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The soul of man under neo-liberalism

In 2007, 27 teenagers were murdered in London, a record. 2008 is well on course to beat that: just over a third of the way through the year, 13 teenagers have been killed already, with the summer still to come.What is responsible for this upsurge? Why are children killing each other—and others – in these kind of numbers?

Looking at the press coverage of the most recent tragedies, these questions and considerations are conspicuous by their absence: there hasn’t been an avalanche of outrage in the right-wing press pointing the finger at the corrosive influence of 50 Cent or Grand Theft Auto; the most the liberal press has come up with is some remarks by Enver Soloman of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in the Guardian, who noted that 2% of London wards have been responsible for 10% of all violent crimes involving teenagers, and pointed out that: ‘You have to look at the social drivers. Why do young boys slip into the illegal drugs economy? It’s not a positive choice, but for some of them it seems to be the only choice. You have to use a range of policy levers to tackle this problem.’

While it is certainly true that options and life chances for working class kids are low and falling—social mobility in the UK fell markedly during the Thatcher era to levels similar to the US and significantly below the Scandinavian countries and Canada (Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America, April 2005 and Social mobility in Britain: low and falling, 2005)—there is one key factor that hasn’t been addressed, which is curious as it is increasingly well-documented in academia. The epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson specialises in looking at how economic inequality is related to population health. He has found that among the developed countries it is the level of equality, rather than the level of wealth, that has the greatest influence on life expectancy: more egalitarian societies have better population health than comparably wealthy societies that are less egalitarian.

Conflict or co-operation

However, it is not just health outcomes that Wilkinson has found to be related to inequality: ‘In societies where income differences between rich and poor are smaller, the statistics show not only that community life is stronger and people are much more likely to trust each other, but also that there is less violence—including substantially lower homicide rates, that health is better, life expectancy is several years longer, prison populations are smaller, birth rates among teenagers are lower, levels of educational attainment among school children tend to be higher, and lastly, there is more social mobility [emphasis added]. In all these fields, where income differences are narrower, outcomes are better,’ (The Impact of Inequality: empirical evidence, 2006). For Wilkinson, the distribution of wealth and resources is an indicator of how either conflictual or co-operative a society is: ‘Because more unequal places are marked by a more conflictual character of social relationships—so that they suffer not only more homicide, but also more violent crime, less trust, less involvement in community life, and more racist—we should see them all as part of a single continuum affecting the nature of social relations throughout a society. Inequality seems to shift the whole distribution of social relationships away from the most affectionate end toward the more conflictual end’[1].

The relevance of this to the present is obvious: for most of the twentieth century the trend in this country was toward increasing equality, but from the late 1970s—with the triumph of neo-liberalism—inequality began to increase, a process which continues to this day (Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2007, p19). The distribution of wealth has become increasingly polarised, and with it our society has moved ‘away from the most affectionate end toward the more conflictual end’. Or as the LSE criminologist Robert Reiner has summarised it: ‘Economic laissez-faire engendered moral laissez-faire. There is copious evidence demonstrating that inequality produces crime and violence. This is not primarily because of social exclusion or poverty. It is relative deprivation that counts most. Contrary to Blair’s many quips on the topic, the rich are a major part of the problem,’ (‘Be tough on a crucial cause of crime – neoliberalism’, The Guardian, 24 November 2005).

One of Thatcher’s most famous mantras was that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families’ (Margaret Thatcher Foundation). Thatcherism was, rhetorically at least, supposed to liberate the individual from the overbearing strictures of the state and collectivism, freeing the sovereign individual to pursue his or her interests, like every other sovereign individual, on the level, meritocratic playing field of the free market. Utter nonsense: it is a picture of the world which pretends the distinction between labour and capital doesn’t exist; it pretends that the equality of opportunity does exist; and it pretends that ‘the free market’ has ever really existed to any significant degree, while the truth is that practically every industrialised economy on Earth got there through state protection of infant industry. And this goes through to the present day, where biotechnology and the Internet only exist thanks to state stewardship. Even the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, has recently conceded “Remember Friday March 14 2008: it was the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died. For three decades we have moved towards market-driven financial systems. By its decision to rescue Bear Stearns, the Federal Reserve, the institution responsible for monetary policy in the US, chief protagonist of free-market capitalism, declared this era over. It showed in deeds its agreement with the remark by Joseph Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, that ‘I no longer believe in the market’s self-healing power’. Deregulation has reached its limits,” (‘The rescue of Bear Stearns marks liberalisation’s limit’, Financial Times, 25 March 2008). The freedom and individualism of Thatcherism, like the free market, is an illusion. In reality, labour has been atomised, but capital has not: it is still as collective as ever, as assisted by the state as ever, and more heavily concentrated and more dominant over the individual than ever. The idea of attaining democratic, co-operative control over capital and ending coercive wage labour has gone: the individualism of our time extends no further than the egocentric satisfaction of selfish, largely created, consumer wants.

‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul’

The sociologists Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert have written about what they call ‘the new individualism’. It is worth quoting them at length: ‘individualism today is intrinsically connected, we argue, with the growth of privatized worlds. Such privatized worlds propel individuals into shutting others and the wider world out of their emotional lives… As market forces penetrate ever more deeply into the tissue of social life, what we see taking place today is a shift from a politicized culture to a privatized culture. People, increasingly, seek personal solutions to social problems in the hope of shutting out the risks, terrors and persecutions that dominate our lives in the global age … The classically free individual as the man who removes himself from the masses is necessarily a way of life possible only to people of means, to those able to attain and maintain a bourgeois life… Privatization…concerns the spread of neo-liberal economic doctrines into the tissue of our social practice itself. This process expands market deregulation into personal and intimate life, producing in turn isolating, deadening, calculating forms of life… What we are suggesting is that people today increasingly suffer from an emotionally pathologizing version of neo-liberalism… the individual self—in extending its imperial sway over the social environment—liquidates the solidity and substance of the world into a privatized terrain of needs and desires… “Privatized” could here be roughly translated as the imperative: “Don’t rely on anyone for long, and avoid support or help from others, as survival depends on going it alone, constantly changing partners and networks, and always looking out for Number One”. Fear of dependence, in turn, places a further strain on the intrinsically lonely parameters of privatized life, as individuals head off manically in search of all sorts of illusory substitutes to fill in for what is missing in their private and public lives”’[2].

This ‘emotionally pathologizing version of neo-liberalism’ isolates the individual and sets all against all. It recalls the homo economicus of neo-classical free-market economics, and its counterpart, public choice political theory: the purely selfish model individual whose only drive is the maximisation of personal utility. Neo-classical economics claims to be the modern day descendant of the work of Adam Smith, but Smith’s view of human nature was fundamentally different from this: where homo economicus is motivated solely by rational self-interest, Smith saw human nature as being comprised of two drives, namely self love and sympathy for others. Smith recognised the human need for community, solidarity, co-operation, trust and togetherness, a need that neo-liberalism denies at the philosophical level. One reason behind the resurgence of religion and ethnic/nationalist politics is that they do offer something beyond the illusory and isolating individualism of our time. There is such a thing as society—if a bank needs assistance from the state, it gets it—but neo-liberalism is increasingly turning it into a society of sociopaths, a society of Patrick Batemans where surface is everything and other people are merely means, not ends.

Margaret Thatcher memorably said in 1981: ‘What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul [emphasis added]’ (http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=104475). And of course, she succeeded. The young—the age group currently killing each other, and adults, in record numbers, usually over nothing—have never known anything else other than this ‘emotionally pathologizing version of neo-liberalism’. We see the effect of ‘changing the heart and soul’ every time a teenager kills or is killed.


[1] Richard Wilkinson (2005), The Impact of Inequality (London: Routledge), p55-6.

[2] Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert (2006), The New Individualism: the emotional costs of globalization (London: Routledge), p9, 10, 40, 41.

3 Responses to “The soul of man under neo-liberalism”

  1. Andy Says:

    So true, and the reason I stick with my personal principles despite my differences with the Left. In the capitalist world we are all becoming psychopaths.

    The wierd thing about these kids is their “values”; they really are like Patrick Bateman, they all believe that money and power are the only things worth having, detest weakness and the weak, and live a predatory, self-centred lifestyle. I laugh at liberals who talk about rehabilitating people like that; It’s too late for them. They are soulless creatures who only exist to consume at other people’s expense, just like the corporate execs, politicians and gangsters they emulate. How much worse does it have to get before things change, though? There’s no real opposition to the system; just a lot of geeks looking for someone to blame. It actually scares me how bad things could get; I’ve read my history books and I think I know what comes next. And it ain’t pretty.

  2. Alex Says:

    Great article. Really informative stuff.

    Are you planning to bring over all the articles from the old site? Some of the Cutting Edge stuff in particular was brilliant.

  3. admin Says:

    Thanks Alex. Yes we will be bringing over all the articles from the old site at some point.

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