Kierkegaard reflected on the question of how to communicate the truths we live by – that is, the truths about ethics and religion. He wrote about his experiences with the chronic disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen – about his angst. Kierkegaard claims everyone harbors a fear of being alone, forgotten by God, overlooked by his friends and relatives. He concluded that it was in our anxiety that we come to understand feeling that we are free, that the possibilities are endless. Even though anxiety can ignite all kinds of transgressions and maladaptive behavior, we should recognize it as a dual force that can be both destructive and generative, depending upon how we approach it. Kierkegaard argues anxiety is essential for creativity – if there were no possibilities there would be no anxiety. The way we negotiate anxiety plays no small part in shaping our lives and character.
Plato assured us that reason (ego) could control our worse impulses; Freud brought forth evidence of the existence of unconscious forces determining man’s behavior and conscious awareness. The evaluation that below or beyond the rational mind existed an overwhelming repository of non-rational forces undermined the idea that reason could be used to establish an authoritative system of government and ethics. This meant that man was now constrained to live in an eternal struggle with his own nature, and that human reason, the characteristic identified that separated man from the rest of animals, was a recent concept. There exists a dynamic balance between the individual and society, Freud claims, created by deep-rooted instinctual impulses (in their unconscious) that cannot be rationally controlled. Freud observed, “A good part of the struggles of mankind centre around the task of finding an expedient accommodation – one, that is, that will bring happiness between the claims of the individual and the cultural claim of the group.”
As we have seen with Copernicus, Newton and Darwin, traditional beliefs were eroded by their scientific discoveries i.e. beliefs in centrality of the Earth and superiority of humans over the other creatures. Scientific activity stresses the rational side of human beings; there was a feeling with science, human beings would increase their mastery over the world. Nietzsche saw that in the 19th century the “highest values” had begun to “devalue themselves.” The Christian value of truth-telling, institutionalized in the form of science, had undermined the belief in God, disenchanting the world and excluding from it any pre-given moral meaning. In such a situation the individual is forced back upon himself. On the one hand, if he is weak this individual can fall victim to despair in the face of nihilism, the recognition that life has no intrinsic meaning. On the other hand, for a “strong” or creative individual nihilism presents a liberating opportunity to take responsibility for meaning, releasing life-affirming potential. Neoliberals leverage this message: “From adversity comes strength, from strength comes success.”
Since the disappearance of the feudal society the ruling classes have been increasingly ill served by their own ideologies. Those ideologies (as petrified critical thought) after having been used by them as general weapons for seizing power, end up presenting contradictions to their particular reign. Any attempt to modernize an ideology, like neoliberalism, tends to preserve the present, which itself is dominated by the past. Neoliberalism remains the dominant economic ideology of our times. For over three decades, economic reforms have adhered to the neoliberal principles of privatization, deregulation, and the dismantling of the welfare state, on the assumption that free competition would ensure the best of all possible worlds. Instead, neoliberalism should be interpreted as an anxiety-ridden form of crisis management that is constantly attempting to cover over the gaps and ruptures in its own ideological fabric caused by the contradictions that it is structured to conceal.
Neoliberalism rose to dominance by representing subsequent economic crises as crises of Keynesianism or developmentalism, against which the neoliberal project could be advanced as a return to the natural order of a market society. Freud noted civilization demands conformity and repression. The alliance to culture or society is only minimally deep. The proof is the widespread tendency of people to be able to violate cultural rules if they are quite sure they will not in any way be caught or punished. Freud claimed social structures of civilization demand many limits on the individual which clashes with fundamental and very deeply evolutionary instincts. This conflict between an individual’s deepest instincts to conform to any social system that he is likely to encounter will never be fully resolved. For Freud, society attempts to oppress the individual into its requirements, consequently the individual can never have full happiness. Neoliberalism works to dominate both nature and the individual.
John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist who warned of the dangers of unregulated markets and corporate greed, observed, “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy, that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” At the individual level neoliberalism insists that rationality, individuality and self-interest guide all actions. Neoliberals reform society by subordinating it to the market. The goal is to essentially erase any distinction among the state, society and the market. The major challenge of the neoliberals is how to maintain their pretense of freedom as non-coercion. Their answer is to treat politics as it were a market and promote an economic theory of democracy while redefining the shape and functions of the state. The system constantly proclaims anyone can make it if they try hard enough.
The neoliberals promoted minimal government and regulations which led to the looting of the public coffers by tax cuts and the accumulation of ‘public’ debt. Greedy decision-makers on Wall Street with a sense of entitlement chose not to apply critical thinking but to intentionally take advantage of people, which led to the melt down of the economy in 2008. Many in the middle class saw their comfortable retirement, their home equity, and their dreams destroyed. The neoliberal elite demand a dressed-up sophisticated economic theory be applied regardless of the outcome which has nothing to do with economics but everything to do with power. The neoliberal counter argument to failure is to claim even though the markets may be failing having government remedy market failure would even be worse, owing to bureaucratic inefficiencies and lack of market-styled incentives.
In a crisis conflict between the integrity of the financial institutions, on one hand, and the well-being of citizens on the other, the former was privileged. The neoliberal social contract proposed that unrestrained inequality in income and flexible wages would reduce unemployment, but in fact, throughout the rich world both inequality and under employment have soared. Today the middle class realizes that the entire structure of neoliberal thought is a fraud. The psychological defense mechanism used by the rich is splitting – a mechanism that diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values.
In neoliberalism, governing occurs by providing individuals with choices and holding them accountable for the choices they make. This system has a diminishing appreciation that individual predicaments are a product of more than simply their individual choice, and includes access to opportunities, how opportunities are made available, or the capacity to take advantage of opportunities offered. The neoliberal context of employment is perpetually transitional – careers have disappeared. In a context of work built on short-term contracts, flexibility and mobility it becomes difficult to preserve long-term commitments and relationships. A society of individuals frequently switching jobs, relocating, and preoccupied with personal risk and self-interest is conducive to neither stable families nor cohesive communities. Where career is no longer a meaningful concept it is no longer possible for one to make and maintain the long-term commitments required of people to form their characters into sustained narratives.
The diagnosis of social anxiety is now commonplace – you become very anxious about what other people may think of you, or how they may judge you. Social anxiety is now the third most common psychological disorder after depression and alcoholism. SmithKline Beecham, makers of Paxil decided to promote it as treatment for social anxiety – bringing social anxiety into focus in the community. A multibillion dollar marketing campaign linked the disorder to all manner of interpersonal and job-related problems in a way that fashioned all social discomfort as disease. However, success in the competitive marketplace emphasizes the importance of networking, self-presentation and the belief in the ever present potential for opportunities; the required vigilance maintaining the kind of personal image that attracts them demands relentless self-monitoring. The problem is in the workplace of enterprise culture: anxious self-surveillance is both pathological and prescribed.1 The dilemma: Kierkegaard argues anxiety is essential for creativity.
Though our well being is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism. Neoliberalism creates insecurity through the use of indicators and measures to assess the performance of an individual. What happens when metrics are applied to neoliberalism? The neoliberal era has not had a particularly good track record. The most dynamic period of postwar western growth was that between the end of the war and the early 70s, the era of welfare capitalism and Keynesianism, when the growth rate was double that of the neoliberal period from 1980 to the present.2
1 Sugarman, Jeff. Neoliberalism and Psychological Ethics. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 2015, Vol. 35, No. 2, 103–116 https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/teo-a0038960.pdf
2 Jacques, Martin. (21 Aug 2016) The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/21/death-of-neoliberalism-crisis-in-western-politics