Neoliberalism & Terrorism – Part I

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In the following two blog posts I want to look closer at the connection between the two occurrences of neoliberalism and terrorism. In the first part I will outline characteristics of neoliberalism, in the second part I will show how neoliberalism opens doors for terrorism.

One characteristic of neoliberalism is the fact that we as individuals mainly became a competing subject – if not even objects. Just as goods compete on the market, we as humans also compete against each other in the labour market. If one cannot keep up with the market, one is considered to be a loser, as weak and inefficient. Concerning this, Paul Verhaeghe, Psychologist and Professor at the University of Gent writes: “meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.” The meritocratic neoliberalism therefore contains characteristics which treat certain behaviours of ours – through aspects such as money, (apparent) recognition, job promotions, etc. However, humans do not work like machines, despite the fact that the neoliberal economic structure continuously tries to insinuate so by its mechanisms. Humans cannot function simply because of immediate factors and circumstances given by the economic structure. They are not machines that are exclusively targeted on producing and consuming. Nonetheless, this is exactly what neoliberalism is focused on: “Neoliberalism sees competition as the refining characteristics of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency.”

It is important to mention that in neoliberalism people become limited to their characteristics of labour and consuming that build the foundation for all specific human relations. Speaking with Hannah Arendt, people and communities, that are valued specifically by produce and consume (like by the GDP), are getting pushed back in the private sector. This private sector is restricted only to life sustainment and does not contain any general public and therefore also no political character. Politics though means to gather and act together. Hence, neoliberalism separates the society by its meritocratic economic structure which includes individualisation per definition in statu nascendi and thereby subtly deconstructs the possibility of the original political character in society.

A further argument concerning the assumption that neoliberalism separates is the rising number of people with narcissistic personality disorder as well as mental illnesses that concern self-destructive behaviour such as anorexia nervosa or self-inflicted wounds. Narcissism includes a lack of a healthy ego, of a subject with sufficient self-esteem. In order to compensate the deficit, the person tries to strengthen its ego by bending into the shape someone else. Therefore, the narcissist focusses on the other person and the manipulation until the other person fits the conception of the narcissistic person. The boundary between the “me” and the “other” dissolves and the narcissistic person fundamentally needs the other person in order to strengten their own lacking self. “Ohne jede Objektbindung wird das Ich auf sich zurückgeworfen, was negative Gefühle wie Angst oder Leere entwickelt.” (Without this connection to someone else, the narcissistic person gets thrown back on themselves, which creates negative feelings such as anxiety or emptiness.) We can also find this emptiness concerning mental illnesses. Byun-Chul Han further writes in his essay, that people who cut themselves often feel empty, they cannot feel anything anymore. So in order to feel something, they cut themselves.

How can we now connect mental illnesses and narcissistic disorders with neoliberalism? That self-destructive behaviour has its origin in a lacking self-esteem and this self-esteem again is weakened by objectifying people and forcing them to perfect themselves in order to function. If this fails, a feeling of worthlessness arises, of being nobody. Hurting ones own body in any way seems like desperately escaping in order to feel oneself again since feeling-oneself is not possible in any other way. “The body shifts to being at the forefront of the anorexic’s attention in an objectified manner. In AN [anorexia nervosa] […] the body is experienced as object-like and overly present.” The philosopher Hannah Bowden stated this regarding the fact that anorexia nervosa holds two incidences; firstly the objectification of the body and secondly the narcissistic character of an inflated perception of the self.

Byung-Chul Han is further outlining the term of authenticity – or rather in my view the misunderstanding of actual authenticity – as a factor of strengthening narcissism. By the neoliberal production strategy, the human being as a product becomes the product of themselves. When the products – which means us – do not work, the product is considered as a loser, someone who has lost, as someone who did not make it and therefore is not good enough. Permanent anxiety is arising due to the fact of continues pressure to be a successful product which cannot fail. Anxiety again leads to insecurity which pushes the spiral of mental illness and disorders such as anorexia and self-inflicted wounds even further.

In addition to authenticity, Byung-Chul Han also states that competition, which was already mentioned, is a factor for the rising number of cases of narcissism and self-destructive behaviour. From a political theory point of view competition only works against each other or maximally for each other, but it can never work when acting together. Regarding to Hannah Arendt, power (and therefore also political power) however, arises only by acting jointly, together. If that togetherness is not given, the community that was constituted by acting together falls apart, along with the loss of power or none can be built.

Summarising the first part, it can be said that within the neoliberal society healthy and sufficient self-esteem is decreasing due to competition and the dominant character of producing and consuming. The lack of self-esteem is supposed to be substituted by narcissism, followed by self-destructive behaviour in order to hopefully fill the empty void of missing self-esteem. Pushing back the private realm by solely working and consuming regarding the body and the related narcissism and mental illnesses cause an atomisation of society. Acting jointly, which opens up a political realm, gets lost and is gradually supplanted by a society that is focussed only on the individual, neither valuing oneself nor someone else.

Hannah Arendt: The Human Condition. 2nd edition. Chicago 1998: The University of Chicago Press.
Hannah Bowden (2012): “A phenomenological study of anorexia nervosa” in Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, Vol. 19

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