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Neoliberalism. Submission as Freedom

by Patrick Schreiner Thursday, Dec. 03, 2015 at 1:18 PM

The society in which we live is increasingly unfree in all areas and yet successfully passes off this growing unfreedom as freedom.


Interview with Patrick Schreiner

[This interview with the author and unionist Patrick Schreiner published on November 20, 2015 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

“Neoliberalism often satisfies human needs and longings that it engenders itself.”

Neoliberalism is a social ideology. Neoliberalism persuades the poor and unemployed that they were responsible for their misery. It also ensures that the true extent of social poverty is hardly even known to the general public. Despite ever higher spending, the health system serves people less and less and protects the profits of a few. Social work erodes and hardly anyone does anything about this. A regular “re-feudalization boom” rages in the country by means of foundations and investors that have their sights on the public school system.

Jens Wernicke spoke with the author and unionist Patrick Schreiner who recently published a book on the psychological functioning of the ideology of neoliberalism.

Mr. Schreiner, you hold a mirror up to neoliberalism with your recent book “Submission as Freedom” published several months ago. The society in which we live is increasingly unfree in all areas and nevertheless successfully passes off this growing un-freedom as “freedom.” Is that the essence of y8our criticism? Where and how does it do this?

How freedom is defined is crucial. For neoliberals, freedom only means not being bothered by state and society – “bothered” by excessively high taxation, regulation, social benefits, worker rights or any form of organized solidarity. A person is regarded as free here when he only relies on himself in being exposed to market forces. Correspondingly regulations of markets should be reduced and the market principle expanded to more and more areas of society and the economy. From this view, most societies have actually become freer in the last decades – even if neoliberals like to argue the opposite. Traditional solidarity units like the family, church and unions have lost importance. Social securities were dismantled and the welfare state shriveled.

This is obviously not my idea of freedom. People internalize a kind of neoliberal morality. “Be active and self-disciplined! Think like an entrepreneur! Find your deficits! Optimize yourself! Be efficient in your occupation, private life and sexuality!” Following this morality is a first step to practical submission. In the meantime a whole industry of experts arose who earn good money telling people how they should live because no one can be perfect in the sense of this morality – how their bodies can be more attractive, their home furnishings more tasteful, their education more conformable to the labor market and much more. This is a second step of submission and has nothing to do with freedom.

Responsibility for their life is ascribed to the individual person with the “I am the creator of my happiness!” mantra. When they become sick, the working conditions were not miserable or the health system degenerate – no every individual supposedly did not do enough for his fitness, his health and his nutrition. The same game is played with unemployment and poverty. The neoliberal subject is to blame for everything. In the ideology of the justification of poverty and impoverishment, “society” and “the social” increasingly disappear from personal and political reflection.

Can you please give concrete examples of this development to more “submission”?

Take the education realm. In the past, general education or”lifelong learning” was a goal alongside occupational training, empowering people to self-confident participation in the culture and democratic society. In my opinion, this possibility for involvement is a crucial element of freedom, even one of its prerequisites. But understanding education as merely acquiring skills conformable to the labor market has become increasingly dominant in educational policy since the 1990s. As a rule, terms like “democracy,” “morality” and “participation” do not even occur when the World Bank, the Bertelsmann foundation or the EU Commission write about “lifelong learning” today.

Cultural studies and social sciences at the universities were and are reorganized corresponding to this picture in a neoliberal way. “Praxis orientation” is implemented at schools and universities. Institutions and media arise around this new orientation of education that tells people how to optimize their labor market conformity: career centers, university rankings, self-help books, journalist possibilities in journals and newspapers, career coaches, motivation trainers and so forth.

Is this an “adjustment industry”?

This is an adjustment industry that relies on creativity and autonomy. That sounds and is contradictory. Adjustment to the markets consists in developing and applying creative adjustment strategies in a formally autonomous way. Distinguishing oneself from others and being special and a nose ahead is important. Therefore the universities develop an enormous inventive talent in offering new independent courses of study under the wildest terms.

The many casting shows on television are certainly a graphic example of this conflicting relation of creativity and adjustment. The young persons who join in must submit completely to the predilections of the show and the jury: physically, optically, in song and dance and in relation to feelings, appearance and personality. They should present themselves as independent and different from others. They have to put themselves on stage as a “type” to have real chances.

Do people arrive at these attitudes and priorities by themselves or are they instructed by neoliberal ideology?

These are two questions, one about the origin and the second about the permanence of neoliberalism. The terms autonomy and creativity must be part of an answer to both questions. Neoliberalism was experienced by many as liberating in the 1970s and 1980s when it gained broad acceptance. The promise of more independence, more free spaces and more control of results were obviously attractive in a society where bosses have a tight rein on their co-workers and men on their wives. This still occurs today. Many persons find freedom as “absence of state incursions” as positive.

