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Neoliberalism is not the Only Problem

14/03/22

Neoliberalism is not the Only Problem

An uncomfortable realisation: Negating neoliberalism is not enough
This is a blog by Jack Coffin

We recently came across a provocative essay co-authored by Jack Coffin, an academic at the University of Manchester. Many of us working in networks focused on promoting social change identify neoliberalism as the root problem of the challenges that we confront. Not so, argues Jack. Neoliberalism, though important, is actually a symptom of a deeper malaise, which is located in our unconscious fears and desires.  Whatever comes to replace neoliberalism, he suggests, must be designed in response to an understanding of how these fears and desires might be exacerbated by this alternative system. In other words, the designers of that system must respond not just to an economic understanding of how markets fail, but also a psychological understanding of how our economic and political systems intersect with these unconscious motivations.

An understanding of human values, and how some values flourish under any political system while others wither, is likely to be central to this thinking. Common Cause Foundation often points out the way in which neoliberalism serves to normalise and strengthen those human values upon which popular support for the neoliberal project is based. Remember Margaret Thatcher: “Economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul”! But if we are to avoid replicating the catastrophe of neoliberalism in all but name, then it is going to be equally important to understand the values that will be exercised and strengthened by whatever economic and political frameworks come next.

We asked Jack if he could write a blog, summarising the ideas he helped to lay out in the paper. Here it is…

Neoliberalism: For and Against

At the risk of oversimplification, neoliberal thinkers argue that markets are the best way to distribute resources, solve problems, and advance civilisation. Neoliberal ideas were popularised by economists like Milton Friedman, implemented by politicians like Reagan and Thatcher, and entrenched by the ‘third way’ movements of Clinton and Blair.  

Neoliberal assumptions are now part of our cultural background. They are the assumptions of corporations, citizens, and charities the world over. Increasingly all social issues – from the environment through mental health to animal welfare – must be understood through the market logics of economic value, cost-benefit analyses, and consumer choice. Those who continue to talk about alternative socioeconomic systems are dismissed as optimists, idealists, or even fantasists. 

Reading Against the Grain of Critical Thought

Much has been said and written against the neoliberal status quo. Looking between the lines and across the various perspectives, we can identify a common vision in the critical conversation. Neoliberal systems are difficult to displace, the story goes, but they are the source of most, if not all, social ills. So, if neoliberal systems can be displaced, then the system that replaces them will inevitably be better.  

While working within the critical tradition of marketing I have often read this kind of narrative, and sometimes I’ve also contributed to it. But I began to wonder if this was an oversimplification, at best, and a self-deception, at worst. In conversation with my colleague, Carys Egan Wyer, we realised that critical marketing scholars have recently been criticising the unsustainability of sustainability marketing. We then realised that critiques of sustainability marketing might be a specific form of a more general critical narrative: get rid of neoliberalism and a more sustainable socioeconomic systems will be able to emerge. 

At the time I had been reading a lot of Slavoj Žižek, a celebrity-academic of sorts who uses Lacanian psychoanalysis to lampoon the cherished ideas of the left and right. Without delving deep into the theory, Žižek usually argues that a well-known and widely-believed proposition, such as the idea that there is no better alternative to neoliberalism, is in fact a cover for unconscious desires or anxieties. 

An Uncomfortable Realisation: Negating Neoliberalism is Not Enough 

With this in mind Carys and I asked ourselves – what unconscious desires and anxieties might be working under the surface in critical thought? In our paper we came to the conclusion that critical scholars and practitioners may fixate on neoliberalism because it helps to redirect attention away from a more troubling realisation – that neoliberalism is not the only problem. 

Accepting that many problems lie within the human condition, rather than an external corrupting influence like neoliberalism, means acknowledging the possibility that displacing neoliberalism will not be enough to make a better world. The twentieth century is littered with examples of societies that have displaced free-markets in favour of other systems (e.g. the USSR, China, or North Korea), only to find that many social problems persist in new forms. As we state in the paper, “it might be said that the revolutionaries of the twentieth century found that the capitalist will to property simply transferred into other forms of (un)conscious megalomania, like the will to prestige, position, or popularity.” 

So, while neoliberalism may help to foreground a number of undesirable human traits, from selfishness to egotism, other systems may simply manifest these traits in different ways – displacing the pursuit of wealth with the pursuit of position, for instance. Put simply, any system will bring out negative human traits, unless this is explicitly taken into account and ‘built in’ to the solution. 

Capitalist Corruption: A Constructive Critique

In our paper we refer to the critique of neoliberalism as the fantasy of “capitalist corruption”. We suggest that this fantasy is problematic for two reasons: 

One, neoliberal critiques will be incomplete and ineffective if they fail to fully address how the social, economic, and political conditions of neoliberalism interact with the biological, psychological, and cultural conditions of human beings. Expanding the horizon of critique beyond neoliberalism will make critical projects more daunting, but also more likely to succeed. In our paper we cite some of the papers that make similar arguments, but much more is needed to organise these together into a coherent, more-than-neoliberal-critique, critical project. 

Two, if neoliberal critiques are successful in displacing neoliberalism, then a socioeconomic alternative will rush in to fill the power vacuum. This could be better than neoliberalism, similar, or worse. Many have written about possible alternatives, often adopting a utopian tone that emphasises the positivity and plausibility of their proposed solution. Our key argument is that these visions tend to focus on the ideal socioeconomic structure, paying less account to the fallible humans that might populate them. If any of these were to come to fruition, they would likely be more dystopian than utopian, unless they put the underlying human condition at the centre of their thinking.

We do not provide fully-fledged solutions in our paper. Rather, our ambition was to provide a diagnosis of the fantasy and work towards a less romanticised position about the problem that faces us (changing the socioeconomic system in a way that also addresses the underlying human condition). Indeed, part of the argument is that we need to ‘pluralise’ critical thinking, rather than seek out a single solution. 

What Next?

In our paper we draw on an interdisciplinary array of insights to argue that human beings are biologically and culturally shaped to be competitive, selfish, domineering, and so forth. Yet, they are also shaped to be collaborative, selfless, deferential, and much else. It must also be noted that most traits are only undesirable when taken to extremes – for instance, competitiveness can drive sporting achievements, innovations, and self-improvement. So, going beyond our paper, my gambit is that what all socioeconomic systems chosen so far have failed to do is strike the right balance between the various human tendencies

This may be because they have fallen for a fantasy that romanticises the human as inherently benign but corrupted by the existing system, so their new system simply needs to replace this corrupting influence (e.g. communism displacing capitalism). What I suggest is that we need to flip the logic – the human is a bundle of traits and the ideal socioeconomic system is one that keeps these in a careful co-existence, bringing out the best aspects of humanity whilst recognising that the undesirable is always present in the underlying human condition.

Jack Coffin is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion Marketing at the University of Manchester. His academic USP is studying how Unconscious processes and Spaces of consumption may work together to improve Participation for all (including animals). He learns more about style from his students.

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