Neoliberalism and the individual

In The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky suggests that peasants for the first time won a sense of the importance of their individuality during the February 1917 revolution. At first glance, this seems strange: isn’t individuality natural? Trotsky did not think so. Rather, individuality is a historic product.

Trotsky was special among Russian Marxists. His grasp of psychology shines through in his historical writing, due in part to his appreciation for the best of European intellectual life. Post-revolution, this was reflected in his sympathy for Freud. Earlier, during his exile in Vienna, he attended lectures by Georg Simmel, one of the most important and critical sociologists of the early 20th century.

Simmel’s 1903 essay “Metropolis and Mental Life” should be compulsory reading for socialists. In it, Simmel observes that modernity, based on a monetary economy and the city, produces a new type of subject who is urbane and blasé. The blasé subject is desensitised to qualitative differences by the levelling effect of the market and by the way that the city compresses many diverse products and people into such a small space. This subject strives to distinguish itself, for fear of being subsumed. Idiosyncrasy and individuation become defence mechanisms against uniformity and meaninglessness.

It’s a remarkably prescient essay. If you are picturing a denizen of Brunswick, Newtown or Brisbane’s West End, you aren’t alone. Prior to the Russian Revolution, cultural and psychological analyses like this were uncommon among Marxists, owing to widespread economic reductionism. This changed post-1917, largely due to efforts by the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács. Also a student of Simmel and deeply influenced by Hegel, Lukács returned attention to ideology, culture and the subject.

Lukács’ efforts created a space for what came to be known as the Frankfurt School. Theodore Adorno, its most famous representative, has something of a bad rap among revolutionaries, perhaps because he called the police on student radicals in 1968. Nevertheless, his highly influential 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality provides some useful insights.

Drawing on Freud, Adorno explains why the typical middle class German formed the mass basis for fascism. Highly disciplinarian parenting created a unique combination of repression, powerlessness and identification with authority. Fear of the father meant that resentment was instead directed outwards, against those weaker or below. This type of subject fitted well with a centralised and hierarchical economy and military that demanded obedience and cruelty.

Pushed to crisis by decades of economic turmoil and class struggle, the authoritarian personality came to worship Hitler, seeing a little of himself in this Führer-father. At the same time, resentment was channelled into hatred for Jews, gays, Communists. This personality type was most extreme in but not limited to Germany. 

By the late 1950s, it began to unravel. As the Fordist command economy gave way to neoliberalism, internalised repression, the subsumption of the individual under the nation and the cult of authority gave way to a different, more self-centred cult. The new ideal individual sought self-actualisation, pleasure, lack of inhibition and – as in Simmel’s day – individuation. 

There was plenty that was progressive about this. A preoccupation with personal fulfilment frequently drove rebellion against traditional expectations and repressive social and sexual norms. 

Yet these traits also fit well with a consumer-driven, deregulated and precarious capitalism. Without a repressive and authoritarian command economy guaranteeing a job for life, the individual is encouraged to become an entrepreneur. This can co-exist with cynicism. Slavoj Žižek is uncharacteristically astute when he notes that postmodern ideology doesn’t demand loyalty to the nation or party. Rather, its strength lies in its ironic or cynical lack of belief.

Capitalism today is at home with symbolic diversity: instead of requiring that we hate difference in order to externalise resentment, we are encouraged to love diversity and value most what is diverse about ourselves. Indeed, this partly explains modern racism: Muslims, we are told, are less tolerant. Hence, we should not tolerate them. A recent academic paper praising military drones as gender-queer has taken this logic to a ridiculous extreme.

There are many permutations on the ideal neoliberal individual. Archetypes include American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, the embodiment of the nihilism, schizophrenia and violence of the finance industry. Or there is Elon Musk, a cartoonish combination of anti-human technological utopianism, hysterical anti-union libertarianism and self-aggrandising idiocy. Alternately, there is the more urbane, Burning Man-attending, Hillary Clinton-supporting, edgy white liberal who is starting a start-up which helps other start-ups start up.

All these archetypes are united by narcissism. In their caricatured form, most people find them repellent. Yet, they reflect a material reality and ideology that we are all subject to. We are encouraged to engage in lifelong learning, because long term jobs don’t exist. We are encouraged to be as agile and flexible as the modern economy and to forgo penalty rates. We are encouraged to constantly consider how marketable our interests are. We are told to passionately pursue our dreams, to work for them without pay. 

Yet neoliberalism is in crisis. Every social crisis also manifests as a crisis of the individual. This is plainly visible in the growth of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. For those who fall behind, poverty, loneliness and disconnectedness lie in wait.

This now has a political dimension. Take your average member of the alt-right: a young white man who is debarred, economically, from leaving his mother’s basement, and who is incapable of attaining the gratification he regards as both his right and due. 

It is easy to see how this narcissist avoids blaming himself by externalising his frustration into a resentment of women and a belief in conspiracy theories that blame the queer non-white Marxist Jewish left for his problems. His sadistic enjoyment of 4Chan and Trump is the stuff of classical Freudian projection. He knows that the Nazis he worships (or even Trump) would regard him as degenerate: yet he loves them all the more, taking perverse pleasure in their cruelty. This explains the connection between neoliberalism and some of the most horrific crimes of recent times against women and minorities.

As should be apparent, this is where narcissistic individualism can flip into authoritarianism. What these sad figures dearly want is a father figure (say, Jordan Peterson) to tell them to stand straight and clean their rooms and to reassure them that, as guardians of order, they are right to hate women and the left as sources of chaos. Permissiveness has failed, so they now desire discipline. Where cynicism and incredulity towards meta-narratives once prevailed, there is a new desire for regressive and irrationalist grand narratives. 

Just as the once blasé subject of Simmel’s day became, during the war, either a fascist or a communist, the neoliberal subject of today faces a dilemma.

So, “progressive” neoliberal individualism is also in crisis. This is visible in the increasing ineptitude of mainstream liberalism and the decline of self-absorbed identity politics. For the right, there is no way out of this crisis. For the left, there is. Socialism is a third way that neither valorises liberal individualism nor becomes authoritarian. It is a movement which resolves the contradiction between the individual and the mass with solidarity.

Aside from its political virtues, this makes socialism a psychologically healthier option. Rather than answering individual frustration with resentment, projection and repression, socialism is born of the conviction that the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”.

After all, hating Elon Musk is both quite correct and entails a love of humanity.