The second facet of neoliberal psychology is its romantic dimension. At the same time that neoliberal realist psychology was stripping the individual of his social and historical identity, some middle and upper middle-class individuals fled into what I call “romantic” neoliberalism which included humanistic, emotional expressive psychology popular throughout the 1970’s. Beginning in the mid to late 1970s and going through at least the rest of the 20th century was a kind of new age spirituality. This will be the subject of Part II.
Taken together, there are three kinds of self under neoliberal psychology:
- Entrepreneurial self: realist psychology – Alexander Rustow
- Expressive self: romantic psychology – Maslow, Rogers, Perls
- Mystical self: romantic psychology – Jung, Eliade, Campbell
Romantic, emotional and spiritual selves are two different answers to the experience of feeling trapped by modern social conditions and realist psychology. Its reaction is either for the individual to:
- detach from society and rebel emotionally, or;
- reject the associative, social contract relations of modern life, not by denying our social identity as the romantics do, but to dissolve into pre-modern social life as in the Middle Ages and pre-Christian paganism.
Exploitation, alienation and mystification in bourgeois psychology
In my two-part argument, What is Socialist Psychology? I argued that bourgeois psychology strips the human species of its social and historical identity and treats this isolated, alienated individual as ground zero of human psychology. Then it tacks on the social and historical dimensions as after-effects, as derivatives which weakly interact with this self-subsisting individual. On the other hand, in order to understand neoliberal psychology in a socialist, macro-cultural way, the dynamic between society and the individual under capitalism needs to start from work relations in terms of exploitation of the workers’ surplus value by the capitalists. In addition, there is alienation of the workers:
- in the commodities produced;
- in the work process itself;
- from other workers on the job;
- from power settings where work processes are decided;
- from themselves.
In addition, the mystification of relations between capitalist and worker is such that workers develop what Marx called “false consciousness,” believing their conditions are not exploitative, alienating or mystifying. Because bourgeois psychology excludes any of these powerful concepts, it cannot successfully explain the unhappiness of people in capitalist society in any kind of systematic manner.
While the oppression of people may ultimately depend on state violence, it is far more cost-effective if one can convince people that this system of oppression is natural and unchangeable. Propaganda works best as an ideology that denies, minimizes and misrepresents realty. As it turns out, exploitation, alienation, mystification and ideology are necessary ingredients in the ruling classes’ recipe for controlling workers.
The power of ideology
Paraphrasing Carl Ratner in his book Neoliberal Psychology, ideology includes at least the five following techniques:
- Deny the truth of oppressive features of society;
- Fabricate positive features of society;
- Acknowledge certain injurious effects of oppression with the qualification that they are necessary evils that ultimately lead to improvement and fulfillment;
- Acknowledge certain injurious effects of oppressions while attributing them to extraneous factors—mistakes, human frailty, or psycho-biological factors that ignore the real causes of problems in political economy;
- Present alternatives to the status quo and make them appear an oppressive, evil, extreme, unnecessary and unfeasible.
The whole point is on focusing upon rare, extreme, or sensational cases so as to narrow attention to individual causes of bizarre events. Focus is on individuals, not structures.
Origins of neoliberalism as a political economy
Carl Ratner argues that neoliberalism’s predominant ideological construct is called “entrepreneurialism”. This is the latest incarnation of individualism which began in the United States in the early 19th century. This term was invented by Alexander Rustow and other members of a neoliberal group called the Freiburg Circles in the 1930s. This was a right-wing reaction of economics of the Austrian school and its intellectuals in reaction to the Keynesian policies of FDR. In 1947 they met in Switzerland to found a Neoliberal society. It was convened by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Gary Becker. They were all anti-communists.
The main theoretical architect of neoliberalism in the late 1950’s was James Buchanan. He led the neoliberal charge to destroy the institutions of the “matriarchal” state such as pensions, public education, unemployment and food stamps because it fostered under-productivity of the lower classes.
By the late 1970’s, economist David Kotz says that capitalist classes of the core capitalist countries responded to the reforms of the New Deal by abandoning the capital-labor compromise which developed in the early 1950’s and attacking the trade unions. They lifted the state regulations governing capitalists and their bankers. The expansion of finance capital through credit increased the gap between industrial capital and finance capital, much of which produced no goods or services.
