The myth of the “neoliberal self”

Issue: 171

Jane Hardy

Despite emergency appeals to social solidarity during the Covid-19 pandemic and the rediscovery of society by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the idea of the individual still lies at the very heart of ruling class ideology.1 The ruling class need to promote the idea that capitalism is self-evident and natural rather than organised in the interests of a small group of people.2 Pivotal to this naturalisation of capitalism are assumptions about human nature and motivation. The idea of the atomised, self-seeking human underpins the commodification of individualised labour powerthe foundation of capitalist production. In his book Marx™s Theory of Alienation, philosopher István Mészáros explains the double advantage of this cult of privacy and idealisation of the abstract individual for the ruling class.3 He explains how it protects them from being challenged by the rabble at the same time as providing the illusion of escapism to individuals who, mystified by the mechanisms of capitalist society, feel powerless and isolated. The idea of the individual as the basic unit of society, in what is heralded as a meritocracy, also serves to paint the ruling class as deserving of their wealth, power and privilege, while blaming the working class for their lack of success. Ultimately, the ruling class asserts the primacy of individuality as a bulwark against notions of community and solidarity in the working class, which not only threaten its profits but potentially the very existence of capitalism itself.

This article makes two arguments. First, I argue that there has been a shift in the rhetoric and ideology of the ruling class under neoliberal capitalism in the new millenium. This ideology now centres on successful individuals being enterprising, resilient and robust. It is incumbent on socialists to understand, analyse and challenge these ideas, which we are bombarded with on a daily basis, telling us what it is to be human, promoting individualism and claiming that there is no alternative. Ideas about individual motivation in society have been used to bolster the intensification of work, shift blame for inequality onto working-class people and give a new twist to women™s oppression. Nevertheless, the grip that these ideas have on the minds of workers is overstated. Indeed, ruling-class ideas about the individual are not static or consistent, but must be continually renewed and remoulded to defend them from constant challenges in the workplace and by social movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Second, I argue, that Karl Marx, contrary to critics who claim that he had no theory of human nature, developed such a theory in The German Ideology, with his co-author Friedrich Engels. Marx stated that the first premise of human history was the existence of living human individuals. Nevertheless, he proposed a materialist analysis of these human beings, arguing that individuals can only be understood in the context of their environment, which is constantly transformed through human action. The individual must therefore be understood through an analysis of material conditions of production, and, more specifically, in the relationship between capital and labour that Marx describes in his theory of alienation. Moreover, the conditions for resistance are always present because exploitation in the labour process is intrinsic to capitalism. This opens the possibility of collective action, enabling workers to break through the dominant individualistic ideas of the ruling class.

The neoliberal self

By the beginning of the 21st century, the term neoliberalism had become well established in the vocabulary of the left.4 Nonetheless, there are continuing debates about its meaning and scope, including its relationship to other forms of capitalism.5 Alex Callinicos defines neoliberalism as an economic policy regime whose objective is to secure monetary and fiscal stability and that is legitimised by an ideology that claims that markets are best treated as self-regulating.6 In line with this understanding, I argue that neoliberalism is a series of policies (privatisation, flexible labour markets, monetary policy) bolstered by rhetorical focuses (market forces, the retreat of the state and entrepreneurship) that aim to deal with the deep contradictions within capitalism, particularly the falling rate of profit of the global capitalist economy.7

Based on the edifice of his 1978-9 lectures, published as The Birth of Biopolitics, Michel Foucault claimed to have exposed the emergence of a new type of individual under neoliberal capitalismthe neoliberal self.8 Foucault argued that a progression had taken place from the self-interested economic man, primarily concerned with market exchange, associated with Adam Smith™s The Wealth of Nations, towards the competitive individual of neoliberal capitalism.9 People have become entrepreneurs of themselves, destined to constantly improve their human capital. This idea has since gathered pace in academic circles, among some activists and even within the ruling class itself, spawning a plethora of articles and books that analyse how neoliberal thinking has seeped into popular culture, education and ideas about women™s oppression.10 Foucault argued that the extension of the logic of the market into non-economic spheres of everyday life has made this reworked version of the individual all-encompassing and ubiquitous.

Some Marxists have also emphasised the deep penetration of neoliberal ideas about the individual. For example, the opening pages of David Harvey™s A Brief History of Neoliberalism declare that neoliberalism…has pervasive effects on ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the commonsense way many of us interpret, live in and understand the world.11 Similarly, Wendy Brown™s Undoing the Demos argues that these ideas drill into every aspect of our existence:

Neoliberalisation is generally more termite-like than lion-like… Its mode of reason bores in capillary fashion into the trunks and branches of workplaces, schools, public agencies, social and political discourse, and above all, the human subject.12

These ideas have a powerful resonance with people™s lived experience of capitalism. Competition seems to invade every nook and cranny of daily life, from league tables in schools and universities to television shows in which cooking, dating and painting become tournaments with only one winner. In the workplace, managerial devices such as performance-related pay place workers in competition with one another. However, claims about the totalising nature of these neoliberal ideas from Foucauldians and some Marxists have a pessimistic logic. In The Happiness Industry, William Davies comes to the gloomy conclusion that obligatory competitiveness exerts a depressive psychological effect whereby people search inside themselves for the source of their own unhappiness and imperfect lives.13 The figure of the fragmented and atomistic individual that is at the heart of ruling class ideology also has echoes on the left, where it feeds into doubts about the potential for working-class solidarity and its ability to change society. Moreover, this type of pessimism often overemphasises the differences between neoliberalism and earlier eras of capitalism. After all, although Foucault™s arguments take the notion of the individual under neoliberal capitalism in a new direction, ideas about the atomised, self-seeking individual can be traced back to the inception of capitalism.