With all legitimate criticism of media and politics, believing neoliberalism goes back to its quasi-external influence is really simplistic. Humans are not ultimately remote-controlled robots. That neoliberalism satisfies real human needs and longings is much more important. Besides all misery and suffering, neoliberalism also creates individual feelings of happiness and personal experiences of acknowledgment. The political left should recognize this and consider how it can satisfy such needs and longings at least as well with another model of society and economy.

In other words, does overcoming neoliberalism presuppose promising people freedom and acknowledgment – without increasing social misery and every greater poverty in contrast to neoliberalism?

Yes, we must ask critically what freedom means and how one gains acknowledgment. The alternative to neoliberalism must be a just and solidarity alternative. That cannot be a return to the 1950s. We cannot go back to the working condition s or the social and moral rigidity of that time. A social alternative presupposes freedom that is different than that postulated by neoliberalism.

Can you identify special mechanisms that firmly fix neoliberal “thought-poisons” in the heads and hearts of people?

In my little book, I analyze the educational system, the self-help literature of so-called “positive thinking” and esotericism, sports and fitness, stars, different television formats, social networks, consumption and lifestyle. You can find mechanisms everywhere that mediate an ideology, promise freedom and autonomy and are based on individualism and competition. Longings and needs are satisfied everywhere.

Where do these longings and needs come from?

The structure of human needs and longings is strongly influenced by society. Competition plays a great role. In neoliberalism, we must survive in competition with others. Let me illustrate that in an example. Human consumption is marked by the consumption of their immediate environment, empirical consumer research shows.

When a member of the upper middle class reads in the newspaper that managers somewhere added more millions to their salaries of millions, that leaves them cold. But a tremendous longing for one’s own swimming pool arises when one’s neighbor builds a swimming pool. This is also a symbol for a certain social status. One doesn’t want to fall behind the environment. Building one’s own swimming pool can trigger the feeling of catching up. Previously the neighbor was happy for a short while in being a nose ahead. The legitimate desire for acknowledgment is perverted here. An acknowledgment is experienced where nothing should be acknowledged and which only has meaning in the context of senseless exaggerated competition.

Social inequality is the further background. The greater the social uncertainty of a society through “personal responsibility,” “dismantling protection against unlawful termination, growing unemployment, weakening social bonds or a downgrading of the social state, the more important it is for people not to fall down. Dismantling increasing the more inequality increases. The fear of descent grows with everyone, not only with those seriously threatened by poverty. For example, when the labor market conformity of our education or the optical-physical image cultivation becomes ever more important for us, this is because we hope for a more secure social position through advantages in the struggle. This is similarly true for what we consume and how we consume, whether mustard on sausage, the brand jeans or the swimming pool in the garden.

Doesn’t this also mean we become increasingly “dependent” on neoliberalism? Do more social disparities and anxieties in society make us incline more to fulfilling pseudo-needs?

Yes, I see it that way. Neoliberalism affects our feelings and has repercussions on human life. Fear is only one feeling even if an important feeling. Happiness, pride, affection and love could also be named. Besides the increasing social inequality and uncertainty, other factors play a role like interpersonal rivalry.

Is this “dialectic” of neoliberal ideology the reason there is so little resistance against the social transformation towards egoism, social division and deprivation? Where are the mass demonstrations? Where is the civil society resistance?

That we have long strongly internalized this neoliberal morality may play a role. No one forces us to certain actions. Rather we do this voluntarily out of an inner drive. We acquire an education conformable to the labor market, work overtime, get informed about fashions and tastes and train our bodies. We try to always think positively and so on. We do all this so our life will be better and more beautiful. In many cases, a little brief happiness appears and a moment of acknowledgment by others. But we lose sight of the fact that we kill ourselves and our societies amid satisfaction about this supposed confirmation of our conduct. Yes, the promises of neoliberalism are certainly one of the reasons why the resistance against the increasing social cuts and other things is so trifling.

Do you have any proposals on stopping this development? What can you and I do against this?

I am firmly convinced life in neoliberalism makes a large number of people sick and causes suffering.

The impulse of changing something presupposes a certain knowledge or discovery and on the other side a will to change growing out of negative experiences. Enlightenment is needed for discovery. One’s own suffering or participation in the suffering of others is necessary for the will to change. In addition thirdly the positive experience of solidarity will occur – hopefully. To me it seems an essential condition that people see another society as possible and muster the courage to be active for such changes.

I think the question about possible changes is a question about social classes. Persons who see themselves on the winner’s side suffer under neoliberalism, those who have capital or hold high-paying management positions. Their motivation to change anything may be more trifling than that of the famous “99 percent” to which Occupy appeals.

Patrick Schreiner, b. 1978, is a political scientist, journalist and unionist. His central themes are financial- and economic policy, political theory and the connection of everyday life and the world of work in contemporary capitalism.

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