In her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer discusses history of the Koch brothers neoliberal political-economy empire. Mayer explains that their unpopular policies had been used to fund alternative, private, secretive, organizations that influenced academic institutions, think tanks, courts, legislatures and the presidency.
In spite of all this, Keynesian New Deal economics worked well throughout the 1950s to the mid- 60s. As Ratner says:
What likely troubled the capitalist class most was the fall of the rate of profit after 1966. In the 1970s, US capitalism suffered a legitimacy crisis as the economy was mired in high inflation, unemployment and slower growth ("stagflation"). The capitalist class mobilized politically in the 1970s. The laws regulating corporate political donations were changed. Neoliberal capitalism gave rise to some 25 years of relatively stable economic conditions after 1980. (Neoliberal Psychology, 53)
Thirteen reasons why neoliberalism is an Ideology and not a practice
Neoliberalism claims to want to make society more productive by stripping off every layer of social life that is not strictly economic and reducing it to the micro-social relations of individuals competing in a market. Thus, for neoliberals every interaction is a transaction. A transaction is a short-term economic exchange where inputs and outputs are quantitatively measured with no state or social mediation. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “there is no society, only individuals”. But in fact, this is an ideology because it contradicts what neoliberals actually do when it relates to their own social class. Here are some examples:
- The neoliberal conference in 1947 was funded by corporate capitalism, not neoliberal individualists.
- The Bank of England funded Hayek’s salary at the University of Chicago as well as the lectures Milton Friedman delivered.
- Neoliberals form organizations in healthcare, education, legislatures, the justice system, space exploration, transportation and science. In other words, they conspired with each other, they didn’t compete.
- They have established think tanks to control social policy. They didn’t let in ideas of how the economy should be run as a “free marketplace of ideas”.
- They started the American Legislative Exchange Council to integrate politicians with capitalists so that capitalists could write laws that politicians introduce into state and federal legislatures with lock-step uniformity.
- At the very moment that neoliberals were writing their individualistic concoctions of capitalism – after World War II – capitalism had entered its monopolistic stage of the concentration of capital and property.
- According to Ratner, entrepreneurs in the US compose only 9% of the population. “A few consultants and professionals (architects) have small businesses that fit that image.” (Neoliberal Psychology, page 118).
- Neoliberals surround themselves with collective institutions – The Chamber of Commerce, American Legislative Exchange Council and the Business Roundtable.
- The rise of the bank conglomerates and financialization completely contradicts its individualist ideology.
- Neoliberals undermine their own ideology with their imperialist foreign policy and militant interventions in foreign countries and overthrow democratically elected governments which do not submit to American economic and political demands. This is documented all over the world by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine.
- James Buchanan who received his PHD from Friedman’s Department at The University of Chicago was heavily funded by the Koch brothers.
- The neoliberal Koch brothers took maximum advantage of federal subsidies for their oil and pipeline businesses – even engaging lobbyists to ensure these perks stayed in the federal budget.
- Neoliberal charter schools are not for the children of neoliberals. The horrors of bad teachers and lack of quality books there are the fate of the poor. Underfunded public education is what awaits the middle classes. Neoliberal ideologists send their children to private schools safe from the practices of neoliberalism.
Neoliberal cannibalization of the infrastructure
In practice, for the last 40 years neoliberalism has eaten away at the programs established by New Deal liberalism and this has been documented extensively. Since I want to address the psychological consequences of neoliberalism, I will be brief. Table A shows the effect of neoliberalism in six areas; hospitals, family life, workplaces, education, the capitalist state and financialization of life. There is a refusal to invest in the long-term consequences of the physical infrastructure (buildings, methods of harnessing energy) or the physical or mental health of workers. There is a stripping away of unquantified time such as hospital visits, break time, paid lunch, time at work. There is the destabilization of work schedules, decline in living stands and the narrowing of education to specialized knowledge to be able to do a job. In order to propagandize people to convince them that these conditions are normal, there is the marketization of language. This includes calling hospital patients “customers” or therapy patients “clients” or calling uber drivers “entrepreneurs”. Therapists tell their clients to “invest” in a relationship. Small business owners are told to “leverage” their strategizes or “brand” their new organization; I am told that the teachers’ organization that holds my pension is conducting “wealth management’ for my “brokered” account.