Homo economicus: from Adam Smith to Margaret Thatcher

In The German Ideology Marx argues that understandings of the individual change in different social formations, which are characterised by distinctive forms of property ownership: tribal societies, ancient slaveholding societies, feudalism and capitalism. The work of Adam Smith is perhaps one confirmation of this theory. Written on the eve of the industrial revolution, Smith™s The Wealth of Nations puts forward a picture of the human being as homo economicus (economic man)an individual motivated by self-interest. Smith was an important figure in the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century. Ideas about the nature of human beings had previously been the monopoly of the church, which explained human action through concepts such as original sin. Now these were being challenged by emerging studies of social and economic arrangements. Smith marvelled at how markets worked; thousands of people made individual decisions to buy and sell, and yet all these many individual choices would result in one market clearing price. This was the basis for his intrepetation of the market as a neutral mechanism that coordinates the selfish decisions of individuals for the greater good. Given the natural disposition to truck, barter and exchange and the power of the market mechanism, Smith saw no need for altruism or community. Writing in the 1920s, Isaak Illich Rubin, a Marxist historian of economic thought, described how this optimistic liberalism played an important ideological role in freeing the productive forces of capitalism from the fetters of feudalism and mercantilism.14 Although Smith never set out to defend the narrow interests of capitalists, he proposed a theory of an unchanging human nature that was entirely compatible with the commodity-producing society emerging around him. This was a society composed of separate and independent individuals, held together by their personal interests.

If we fast forward to the birth of modern economics in the second half of the 19th century, William Stanley Jevons refined the idea of homo economicus by imbuing it with mathematical rigour. He conceived of humans as calculating individuals who make decisions by determining how much pleasure or pain they will get from an extra unit of consumption or hour of work: A unit of pleasure or of pain…is the amount of these feelings that continually prompts us to buying and selling, labouring and resting, producing and consuming… The will is our pendulum, and its oscillations are minutely registered in all the price lists of the market.15 Davies describes this view of the individual as a somewhat miserable vision of a human being who is constantly calculating, putting a price on things…pursuing his own personal interests at every turn. Homo economicus doesn™t have friends, doesn™t relax. He is too busy looking out for number one.16

Jevon™s assumptions, alongside those of other marginalist economists such as Carl Menger, became the basis of the modern economics that is taught in schools, colleges and universities today. Even as the mathematical models employed in fields such as micro-economics have become more sophisticated, crude assumptions about the self-seeking individualism of humans have remained a fundamental tenet of economics. Humans are understood as mere calculating individuals who make every decision based on the utility or satisfaction derived from the goods and services available for consumption. This theory was taken to new levels by the US economist and Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, who applied economic approaches to wider social behaviour. Becker suggested that even decisions about marriage and how many children to have are explicable via the model of individuals as maximisers of utility.17 The pages of algebra that supposedly support his arguments barely disguise how his calculating analysis robs people of their humanity. In his own words:

According to the economic approach, a person decides to marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds that expected from remaining single or from the additional search for a more suitable mate… Since many persons are looking for mates, a market in marriages is said to exist.18

The term neoliberalism first appeared in Trends of Economic Ideas, a 1925 book by the Swiss economist Hans Honegger. The early pioneers of neoliberal theory built on the ideas of Adam Smith and the marginal economists. They sought to use dogmas of competition and entrepreneurship as a counterweight to the increasing support for socialist ideas in Europe in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the uprisings in Germany that followed it. The first attempt to formally cohere the diffuse strands of neoliberal thinking took place in April 1947, when Friedrich von Hayek organised a meeting of economists in the small village of Mont Pèlerin in Switzerland. The draft statement generated by this event follows Adam Smith in advocating:

The freedom of the consumer in choosing what they shall buy, the freedom of the producer in choosing what they shall make, and the freedom of the worker in choosing their occupation and their place of employment… Such a system of freedom is absolutely essential if we are to maximise output in terms of individual satisfaction.19

The aim of von Hayek™s circle was to promote market-based thinking, influencing state policy in the post-war period and preventing it from falling under the dangerous ambit of socialist thought. In the foundational texts of neoliberalism, socialism was reinterpreted as any set of political arrangements in which the state played an active role. Von Hayek™s Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman™s Capitalism and Freedom are both repetitious diatribes against socialism that venerated the freedom of the individual as sacrosanct.20

Nevertheless, the ideology of neoliberalism promoted by these high-profile figures failed to make inroads into mainstream bourgeois economics and state economic management for some time. Post-war economics and government policy were dominated by Keynesianism.21 In this period, the neoliberal glorification of unbridled market forces were incompatible with the interests of a muscular working class and the desire of the state to rebuild war-ravaged economies. Both demanded forms of state intervention. Although the neoliberals carved out pockets of influence in various universities, their impact on how global ruling classes organised capitalism was weak.

However, this was soon to change, and the mid-1970s was a watershed. A weak and uncompetitive British capitalism was battered by the global crisis of the early 1970s. Perhaps surprisingly, it was a Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, who heralded the end of Keynesianism and the beginning of the neoliberal phase of British history. Callaghan signalled this in his keynote speech to the 1976 Labour Party conference, during which he lectured delegates on reducing labour costs and warned of the dangers of printing confetti money. These arguments sought to justify slashing public spending and freezing wages after the government had borrowed eye-watering sums from the International Monetary Fund in order to defend the value of the pound sterling.22 This led to the first major decline in British living standards after the Second World War and was made possible by the support of the trade unions leaderships, which was formalised in the so-called Social Contract.

Labour™s foisting of the crisis onto working-class living standards opened the door for the election of Margaret Thatcher™s Conservative government in 1979. Thatcher™s economic aim was to restore the profitability of capital and decisively shift the balance of class forces in favour of capitalists. Her primary political project was to break the collective organisation of workers. Systematically and viciously, and using the full force of the state, Thatcher smashed key sections of the British working class such as the National Union of Mineworkers.

