Last Updated on May 2, 2018 by Karl Thompson
What are the key aspects of the neoliberal subject?
Below is a brief summary of some of the key theorizing around and indicators of the successful neoliberal subject, drawn from Verdouw 2016 (1)
- They are an entrepreneurial, competitive creature, forming a ‘company of one’ (Read 2009)
- Freedom is defined as the freedom to choose market strategies (Browne 2005)
- Practices are presented as freely chosen, responsibility is taken regardless of constraint (Brown 2005, Gill 2008)
- They subscribe to a cultural trope of individual moral responsibility (Wacquant 2010)
- They close off alternative moral possibilities (Whitehead and Crashaw 2014, Read 2009)
- Their main goal is economic entrepreneurial freedom, more specifically independence, self-reliance, choice (to be realised through markets) and (financial) security
- They tend to be materialistic
- They perceive the self as a project, and themselves as a rational economic actors
- problems are construed as ones with market solutions
- They focus on profit and productivity
- They emphasize self-responsibility, agency and initiative.
- They value money generation. comfort, leisure and success
- In terms of money boundaries they emphasise privatisation, dispersion and isolation
- They define citizenship as self-care
- If they Living in the shadow of financialised norm
- They subscribe to the implausibility of social transformation
- They only take Responsibility for family and small groups of friends
- They are confident in self-identification with the future
- They are never in the moment, they are future oriented
- They have a clear, linear view of the future.
NB – There may well be some overlap with the points above, this is a starting point post to be refined over the long term.
According to McGuigan (2014, see 2 below) – the neoliberal self is comprised of the following characteristics:
- A self which is subjected to compulsory individualisation and combines a freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen; a self condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment
- A cool-capitalist way of life that does not appear to insist upon conformity and even permits a limited measure of bohemian posturing, personal experimentation and geographical exploration (‘the year out’, for instance).
- Generational tension is a distinct feature of the neoliberal imaginary, including the rejection of ‘dinosaur’ attitudes concerning all sorts of matters cherished by an older generation. In this sense, the neoliberal self is connected to a generational structure of feeling, a selfhood counter-posed to the old social-democratic self. Concretely this will typically involve enthusiasm for the latest communications gadget.
- The consumption aspect of the neoliberal self is the most obvious, involving the subjectivity cultivated by the cool seduction of promotional culture and acutely brand-aware commodity fetishism. Naomi Klein (2000) said most of what needs to be said about it at the turn of the Millennium.
- ‘Generation Debt’ – he doesn’t say much about this, but I’m guessing the neoliberal self is comfortable with debt. NB to my mind this contradicts fundamentally with ‘capital accumulation’.
- Significant numbers work in the ‘creative industries’ in wealthier countries are caught in a ‘neoliberal trap’. The paradoxical life conditions of such professional-managerial groups have been written about by Andrew Ross (2009). Personal initiative and frantic networking in the precarious labour market of short-term contracts, where enterprising ‘creativity’ is at a premium
- As Boltanski and Chiapello (1999/2005: 199) put it, for cadres instilled with ‘the new spirit of capitalism’, in effect, ‘Autonomy exchanged for security’.
- People subjected to uncertainty and unpredictability especially in so called ‘creative’ and allied careers, though not only there, must fashion the kind of self that can cope where trade-union representation has been eliminated or severely restricted. This kind of self is a neoliberal self, figuring a competitive individual who is exceptionally self-reliant and rather indifferent to the fact that his or her predicament is shared with others – and, therefore, incapable of organising as a group to do anything about it. Such a person must be ‘cool’ in the circumstances, selfishly resourceful and fit in order to survive under social-Darwinian conditions. Many simply fall by the wayside, exterminated by the croak-voiced Daleks of neoliberalism. However, the mass-media of communication hardly ever report upon the down-side of the neoliberal experience
- Today, it is impossible to talk of an ideal self without mentioning the role of the celebrity, larger-than-life figures to be admired and maybe even emulated, in an old-fashioned term functional as role models of aspiration – ‘dressed-down cool capitalists like Bill Gates or “Ben and Jerry”’ (Budgen, 2000: 151), Steve Jobbs, and today Mark Zuckerberg.
Specific examples of neoliberal subjectivities?
If you struggle a bit with this sort of thing, then you might like my more simplified version: ‘What is Neoliberalism‘?
(1) The subject who thinks economically? Comparative money subjectivities in neoliberal context, Julia Joanne Verdouw. Journal of Sociology – August 29, 2016.
(2) McGuigan, J (2014) ‘The Neoliberal Self’, Culture Unbound, Volume 6, 2014: 223–240.