Today’s Social Fantasy

A fantasy is something produced by the imagination that might possibly be accomplished, although the chances of its fulfillment are quite remote. Illusions, in contrast, are based on false beliefs, and it is their lack of fruition in the face of overwhelming odds that define them as illusions. Both fantasy and illusion contain an element of wish fulfillment, but the chief difference is that fantasies can sometimes come true, while illusions are always based on misconceptions of reality. In some situations there may be a substantial overlap between fantasy and illusion, and the line of demarcation needs to be based on how far removed from reality the fantasy lies in order for it be considered an illusion. Fantasies and illusions also operate on the conscious as well as unconscious levels. In contrast with illusions, fantasy is a product of the imagination based on reality, but as a way of avoiding it.

The market is an anxious social fantasy, supporting the purported natural order in the economic realm. Japhy Wilson observes, “The source of profit in exploitation is concealed by the understanding of economic value as an expression of subjective preference or desire, rather than a measure of labour time… The aim is not to create a world that never existed, but rather to liberate the pre-existing reality of ‘spontaneous market forces’ and ‘entrepreneurial zeal’ from beneath the dead hand of the interventionist state.”1 Both progressives and conservatives desire a powerful regulatory apparatus. Progressives prefer that these tools be used to create greater equality; conservatives that they allow the redistribution of wealth upwards.

There is an anxious desire to hide the ugly realities of capitalism beneath a harmonious order. Adam Smith’s classical introduction to economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776), was popular because it provided an ‘ethical’ rationale for the capitalist system explaining how, when one acted in their own interest it actually helped someone he did not even know. Smith posited that rational self-interest, informed by moral judgments based on fairness and justice, would lead to the best interests of society guided by ‘the invisible hand’ of the marketplace. For the system to function effectively, Smith identified two requirements; one was the market needed to be free of government intervention, and the other was there had to be competition.

Friedrich Hayek (1889-1992), who admired Adam Smith and built on the ideas of his teacher Ludwig von Mises, explored the truths of the Austrian school. Hayek published his book The Road to Serfdom in 1944 with new ideas, sounding the alarm that the West was rapidly abandoning its inheritance of individualism. He claimed there was a slow process under way in which important personal liberties were being extinguished by the state. He looked backwards at the awful history of the first half of the 20th century, musing upon the nature of the enemy. With the success of his book he decided to create a movement connecting liberals scattered around the world who met periodically at Mont Perlin in Switzerland. The Mont Perlin Society was drawn together by the common sense of crisis.

Neoliberalism rose to prominence by representing the subsequent crisis of the 1970s as a crisis of Keynesianism, against which the neoliberal project could be advanced as the return to the natural order of market society. In this system the source of profit in exploitation is concealed, economic value is an expression of subjective preferences, rather than a measure of labour time. This system constantly proclaims that anyone can make it if they try hard enough, all the while reinforcing privilege and putting increasing pressure on its overstretched and exhausted consumers. We are forever told we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited.

Why is the Great Recession still slamming the middle class? Today’s regulations support neoliberal policies insulating both capital and the state from democratic control. The consequence is a hegemony that relentlessly hollows out the state and marketizes all forms of social existence under the claim the market provides a natural mechanism for rational economic allocation. The evolution of the neoliberal project should be understood, not as a meticulous manipulation of social reality, but a series of increasingly desperate attempts to hold the very fabric of reality together. Neoliberalism has become an anxious form of crisis management attempting to cover over the gaps in its ideological contradictions.

Neoliberal policies maintain that every human capacity, every public policy should be guided to meet the needs of corporations to accumulate greater and greater profits. Its imminent instability lies in its inadequacy, profit is not enough – neoliberal capitalism is imbued with its own instinctual drive for endless growth. The goal is the integration of all human activity, and they are not happy unless there is greater and greater growth. In the end the expression of the incapacity of capitalism becomes the inadequacy of benefits to everyone. The neoliberals insist that unrestrained inequality in incomes and flexible wages reduce unemployment. However, a UN report states that the greater inequality becomes the less stable the economy and the lower the rate of growth.

