ISSN 2330-717X

Neoliberal Ethics And The Legitimation Of Suffering – OpEd

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With the hegemonization of the global political physiognomy by the power bloc of right-wing populism, a colossal change is being witnessed. This change involves a seemingly unexpected advent of atavistic authoritarianism and political primitivism. Behind this one can locate the role of a structurally stressed neoliberal democracy in politically propelling right-wing populism to power. By analyzing the dialectical interaction within the mechanisms of neoliberal democracy, the historical situatedness of right-wing populism can be emphasized. This article will historically contextualize right-wing populism by using the concept of “suffering” and analyzing it in the light of the internally perforated power relations of neoliberal democracy and a ruptured liberalism. 

Neoliberal Subjectivation

Since the introduction of neoliberal measures in the 1990s, far-reaching subjective shifts have occurred. With economic-objective transformations (financial deregulation, labor flexploitation, de-unionization, etc), corresponding psychological-subjective variations have taken place.  Glenn Adams and Sara Estrada-Villalta identify four such changes – radical abstraction, entrepreneurial self, growth imperative and affect regulation. (1) Radical abstraction refers to the abstraction of individuals from their economic and cultural context. This subsequently results in the erasure of localized lexicons of semiotic struggle and the unilateral imposition of monocultures which facilitate the growth of a deracinated environment of consumption. Along with the loss of regional-vernacular frames of meaning making, radical abstraction also causes a spatially precarious peripatetic existence and a temporally fragmented existential experience of casual/temporary jobs.

 (2) Entrepreneur of self indicates the hyper-individualization of subjects wherein a person imagines herself/himself as a portfolio of investments. According to Jeff Sugarman, “As enterprising subjects, we think of ourselves as individuals who establish and add value to ourselves”. De-communitarianization (weakening of the sensibilities of communal solidarity) and competitiveness at the level of inter-individual interaction emerge as direct corollaries of entrepreneurial ethics and personhood. 

(3) Growth imperative embodies the neoliberal urge to constantly seek new opportunities, take risks and diversify the repertoire of profit-maximizing tools available at a particular instant. Neoliberalism conceals this overly regulatory-rationalized goal of self-maximization by enshrouding it in the overabundance of choices. The focus on choice allows neoliberal logic to declare that people are wholly free to define or individuate themselves in unique ways and can continuously progress through this availability of choices. Instead of freeing individuals from their conditioning materiality, choices reinforce the status quo by self-responsibilizing the masses. This happens when unsuccessful/impoverished people are told that it was their “own bad choice” that contributed to their failure. Through this, the entire systemic impact of neoliberalism is reduced to the singular choice of a specific individual and the inherent inequality of the entire system gets justified through a marketized fatalism.

 (4) Affect management explains the emotional registers which neoliberal utilizes to coordinate its marketized management of the life-world. In neoliberalism, positive affect is the meaning-making medium through which the plethora of choices is subjectively enriched. Positive affect invariably obscures the “pessimism of the intellect” and preempts any efforts at critically making sense of the oppressive mechanisms of cheerful choices. In addition, positive affect augments and festoons the entrepreneurial self by emotionally energizing people to undertake risks and consistently espouse a highly aspirational desire for success. 

 All these four changes on the significatory plane of subjectivity overlap and intersect with each other to aggregately augment the process of neoliberalization. But these significatory sub-systems don’t function in a friction-free manner. Through their single-minded accentuation of precarity, risk-taking ethics, individualized fissurization and positive affects, tremendous suffering is produced. With a de-communitarianized and competitive sociability, every endeavor aimed at socializing suffering is abruptly halted. Along with a social structure where “everyone is in a state of competition against everyone”, the saturation of the self in the cornucopia of choices aggravates the suppression of suffering. When the shareable and transformable character of existential wretchedness is reduced to an epiphenomenon of incorrect choices, all efforts at signifying suffering are subsumed under the banner of “self-responsible individuals”. Moreover, the immersion of individual subjectivities in the meaninglessly hyper-ventilating profusion of positive affects creates a psychological ecology wherein the expression of suffering is deemed a profanation of positivity. 

