Monday, June 23, 2014

What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market Based Society, by Paul Verhaeghe

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Clinical psychologist Paul Verhaeghe examines how the last 30 years of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy has had detrimental effects on the individual. This is an intelligent, accessible and deeply considered work. 

The subject matter of this book seems so obvious it’s a wonder someone hasn’t tackled it earlier. The author, Paul Verhaeghe, is a Belgian professor of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis, and so he comes to this subject very much from an academic perspective. The first hundred pages examines notions of self and identity. Is it nurture or nature that creates who we are? Verhaeghe prefers Freud’s thinking on the matter, and contends that we all have unlimited desires (or natural urges) that we somehow, subconsciously, know are bad for us. That is the reason we set up social limits to those desires.  Society, with its rules, codes, morals and laws, is our innate response to those desires, our attempt to nurture them in the right direction. To simplify the argument, nurture reins in our aggressive nature, to produce our identities.

Over the last 30 years, as the neoliberal economic model has become dominant, society’s rules and morals have changed. We are now more competitive, increasingly governed by statistics, analysed by computer algorithms and under constant evaluation by our employers. The pressure is on to become perfect, which can be achieved, so we are told, by proper engagement in the economy: submitting to its ruthless competition and buying all the products it sells us.

As Verhaeghe points out, there’s a fundamental contradiction in all this. We criticise and condone our ruthless economic system, yet continue to prop it up by literally buying into it. For example, we park our money in super funds that invest that money aggressively, putting pressure on businesses to cut costs and slash jobs. We like to see good returns on our super funds, but are dismayed when we see mass worker sackings or jobs being sent offshore to save money.

Our biggest current problem, according to Verhaeghe, is simply the inability to think our way out of this problem.

“We have become wearily pessimistic, taking the neo-liberal construction for an exclusive truth. The TINA syndrome (“There is no alternative”) shows that the current crisis is also, and perhaps predominantly, a crisis of the imagination, resulting in fatalistic pronouncements such as “That’s just how people are”, “We can ride it out” and “Let’s milk the system”.

What About Me? also shows that, as our societies have become more unequal, their citizens have become more physically unhealthy. Verhaeghe quotes work done by authors Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which establishes that anxiety and illness increase in wealthy, yet unequal societies. Low status workers without autonomy and meaning in their work have poorer health outcomes.

There is not that much science in this book, apart from the above quoted study from Wilkinson and Pickett. Verhaeghe really presents a long, well considered opinion piece, informed deeply by his work as a clinical psychologist. What About Me? doesn’t present a radical call to action, but does provide the reader with much food for thought and inspires the individual to look within and consider personal change and transformation.

 What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market Based Society, by Paul Verhaeghe. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781922070906  RRP: $29.99

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