This is your brain on neoliberalism

If you can’t afford to buy a new car or pay your rent, it’s your own fault – that’s what neoliberalism tells us. No wonder we’re in the midst of a mental health crisis.

This is an article from the second issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here

In 2006, Australian television writer and producer Rhona Byrne released The Secret, a DVD closely followed by a 268-page book with the tagline Feel good. Change your life.” The Secret is based on the law of attraction’, which, she argues, all the great men of history knew governed their lives – Plato, Leonardo, Galileo, Napoleon, Hugo, Beethoven, Lincoln, Edison, Einstein, and Carnegie, to name but a few.” According to this law, whatever befalls us in life does so because we attracted it, through positive or negative thinking. The book, which has sold over 9 million copies and been translated into 46 languages, tells us: Everything you see and experience in this world is effect, and that includes your feelings. The cause is always your thoughts … Food cannot cause you to put on weight, unless you think it can!’’ For me, as a pudgy 14-year-old growing up in a small town on the outskirts of Leeds, and often finding myself at the sharp end of inequality, gendered violence and racism, this provocation was confusing to say the least. But nevertheless, I fashioned myself a makeshift vision board, cut some inspiring looking (read: thin, white) models out of old Look magazines, and got to cosmic ordering.

Needless to say, 14 years later, I’m not writing this from my private yacht having never gained weight from a carb. I did, however, have to go through a painful and protracted process of liberating myself from the belief that everything that had ever happened to me I had somehow brought on myself, and that my family were not hovering on the edge of poverty because my mum had failed to purchase Byrne’s follow up hit The Science of Getting Rich. But what the roaring success of self-help’ books like The Secret tells us is important. In a world of increasing inequality, systemic oppression and environmental destruction, some of the few voices able to cut through the noise are the ones telling us to turn inward, rather than looking too closely at the crumbling institutions surrounding us. Instead of focusing on the world’s problems, give your attention and energy to trust, love, abundance, education and peace”. Worse than this, these voices encourage us to believe that not only are the problems we face not caused by structural factors, they are the direct result of choices we have made and thoughts we have manifested’. If you’re unable to buy a shiny new car, pay the heating bill or rid your body of that pesky cancer, you have no one to blame but yourself.

It’s perhaps not news to most that nowadays, we are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Recent statistics show a significant rise in mental health related issues across the board, from anxiety and depression in teenagers to the emergence of suicide as the biggest killer of men under 49 in the UK. Antidepressant prescriptions have almost doubled over the last 10 years, with a 34% increase in people being detained under the Mental Health Act. As of 2018, one in six of us is suffering with a mental health problem. But what does all of this have to do with neoliberalism?

As Ruth Cain argues in her brilliant piece How Neoliberalism is Damaging Your Mental Health’, there is a growing number of medical professionals, academics and social commentators making the link between the limping spectre of neoliberal economics staggering on postfinancial crash, and the army of workers cramming ourselves into overpacked tube carriages at 7.30am everyday, struggling to stay awake while we listen to podcasts on how to be Happier, with Gretchen Rubin’. As Cain puts it, when faced with the enervating whirl of relentless privatisation, spiralling inequality, withdrawal of basic state support and benefits, ever-increasing and pointless work demands, fake news, unemployment and precarious work” it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many of us are struggling. But what is vital not to overlook are the ways in which neoliberalism as a particular psychological intervention impacts the way we see ourselves and the world around us. It’s no coincidence that, in a society perched on the precipice of environmental destruction brought about as a direct result of an infinite economic growth model, we are encouraged to focus instead on what we can do to maximise ourselves’ and to battle to claim our slice of the ever-diminishing pie. This diversion is a necessity, not a convenient byproduct of neoliberal governance strategies.

A whistle-stop tour of the history and development of neoliberalism can help us figure out how we got here. The two main forms of early neoliberal thought were the German ordoliberals’, and the American Chicago School’. Both of shared a fundamental rejection of the economic doctrine of the day and also shared a common enemy – namely, the state-controlled economy, planning and state interventionism. For the ordoliberals, the limits of state control had to be precisely established and the relationship between the people and the state clearly defined to enable the economy to sufficiently influence the political system. This process constituted a new style of government, and an internal reorganisation that, as Michel Foucault says does not ask the state what freedom it will leave for the economy, but asks the economy how its freedom can have a state-creating function and role.”

In order to make this happen, the ordoliberals carried out a number of transformations that came to shape the distinction between classical liberal and neoliberal doctrine. Crucially, they rejected what they called naïve naturalism’ – in other words, they argued that whether the classical liberals defined the market by exchange or competition, they still conceived of it as a natural given that is produced spontaneously and, as such, must be respected by the state. Competition, however, for the German ordoliberals, is absolutely not a given of nature but on the contrary, is something that will only appear and produce optimum effect when purposefully constructed through active governmentality’. Neoliberalism then should not…be identified with laissez-faire, but rather with permanent vigilance, activity and intervention”, says Foucault.

For the folks at the Chicago School, this active governmentality’ principle also formed the basis of their thought, but with one important distinction. American liberalism was not just a technique of managing people, but rather a redefinition of the relationship between the people and the state. In the US context, amidst historical conflict over independence from Britain, disputes in this relationship were not understood as problems of service, but rather as problems of freedom. What made North America such a ripe testing ground for neoliberal ideology was exactly this repositioning: in a society which holds the principle of freedom at its core, this new technique of government was able to grow into a whole new style of imagination, a new way of being and thinking.”

“… we are living in an economic system that survives and thrives when we are anxious”

Continuing its shift away from classical liberal economics, neoliberalism argued that the focus of analysis should not be the mechanisms of the market, but the way in which people within it choose to allocate their scarce means to alternative and competing ends. In line with the objectives of some of its chief promoters such as Theodor Shultz and Gary Becker, neoliberal economics repositioned its lens and settled squarely on us. And we are no longer just an actor in the market – we are entrepreneurs of ourselves. For homo-entrepreneur (that’s me and you by the way), every choice becomes a calculated investment, and as such, every outcome can and must be examined as a success or failure according to the income it generates. Every decision we make, from marriage to childcare to which university we attend, whether we choose to purchase a state-of-the-art juicer or buy a third round down the pub, every minute of every day we are making choices that push up or pull down our Recommended Retail Price. The aim of neoliberalism, then, becomes not forcing the individual to act in a certain way, but creating the conditions within which we will want to act in that way, believing that we’re exercising free choice in our own best interest. As Margaret Thatcher succinctly articulated: Economics are the method. The object is to change the soul.”

The implications of this for our relationships, our work and our political systems are too multifarious to list here. The work of Wendy Brown, David Harvey, Christine Berry and countless others are a good place to start if you’re looking to bone up on neoliberalism and its manifestations. But one thing we can be sure of is that when it comes to our mental health, this new form of cognitive capitalism’ is not doing us any favours.

It’s not just the impact of realising that, as someone under 35 without access to the bank of Mum and Dad, you’ll likely be living precariously, spending at least 50% of your income on rent every month for the rest of your life that’s making us sick. It’s also not even the discovery that your lost loved one was one of more than 130,000 deaths in the UK since 2012 that could have been prevented if improvements in public health policy had not stalled as a direct result of austerity cuts. It’s the gnawing knowledge that we are living in an economic system that survives and thrives when we are anxious – when we look inward and ask what’s wrong with me?” rather than taking to the streets in protest when we see our hospitals closed, our schools defunded and our friends and families detained. The parasite of neoliberalism is behind every sleep pod installed in an office so the workers don’t ever have to leave, every mindfulness coach that management brings in to help cushion the blow of mass redundancies. Perhaps most important to remember in all of this is that the system is not broken. It’s working exactly as it is supposed to. And for now, so are we. 

Ayeisha Thomas-Smith is Director of Movement Building at NEON, Co-founder of KIN and presenter of NEF’s Weekly Economics Podcast.

Image: Eva Bee

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100