The work of Thatcherite think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Margaret Thatcher Foundation testify to the strong influence of von Hayek and Friedman on her thinking and that of her followers. According to Jamie Peck, Thatcher once interrupted a policy discussion by flamboyantly slamming Hayek™s Constitution of Liberty on the table and declaring, This is what we believe™.23 The language of competition and personal responsibility was mobilised in an attempt to redefine common sense and bolster a programme of privatisation, cuts to the welfare state and tax giveaways for the rich. Nevertheless, there was a gap between the rhetoric of elevating the individual as a homeowner, shareholder and consumer, and the reality of increasing government spending under Thatcher.

Though it is important to acknowledge the new rhetoric associated with neoliberal policies, we must also be critical of some interpretations of Thatcherism. For instance, the influential Marxist Stuart Hall and his fellow travellers elevated the notion of Thatcherism into an overarching explanatory concept.24 Hall claimed that the electoral success of Thatcher derived from her ability to unify people, including the working class, behind an authoritarian populist project. Drawing on an interpretation of Antonio Gramsci™s concept of hegemony, Hall™s approach identified ideology as the most important political driver.25 However, this view of Thatcherism as a monolithic monstrosity overstated the universal acceptance of neoliberal ideas and understated continuities with the preceeding eras.26 Hall™s concept of Thatcherism privileges short-term variables in the ideological and political superstructure of society at a particular point in time rather than the underlying class structure. Workers™ failure to organise, struggle and strike does not derive from a particular set of ideas that gets a hold on their minds. Rather it is the reverse. When there is a low level of struggle and workers are less confident and more isolated, they are more susceptible to ruling-class ideas. The Great Miners™ Strike of 1984-5 and other subsequent defeats had much more to do with a timid trade union bureaucracy than with reactionary political ideology or even the power of the state.27

Michel Foucault and Blair™s cool capitalism

The theoretical background to the emergence of the notion of the neoliberal self was the rise of post-modernist and post-Marxist theories in academia.28 This was a retreat from grand narratives, which analysed society as a whole, to arguments that reality had a fragmented character. Foucault has had one of the most lasting influences on debates about the individual subject. For Foucault, power is distributed and everywhere. The dispersed nature of power also produces a multiplicity of points of resistance. The strategic, practical conclusion of this theory is a shift away from focusing on confronting the centralised power of the state and capital. Instead, Foucault argued that what matters is resistance to everyday forms of power, which is manifested in feminism, the students™ movement and campaigns among undocumented workers and prisoners.29 For Foucault, this shift means moving beyond struggles targeting the concentrated political and economic power of the state and the system as a whole. Instead, Foucault advocated in favour of fragmented fights against all forms of power that aim to standardise behaviours and the identities of individuals. He saw such movements as superseding the struggle against capitalism.

Foucault uncritically borrowed terms from bourgeois economics that recast workers as entrepreneurs possessing human capital, cutting against the Marxist understanding of the working class as possessing only its ability to labour. Such an understanding collapses the central conflict between workers and capital in the process of production. As Wendy Brown explains:

When everything is capital, labour disappears as a category, as does its collective form, class, taking with it the analytic basis for alienation exploitation and association among labourers. Dismantled at the same time is the very rationale for unions, consumer groups and other forms of social solidarity.30

Sociologist and historian Daniel Zamora argues that Foucault had a thinly veiled sympathy for neoliberalism, which led him to offer minimal criticism of it.31 Neoliberalism becomes synonymous with autonomy and personal freedom and, in the end, with identity politics. Revolts of conduct for respect and integration become more important than the struggles for redistributing wealth and against the capitalist economic system.32

There is no clear correspondence between ruling-class ideologies and different epochs of capitalism. They resist such neat codificationinstead, there are continuities, overlaps and contradictions. It is doubtful that Tony Blair was familiar with the work of Foucault, and yet the new political rhetoric about the individual that emerged in Britain with the election of his New Labour government in 1997 fits with these ideas. Blair tried to rebrand British capitalism as knowledge based and creative. Entrepreneurialism and creativity were lauded as cool capitalism, epitomised by the photos from the famous celebrity party in Downing Street that showed Blair laughing with rock star Noel Gallagher. Blair™s attack on the Labour Party™s commitment to nationalisation replaced Clause 4 of the party constitution, in which it was embedded, with references to the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition, reflecting his continuation of Thatcher™s neoliberal policies. This language was used repeatedly and underpinned New Labour™s friendship with and championing of big business. Within three years of taking power, Blair™s chancellor, Gordon Brown, could boast that Britain™s businesses faced the lowest ever corporation tax, while its investors faced the lowest ever capital gains tax. References to ambition and aspiration justified the amassing of great fortunes by private individuals. Under New Labour the rich got richer. The increased inequality that Thatcher produced, greater than that of any other Western country, was exacerbated even further under Blair. In 1997, the richest 1 percent of the Britain owned 17 per cent of the country™s wealth; by 2006, after nine years of New Labour, that figure had increased to 22 per cent.33

Using the rhetoric of individual choice, Blair laid the foundations for more incursions by private capital into the welfare state. The creeping privatisation of education started with the introduction of academy schools. The principle of free higher education was jettisoned with the introduction of student fees, opening the door to later huge hikes in the cost of tuition. Under the mantra of choice, competition was introduced into the NHS through the establishment of Primary Care Trusts and private providers were welcomed into the sector made ripe for transnational companies to cherry pick lucrative contracts for routine operations and procedures. Cuts to adult care were carried out under the banner of the personalisation of budgets.34 New Labour greatly expanded the use of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), deepening the tentacles of privatisation and shackling schools and hospitals to costly deals that stretched for decades.35 Blair himself also practised the entrepreneurialism that he preached, as Branko Marcetic explains:

