Neoliberalism and Relationships
On January 11th, 2018, Facebook announced that it would make changes to its News Feed – the seemingly never-ending stream of content we see every time we log in or pop up the app. Their plan is to reduce the amount of content published by businesses, brands, and media, so that users can “expect to see more from [their] friends, family and groups.” The stated goal is to promote more meaningful and healthy social interactions, in response to feedback that corporate-sponsored content is “crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.” This announcement follows Facebook’s recent acknowledgement that social media can have negative effects when consumed “passively.” It is very easy to be cynical and skeptical about Facebook’s motives and agenda. There is a ton of research connecting it to mental health issues (e.g., depression, isolation, poor self-perception) and overall life satisfaction and well-being. In addition, I don’t think they have taken full responsibility for their role spreading false news stories and propaganda in recent times.
What moved me to write this, though, was not Facebook’s announcement. We could assume that they genuinely care about the well-being of their users and want to “do well by doing good.” What struck me, not because it was unexpected but because of the clarity of its message, was the response of the stock market. The day after Facebook announced that it wanted to encourage more meaningful relationships between people, its stock price dropped over 4%, eroding its market value by about $27 billion (it has more than recovered since then).
The stock market is a complex adaptive system so drawing a single conclusion from what happened to Facebook’s stock price is necessarily an oversimplification. However, it illustrates, even if just metaphorically, what I see as one of the most concerning and insidious systemic and structural realities we face: improving personal relationships is not good for business.
When it comes to mental health access, this reality is expressed through the restrictions imposed by insurance providers on treatment modalities that understand psychological growth and emotional healing as inseparable from the development and use of the therapeutic relationship. As stated by one of the guiding principles of the Psychotherapy Action Network, an organization I am proud to be part of, relationships heal relationships. However, this belief seems to be, from the insurance industry perspective, bad for business.
I don’t think the main issue lies within a specific corporation or even within an entire industry. The problem is broader and systemic, but I do not think capitalism is the culprit. I believe in the possibility of a capitalist system that better serves society and provides, as some capitalist countries do, affordable education and health coverage without increasing inequality.
What I believe puts meaningful and deeper relationships at odds with business performance is neoliberalism, a mindset that has managed to pervade almost every realm of human activity, at least in the United States. I am using “mindset” instead of “system” because I think neoliberalism goes beyond defining an economic or political system, and has become a way to organize human activity and conceptualize interpersonal relations.
Liberalism saw its beginnings in Austria during the first half of the 20th century. Its two main premises were an unconditional belief in the free market to create well-being and, as a consequence, an opposition to any government involvement. The grandfathers of neoliberalism, Ludwig von Mises and Frederick Hayek, believed that their ideas promoted human liberty. Hayek’s main book, “The Road to Serfdom,” was probably as seminal to liberalism as “Studies on Hysteria” or “The Interpretation of Dreams” were to psychoanalysis. Moreover, von Mises admired Freud under the belief that both of them were advocating for individual freedom. In fact, some neoliberal writers enlist Sigmund Freud as one of the earlier liberals and believe that “psychoanalysis constitutes, to some extent, a branch of traditional liberalism” (discussing whether that could be a valid point or is blatant nonsense is beyond the scope of this article).
Liberalism had to wait a few decades to play a meaningful role in the public arena. In the years following World War II, most western economies followed the policy guidelines proposed by British economist John Maynard Keynes. Keynesianism was at the opposite pole of Liberalism, in that it encouraged government spending to promote employment, activate demand, and regulate the economy, even if that meant running into fiscal deficits. Liberalism didn’t die during those years, thanks in part to the support of wealthy and corporate benefactors who, unsurprisingly, understood liberal ideas were aligned with their interests. In the U.S., one of the main institutions that harbored and developed liberal thinking was The University of Chicago.
Things changed in the 1970s when industrialized countries, including the U.S., started experiencing persistent inflation combined with unemployment and a stagnant economy, a phenomenon called “stagflation”. This was not supposed to happen according to Keynesian principles so, when it occurred, Liberalism was ready to become an alternative paradigm. It was carried on with full force by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also spread around the world. Growing up in Peru, I heard of the so-called “Chicago Boys,” a group of economists affiliated to The University of Chicago who years earlier had exported the liberal model to the region, mainly supporting the economic growth of Chile during the government of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
By this time, the “classic” Liberalism of von Mises and Hayek had started to morph into a more contemporary version. The “neo” in “neoliberalism” refers, according to William Davies, to three elements: (1) markets may not self-regulate on their own, so the state has a role to play: to make sure that “economic freedom” is sustained; (2) there is no division between economics and politics; and (3) competition is the most important trait of a capitalist system – countries and businesses (and, I would add, individuals) must do whatever it takes to remain “competitive.” Psychotherapy is not immune to this principle – Adam Phillips, for example, believes that “the attempt to present psychotherapy as a hard science is merely an attempt to make it a convincing competitor in the marketplace.”