Neoliberal Democracy and Liberalism

Accompanying this subjective strain and suffering generated by the neoliberal colonization of hitherto economically-unpenetrated spheres of life, was the instauration of the contradictory composition of neoliberal democracy. Neoliberal democracy can be defined as a political-governmental structure which is structurally dominated by and has the propensity to advance the interests of the bourgeoisie. This is qualitatively different from a welfarist or Keynesian democracy where the state can be considered a “site for negotiating concessions”. Contrary to welfarist democracy, the state in neoliberal democracy is not exogenously accessible by the working class for any arbitration of concessions. The state in neoliberal democracy is an arena where technocratic, regulatory and transnational agencies bureaucratically actualize neoliberal policy objectives. 

The increasing impermeabilization of state in neoliberal democracy can be explained using Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin’s thesis of the “internationalization of state”. According to them, internationalization of state is the “state’s acceptance of responsibility for managing its domestic capitalist order in a way that contributes to managing the international capitalist order”. This “re-constitution of states as integral elements of an informal American empire” happens as a result of the economic imperatives of globalized production and consumption which, as said by Marco Boffo, Alfredo Saad-Filho, and Ben Fine, “require international legal and policy harmony through continual negotiations, policy conditionalities, and overlapping treaties”. 

With the neoliberal structural compression of states, a framework of “policies without politics” was produced which precarized the living conditions of subaltern classes. In addition to a general economic exacerbation of existence, a simultaneous subjective suppression of subalterns took place through an inter-mixing of ruptured liberalism and neoliberalism. This intermixing can be considered another differentia specifica of neoliberal democracy which provides it with a contradictory internal composition. 

Liberalism advocated a party democracy which treated citizens as equal electoral participants, juridically unified under the rule of law. In this conception, a political subject was differentiated through two mechanisms of liberal democracy – political mediation through parties and procedural conception of political legitimacy through parliamentarian deliberation and electoral competition. In liberal democracy, parties play an important constitutive role in forging a specific political identity and as said by Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, they “function as intermediary bodies between society and the state in the sense that they both ‘reflect’ social divisions present at the level of material and ideal interests and ‘constitute’ them politically into competing visions of the common good.” The procedural conception of legitimacy also actively shapes politico-electoral identities insofar that it disseminates an ethical belief in formal parliamentary – electoral mechanisms and venerates the constitution as a moral enunciation of universal principles. 

With the beginning of neoliberalization, the unquestioned principles of liberal democracy were brought under the disruptive power of economization and subjective neoliberalization, identified in the four-fold categorization of radical abstraction, entrepreneurial self, growth imperative and affect regulation. The inaccessible technocratic and purely administrative structure of neoliberal governance collided with the formal parliamentarian-electoral architecture of liberalism. This led to the economization of political parties whose result was the emergence of modern mass parties. These parties, as said by Joachim Hirsch, “appear as quasi-state apparatuses with a high degree of centralisation, dominated by bureaucratic elites, and at the same time are characterised by a very nebulous social basis and program”. 

This transformation of political parties was necessitated by neoliberalization of state which greatly circumscribed the latitude available for negotiations. Now, instead of highlighting, composing and re-configuring demands, the role of parties was reduced to policing and administratively supervising the anxiety and psychological pressure of neoliberalized subjects. In the words of Joachim Hirsch, parties “no longer function in the traditional sense, articulating and mediating different and opposing interest groups to the political decision-making agencies. Rather they operate as regulative transmission agents between the state bureaucracy and the people affected by their measures.”

In spite of the institutional professionalization of political parties as neoliberal regulatory agents, liberalism was not completely eradicated. It continued to exist in the form of the procedural conception of political legitimacy i.e. electoral competition and constitutional morality. It was the interaction of neoliberalism with these two liberal arrangements that bolstered the political hegemony of right-wing populism. With the technocratization of the state and party as mere appendages of neoliberal regulation, the scope for alternatives within electoral competition was drastically reduced. This led to an inter-party consensus on economic policy which had to necessarily support neoliberal orthodoxy. In this way, parties were reduced to different shades of neoliberal orthodoxy with slightly varying promissory propagandas. Electoral competition, therefore, was exponentially abridged to signify a process through which people could choose different parties, all geared towards imposing austerity packages. Aijaz Ahmad calls this phenomenon the emergence of “mature liberal democracy in the neoliberal age” in which competing parties “function as mere factions in a managing committee of the bourgeoisie as a whole”. 