Few have cashed out like Blair since leaving 10 Downing Street, operating dizzying, and often overlapping, webs of charities, firms and foundations, which have catapulted him to the status of one of Britain™s wealthiest people.36

The language of entrepreneurialism, creativity and choice was continually deployed to bolster a reworked image of the individual and to hold that individual responsible for their successes and failures in the labour market and life in general. Within this rhetoric, self-development became the lynchpin of the individual™s life and well-being, with lifelong learning promoted as a route to the self-improvement necessary to fit the demands of advanced capitalist society. People were expected to become more robust and resilient and confident in order to survive and succeed. Precarious work was turned from a liability into a benefit, allowing individuals to be more flexible. This ideologically underpinned arguments for reducing welfare services and social security as well as privatising and outsourcing public services. All of this was cast as the natural outcome of competition, entrepreneurship and initiative. The next section looks at the specific ways in which these ideas have been used in the workplace and more widely to intensify exploitation and justify insecurity.

Resilience, the wellness agenda and the intensification of exploitation

The message of neoliberal capitalism is that we are all independent, autonomous actors meeting in the marketplace and making our own destinies. Competition is goodit forces you to up your game. Instead of seeing capitalism as the source of mental ill health, we are exhorted to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves, becoming more adaptable to the system™s stresses and vagaries. These ideas, along with new developments in technology, have been used to intensify work and increase exploitation in what Marx described as filling the pores of the working day.37 Of course, the surveillance of workers and the measurement of what they produce has always taken place under capitalism. However, digitalised communication technology takes this into new realms; output and speed can be monitored remotely and extended to all types of work. Supermarket workers are measured by the number of barcodes they scan, the number of calls taken by call centre workers are recorded and every movement of delivery drivers™ can be trackedeven toilet breaks are logged. New levels of digital monitoring, which underpin the neoliberal workplace agenda and its emphasis on targets and competition, has been extended to public sector employees such as teachers and social workers.38 Adult care providers, under pressure from slashed budgets, have introduced electronic monitoring, surveilling the work of carers (mostly women) down to the minute in order to strip out unproductive labour. Workers in community mental health are audited and monitored by electronic data dashboards.39 This technology is not the cause of neoliberalism, but it has been harnessed in the workplace to deepen its metrics-driven approach. The use of email has ratcheted up stress by blurring the lines between work and personal life; the expectation of a speedy reply keeps workers glued to their phones and computers, allowing work to enter every crevice of their lives.

Stress, however, is for wimps. In 2021, the chairman of the British branch of the multinational consultancy firm KPMG went too far and had to resign after telling staff to stop moaning during a virtual meeting about the impact of Covid-19.40 This is far from the isolated outburst of a single boss; references to resilience have recently proliferated among managers and their institutions. This is particularly pronounced in the National Health Service, where long and intense working hours, heavy workloads and being on the frontline puts doctors, nurses and ancillary workers under extreme stress. However, rather than address the chronic underfunding and unacceptable working conditions that produce this stress, healthcare staff are encouraged to be stoical. One 2018 article in the British Journal of Hospital Medicine is entitled, How to Be a Resilient Doctor: Skills to Maximise Your Anti-fragility.41 This dovetails with the wellness agenda, with workers encouraged to manage the stress and ill health that they face through self-care.

Wellness has become big business. It fits like a glove with the ideological agenda of neoliberalism, making individuals responsible for their own happiness and diverting attention away from vast inequalities in physical and mental health. Wellness and resilience have been harnessed by governments in attempts to raise the rate of exploitation. Davies notes that wellness was a hot topic at the 2014 World Economic Forum, a meeting held at the luxury ski resort in Davos, Switzerland, where global CEOs and politicians, the rich and the powerful, arrive on personal jets and helicopters. There were 25 sessions on mental and physical wellness, more than double the number in 2008, including events that promised to prove that health is wealth by exploring ways that greater wellbeing could be converted into capital and profit.42

Ronald Purser has described how mindfulness is sold as enhancing the mental and emotional resilience of individuals, feeding off neoliberal assumptions that everyone is free to choose their responses, manage negative emotions and flourish through various modes of self-care. As he explains, Mindfulness is sold and marketed as a vehicle for personal gain and gratification. Self-optimisation is the name of the game.43 The British government has identified the potential of mindfulness to become a therapeutic solvent…for dissolving the mental and emotional obstacles to better performance and efficiency.44 A 2015 report published on behalf of the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group was transparent about how this agenda could be harnessed to decrease the amount of time workers take off due to stress. It argued for the importance of developing mental capital, that is, cognitive and emotional resources that ensure resilience in the face of stress and ability of the mind to adapt to a rapidly changing employment market and longer working lives. Such mental capital should be of real interest to policy makers given the importance of improving productivity.45 Unsurprisingly, it is bosses who have shown the most intense interest in and widespread experimentation with mindfulness. The report notes that the need to tackle issues around the rising costs of workplace absence because of stress and depression is the key factor driving the interest in…mindfulness in the workplace. It goes on to argue that the promotion of mindfulness by managers is motivated by the desire to boost productivity in a workplace that is being radically changed by new information technology.46

Mindfulness and other therapeutic practices have been powerful in helping those with post-traumatic stress disorder and offering temporary respite from the stress and alienation of everyday capitalism.47 However, they have also been hijacked and distorted into tools for turning the blame for mental distress onto individuals. Managers have eagerly added them to their arsenals as weapons for getting employees to work harder. Meanwhile, the reality of contemporary capitalist work culture is an explosion of anxiety. A report by the British Journal of Psychiatry notes that generalised anxiety disorders and symptoms began steeply increasing at the time of the 2008 economic crash and the austerity policies that followed.48 Although, perhaps surprisingly, total employment grew between 2008 and 2019, the wages of workers, even by 2020, had not recovered to their 2008 levels; those on benefits have faced a series of draconian cuts, and welfare services were slashed. Iain Ferguson™s article in a previous issue of this journal documents the widespread mental health impacts of the Covid-19 crisis as the livelihoods of many workers collapse or become more uncertain, while others are forced to work in dangerous and stressful environments.49

The idea that working-class people have the time or the money to invest in their wellness is risible. For example, having psychoanalysis, a personal trainer or a life coach once week would eat up at least 20 percent of the wage of a carer working a 35-hour week on the minimum wage.50 Even joining a cheap gym or going to a yoga class is outside the budget of many. Although some may have sufficient funds to spend on the kind of organic foods and superfoods advocated by health magazines, rising numbers of working people are unable to put food on the table for their families and are resorting to food banks.

Using a health app or FitBit to monitor your number of steps or your intake of calories is a choice for some. However, those working as pickers in Amazon and Tesco warehouses are compelled to wear a bracelet that monitors the time it takes to carry out tasks or visit the toilet. Amazon has just patented designs for a wristband that can precisely track where warehouse employees are and uses vibrations to nudge them in a different direction. Technology might be a useful tool for some people, but for others it is tyranny that increases surveillance of their working lives.

Women at the sharp end of the neoliberal self

Neoliberal ideas give a new spin to the work and personal lives of women, deepening their oppression in novel ways. There is a grammar of individual empowerment and the promotion of an image of women as autonomous agents who are no longer constrained by inequalities and power imbalances. Entrepreneurialism, bolstered by magazine articles, awards, how-to books and self-branding in the blogosphere, has produced the phenomenon of the mumpreneura mother who establishes her own business from the kitchen table while her children crawl beneath it.51 This is useful propaganda in the face of the exorbitant cost of childcare, persistent gender inequality, and inflexibility of paid work in Britain. In fact, there has been significant growth in self-employment for women, which increased spectacularly from 1.05 million in 2008 to 1.45 million by the end of 2014.52 However, far from the emancipatory language of entrepreneurialism and being your own boss, this condemns many women to poor wages. Two in five women with self-employed income earn less than £10,000 a year and on average women earned 30 percent less than men from self-employment.53 Importantly, self-employed women miss out on benefits such as statutory sick pay and maternity pay, denying them basic entitlements from the welfare state.

Women are a particular target for those pushing the rhetoric of wellness. Multinational toy producer Mattel partnered with the popular meditation company Headspace in February 2020 to launch a new line called the Barbie Wellness Collection, which contains six new dolls that introduce girls to the benefits of self-care through play.54 These dolls include a Spa Day Barbie, Fitness Barbie and a Breathe with Me Barbie. The dolls come with fun accessories such as yoga mats and eye masks. Each doll also has a cute little pet to accompany them on their wellness activity.55

Wellness, beauty and success have merged and become synonymous with a sleek, controlled figure. Women have always been subject to an onslaught of images about how they should look, but this has intensified, subjecting them to increasingly narrow images of the perfect body and face. This has resulted in an explosion of surgical procedures. In her book Bodies, Susie Orbach writes that jawbone shaving is such a common cosmetic procedure in South Korea that one practice displayed a glass tower filled with sawn-off bone fragments.56 She explains that the pressure to conform to a particular image has extended to men too:

Anyone can look like Barbie or Ken. Indeed Justin, a YouTuber, has undergone 125 procedures and spent $158,000 to make himself resemble Ken by transforming his torso, face, biceps, triceps and hairline. Over 16 million people have watched his video.57

Non-surgical cosmetic surgerysuch as botox and fillersare a growth industry: young women are often made to think of them as an integral part of health and wellbeing. Botox, a facial injection used to get rid of wrinkles, is sold as a panacea for ageing but only lasts for three months and locks women into expensive procedures. Such procedures have been normalised by, among others, journalist and feminist Caitlin Moran, who claims that they simply make women look happy and well slept on Zoomin other words, not old.58

Women™s role in the family means that they are at the sharp end of individualistic self-help discourses that demand they become better mothers, daughters, friends and lovers. Rosalind Gill describes the preoccupation with and surveillance of women™s bodies, posture and wardrobes, and the hostile scrutiny they face:

Television shows focusing on toxic shame about the inadequacies of women™s wardrobes, cleanliness, dating and childrearing involved them being bullied, advised, cajoled or re-educated into ending their wicked ways and aiming to become better versions of themselves.59

The hard fought for gains of women™s liberation are turned against women. Female CEOs are paraded as evidence that we live in a world where women can rework themselves and get to the top.

Marx: materialism, human nature and the individual

Those who dismiss Marx for myopically focusing on economics and having no theory of human nature can have only cursorily glanced at his work. Certainly, they cannot have read the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology or the Grundrisse, where he develops his foundational ideas about the individual and society. Constraints on the length of this article mean it is impossible to do justice to the richness of Marx™s ideas; however, omitting them would leave a theoretical vacuum and concede ground to those who focus only on superficial, cultural characteristics of human nature and motivation.

Marx argued that we have to go beneath social phenomena as they appear on the surface in order to reveal the essential nature of the world that lies underneath. Rather than seeing conceptions, ideas and thoughts as merely products of consciousness, Marx proposed a materialist analysis of the world in which consciousness is understood in relationship to its environmentand the transformation of this environment over time through human activity. He claimed that notions of individuality fundamentally changed based on the dominant socio-economic relationships in society. Societies founded on slavery, feudal fealty and waged labour produce very different forms of individuality and consciousness. Thus, Marx placed the idea that human nature is not fixed at the heart of his thinking. This is in stark contradiction to neoliberal thought, which regards self-seeking calculation and radical individualism as the natural and inevitable mindset of human beings. However, although Marx sees human nature as malleable, he dismisses the idea that humans develop through their own mental efforts in a spirit of contemplation.60 Criticising the idealists of his time, he declares, In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to Earth, we ascend from Earth to heaven. Marx was standing the ideas of his philosophical contemporaries on their head.61 Marx thus presents a dialectical relationship between the determination of individuals by their conditions of life and their own practical transformation of those conditions. The next few sections provide a short sketch of key ideas in Marx™s materialism, including his theories of alienation and exploitation.

