Thursday, 7 August 2014

* Is neo-liberalism driving us insane?

Stephan Saunders
This intriguing study of modern identity ranges from ancient Greece to evolutionary theory to the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.
Belgian professor and psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe is concerned we're getting more disturbed and he thinks he knows why. His prime culprit is neo-liberalism, the ''grand narrative that controls our culture today and that consequently forms our identity''.

But what is the ''neo-liberal'' view of humanity? Here's the gist of Verhaeghe's critical interpretation: ''People are competitive beings focused on their own profit. This benefits society as a whole because competition entails everyone doing their best to come out on top. As a result, we get better and cheaper products and more efficient services within a single free market, unhampered by government intervention. This is ethically right because success or failure in that competition depends entirely on individual effort.''

What About Me? portrays both the normal and abnormal identity more as functions of the surrounding society than expressions of the genetic blueprint. That ''something unique'' in us all is shaped by environmental and parental responses throughout childhood, and the typical adult identity also evolves over time in a society. In Western society, for example, adult norms of authority and sexuality are different now from a few generations ago.

In other words, adult identity reflects a ''coherent ideology'', a society's current set of ideas on how to regulate human relationships. Right here, the author nails his psychoanalytic colours to the masthead: ideologies, in his terms, fundamentally reduce to ''right'' or ''normal'' attitudes to the body, especially to bodily pleasure. A society that is too rigidly conformist - or too individualistic - breeds violence. Balanced societies divert aggression into safer outlets, such as (what a relief) football or music.

Western society, Verhaeghe asserts, has never had it so good nor felt so bad. His explanatory trail begins with the ancient Greeks, who developed a natural philosophy strikingly different to Christianity. The ''self-realisation'' of the Aristotelian model made way for the ''self-denial'' of the Christian model, while BC ''immanence'' gave way to AD ''transcendence''.

''A transcendent religion,'' Verhaeghe continues, ''gives believers carte blanche to exploit the natural world.'' So they did, next door to Belgium. The ''religious meritocracy'' of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands became a 17th century leader in the first golden age of mercantile capitalism.
Progress, the author reminds us, is a novel idea historically. So too are the ''secular religions'' of socialism, communism, fascism, and liberal democracy. The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall is taken as the final nail in the coffin for attempts at the ''engineered society'', and the beginning of a ''radical new take on identity'' instead.

This presentation, naturally, places neo-liberalism several ''isms'' later than the religious hegemony. Verhaeghe doesn't explore the surprising synergies between the two creeds.

If there's one idea he's keen to impart, it's the negative impact of neo-liberalism on present-day individual identities. This comes with two riders. Neo-liberalism, rather than freeing up the individual, imposes an ''endless proliferation of rules, regulations and contracts''. And the neo-liberal ''meritocracy'' is no friend of social mobility or societal equality. This secular meritocracy, Verhaeghe accuses, is the ''loincloth'' of neo-liberalism. That is, it is Social Darwinism in disguise.

He acknowledges that European educational opportunity blossomed in the second half of the 20th century, boosting personal opportunity. But ''in no time, social mobility ground to a halt, the social divide became ever greater'' as a new elite ''shut the door'' behind them.

Indeed, there's evidence that the rise of neo-liberalism corresponds with increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility in developed nations. But does that link to rising mental disorder?

Verhaeghe's prime exhibit here is the influential Wilkinson and Pickett book, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, which finds high inequality in nations associating with a laundry list of health and mental disorders. It has also attracted a cottage industry of criticism, to the extent that Verhaeghe might well have adduced other studies of trends in mental illness.

Verhaeghe remembers the buzz of the 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest movie and worries we've forgotten its mental health message. He sees a resurgent model of standardised medical ''illnesses'' in psychiatry, with a burgeoning Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) as its Orwellian handbook.

Mental disturbances, Verhaeghe insists, are less often an actual illness and more often a moral disorder, ''manifestations in individuals of broader social problems''. When social deviations are rated as psychiatric illnesses, the aim of DSM-based treatments becomes to restore or even compel compliance with (competitive) social norms. While all societies ''induce illness, just as they induce well-being'', Verhaeghe deplores the socially destructive effects of over-treating deviation.

Whatever the alarums about Big Government, he believes that society's real authority has leached out of the governmental realm into the market and corporate realms. Or, in psychological terms, a (hostile) tension between the individual and the organisation has supplanted the (dynamic) tension between the individual and society.

Even if Verhaeghe is right, can't we just quit the angst and wait for the next ''ism'' to come along? That would be to ignore his footnote on our ''most serious problem'' today: the environmental havoc of ''human overpopulation and the economy in its current form''.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic.