On a very gloomy February afternoon a few years ago, a young graduate student sat in my office at Galway University and spoke pessimistically about her future. During a recent evening with friends, deep confessions had, over time, emerged. None have had successful careers in business, social media, or online business. None had become a social entrepreneur. They were, according to them, already failures when their adult life had only just begun.
I was struck that afternoon that the entrepreneur model was the standard by which these students measured success – that is, their success as humans. It seemed to me that they exemplified, painfully, what has been called the neoliberal ego – an ego essentially emptied of the social and defined by an idea of an entrepreneur.
The phenomenon described was not new. Nickolas Rose, a writing sociologist during the time of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, had noticed that the British were starting to talk about themselves as if they were projects or companies in a sea of companies. Their life’s work was to maximize the value of their existence for themselves. It was, according to him, a revolutionary change in human affairs.
My conversation with this young student, some thirty years later, seemed to prove strangely how entrepreneurship had taken hold in young bodies in Ireland. There, perhaps, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Many comments on neoliberalism point out that its “there” (globalization, state shrinkage, privatization, austerity) inevitably requires a “here”: another kind of human subjectivity. A special count of a self is required to survive in a world of rapid change, job insecurity, intense competition for resources, housing, education, and the rise of the self-employed as the norm.
A desire to understand this space where ego meets political economy was the spark behind my book Self, recently published by Cork University Press. However, I wanted not to just criticize but to offer an alternative vision. As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, it seemed to me that his understanding of what it means to be human offered the potential for interesting dialogue and a compelling view of the human. If Buddhism does nothing else, it is squarely at odds with the notion of selfhood which has driven European history, and the expansion of Europe outward through colonial adventurism, since the modernity; it is individualism, now on stilts in the era of late capitalism.
Responsibility and social justice
Self presents a typology of the neoliberal self conveniently encapsulated by the acronym CARRPP. The neoliberal ego is competitive, autonomous, resilient, empowered, perfectible and, always, positive. I suggest that the first two are the sine qua non, all the others coming after but all interdependent. If we understand accountability as an overhaul of social justice issues (such as inequality) as now solved by personal effort and responsibility, we can see that it fits perfectly with the idea of perfectibility – that we can all be what we want, once we work hard. enough – and resilience, an ability not only to bounce back, but to believe that life’s knocks and knocks make us stronger, better.
The standardization of private health insurance contains the idea that we are each responsible for our health and that we “control” our bodies which, with the right foods, exercise and mental attitude, keep us in full swing. form.
At the same time and co-creating the rise of this ipseity, there has been “therapeutic culture”, a gentle but insistent circulation of vaguely therapeutic ideas within a larger culture, drawn largely from cognitive therapies and operating outside of it. the intimate relationship of true psychological therapies.
Positive thinking, elevating personal history self-mastery in the pursuit of happiness (because you ‘deserve it’) all nurture the new self, as does a lite version of mindfulness sometimes referred to as ‘McMindfulness’. ”
Positive thinking, elevating personal story self-control in the pursuit of happiness (because you “deserve” it) all fuel the new self, as does a lite version of mindfulness sometimes referred to in “McMindfulness” literature. None of us can have escaped the exhortation that our problems are caused by incorrect thinking. In her memoir, Irish scholar Emilie Pine describes how a mindfulness class was recommended to her and other colleagues for work-related stress. What they encountered was an invitation to “cannibalize” themselves further. The problem was not faulty thought processes or weak regulations, but a high-pressure work environment.
Over the past two decades or so, these ideas have achieved hegemonic status in Ireland and elsewhere. Their setback must also be taken into consideration: an acceptance that those who “fail” to thrive in this new world have only themselves to blame for not following the new rules, ‘haven’t made enough effort or invested enough in themselves. And above all, under neoliberalism, collective responsibility acts as a rupture with what is considered central to human life: freedom. It is the freedom “of” others, or taxation, or the consequences of unsustainable economic development.
In this context, how could the ideas first exhibited in Iron Age India offer anything to us? Zen Buddhism, the school of Buddhism that I know best, is based on a radical conception of the self. He says that there is no permanent, stable, stable ego, that the “me” is void of such characteristics but full of everything else. If we pay very close attention to our mind, in stillness, we will see that we are human becomings, or, in the words of Tich Naht Hanh, we “inter-being”.
Additionally, classical Buddhism suggests a very specific explanation for how we are tricked into thinking that there is a stable “me” that is separate from all other beings. It is, according to Buddhism, the greatest illusion and the one that causes us the most suffering.
Similar ideas are found in deep ecology, in the work of Carl Jung, in relational psychology and certain feminisms and are the stuff of the poetic imagination. From this self-narrative flows an understanding that our collective and individual sufferings are deeply and irreducibly linked. An account that is surely the right medicine for our many current illnesses.
Dr Eilís Ward has taught for many years in the school of Politics science and sociology, NUIG, is author of Self (Cork University Press, 2021) and practitioner of Zen Buddhism