The collaborative nature of humans

The ruling classes and bosses try to make certain features of human behaviour and motivationnamely the primacy of individualism and self-interestappear natural and taken for granted. Since some on the left have absorbed ideas about the atomisation and fragmentation of the working class, it is important to reassert Marx™s argument that there is no such thing as an individual outside of society. In the Grundrisse Marx writes:

The human being, in the most literal sense, is a political animal: not merely a gregarious animal, but an animal that individuates itself only in the midst of society. Production by an isolated individual outside societyexcept in the rare case of a civilised person in whom social forces are already dynamically present being cast by accident into the wildernessis as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to one another.62

Feral children, born and growing up outside society, will probably develop the ability to make noises and engage in rudimentary communication, but they will not develop language. Language is deeply embedded in human culture. It enables us to refer to abstract concepts and imagined and hypothetical events; it allows us to tell stories about the past and speculate about the future. In Capital, Marx reminds us of what sets humans apart from animals:

A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he raises it in reality.63

Marx emphasised the collective nature of production. Work is a collective endeavour, whether it takes the form of prehistoric people hunting together or the vast structures of collaboration that support modern scientific inquiry and technological innovation. The large sums of money that bosses invest in teambuilding exercises show that they understand the cooperative nature of work and the creativity that it produces.

Competitiveness and self-interest are not the self-evident and natural human traits that the neoliberals would have us believe. In his 1944 book The Great Transformation, the Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi drew on the vast body of anthropology that had emerged in the 1920s in order to debunk Smith™s idea of homo economicus. He noted that, far from having an innate propensity to truck, barter and exchange, some communities had an aversion to both exchange and acquisition, leading him to claim that the legend of the individualistic psychology of primitive man had been exploded.64 The cold rationality of the market lacks the grip on the psychology of ordinary people that ruling-class ideology suggests. In fact, even the biggest corporations recognise basic human traits such as friendliness and warmth, if only to hijack and distort them in order to sell us commodities. For example, the language of gratitude has been incorporated into a number of high-profile advertising campaigns as corporations attempt to project feelings associated with friendship; Airbnb and Uber have been repackaged as the sharing economy, masking the precarious forms of work and huge profits that they produce. Davies looks at how such rebranding often involves attempts to airbrush money out of the picture: Payment is one of the unfortunate pain points…that requires anaesthetising with some form of social experience. Thus shopping must be represented as something else entirely.65 For instance, Tesco™s Food Love Stories adverts tell emotive stories of generous people such as Birdie, a Caribbean woman who has fostered 800 children and loves making jerk chicken for her family. Never letting a good crisis go to waste, another advert encouraged Tesco shoppers to cook Jon™s aromatic isolation lamb during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The trumpeting of individual freedom has much more to do with rhetoric than the real operation of neoliberalism. Polanyi referred to the double movement: the forces of unbridled capitalism were so devastating and unsustainable that legislation had to be introduced to curb its worst excesses in the 19th century.66 The logic of unfettered capitalism would be child labour and the sale of uranium on the open market.67 Georg Lukács, another Hungarian theorist, pointed out that when capitalism was still expanding it rejected every sort of social organisation as an incursion into property rights and the freedom of the individual capitalist.68 The HBO series Deadwood illustrates how capitalism was forced to develop regulatory institutions and structures. In 1876, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory attracted thousands of people to the area to prospect. The camp of Deadwood was established and rapidly expanded into a large town. Initially, this lawless town was the epitome of the Wild West™s every man for himself ethos. However, an outbreak of cholera meant that even the most corrupt and venal proto-capitalists had to cooperate to develop institutions, founding a hospital and establishing norms for the disposal of bodies in order to preserve their embryonic capitalist economy.

In the same vein, ruling classes across the world intervened (albeit to varying degrees) with massive programmes of testing and vaccination to ensure the survival of capitalism during the Covid-19 pandemic, cynically mobilising phoney appeals to community. In order to enforce lockdowns and the plethora of confusing restrictions that followed in their wake, the Tory government in Britain appealed to national unity, national togetherness and community. These fake celebrations of collectivity constrast markedly with the genuine mutual aid that sprung up at grassroots level as people organised to support others in their communities. Meanwhile, tensions in the ruling class erupted. Right-wing libertarians were outraged by restrictions on their individual freedoms (to infect others) and their right to continue making profits. More farsighted sections of the ruling class understood the damage that allowing the virus to freely circulate could cause for the system.

Marx on alienation

Marx develops his theory of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in which he argues that the estrangement felt by individuals is rooted in the relationship between labour and capital. Marx claims that bourgeois political economy conceals the estrangement inherent in the nature of labour by failing to consider the direct relationship between the worker and production.69 Marx develops an analysis of four overlapping dimensions of alienation. First, workers are estranged from the objects that they produce, which become something alien that has a power and existence independent of the producer.70 Marx describes the irony of workers lacking access to the very products they create:

It is true that labour produces for the rich wonderful thingsbut for the worker it produces privation. It produces palacesbut for the worker, hovels. It produces beautybut for the worker, deformity. It replaces labour by machinesbut some of the workers it throws back to barbarous types of labour, and the other workers it turns into machines.71

Second, there is alienation from the act of production itself. Workers lack control over how work is organised, and labour itself is coerced. Marx graphically described the toll that this takes on the physical health of industrial workers who suffered stunted growth, bone curvature and gnarled fingers from dangerous and repetitious work.72 Although the conditions of work in 19th century seem brutal, each era of capitalism inflicts its own violence on the mind and body. Stress, anxiety and musculoskeletal illnesses are endemic to 21st century capitalism. In History and Class Consciousness, Lukács explains that a worker is treated as an extension of a machine:

He is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient. It functions independently of him, and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not.73

Workers are integrated into production as a pure, naked object. The division of labour and micro-management of work rob them of their creativity, with no regard for their abilities as individuals.74 For Marx, the workers feels at home when they are not working and not at home when they are.

