Paul Verhaeghe and Jane Hedley-Prôle (translator), What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (2014) — Review

© 2014 Peter Free


10 October 2014



Recommended — with two minor caveats


What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (2014) provides a persuasive, if impressionistic critique of the effect that “neoliberalism” has on the human psyche.



The book’s anti-neoliberal message is somewhat weakened by:


(i) the less than analytically precise delivery of Dr. Verhaeghe’s points




(ii) by the author’s failure to provide even hints of a realistically substitutable alternative.






Dr. Verhaeghe is Chair of the department for psychoanalysis and counseling psychology at Ghent University. His recent article in the Guardian made a handful of insightful points about our “neoliberal” culture.



As a result of reading that overview, I bought Jane Hedley-Prôle’s (Dutch to English) translation of the professor’s earlier 2012 book about the same subject.





Scribe Publication’s website mistakenly lists Hedley as Hadley.



What is neoliberalism?


Neoliberalism is more commonly (if too simplistically) referred to as free markets economic philosophy in the United States.


My pejorative (and much too little nuanced) definition of it goes like this:



Neoliberalism is the social and economic philosophy that pushes the ideas of free markets, deregulation, drowned government and the complete privatization of all things.


Its organizing principles are (essentially) that whatever is not profitable —whether measured in money, fame or power — goes out the door.


Greed across the board is a virtue.


Professor Verhaeghe’s take is that neoliberalism is a hidden social organizing principle that affects essentially everything that we do and think, and in profoundly unhealthy ways.



An overview of the book’s primary message


Dr. Verhaeghe essentially summarized his book in the Guardian article. I, in turn, condensed what he had to say this way:



(1) Neoliberalism and the idea of the primacy of the individual pressures us into thinking that we are:


(a) solely responsible for our successes and failures


and that


(b) we are definitively seen as a failure, if we are not visiblysuccessful, as judged by culturally imposed standards.


(2) The personality traits that neoliberalism encourages are psychopathic:


The first [success requirement] is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible.


It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project.


Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait:


you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt.


That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.


On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges.


In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces.


© 2014 Paul Verhaeghe, Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us, The Guardian (29 September 2014) (extracts) 


(3) Our institutionalization of these antisocial beliefs results in ordinary people having to undergo constant evaluation — against a scale of unrealistically set standards, often interpreted by fools:


Constant evaluations at work cause a decline in autonomy and a growing dependence on external, often shifting, norms.


This results in what the sociologist Richard Sennett has aptly described as the “infantilisation of the workers”.


More important . . . is the serious damage to people’s self-respect. Self-respect largely depends on the recognition that we receive from the other . . . .


© 2014 Paul Verhaeghe, Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us, The Guardian (29 September 2014) (extracts)


(4) Neoliberalism is founded on lies. There is no such thing as unrestricted choice.


Complete self-government and self-management are impossible. In part because both are founded on the idea of a “perfectible individual” — a concept that it does not take a person of much personal and historical insight to recognize is not true.



The book adds persuasive detail to these assertions.





What about Me is frequently imprecisely reasoned and, perhaps as a result, sets down not even a cursory outline of where to go from here.


Professor Verhaeghe’s concluding paragraphs demonstrate both shortcomings:



Individualism has indeed gone too far in this day and age. People have been reduced to consumers who live in the illusion that they are unique and make their own choices. In actual fact, they are being made to think and behave alike to an extent that is previously unparalleled. Self-care has fallen by the wayside, because consumerism sweeps away any notions of self-control and restraint.


So wrangling about whether ‘the government’ or ‘the individual’ should be given a greater say is missing the point. There is no effective government anymore, just as there are no longer any autonomous individuals. In his last lectures, just before he died, Michel Foucault contrasted the consumption and production imposed by neo-liberalism (or anarcho -capitalism, as he called it) with classical liberalism, a critical movement that arose to defend civil liberties against the encroaching power of the state.


A critical movement of this kind is sorely needed now, along with a new polity that can maintain the tricky but necessary balance between sameness and difference, between group and individual, between mandatory parity and freedom of choice. And we ourselves must take the first steps towards creating that social polity through the choices that we make.


Paul Verhaeghe and Jane Hedley-Prôle (translator), What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society (Scribe Publications, 26 March 2014) (at Kindle Locations 3028-3037)


Critical thinkers will immediately notice that this is mushy reasoning. In part because these paragraphs’ semantics are poorly defined and contextually nonobvious — even in light of understanding the more than two hundred pages that preceded them.


The volume is filled with similar examples. In which the reader thinks that she understands, only to be thrown off by the intrusion of diluting words and sentences that obfuscate whatever Dr. Verhaeghe is trying to say.


The two flaws are minor


Dr. Verhaeghe’s impressionistic takedown of neoliberal nonsense, and its awful effects on people, is brilliant.


I suspect most readers will finish thinking, “Right on, Belgian Bro!” Or more respectful words to that effect. Certainly, I did.