The economic curtailment of electoral competition to a process of choosing different varieties of oppression enlarged the concentrated suffering of neoliberalized subjects. With no hope of electing a party conducive to the economic demands of oppressed people, suffering was further suppressed under the friendly duel of political parties. This generalized discontentment with neoliberal governance was sharpened by the ideological intersection of constitutional subjectivation and neoliberal subjectivation. Constitutional ideals provided citizens with a distinctive subjective space for imagining themselves as equal citizens and used a non-economic vocabulary to interpellate their subjects. Moreover, a constitutional configuration of governmental structure encouraged citizens to view themselves as a member of a universal democratic community.

 But when neoliberalism developed, the constitutionally ornamented discourse of equal citizens and universal democratic bond was profoundly ruptured. The entrepreneurialization of individuals directly destabilized the liberal-constitutional subjectivation of citizens as equal individuals, collectively unified in a universal democratic community. Furthermore, neoliberalism unleashed a process of hyper-individualization by disturbing the weak balance which liberalism had maintained between atomized “I’s” and an abstractly universal “we”. It accomplished this through the infusion of an ethics of entrepreneurialism in the body politic. This re-inscribed citizens as tireless entrepreneurs, always striving for greater economic productivity. In addition to this, neoliberalism also blurred the differences between “consumer” and “citizen” and in this way it integrated politics with economics through the economization of politics. 

The abovementioned neoliberal subversion of liberalism was not completely smooth. It was uneven, unbalanced and generated a conflictual context of politico-cultural interaction.  Rather than imagining the neoliberal undermining of liberalism as a unilateral process, it is useful to analyze it as a dissonant entwinement and mutual interpenetration of two political subjectivational techniques. 

Despite neoliberalism’s unleashing of the process of entrepreneurialization and self-responsibilization, the liberal idea of a political subject or citizen was not obliterated. This is because of the fact that citizenship is performative i.e. it is continuously enacted, re-enacted and contested through a repertoire of conventions, norms, regulations, rituals, institutions etc. It is through the recursive iteration of a set of defined practices that citizenship is contingently constructed and coagulated. According to Allman and Beaty, citizenship is ‘a set of learned and constantly reproduced practices and conducts, as well as expectations and claims’. If we view citizenship from this performative dimension, it becomes clear that it is not only an abstract identificatory process but also involves reiterative practices, cultural classification, codification and iterative interpellation. 

Neoliberalism was not able to entirely eliminate these performative dimensions of liberalism which continued to exist in various forms. The occurrence of periodic elections is an institutional instantiation of one such performative aspect. Through elections, people were singularly crystallized as citizens and this conception of citizenship had an immediate political connotation. The electoral delimitation of people as citizens conceptualized them as engaging in an operative system of politics based upon a representative parliamentary framework. Here, we can observe how, through liberalism’s procedural political mechanism (parliamentary representation), people were contradictory co-interpellated as political citizens alongside their status as economized entrepreneurs. 

 Attempts have been made by free market thinkers to eradicate this performative existence of liberalism in periodic elections and George J. Stigler’s proposal to introduce the “rule of indefinite tenure” in elections is a paradigmatic example of one such attempt. In 1968, George J. Stigler introduced his idea of optimizing democracy which would involve contractualizing presidency and ending the rule of periodic elections. According to this new schema, a president could stay as long as his/her employers (citizens) wanted. Voters could call an election through a petition requiring the signature of one-tenth of the electorate. This proposal, if implemented, would have ideologically effaced the political dimension of elections and the interpellation of people as citizens, actively participating in the voting process. It would have deployed an economized strategy of elections wherein voters would have coalesced as consumers. 