It is the third element of neoliberalism the one that, in my view, probably has the greatest and most pernicious impact on human relations, as it dramatically narrows the range of acceptable relational possibilities. Empathy and compassion only get in the way; as Paul Verhaeghe suggests, “solidarity becomes an expensive luxury and makes way for temporary alliances, the main preoccupation always being to extract more profit from the situation than your competition. Social ties with colleagues weaken, as does emotional commitment.” When competition constitutes the only way to organize our experience, define our purpose, and relate to other human beings, it becomes the basis for what Allan Scholom calls “the neoliberal colonization of our social reality and our psyches.”
Competition as an organizing principle focuses on differences rather than on similarities. However, its aim is not to acknowledge, value, understand, or incorporate the different experiences of others, especially of those with less privilege. By emphasizing quantitative measures over qualitative experience, the goal is to compare, stack, order, rate, rank, allocate, and decide who is (or deserves) more and who is less. In addition, competition focuses on fragmentation rather than on integration. As a result, one could understand neoliberalism as creating a societal pull toward a paranoid-schizoid position, in which (a) the world is split into “us vs them,” and relationships become a zero-sum game of winners and losers, haves and have-nots, doers and done-tos; and (b) annihilation anxiety through the loss of “competitiveness” permeates all facets of human activity. The neoliberal emphasis on competition feeds into the unconscious fantasy, suggested by Jessica Benjamin, that ours is a “kill or be killed” world in which “only one can live.”
When competition is the only socially sanctioned and inescapable way to relate, the unavoidable result is the belittling and dehumanization of the other. Competition not only creates, but requires inequality – after all, how can we compete if we are all equal? How can we be really “competitive” if we fully recognize the other’s humanity, if we truly validate and care to understand their experience, if we focus on our similarities rather than our differences? In this binary world, though, it is not only “them” who need to be dehumanized. The “us” also loses its humanity as it finds comfort in loyalty at the expense of freedom, losing its ability to engage with (and love) the other, stifling and narrowing its own experience for fear of being expelled.
I believe that neoliberalism’s focus on competition as the main way to organize human experience, creates a number of fears and anxieties that promote the use of splitting and projection as a way to keep a “competitive edge.” If we consider that these defense mechanisms often underlie issues such as racism and discrimination, it is easy to see how the neoliberal paradigm becomes not only a good fit but provides a fertile ground for the escalation of racial tension and hatred. I also find interesting Lynne Layton’s suggestion that neoliberal subjectivity is defined by the “disavowal of vulnerability, dependency and interdependence,” which creates an intensification of individuality and narcissism. Layton proposes that this disavowal is a traumatic response to the eroding sense of safety and trust implicit in the neoliberal system, as the state provides less containment and security. In addition to the lack of containment, I think the disavowal is reinforced by the active promotion of a narrative of competition as the only framework to create personal, intersubjective, and social meaning.
Those of us who are psychotherapists see this every day in our offices. Many of my patients are terrified of not measuring up, of being left behind, of missing out, of becoming irrelevant or disposable. They have lived a life in which they have been (or they have felt) constantly measured, quantified, ranked, and stacked against other. As a result, their sense of personal worth is rarely absolute and mostly relative to what they see or imagine in others. The question of “Who am I?” has become (or has always been) “How do I compare?”
Of course the conscious and unconscious meaning my patients give to these questions, as well as their personal experience of the underlying anxieties, are highly idiosyncratic. They are often based on deeply rooted traumatic ruptures that defined their sense of self, their identity, and their object-relations. That said, I try to incorporate, in our shared understanding of their experience, the broader context in which it took place. For some of my patients, for instance, the overt and covert expectations their parents put on them could be understood, in part, as unconscious vehicles for or expressions of the neoliberal principle of competition, and its emphasis on performing rather than on being. In Verhaeghe’s words, “our presumed freedom is tied to one central condition: we must be successful – that is, “make” something of ourselves.”
I started this article saying that I saw in what happened to Facebook’s stock price a metaphor for the idea that, under the neoliberal paradigm, improving personal relationships is not good business. It illustrates the incompatibility between the neoliberal mindset, based on competition as the only way to organize experience, and the promotion of human relationships that allow for and respect individual subjectivity and meaning. Improving personal relationships is bad for business not only because it is not profitable, but also because the neoliberal mindset assumes and requires a narrow form of relatedness. Developing meaningful relationships, in contrast, entails expanding the range of our relational possibilities to move beyond competition and include not only the possibility of collaboration, inclusion, and equality, but also empathy, compassion, recognition, and reparation.
More specifically, when it comes to access to mental health treatment and psychological well-being, it is unsurprising that the neoliberal paradigm will denounce and resist modalities that focus on creating and developing meaningful relationships, rather than on quantifiable measures of symptom reduction. While this is in part due to the financial priorities of the political and economic neoliberal system, I believe a broader and more pervasive form of resistance lies within the unconscious fantasies, defenses, and ways of being and relating available to the neoliberal mind.