[I started this article some time ago and in its current form it’s more like a fragment (mind stream), it has a lot of ideas but doesn’t connect them well]
In this article I want to understand what critique (critical theory) can tell us about the influence of neoliberalism on our self – this image of us that we show to the world. I think that neoliberalism has managed to infiltrate our self. We have become marketeers of ourselves. Does technology alienate us from ourselves?
I want to understand whether there is an alternative, a Marxian nirvana where
[...] nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.#1
I will quite heavily rely on the Korean philosopher BH Han, because his view is very striking.
I think our increasing individualism is not real, it is only a new form of conformism via repeated individualisms. While neoliberalism seemingly propagates individualism, it does lead to coerced conformism (bubbles). True individualism lets us change roles and not define us via the desirability of the market.
We are ruled by the 3 big Cs: absolute Consumption, Commodification and Consumerism.
Technology creates media which enable the neoliberal transformation of our self. Creativity has been commercialised. Many artists end up as ‘creatives’ in the advertising sector. Technology has widened the realm of consumption. Content has become a product and needs to be consumed, so that the advertising can pay for the content creation.
The market has managed to answer all our needs, even our efforts to escape the commodification are answered by market solutions – usually in the form of technology which will be later monetised. This is how capitalism survives every crisis. It is the ‘murketing’ that uses the satire, irony or criticism of products and incorporates it in their marketing. Freemium is the capitalist model where a ‘good idea’ is adopted by many, then grown exponentially and then monetised in the future. If you pay nothing, you are the product.
Han says: “Today we live in a dictatorship of neoliberalism. In neoliberalism everyone is an entrepreneur of himself.” (Zeit 2014)
Han argues that we move from exploitation of the other to self-exploitation, because it produces more efficiency and productivity.
Han: “there is absolute consumption, which is removed [alienated] from the use of things. The business has delegated advertising to the consumer.” I think Han means the production of branded content on social media sites.
Han: “the crisis of freedom is that we perceive compulsion [coercion, un-freedom] as freedom”
Han: “The digital feudal lords like Facebook give us land and say: Plough the land, it is for free. And so we plough (like mad). At the end the lords come and get the harvest. This is exploitation of communication. We communicate and feel free. The feudal lords capitalise our communication.”
We feel the urge to better ourselves, to optimise. As we measure more (fitbit etc) we also need to improve. We have become like businesses that need to grow. Success is measured in calories burned and Twitter followers. Orthorexia – the obsession of eating right – is the ultimate dominance of betterment of our self and our body. Even initiatives like bringing mindfulness training to work (while maybe well intended), only acerbates the problem by letting our employer influence our mind. We pendulate between privilege and guilt: wealth increase and charity donations. Gyms and health stores are the new temples, where we bring our sacrifices in form of money and sweat.
Lemke (2002) references Cruikshank’s work, she talks about the self esteem movement:
“Self Esteem” thus has much more to do with self assessment than with self respect, as the self continuously has to be measured, judged, and disciplined in order to gear personal “empowerment” to collective yardsticks.#2
Curtis in his 2002 documentary on the Self, argues that psychoanalysis entered into the manipulation of the masses via Public Relations very early on. Every attempt by consumers to individuate themselves was met with attempts by the psychological researchers to reign back control.
Curtis in his other 2016 documentary called Hypernormalisation states that politicians invent a simplified fake world (eg changing definition of who is a terrorist) which is the opposite of our complex world. People have turned away from society and have found the Internet as a way to permanently reflect their own self – this assures them and calms them.
How can we escape the neoliberal colonization of the self? We need to understand that constant consumption makes us slaves to a system where we have to perpetually create better versions of ourselves.
PS: I am also currently reading Kluge and Negt’s History and Obstinacy and will follow up on this theme.
1. Marx, German Ideology Chapter 1
2. Lemke 2002. Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique. Rethinking Marxism