What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society

It was the twentieth-century Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci who gave us the concept of a hegemonic ideology—an ideology that has so successfully beaten out its competitors that it no longer appears to be an ideology at all; instead, it assumes the character of common sense, departure from which indicates ignorance, error, eccentricity, or even madness. The hegemonic ideology of our time is neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has its origins in the Mont Pelerin Society, which was formed by Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek in 1947, and whose luminaries included other icons of neoliberal thought such as Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman. Its first political breakthrough was the 1973 military coup in Chile, and the economic policies of the Pinochet regime were the acknowledged inspiration for the so-called Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the 1980s. Since then, neoliberalism’s influence has gone global, effecting fundamental changes in political economy in the post-Soviet states, in major developing economies such as Mexico, India, and post-Apartheid South Africa, in social democracies from Sweden to New Zealand, and especially in the still notionally communist People’s Republic of China.

This near-ubiquitous economic restructuring is a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for the achievement of hegemony. In economics, neoliberalism promotes—with rigorous and disciplined internal coherence—the radical programs of deregulation, privatization, marketization, and globalization. But these policies are means, not ends. The ends are revealed in Margaret Thatcher’s Sunday Times interview in May 1981, in which she declared that “economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

What Thatcher’s candid declaration reveals is the crucial distinction between neoliberalism and the nineteenth-century classical liberalism with which it is frequently confused. Classical liberals confined themselves to limiting the intrusion of the state into private life; by contrast, as the English economic geographer David Harvey shows in A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), neoliberals ascribe to the state an activist responsibility to promote the market not merely as a fact of life but as a way of life—one that comes complete with its own comprehensive value system, the essentials of which are individualism, competitiveness, the primacy of contractual over all non-contractual human relationships, speed, innovation, interconnectedness, and the casting off of the shackles imposed by traditions.

The impact of this neoliberal value system on our collective and individual psychological well-being is the subject of What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society. Written by Dutch psychoanalyst and University of Ghent academic Paul Verhaeghe, the book is untidily structured and at times repetitive, but it does have a clear thesis. Verhaeghe shows that, from the standpoint of neoliberalism, some values are functional while others are dysfunctional. Neoliberalism has successfully advanced those values that serve its purposes, while suppressing those that confront it with obstacles. The result is Thatcher’s intended values revolution, which has wrought profoundly detrimental changes in our individual identities and personalities and, at the same time, weakened society—the very existence of which Thatcher famously denied when she said, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

Verhaeghe points out that many contemporary Western societies are now as neoliberalism has made them. Consequently, they are laboratories in which we can test neoliberalism’s central claim: that intensified competition maximizes efficiency and thereby accelerates the economic growth that is the route to optimal human well-being.

In Verhaeghe’s estimation, neoliberalism is a failure even on its own terms. Social mobility—conceived of by neoliberals as the ability of individuals to improve their relative socio-economic standing through their own efforts—has actually declined as new elites have emerged and rigged the system in their own interests. The same neoliberalism that declared war on bureaucracy and regulation (in both the public and private sectors) has in reality imposed elaborate new regimes of targets, audits, and reviews that have in turn generated a whole new bureaucracy of managers, consultants, inspectors, and evaluators whose job descriptions appear to have little substance. And neoliberalism creates what Verhaeghe calls the “Enron society,” in which concepts such as “the public interest” and “social service” are displaced by the profit motive, with seriously deleterious effects on the performance of institutions such as universities and hospitals. In this analysis, Verhaeghe acknowledges his debts to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009), which makes an excellent companion piece to this text.

Verhaeghe locates his analysis of neoliberalism’s impact on our identities within an accessibly written historical discussion of the philosophical and social scientific debates concerning the nature of identity—though this discussion is so wide-ranging as to appear, at times, digressive in relation to the book’s declared subject-matter. Those debates over identity are perennial and profound, but ultimately resolvable into the familiar binary juxtaposition of nature versus nurture. Do we have essential individuality, or do we enter the world as blank slates? Are human beings inherently good or inherently bad creatures? Are the courses of our lives shaped by genetic determinism or by the exercise of free will?

Deeply resistant to the biological turn that he finds in contemporary social science, Veraeghe goes so far as to describe genetic determinism as the most recent manifestation of Calvinist predestination. But he does not contest the notion that genetic endowment manifests itself in human behavior. On the contrary, drawing on the work of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal in The Age of Empathy (2009), Verhaeghe writes that “there can be no doubt that egotism, competitiveness, and aggression are innately human characteristics—the banality of evil is a reality. But altruism, cooperation, and solidarity—the banality of good—are just as innate, and it is the environment that decides which characteristics dominate.”

Rejecting inherent identity in this way, What about Me? maintains that identity is more accurately interpreted as a construction, and that we construct our identities through interaction with society, from which we accept or reject identity-conferring messages. The process of identity formation will therefore vary with the nature of society.

Specifically within neoliberal societies, identity formation has taken on a paradoxical quality. On the one hand, neoliberal ideology provides a stable identity in the form of an über-egotistical mutation of the nineteenth-century concept of homo economicus, or the rational economic human being. In the neoliberal incarnation, homo economicus is guided by two narratives. To begin with, there is the success criterion, according to which occupational advancement and material prosperity are the only sources of either personal or social validation. Then there is the related concept of meritocracy, according to which achievements, or the lack of them, are entirely attributable to individual talent, which is to say that both success and failure are always well earned.

On the other hand, the immense dynamism and complexity of neoliberal society seriously destabilizes identity by providing a bewildering plethora of often superficial and ephemeral identity narratives, a condition the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity.” Disoriented denizens of neoliberal societies may look for satisfying and durable identities in, for example, nostalgic, reactionary, nationalist, or fundamentalist ideas and movements. More commonly, they seek solace in consumerism. But, as John de Graaf and David Wann have shown in their book Affluenza (2001), diminishing marginal utility blocks increased consumption as a road to happiness. Instead, it results in what Verhaeghe calls “depressive hedonia.”

The hegemonic status of neoliberalism was shaken by the global financial shock of 2008, which is increasingly understood to be merely the latest in a series of shocks to which capitalism in its neoliberal form is inescapably prone. However, we have not yet seen the emergence of systemic alternatives.

Readers looking for alternatives will be mostly disappointed. But Verhaeghe’s suggestions for ways forward contain one very important insight: that under neoliberal hegemony “[w]e are the system we complain about.” Populist critics of neoliberalism blame the corrupt leaders that the people themselves elect; radical intellectuals blame the capitalist system that they do not know how to change; and politicians of the right and left plead impotence in the face of the markets. What all these narratives have in common is that someone else is to blame. But Verhaeghe insists that it is incumbent upon us all to reexamine the claims of neoliberalism, to see them for the ideological assertions that they are, and to stop internalizing them as common sense. It is up to us to reengage as citizens, to demand better political choices, and to hold politicians accountable. And we need to resist the consumerism and financialization that gives markets such power over our lives. It is not clear how Verhaeghe thinks this attitudinal revolution is to be achieved, but over thirty years ago neoliberalism itself proved that such revolutions are possible.