The third dimension of alienation explored by Marx is the estrangement of humans from his fellow humans. Under capitalism, we are connected to others through the anonymity of the market. Every day, our lives are touched by thousands of people, whose labour has made our clothes, food and homes, but we only know them through the objects we buy and consume.

Fourth, Marx argues that we are alienated from our species being. As Bertell Ollman explains:

In tearing man away from the object of his production, estranged labour tears him away from his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his organic body, nature, is taken from him.75

Capitalism privatises and fragments human relations. The detrimental effects of loneliness on mental and physical health were highlighted and exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic as lockdowns, social distancing and shielding measures were introduced. Those most at risk of being lonely were the young, those living alone, the low paid, the unemployed and those experiencing mental distress. Class has been a central factor shaping the impact of loneliness, which has been compounded by job losses and health anxieties.

The persistence of exploitation, resistance and solidarity

Marx argued that exploitation at work is intrinsic to capitalism. Because of this, the conditions for resistance are always present. It is, of course, inevitable that managers will parrot neoliberal ideas, but this is not the case for ordinary workers. There are many signs that employees reject the dominant ideologies of the neoliberal workplace, including more passive manifestations of cynicism and anger such as sabotage and humour. Whether or not grievances are collectivised, gather momentum and develop into strikes depends on a complex set of the factors that have been the subject of lively and extensive debate in this journal.76

By 2019, the level of strikes in Britain was the lowest in recorded history, and this is taken by some as evidence for an end of solidarity thesis. However, although strikes are the high point of collective solidarity, and the biggest challenge to bosses and even capitalism itself, strike figures alone provide an incomplete picture of workplace struggle. Taking into account other expressions of working-class organisation reveals another story. For example, strike statistics omit stories of workers winning ballots, despite restrictive legislation, and forcing employers into making concessions. Reducing our estimation of the level of struggle to strike statistics can also mask the significance of specific disputes. The two-day strike of mostly female council workers in Glasgow in October 2018 resulted in a momentous victory over the issue of equal pay, with management promising to rectify longstanding inequities. The annual national statistics tell us nothing about the duration and resilience of particular strikes, such as the action by 200 female care workers in Birmingham who fought a protracted battle over 18 months. In May 2019, after 83 days of strike action, the local council finally withdrew proposals to slash these workers™ hours and wages. The all-out 12-week strike by a handful of cleaners at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy would have appeared as a drop in the ocean in the 2019 national strike statistics, but their win led to better terms and conditions for a wider group of workers. Moreover, their victory had a hugely important demonstrative effect for other groups of workers.77

In a dangerous turn, some proponents of the end of solidarity argument asserts that a generational tension has emerged, with the young becoming more individualistic than older people. In 2013, Guardian journalists James Ball and Tom Clark asked, Has Britain raised a new heartless generation of children of Thatcherand, arguably, of Tony Blair? Does this mark the slow death of solidarity?78 Academic James McGuigan argues that the young are rejecting dinosaur ideas such as the universalising and collectivist principles embodied in the post-war welfare state. The solidarity-orientated values of institutions such as the NHS are called incessantly into question by neoliberal politics in a manner that makes sense to peculiarly individualised young people.79

These sorts of arguments are both divisive and false. Neoliberalism has spectacularly failed young people through massive student debt, astronomical housing costs and the growth of insecure work (all of which were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic). The huge influx of new members into the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015 often comprised young people attracted by his attacks on privilege, promotion of equality, defence of the NHS and promises to renationalise industries. Young people have been central to fighting climate change through school strikes and direct action, as well battling racism as part of Black Lives Matter and organising solidarity with Palestine. In the workplace, young people have been at the centre of organising in hospitality, schools and universities. Young lecturers were at the forefront of the University and College Union™s pensions dispute in 2018-9. In May 2020, as teachers fought against the unsafe reopening of schools during the Covid-19, the National Education Union recruited hundreds of new workplace reps, and the majority of them were young women. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), the broad-based Better than Zero campaign in Scotland and Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise have won some remarkable victories for young workers in restaurants and clubs on zero-hours contracts. Pseudo-psychological notions, rooted in the theory of the neoliberal self, that claim that workers, and particularly young workers, have become individualistic and reject the collectivism of unions is simply inaccurate.

Liberation is a historical not a mental act

The argument that neoliberal ideological conceptions of the individual represent a clear break with those in previous eras of capitalism rests on an artificial distinction. Moreover, it draws attention away from capitalism itself by focusing on its superficial manifestations. By taking a materialist approach to human nature and the development of consciousness and individuality, Marx tried to reveal the exploitative social relations hidden beneath outward appearances, debunking capitalism™s semblance of naturalness. Understanding how individuals are robbed of their freedom and humanity lies in the alienation of workers under capitalism itself and not a particular form of capitalism.

This article has dismantled the naturalisation of the self-interested, self-seeking individual as the basic unit of society, which is central to the ideology of capitalism. It has focused on a shift in ideas that has emerged in the 21st century that holds individuals responsible for their health and work problems, blaming their lack of motivation and failure to be resilient. Assuming that neoliberal ideology is monolithic and ubiquitous, as some radical left-wing writers suggest, leads to a pessimistic vision of a world dominated by atomisation and fragmentation, with community and working-class solidarity eviscerated. Marx looked beyond an analysis of superficial cultural phenomenon. His theory of alienation enables us to understand how the potential of individual humans is crushed. By locating the source of alienation in the relationship between capital and labour, he demonstrated the liberatory potential of workers collectively challenging capitalist power in the workplace. In overstating the traits of the neoliberal self and how far it has colonised the minds of workers, there is a danger of underestimating the challenge that the working class can make to capitalist ideologyparticularly when they are engaged in struggle.