Neoliberal narrowing cognition of the working-class
It is very important for neoliberalism to presents all classes as relatively equal, when in reality it needs low-wage workers to stay in their place and not think too expansively. Thanks to the work of Basil Bernstein on socio-linguistic codes, we have very clear distinctions between the way working-class students reason as opposed to how the upper-middle class students reason. We can imply this from their different uses of language. What Bernstein found is that upper middle-class students use universalistic meanings for words that can go beyond their jobs. Working-class students use particular meanings that are limited to their work. Unlike the upper-middle class, working-class students use simple and unfinished sentences where their full thought processes are likely to be cut off. Working-class students’ vocabulary is more limited and is more descriptive than analytic. In Piaget’s work, this translates as upper-middle-class teenagers thinking in a formal operational way while working class folks use concrete operations.
Anyone familiar with Piaget’s stages of cognitive development would expect that upper middle-class adults would cultivate a more abstract form of thinking because this kind of thinking is necessary for lawyers, doctors, architects or engineers. If you are a bus driver or train operator, thinking more abstractly is less required to do your job. But if working-class and upper-middle classes students are in school, how would these differences come to be? The short answer is the difference between going to charter schools or underfunded public schools as opposed going to private schools. Assuming there is a relationship between IQ scores and cognitive development, Ratner says there is a deterioration of verbal IQ scores among working class students between the ages of 8 to 11 and between eleven and fifteen years of age. In other words, the IQ scores were closer among students before the age of 8. However, after eight years of poor education working-class cognitive ability deteriorates.
Capitalist marketing invades developmental psychology
On the surface it may seem that developmental psychology has been in the realm of psychologists, educators and the children or adolescents they meet with in labs, field studies or in interviews. It came as a surprise to me to find that clothing manufacturers and advertisers were hard at work in the 1920’s and 1930’s to convince parents that they knew more about children than either psychologists or educators. Ratner points out:
New emotions in parents and children were cultivated in the 1920’s and 30’s by clothing manufacturers and marketers in order to induce them to consume quantities of expensive clothing.
Clothing merchants cultivated a distinctive new form of material love and material cognition of children. Merchants wrote quantities of articles and advertisements in trade journals and popular magazines expressing the following psychological themes (159) –
Some examples of this are:
- Mothers should express love for their children effusively
- Children have an insatiable need for love
- Children’s needs are great and must be satisfied quickly
- Children like new stimulations. They are dissatisfied (bored) with stable, familiar conditions
- Children are entitled to things
- The good life is defined as having more material possessions
- Children’s appearance is very important to their success and action
- Children know themselves and are capable of making choices to make themselves happy
- Parents do not really understand children’s needs and development and should not interfere
- Children are impulsive, hedonistic and egotistical
- Children identify themselves with material objects
- Children are unique and require objects that bring out their uniqueness
- Children want to grow up quickly
- Mothers are insecure about rapidly changing social norms
For the good life to be defined as an increase in material possessions, it serves capitalists to convince parents that they must express their love effusively through the accumulation of ever-new playthings for their children. How convenient it is for children’s appearance to be crucial to their identity and development and for children is identified with material options. Parents need to stop being old fuddy-duddies, for the times they are ‘a-changing.
These clothing manufacturers and advertisers propagandized children’s emotions to be intense, impulsive and insistent and could only be satisfied by a whole industry of children’s clothing, toys and now a cornucopia of electronic gadgets. Children’s supposed independence and uniqueness had capitalist motives. As it turns out, the developmental category of “toddler” was not the invention of psychologists or educators but was originated by capitalists in the service of selling clothing products to parents.
The tyranny of sleekness
If you are a woman, surely you remember Barbie dolls. In fact, according to Carl Ratner, 99% of three to ten-year-old girls owned them. One of the major characteristics of Barbie is her waistline, which is 39% smaller than the waistline, not of the average woman, but of anorexic women. But what does that have to do with the lives of 3-11-year-old girls? Who cares what Barbie’s waistline is? Well, apparently young girls do. By the time they are eight, a whopping forty percent wish they were thinner. By the time they are eleven, 79% wish they were thinner. According to neoliberal ideology, socialization is fairly superficial with each girl free to choose their personal meanings. But this research shows that girls’ “free choices” conform to commercial pressures in a very predicable way.
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