Freud described the reality principle, the ability to evaluate the external world and differentiate between it and the internal world. The reality principle did not replace the pleasure principle, but represses it, such that, a momentary pleasure; uncertain of its results, is given up, but only in order to gain in a new way, an assured pleasure coming later. The reality principle strives to satisfy the id’s desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways. In neoliberalism the reality principle is replaced by the performance principle. The performance principle presupposes particular forms of rationality for domination that stratifies society, Herbert Marcuse observed, “according to the competitive economic performance of its members.”2 Domination is exercised by a particular group in order to sustain and enhance themselves in a privileged position. The neoliberal performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems – emphasizing individual responsibility while failing to address systemic state violence in all its manifestations – healthcare, education and the war on the poor.

Neoliberal capitalism as market rationality describes individuals as consumers, not citizens. This self-interest and competitive relations among fellow workers leads to alienation. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as do emotional commitment to the enterprise and the organization. The consequence of this process is enough to make us more selfish, more miserable and less concerned about the welfare of our fellow human beings and the welfare of the state. This leads to tolerance of structural violence and supports pervasive inequality, as there appears to be no alternative to the new reality principle – the performance principle. In other words, the enforcement of the neoliberal performance principle teaches us to conceive of social problems as personal problems, either focusing on market based solutions to system ills, or emphasizing individual responsibility, which in turn, distances us from the structural violence in the system.

An economic system that rewards psychopathic personality traits has changed our ethics and personalities. Freud claims there exists a dynamic balance between the individual and society that consists of aggressive instinctual impulses, but society attempts to oppress the individual into its requirements. Herbert Marcuse noted violence is a pain-causing process present whenever there is a difference between the actual and the potential for a person. It pervades the social fabric in insidious ways now made apparent when relations of repression result in outbursts, with root causes barely understood. Marcuse termed this ‘surplus-repression’ referring to the organized domination in modern society over and above the basic level of repression of instincts Freud believed necessary for civilization. Henry Giroux likens this more extreme form of repression to a widespread system of ‘culture of cruelty’, which tends to normalize violence to such a degree that even the common occurrence of gun violence fails to trigger a systemic analysis or response.2

Neoliberals have trouble with health inequalities because of the priority for economic growth. Consequently they put forward proximal or downstream public health responses limited to health behaviorism. Rather than attack the fundamental causes of health inequities they focus on smoking, unhealthy dietary sources, poor housing conditions, failure to use contraception. However, more and more health inequalities are increasingly viewed as an outcome of material, social and cultural inequalities across societies, which, in turn, are the product of inequalities in power, income, wealth, knowledge, social status and social connections. Politicians only focus on short-term policies. This results in expenditures downstream, chiefly outcome-focused activities in the name of reducing the consequences of health inequalities, not addressing the root cause of the health inequalities. In this manner neoliberals promote a parallel fantasy world in which downstream, easily tackled exposures are posited as a potential solution to health inequities.

The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities – the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries. Today’s social fantasy is an impossible dream in which the long established social gradient in health is gradually flattened via a series of downstream interventions and policies which, for the most part, focus on trying to change behavior that affects health outcomes, particularly in poorer communities, rather than change the social and economic environments which inform people’s circumstances and decision-making. Under the confines of neoliberalism it is impossible to address the social determinants of health.

1 Wilson, Japhy. (6 June 2014) The economics of anxiety: neoliberalism as obsessional neurosis. https://www.opendemocracy.net/openeconomy/japhy-wilson/economics-of-anxiety-neoliberalism-as-obsessional-neurosis

2 Anderson, James. (29 July 2014) Recuperating Marcuse against a culture of cruelty. https://roarmag.org/essays/marcuse-neoliberalism-culture-violence/

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