Depending on our material circumstances and a range of complex psychological factors we may be able to ameliorate the worst excesses of capitalism, at least on a personal level. There are ways in which individuals can find some respite from the mental and physical toll taken by the system. However, as Marx explained in The German Ideology:

The liberation of man is not advanced a single step by reducing philosophy, theology, substance and all the trash to self-consciousness… People cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. Liberation is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions.80

Marx showed not only that human action in the past created the modern world, but that human action could shape a future world free from the contradictions of capitalism. The skills and creativity of workers, and how they are used collectively, give a glimpse of a society with genuine fulfilment in the workplace, where workers are no longer alienated from what they produce. The potential for solidarity among workers in factories, schools, hospitals, call centres and warehouses frightens the capitalist class to its core because we have the power to end the system in which alienation is embedded. Whatever the ebbs and flows of class forces in any historical period, that power remains.

Jane Hardy was Professor of Political Economy at the University of Hertfordshire. She is the author of Poland™s New Capitalism (Pluto, 2019) and Nothing to Lose But Our Chains (Pluto, 2021).


1 In a 1987 interview for Women™s Own, Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was no such thing as society. In March 2020, Boris Johnson self-consciously contradicted this mantra by declaring, There is such a thing as society.

2 Many thanks to Esme Choonara and Iain Ferguson for their comments on the first draft of the article. Thanks also to Joseph Choonara, Phil Marfleet, Sheila McGregor and Martin Upchurch for comments on a later version.

3 Mészáros, 1970, p81.

4 Chris Harman associates the popularisation of the term with the explosion of protests at the World Social Forum in Seattle in 1999Harman, 2008.

5 Mirowski and Plehwe, 2009, and Peck, 2010, provide histories of neoliberalism. Along with Harman, 2008, they note the gap between the rhetoric and reality of neoliberalism, which is contradictory, contested within the ruling class itself and varies between different nation states.

6 Callinicos, 2012.

7 See, for example, Kliman, 2012 and Roberts and Carchedi, 2018.

8 Foucault, 2008.

9 Smith, 2008.

10 For an analysis of women™s oppression, see Aschoff, 2015, and Gill, 2007.

11 Harvey, 2007, p3.

12 Brown, 2015, p35-36.

13 Davies, 2016, pxvii.

14 Rubin, 1979.

15 Jevons, 1871, p13-14.

16 Davies, 2016, p61-62.

17 Becker, 1976.

18 Becker, 1976, p10.

19 Mirowski and Plehwe, 2009, p23.

20 Von Hayek, 1944, and Friedman, 2002.

21 The economic policies in the post-war period until 1976 were Keynesian in name only. See Hardy, 2014, for a critique.

23 Peck, 2010, pxv.

24 Hall was closely associated with the Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham and the journal of the British Communist Party, Marxism Today. For a critique of his ideas and politics, see Callinicos, 1985 and 2014.

25 See Gramsci, 2003.

26 Jessop and others, 1984.

27 See Callinicos, 1989.

28 Callinicos, 1989.

29 The lasting influence of Foucault can be seen in, for example, the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose work builds upon his analysis of a multiplicity of points of resistance. See Hardt and Negri, 2004.

30 Brown, 2015, p38.

31 Zamora, 2016.

32 For an account of how this fed into identity politics, see Choonara and Prasad, 2014.

33 McIlroy, 2010.

34 Ferguson, 2007.

35 PFIs are complex long-term financing agreements for public sector projects, such as schools and hospitals, which increased from a handful of contracts before 1997 to an average of 55 a yearSasse and others, 2019.

36 Marcetic, 2017.

37 Marx, 1977, p386.

38 Upchurch, 2014.

39 On the intensification of work, see Moore and Hayes, 2017, and Moth, 2020.

40 Sweney and Partridge, 2021.

41 Stacey, 2018.

42 Davies, 2016, p3.

43 Purser, 2019, p11.

44 Purser, 2019, p20.

45 Mindfulness Initiative, 2015, p6.

46 Mindfulness Initiative, 2015, p40.

47 Van der Volk, 2015.

48 Slee and others, 2020.

49 Ferguson, 2020.

50 Author™s calculation.

51 Littler, 2018.

52 Trade Union Congress, 2015.

53 Trade Union Congress, 2015.

54 Turing, 2020

55 Turing, 2020.

56 Orbach, 2019.

57 Orbach, 2019, pxii-xiii.

58 Bennet, 2020.

59 Gill, 2007.

60 Lukács, 1971.

61 Marx and Engels, 2011, p14.

62 Marx, 1973, p84.

63 Marx, 1977, p174.

64 Polanyi, 1957, p92.

65 Davies, 2016, p188.

66 Polanyi, 1957.

67 For an excellent critique of the market and its social construction from an institutionalist perspective, see Chang, 1997.

68 Lukács, 1971.

69 Marx, 1988, p73.

70 Marx, 1988, p71.

71 Marx, 1988, p73.

72 Ollman, 1971.

73 Lukács, 1971, p89.

74 Lukács, 1971, p168.

75 Ollman, 1971, p151.

76 See Joyce, 2015; Lyddon, 2019; O™Brien, 2018, for example.

77 These disputes are covered in detail in Hardy, 2021.

78 Ball and Clark, 2013.

79 McGuigan, 2013, p234.

80 Marx and Engels, 1970, p61.


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