Paul Verhaeghe

What About Me?

The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society

Scribe Publications 2014

New Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in PsychoanalysisNew Books in Science & TechnologyNew Books in SociologyNew Books Network August 18, 2015 Anna Fishzon

Feeling exhausted, hopeless, and anxious? You might be suffering from symptoms of neoliberalism, according toPaul Verhaeghe. In What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity...

Feeling exhausted, hopeless, and anxious? You might be suffering from symptoms of neoliberalism, according toPaul Verhaeghe. In What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (Scribe Publications, 2014), he takes on “Enron society,” demonstrating how the core insights and principles of psychoanalysis can be brought to bear on social relations, history, and ideology. The last 50 years have witnessed a staggering proliferation of psychiatric disorders — a bloated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) that has both reflected and caused the over-diagnosis, disciplining, and medication of individuals afflicted with social rather than mental problems.

How can you not feel dejected and panic-stricken, asks Verhaeghe, when you live in a “meritocracy” that ensures some an obvious advantage? When you are evaluated incessantly and told you are not trying hard enough? When your work environment and community lack authority figures who take responsibility and set limits, leaving you to compete with coworkers and friends for scarce resources; and your creativity and passionate labor are immediately quantified and assessed for market value? You might even be relieved, argues Verhaeghe, to be diagnosed with an illness — and to incorporate it into your identity in order to excuse your inability to measure up. With so few options and so much pressure to fill the very limited number of slots designated for “winners,” having a neurologically determined ailment often feels better than being a failure. Using a psychiatric disorder as a shield from guilt is not malingering since the pervasiveness of neoliberal logic really has made you sick!

What About Me? traces notions of identity historically, providing an instructive overview of the shifts in Western thinking about the self. The story proceeds from Aristotelian immanence to Christian transcendence: the ancient Greek view that ethics are innate and need to be cultivated through self-care to the Christian belief that ethics are external and divine and inherently sinful humans can only aspire to goodness through spiritual communion. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, European and American neoliberal norms again have turned to the individual but without the classical period’s interest in citizenship or religious references to authority and God. Neoliberalism instead promotes a hyper-individualism supported by narrow positivism (quantitative measurement) and meritocracy (for the privileged classes) applied across a wide range of disciplines and professions, including academia and healthcare. Neoliberal success is equated with profit and human beings are understood “naturally” to be competitive, selfish, and unethical (hence the avalanche of evaluation and rules). But, following behavioral biologist Frans de Waal, Verhaeghe suggests that altruism as well as aggression inhere to higher primates and the cultural environment determines whether empathy or egotism predominates. The neoliberal obsession with the individual at the expense of the community ignores the fundamental human craving for love and hospitality – affects and behavior that are necessary for our wellbeing. What, then, do we do about all this? How do we alter dominant ideology and social organization? With the help of clinical experience and psychoanalytic ethics, Verhaeghe invites us to think through a solution.

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