The juridical sphere is another arena where neoliberal ideological elements have unsettlingly intertwined with the traditional symbolic idiom of liberalism. Before the entrenchment of neoliberalism as a universal structuring principle of society, liberalism had used juridical tools to artificially separate the sphere of production from the sphere of circulation. This contrived separation was necessary to restrict political process within the sphere of circulation and preempt any future attempt aimed at destabilizing the exclusive ownership of the means of production by the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the separate carving of a specific domain of capital circulation allowed the construction of a national-popular hegemonic will. It is only through this hegemonic worldview that, in the words of Gramsci, “a multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the world”. 

Due to the hegemonic function which the sphere of circulation assumed in the arrangement of capitalism, it had to espouse universal values capable of cementing cross-class cohesion. The particular historical forms in which the universal pretensions of the sphere of circulation manifested themselves have been ironically expressed by Karl Marx: “the sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labor power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.”

Within the liberal moment of capitalism, juridical forces played an important role in ideologically varnishing the sphere of commodity exchange. This was done predominantly through the legal codification of equal exchange relations that articulated the workers as equal co-partners of capitalists. Along with the recasting of the working class as free equal exchange partners, the rule of law also exerted a unificatory impact by endowing classes with rights and sculpting them as homo juridicus. Homo juridicus refers to subjects who possess rights, civil liberties and occupy a politico-legal orbit of morally equivalent human beings. Louiza Odysseos identifies four stages through which the ontogenesis of homo juridicus occurs: rhetorical ontogenesis, epistemic ontogenesis, performative ontogenesis and structural ontogenesis. Through these four moments of juridical subjectivation :– (1) diverse classes are universally flattened as equal moral beings. (2) The discursive construal of class-divided humans as equal moral beings is legally codified through structural and performative methods. 

In contrast to the liberal-legal discourse of homo juridicus, neoliberalism advocates a juridical matrix of meaning which is economized and entrepreneurially-inflected with competitiveness.  According to Jason Read, “The operative terms of this [neoliberal] governmentality are no longer rights and laws but interest, investment and competition.” Instead of framing individuals as equal exchange partners of capitalists, neoliberalism interpellates them as competitive co-entrepreneurs. This signifies a major shift in the anthropology of human subject wherein competition replaces exchange as the generalized grammar of society. In place of what Adam Smith called the tendency of humankind to “barter, truck and exchange”, we can witness the propensity of humans to “compete, outdo and invest in oneself”. 

With the shift from exchange to competition in the legal sphere, the discourse of homo juridicus has been disrupted. This discourse had instituted the rule of law through the moral equalization of all human beings and the consequent codification of this equal worth in the form of different rights. But with the advent of neoliberalism, rights have been replaced with Bethamanian self-interests and equal moral worth (dignity) has been superseded by the concept of human capital. Now, civil liberties and rights are subordinate to self-interests which automatically guide the competitive and marketized mechanisms of society; humans are no longer moral beings. Instead, they become the bearers of productive capacity, embodying different skills and using these skills to generate maximum output with minimum expenditure. 

The existence of liberalism in performative patterns presented neoliberalized subjects with two different symbolic worlds. These two symbolic worlds clashed and asymmetrically interwove with each other. What this produced was an ambivalent symbolic coherence, dominated by neoliberalism but inconsistently interlaced with liberal elements. This symbolic ambiguity generated a situation where the flickering features of liberalism were constantly negated by neoliberalism. The disregard of constitutional ideals, the economic homogenization of all parties and the reduction of elections to mere processes of renewing neoliberalism are some of the many examples where liberalism was constantly snuffed out by neoliberalism. Liberalism’s inability to emerge as a successful governmentality due to neoliberalism caused the people to become frustrated with liberal political mechanisms. This feeling of frustration combined with the subjective stress generated by neoliberalism to prepare a fertile ground for right-wing populism. 

The Emergence of Right-wing Populism

Through the conjunctive effects of neoliberal subjectivation and neoliberal democracy, the magnitude of unutterable suffering exponentially increased. In response to this burgeoning suffering, right-wing populism emerged as a political phenomenon capable of semanticizing this suffering and providing meaning outlets where this suffering could congeal. This process of semanticizing suffering was done through the cultural construction of essentialized identities, defined antagonistically in relation to an ethnic “other”. The new semantic-cultural ecosystem which was created through the production of particularistic identitarian axes was visibly hostile to any characteristics of liberalism. 

This opposition to liberalism was made possible due to the frustration which the people had accrued with the abortive, partial and performative existence of liberalism within the womb of neoliberal governmentality. Right-wing populism, therefore, was able to seriously subvert the two defining characteristics of liberal political mechanism – procedural conception of political legitimacy and political mediation through parties. Firstly, right-wing populism foregrounded the appealing viscerality of extra-institutional tactics and through the raw emphasis on illegality, it played havoc with liberal political mechanisms. By shifting the intelligible terrain of political contestation from ahistorical universalism to jingoistic particularism, right-wing populism was able to normatively sabotage the hollow pillars on which procedural legitimacy was predicated. 

The procedural conception of political legitimacy had presupposed the normative-axiological existence of a specific type of populace. This citizenry was united by the abstract values of the rule of law and constitutional morality and was supposed to partake in elections as morally equalized human beings. Right-wing populism re-defined these normative values and culturally created a citizenry that is ethnically particularized, fragmented, antagonistic and uncommitted to the tenuous thread of emotionally bland liberal universalism. Consequently, this identitarian re-articulation of the populace led to the introduction of new political platforms such as extra-institutional street mobilizations and violent campaigns. These non-liberal political modules were able to adequately reflect the instinctual emotionality of the authentic support base of right-wing populists. But the initiation of non-liberal political sub-structures did not wholly discard legal electoral means. Instead, right-wing populism used extra-institutional methods to symbolically mold electoral platforms by premising it on a reformulated normative basis of particularism. 

Secondly, right-wing populism replaced the anemic party structure of liberalism with the verticality of a strongman politics. Instead of political parties policing the neoliberalism-generated psychological agony of people, right-wing populism used the imagery of a tough guy leader to symbolically securitize neoliberal insecurities. The strongman was iconized as a sturdy person capable of powerfully carrying out tasks without the presence of procedural pathogens. Through the removal of mediating procedures, right-wing populism was able to personalize politics by establishing an unfiltered politics, directly overseen by the strongman. This personalization involves the aestheticization of politics in which an illusory and imaginary participative experience for the masses is created. Benjamin Franklin, while writing on the onset of fascism, said that fascism “seeks to give them [dispossessed classes] an expression while preserving property.” Right-wing populism too seeks to build a culturally cadenced politics, emotionally expressive of the people’s demands. Strongman politics serves this role of carefully crafting a pro-people idiomatic politics, symbolically rooted in the vernacularity of everyday sensibilities. 

Along with the obliteration of liberalism, right-wing populism also initiated the cultural unification of individuals. This cultural unification was effectuated through a hyper-nationalistic ideology comprising of three components – chronopolitics, territorial politics and necropolitics. These political stratagems allowed right-wing populists to unrestrainedly semanticize suffering and create new expressive political portals for the releasement of pent-up suffering.   

(1) Chronopolitics is the political usage of time in which diverse temporal strands are seamed together to produce an overarching temporal narrative. In most of the cases, right-wing populists aim to retrieve a lost heritage or past where communitarian bonds were strong and the majoritarian collectivity was not fragmented. After the discursive framing of an imagined utopian past, the future is re-configured as the natural extension of past. This signifies that the future becomes a horizon where the mythically molded past is to be achieved. Correspondingly, the present becomes a battleground where antagonistic identities are oppressed to unimpededly move towards that glorious future. The whole chronopolitical schema of right-wing populism is extremely similar to what Roger Griffin, while describing fascism, has called “palingenetic ultranationalism”.  According to Griffin, palingenetic ultranationalism aims “to banish anarchy and decadence and bring order and health, to inaugurate an exciting new world in place of the played-out one that existed before”. In a similarly intense and effusive fashion, right-wing populism also attempts to morally re-generate the nation after an ostensibly long period of decay and misery. 

Chronopolitical tools enable right-wing populism to produce a temporally coherent narrative, capable of providing cultural comfort to people lost in the disconnected temporality of neoliberalism. As described in the first section of the article, radical abstraction – which is necessitated by neoliberalism – requires that people constantly live in perpetual flexibility. This flexibility specifically displays itself in the currently preponderant contingent, casual and contractual forms of employment. An employment experience like this, which is relentlessly fluid and unstable, does not allow for the sedimentation of sensibilities. It is only through this sedimentation that a relatively meaningful, synchronized and smooth experiential-temporal texture is created. As a result of the de-sedimentation and de-synchronization of temporal experiences, an experientially and emotionally eroded existence is brought into being. 

Right-wing populism has exploited the de-synchronized temporality of neoliberalism by presenting a culturally comprehensive chronopolitical narrative. This narrative has helped neoliberalized subjects to politically plaster the temporal cracks of neoliberalism with the homogeneously and harmoniously connected palingenetic temporality of right-wing populism. Instead of the disjointed and incoherent temporality of neoliberalism, right-wing populism presented a narrative which was integrated, aesthetically rich and culturally captivating. 

(2) Territorial politics pertains to the political apperception of space in which boundaries and emotional-cultural values are created. In this politicization process, space refers to an un-politicized configuration which, when politicized, becomes territory. Before the advent of right-wing populism, neoliberalism had followed a territoriality (refers to the human agency and strategy used for creating territories) which viewed territory from a functional-economic perspective. This functional theorization of territory was ineluctably linked to the emergence of nation-state. According to this theorization, the nation (considered as a unified and intimate community) was a product of state-formation and not vice-versa. The nation, ergo, was formed by the productive-economic exigencies of state and it was the re-organization of the latent material properties of territory that gave rise to nation. According to Jan Penrose, this formulation of territory is predominantly influenced by a fundamental focus on “the material resources of a territory, including the symbolic significance of controlling it”. As a result of its one-sided focus on the material properties of territory, modern territorial strategy extensively economized the emotional potentialities of territory. 

In response to the increasing commodification of territory, right-wing populism used the “primordialist conception of territory” to gain mass support. The primordialist territorial theory postulates that there is an essential interconnection between territory and human beings. In this perspective, territory is overwhelmingly viewed from a cultural viewpoint and the innate emotional properties of the territory are particularly highlighted. Right-wing populism has effectively utilized a cultural territorial strategy through its territorial nationalism which naturalizes a socially constructed bond between national territory and an ethnic collectivity. The social construction and naturalization of such a bond is aided by collective myths such as a grand chronopolitical narrative which visualize an entire history of a cultural community. Through these myths, the cultural distinctiveness and emotionalization of a particular territory is reinforced and the long-lasting links of a community with that territory are highlighted. 

Through a cultural territorial tactic, right-wing populism is able to suture the spatially split existence of neoliberalized subjects. On an individual level, neoliberalism generates massive spatial instability due to the precarious, contingent and casual forms of employment which it engenders. Moreover, a deregulated labor market increases this spatial instability through work flexibilization which allows employers to summarily fire workers. Through precarious employment and labor deregulation, an emotionally desiccated existence is created where individuals remain psychically unattached to any territory. When this individualizing spatial precarization of workers combines with the totalizing dominance of territorial commodification, a conducive environment for the cultural territoriality of right-wing populism is created. By presenting an emotive and expressive image of national territory, right-wing populism culturally cements the cracks of spatial neoliberalism. Furthermore, by connecting the territory of nation to a cultural community, right-wing populism palpably provincializes the idea of a nation and concretely cultivates a feeling of rootedness. The end result of this cultural territorial strategy is the genesis of an authentic, essentialized and insular collectivity, intimately interconnected with the pure soil of their nation and interbedded in the multilayeredness of myths.  

(3) As a direct result of the construction of an exclusionary chronopolitical narrative and the exclusive association of national territory with a cultural community, an antagonistic “other” is produced. This otherized community represents the excluded exterior of the right-wing populist’s authentic cultural community. In the entire chronopolitical and territorial discourse of hyper-nationalism, this antagonistic other is denoted as the obstacle hindering the heroic march towards a utopian future and inhibiting the glorious re-birth of the nation. Consequently, it is through the brutalization of the enemy identity that the utopian land can be retrieved. Necropolitics refers to this dehumanization and transference of oppositional identities to the zone of non-being. An important element of right-wing populist necropolitics is the socio-somatic suppression of oppositional identities and the inter-entangling of these identities with the fabric of death. These socio-somatic techniques enable right-wing populism to signalize and dramatize suffering. This is sought to be done through two major institutional ensembles/practices which increased the appeal of right-wing populism by silencing suffering: medicalization and mind/body dichotomy. 

Firstly, medicalization silenced suffering through its depoliticizing and individualizing scientificism. This scientificism served as a mask for ideologically stabilizing neoliberalism and integrating “deviant” individuals into the market mechanisms of neoliberalism. The mental health field exemplifies such a scenario wherein medicalization has marched in lockstep with neoliberalism, preventing the expression of suffering. With the intensification of neoliberalism, a corresponding psycho-social suppression of fraternal feelings has been initiated. This direct correlation between neoliberalism and individualization is evidenced by the astronomic growth in loneliness, depression and suicides which are happening in many countries. In USA, for example, suicide rates have risen by 25% from 1999 through 2016 and about 47,000 people in the country died by suicide in 2016. In UK, over 9 million people or one-fifth of the population say they are always or often lonely and in 2018, there was an increase of 11.8% in suicide as compared to 2017. In order to re-regularize the neoliberalism-generated mental health crisis and integrate deviant individuals into the market, mental health institutions have gained a renewed importance owing to their ability to conceal economic structures. The specific material-discursive procedures used by mental health treatments obscure the neoliberal origins of mental illnesses and diffuse the suffering of individuals through a medicalized strategy of fragmentation. 

 By restrictively focusing on mental illness as a medical phenomenon, the psychopharmacological sector pathologized mental illness and completely ignored its social dimension. As shown in the first section of the article, neoliberalism hyper-individualizes society through the entrenchment of competitive and entrepreneurial discourses. Moreover, it privileges a single-minded focus on positive affects and frames the unsuccessfulness of individuals as a result of their own bad choices. Through the combined power mechanisms of entrepreneurialism, competitiveness and self-responsibilization, people are left isolated, helpless and buried under the heft of competition. Psychiatry and psychotherapy (and the mental field more generally) attempt to re-normalize these deviant individuals by treating them with psychotropic drugs and again making them suitable to be integrated into the market. 

As Luigi Esposito and Fernando M. Perez have said, the deliberate disappearance of larger social structures leads to mental disorders being viewed “as conditions largely divorced from social, economic, and political contingencies and turned into personal pathologies that can be diagnosed and treated through the allegedly value-free traditions and naturalistic methods of science and medicine”. Along with the obscuration of the social-economic dimension, the mental health field also defines what is normal and abnormal. By considering greater productivity and constant work as conspicuous signs of normality, mental health practices bolster neoliberal entrepreneurialism. As stated by R U’Ren, “Capitalism ascribes good character to the individual who works conscientiously and promotes hard work as the route to individual success. Psychiatry reinforces this by maintaining that the ability and desire to work (and consume) is a sign of mental health.” 

An end result of neoliberal mental health practices is the reduction of human body to a mere biomedical artifact. By turning a nelson’s eye towards the socio-structural processes which individualize and isolate a person, mental health operations view the body as a piece of scientific evidence in which the pathological fact is situated. This leads to the abstraction of the body from the person and the exclusive examination of the pathological fact (mental illness) located in that socially dead body. In this whole operation, the existential experience of suffering is scientifically silenced through a decontextualized and professionalized investigation, classification and regularization of the body. Here, we can observe how suffering has been trivialized through the “medical gaze” which scientifically separates the patient’s body and social identity and produces an individuated medicalized subjectivity. As said by Black Hawk Hancock, this medical separation leads to the “dehumanization of the body into an object of analysis, to be isolated, probed, analyzed, examined, and classified”.

Secondly, the mind/body dualism produces suffering by falsely dichotomizing “pure mind” and “despised bodies”. In an attempt to justify the crude division of labor in capitalism, mind is privileged over body. This allows capitalists to continue their exploitation of worker’s body which they consider as naturally inferior to the pure mind of capitalists. As explained by Claudia Leeb, “The mind (mental labor)/body (physical labor) opposition stands in the service of covering over the exploitation of those identified with the body (the working classes, women, and racial and sexual minorities) which also establishes and upholds the dominance of those identified with the mind (men, the bourgeoisie, and whites).”

The creation of the mind/body opposition emerges as a natural necessity due to the productive processes of capitalism in which workers are somatically suppressed and economically exploited. Karl Marx expressively articulated this exploitative process through his metaphor of “vampire capital”: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Throughout Marx’s corpus, we encounter such intense and vivid phraseology, describing the production process of capitalism: capital’s “werewolf-like hunger for surplus labor”, “vampire thirst for the living blood of labor” and worker’s “death from simple overwork” are some of the examples of the vocabulary Marx uses to capture the extraordinarily exploitative nature of capitalism. 

In the whole production process of capitalism, the valorization of capital occurs through the ontological dissipation of the worker’s corporeal capabilities and the existential extinguishment of the creative potentiality of somatic skills. Subsequently, this dissipated labor is congealed or crystallized in the commodity which is the objectified form of surplus-labor. But not all dissipated labor contributes to the creation of commodities. According to Daniel Krie and Kevin S. Amidon, capitalism “now includes tortuous excess, damage that is not sacrificed into value but dissipates as an unvalorized destructive somatic excess”. With imperialist globalization and labor deregulation, working conditions have drastically deteriorated and have converted the existence of workers into a brute ontological fact of bare life. The growing precarization and informalization of work are redesigning bodies as disposable, expendable and deformable. 

The mind/body opposition conceals the aforementioned corporeal indignity and violence done by the ruling class through the exclusionary identification of body with impurity and mind with purity. This is done through the selective signification of the supposed entrepreneurship and industriousness of the capitalist. Through this singular focus on the managerial-enterprising excellence of the capitalist, the indispensable role of worker’s physical labor in the constitution of capitalism is ignored. By violently erasing the presence of corporeal cruelty, the suffering caused by that cruelty is unable to get semanticized and gets entrapped in the maelstrom of unspeakable emotions. 

Right-wing populism utilizes the degradation of body caused by medicalization and mind/body (mental/manual) opposition to unleash its necropolitical onslaught. It reforges the bodies of the members of its support base as sites of subjugation and attributes this subjugation to the antagonistic cultural collectivity. This leads to the transference of oppositional identities, perceived as hampering the hegemony of the right-wing populists’ support base, to the necropolitical realm wherein they live in a death-world characterized by death-in-life. By providing its supporters with the instantaneous experience of somatically suppressing the oppositional identity, right-wing populism heals the wounds of medicalization and corporeal indignity. Using the necropolitical oppression of otherized identities, right-wing populism erases the professional distances of medical gaze and converts the biomedical body into a viscerally alive and emotionally infused body. Moreover, the experience of subjecting the enemy body to the constant threat of violence elevates the status of the perpetrator’s body who enchantingly feels the raw power of repression. 

Right-wing populism is deploying diverse tactics to re-organize the suffering produced by neoliberalism. It is skillfully navigating within the boundaries of neoliberalism and is stabilizing it through the cultural displacement of discontent. The core strategy of the Right consists in its ability to redirect suffering into the cultural-emotional zone and symbolically soothe it through the aesthetic, culturally comforting and passionate politicization of accumulated restlessness. To counteract the offensive of right-wing populism, the Left has to move away from liberal-parliamentary discourse and build a narrative of suffering rooted in class struggle. 

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected] His articles have been published by different magazines and websites such as Monthly Review Online, ZNet, Green Social Thought, Weekly Worker, News and Letters Weekly, Economic and Political Weekly, Arena, Eurasia Review, Coventry University Press, Culture Matters, Global Research, Dissident Voice, Countercurrents, Counterview, Hampton Institute, Ecuador Today, People’s Review, Eleventh Column, Karvaan India, Clarion India, OpEd News, The Iraq File, Portside and the Institute of Latin American Studies.

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