ideas have no relevance to the neoliberal. As Philip Mirowski points out in his book Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste, it reduces humans to
… an arbitrary bundle of “investments,” skill sets, temporary alliances (family, sex, race) and fungible body parts. “Government of the self” becomes the taproot of all social order, even though the identity of the self evanesces under the pressure of continual prosthetic tinkering; ….p. 59
This picture of human beings is new to us, and it’s repulsive when stated plainly. But it was never plainly stated. Instead, our corporate elites started advertising to YOU, and said that their only goal was to meet YOUR needs. I seem to recall these stupid ads from the early 80s, although they may be older or newer. I thought they were funny. I thought it was stupid to suggest that a New York bank had any interest in me beyond making money off my accounts, and I never understood the reasoning behind the ad or the fact that suddenly every corporation wanted to serve me.
Self-help books emphasized the importance of the brand of me. The self-management guru Tom Peters wrote a typical article in 1999 for Fast Company, The Brand Called You, with this subcaption
Big companies understand the importance of brands. Today, in the age of the individual, you have to be your own brand. Here’s what it takes to be the CEO of Me Inc.
Here’s a sample of his exhortations:
The good news — and it is largely good news — is that everyone has a chance to stand out. Everyone has a chance to learn, improve, and build up their skills. Everyone has a chance to be a brand worthy of remark.
This cheerleading is everywhere, even in the wake of the Great Crash. Here’s Meghan Biro in a recent February 2013 article from Forbes continuing the chants, and praising the guru Tom Peters. We learn that building Brand You begins with an inventory of You, your skills, your weaknesses and your personality. She should have mentioned linkedin, because one of the big things you do there is to maintain your inventory of skills and talents.
It’s one thing to play with these ideas, as a meta thing, or a joke, or even a possible way of advertising, but I can’t imagine that anyone would actually live this way. That’s what makes Jennifer Silva’s description of working class young people so distressing. In Coming Up Short, the subject of a recent book salon, Silva says that most of the people in her sample think of themselves this way, as a bundle of skills, and says that they are unwilling to have or maintain human relationships. She says this is the natural outcome of their lived experience of betrayal and failure by the institutions that should have supported them, family, schools, government, friends, and of course, the labor market.
Through this process, they become acquiescing neoliberal subjects, rejecting all kinds of government intervention, and affirmative action in particular, as antithetical, and thereby offensive, to their lived experiences.
This is a total victory for the neoliberals. It’s not a victory that could have been achieved by persuasion. It’s a victory that could only emerge from a calculated program of destruction of social institutions like families, schools, government, friendship and the labor market.
But the basic idea, that institutional barriers to success should be overcome by individual effort instead of collective effort, is not limited to the working class young people Silva describes. It is common throughout the middle income strata. The people of Chisago MN are a great example.
And as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside. Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.
When this article was published, I wrote that it was an example of cognitive dissonance at work. People believe that they are supposed to be self-reliant, and when they fail to achieve perfect self-reliance they feel guilty, and deal with it by voting against further benefits for themselves and others, even though they desperately need it.
But why? Why is perfect self-reliance the goal? Why isn’t the desire for self-reliance tempered by a sense that they are part of a society? They pay taxes that go to help others in need, whether from extreme weather or forest fires, or physical or psychological disabilities or any other source, so when they are in need, it is perfectly OK for them to receive those benefit themselves? Why isn’t this a blessing, one of the great benefits of living in the most powerful and wealthy countries in history?
The answer lies in the very success of neoliberalism in teaching people that they can’t rely on society to provide benefits if they should need help in the future, so they shouldn’t support the efforts of society to provide benefits to people in need today.
We are still in the grip of neoliberalism, despite its abject failure. How do we break its grip?