A Comprehensive Account of Neoliberalism’s Impact on Everyday Life.
I’m not usually one for recommending books on my blog. However, this book has moved me to do that, due to the sheer weight gathered behind its conclusion that the main problem affecting us in our times is neoliberalism. I first read about Paul Verhaeghe’s What About Me? via an incredibly powerful article by George Monbiot in the Guardian. Maybe I’m wrong, but I sensed I could almost taste the relief of millions of people on their daily cyberspace-commute when their eyes landed on the heading of Monbiot’s Guardian article Sick of This Market-Driven World? Well You Should be – because I think it’s becoming clear that an increasing amount of us feel exactly this way. Monbiot was driven to write this article in response to reading Paul Verhaege’s book and being captivated by its conclusion. (In fact I think it is more than likely that it also has inspired his more recent article http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us).
George Monbiot is very good at dividing opinion, even amidst those who share his general belief that the powerful forces in the world are trashing the planet. But his two Verhaeghe-inspired articles have likely brought people together more than anything (in fact the comments criticising the articles, seemed like people feeling they needed to be seen as a disagreeing-knowledgeable individual, which in itself reinforced the ideas of the saturation of individual experience with market-competition that Monbiot was writing about, as in “I’m more knowledgeable that you”).
Verhaeghe’s book is basically a conclusion on absolutely everything ‘under the neoliberal sun’. It is a comprehensive account of the totalising nature of the neoliberal ideology. Verhaeghe largely writes from experience in both in the psychiatry and education professions, yet only really needs to keep his eyes open outside his jobs to see the same ‘neoliberalising’ processes spreading like a social cancer. Verhaeghe writes that “…what started out as a meritocracy…turned into a neoliberal evaluation system. [Calling it] neoliberal because the emphasis is entirely on quantitative production”, and it ends up being based as much on the distortion of truth that is Social Darwinism as the ideology of Nazism was; yes the book really does come as close as it can to describing the horrific logic of neoliberalism.
The ideal human being (as in the individual we are all implicitly pushed towards being) is a rational, attractive, but most of all (extremely) successful player within the capitalist world – he/she who can accumulate most success is the winner. Anybody who fails to be successful is overcome with a sense of individual failure, even though he points out that the chances of success were both rigged and slim from the onset. Both Verhaeghe and Monbiot speak of how the most common derogatory term in the age of loneliness is Loser. Success is seen to be all. I think most of us today in the post-austerity age spend nearly half our energy fighting off feelings of failure, daily. Verhaeghe calls this society the Enron Society after the notorious system of the US-based Enron company, who placed all staff in an each against all quantitative evaluation system, where those with most points are lauded whilst those who get least points are made redundant, not before being publicly humiliated. You don’t have to look far in contemporary culture to see forms of this playing out.
The weight of Verhaeghe’s indictment makes it startlingly clear what I’ve felt for years, but somehow been unable to article without it coming across as an extremist opinion. But what is so important about this book is that Verhaeghe comes from the clinical profession of psychiatry – he has no poltical axe to grind. He’s come to his conclusion seemingly by accident, over years of watching the social cancer (my own words) of neoliberalism grow. Surely this makes his conclusions all the more harder to dispute; he can’t be dismissed as “just some loony lefty”.
It also felt so important to me because it has helped me arrive at a conclusion that I’ve been feeling for years, but now feel I can articulate confidently. After years wrangling over what the biggest issue facing us is, within my work and within my head, I am convinced that the most crucial task of our age is to overcome, or pull apart the social reality built by the neoliberal system. Until neoliberalism is defeated one can forget about challenging the looming grave issues such as climate change, and the spiraling violence and exploitation around the world; which is why all the major parties in the UK, except the Greens (who the mainstream media wish to dismiss as being mainstream anyway) are utterly useless to us until they start talking about neoliberalism.
The reason as to why it has become so invasive is also the reason why it is so uncomfortable to properly challenge. Verhaeghe uncomfortably points out that the problem isn’t somebody else. Although in this brutally unequal system it has created obviously others have it far better than others – with no agency for genuine justice from within the system – neoliberalism is so insipid and hard to spot as a social construct largely because it has internalised itself within us, we have become neoliberalised. In a blog I wrote about myself a few weeks ago I openly admit I am Entombed in Self-Centredness – I’ve always accepted that I am diseased with the social reality which we so obviously need to transcend. It is sometimes easy to mistake isolated sentences of Verhaege’s as being Thatcherite themselves (Thatcher, who along with her transatlantic friend Ronald Reagan, was so crucial to beginning the neoliberal social reality), but when he talks about the youngsters who expect life on a plate, without putting the work in, he incitefully tells us “these youngsters [who he called The Lack] are not the product of the welfare state [the easy target for reactionary response to our social crisis]. They are the waste product of a consumer society that is well on its way to finishing off the welfare state”. It is clear that we are responsible, but no more responsible than we are victims.
To some extent I think it’s fair to say that reality probably hasn’t altered that much for the richest of the rich (only in the ease in which they accumulate further wealth now); you could certainly argue that all way through history the rich have been lonely beings in lonely rooms. They had wealth/power, material security, whilst the rest (generally speaking) had poverty/no power, a grim long-view, but yet they had community. It seems to me that neoliberalism has changed things so that we are all as lonely as the richest of the rich now. They have imposed their existential reality onto us, so we are all lonely now, but whilst still in poverty, with a grim long-view.
Perhaps this final point leads me towards what somebody who isn’t coming from a particular political standpoint such as Verhaeghe can tell us more than anyone. That quality of life can be better for all of us if we left behind the social reality construction of neoliberalism. Verhaeghe certainly doesn’t believe in the opposite to chronic inequality, total equality. And if I’m honest I for one dispute this, as I believe, even though total inequality isn’t possible, a perpetual searching for it would be the ideal (after all, as somebody historically belonging to the English proletarians, I will never truly be able to accept the English ruling class). But what is important about Verhaeghe’s proposals is that a non neoliberal life, where the pursuit of other things once again usurp the pursuit of purely financial gain, is shown to benefit us all. Right now, all of us, rich or poor, ‘success’ or ‘loser’, lauded or humiliated appear to be far more likely to be lonely and unhappy that we could be. Verhaeghe’s book compels us not to let our discontent with the world wane; because this isn’t how reality has to be.
Anyway, Ill go back to making art now, as I know my book review skills are still sorely lacking – I just hope I encourage more people to read this book. My next large scale drawing is on its way to completion; The drawing is called Feverish, but don’t expect it to be about Ebola; the fever is neoliberalism.