Autonomy, change and imagination in a brave new world

In this blog post, trainee counselling psychologist Anastasios Argyropoulos reflects on Paul Verhaeghe’s article ‘Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us’.


In one of his articles in the Guardian, Paul Verhaeghe shared views that are eloquently elaborated in his book What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-based Society. He invited us to think over the effects of economy on our values and personalities, reminding us of our tendency to think of our identities as stable and separate from outside forces. Drawing from his own research and therapeutic experience, Verhaeghe argues that long standing neoliberalism and free-market forces have shaped social conditions whereby certain personality traits are favoured over others. The favoured characteristics for a successful career in meritocratic neoliberalism: characteristics such as talking up our abilities, opportunism, being able to lie without feelings of guilt, impulsivity and risk-taking, according to the author, are not really that far off traits found in psychopathic personalities.

Furthermore, he argued that today’s work conditions have produced phenomena such as emotional dependency on the enterprise or organisation, superficial or opportunistic ties, lack of solidarity, preoccupation with profit, and bullying in the workplace, to name just a few. He emphasises the detrimental effects of contemporary work environments on our self-respect, which so heavily relies on recognition from the other. He challenges the truth and nature of the apparent freedom that we have today to ‘make’ something of ourselves, to make choices freely and to set the goals for our lives, a freedom which according to Verhaeghe is limited outside the success narrative of meritocratic neoliberalism.

Self-government, self-management and unrestricted choice are on offer to those who fall for the neoliberal fairy tale (as the author puts it), but if our presumed freedom is tied to this one central condition to ‘make’ something of ourselves (which again boils down to the individual’s efforts, as an embedded neoliberal ethic), what is it that might allowus to go against such conditioning, to express our dysphoria for the crude meritocratic work ethics and the horrendous bureaucracy of everyday life in our highly audited society?

The author’s concluding remark on cultural norms and values being an integral and essential part of our identities, is effectively an acknowledgment of the link that exists between economy and choice (individual and social), accurately pinpointing that changed economics means essentially changed ethics and consequently changed identities. How then is Verhaeghe’s concluding statement that the current economic system is bringing out the worst in us, any different, if it is different, to the idea that the current economic system is a reflection of ‘us’?

Is Verhaeghe juggling with the good old determinism versus freedom debate? And if so, doesn’t this raise the need for a critical re-examination of determinism, freedom and autonomy fit for our modern times? The more ripped we feel from our promised freedom, the more distanced we feel from our core values, the more dysphoric we get from the way we are expected to perform or succeed, the more we must unpack notions of achievement, success and concepts such the economy. Isn’t it fascinating how the economy is talked about, how it is perceived in our times? Are we elaborating on its very conception and on the deterministic character attributed to ‘the economy’ or ‘the economic conditions’? And even more so, on the passivity (individual and social) implied by this?

If we are denouncing neoliberal ideologies and economic conditions that reward and cultivate ethical distortion, disorientation and irresponsibility, then the cultivation of maturity (individual and social) should equally be addressed. We are thus in need of a twofold exploration: an in depth understanding of this perplexing link between the individual, the social and the institutional/systemic; while on the other hand (for those like Verhaeghe who don’t fall for the fairy tale of freedom in a neoliberal world, and more like in the fashion of Albert Camus ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you’), a response to the alienation through Autonomy.

The Greek philosopher, economist, political activist and psychoanalyst, Cornelius Castoriadis’ (1975) seminal work on the Imaginary Institutions of Society might help to shed a light of explanation and of hope on our devastating apathy towards that personality change and shift in ethics described by Verhaeghe, and compliment the rather stimulating views raised in his article.

The social/collective imaginary is used to refer to the set of values, rules, symbols, laws, that are common to a social group or society and by which people align and function as a social whole. As Thompson (Studies in the Theory of Ideology, 1984, p. 23) explains, ‘the dimension through which human beings create their ways of living together and their ways of representing their collective life’. Neo-liberalim’s collective imaginary is the social imaginary, Castoriadis would argue, suggesting that the ‘imaginary of the society […] creates for each historical period its singular way of living, seeing and making its own existence’ (in Thompson, ibid).

Resembling somewhat the poststructuralist tradition, and through an encyclopaedic lens, Castoriadis (Foucault and Autonomy 2012, p. 6) argued that the human subject as well as his or her social reality, was essentially ‘a product of representational activity, where historical and cultural meaning gave life to society while shaping the individual’s subjectivity’ formulating ‘an ontology of creation’. But for Castoriadis, Being is Creation. For example, let’s just think about how Capitalism came about in the West. If we are able to conceive the existence of such complex organised human societies, we must accept that those very societies possess a vast creative capacity. That social imaginary is the very source of the institutions that organise our lives and that create what Castoriadis termed imaginary social significations. In his thinking, ‘the central imaginary significations of a society … are the laces which tie a society together and the forms which define what, for a given society, is “real”‘ (Thompson, ibid).

It is these imaginary social significations that determine what is good and bad, what is truth or lie, what is just and unjust. It is the significations that are ultimately meaning-making mediums for our lives (or even our deaths). But these significations are not stable and rigid. They change, and their changes demonstrate a shift in society. Do we realise our creative capacity and our capabilities for transformation? Castoriadis displays an understanding of the paradoxes and tensions inherent in the governing systems in the West. It is through these tensions that crises come about (both in the individual and in society): although the system paves the way for freedom, it is simultaneously compelled to supress it. His innovative thinking provides an insight into the mechanics and the maze of ideological manifestation on our everyday life and a maturity call.

Most of these ideas are necessary for us to approach the question of freedom in society: is there freedom and what constitutes it? Freedom for Castoriadis does not mean to do whatever comes into our head, nor as some philosophers argued, to act without motive. Freedom first and foremost simply means to be in a state of clarity towards our thoughts and actions, and is approached, (according to Castoridis in Crossroads of the Labyrinth, 1979) by thinking through the concept of Autonomy.

Autonomy requires continuous examination of ourselves and engaging in critical reflection. Autonomy means becoming able to participate in the creation of all the symbols, values, rules, laws that are exercised and enforced by the institutions that are governing us. Historically, for a great deal of time, societies believed that it was not individuals themselves who created the laws and institutions. But then who? God(s)? Ancestors? Such a positioning made the law except from being questioned and interrogated. This changed with Democracy, and then again, with Renaissance.

What about modern times? The infantilisation in the workplace that Verhaeghe talks about is just a product of a heteronomous society, an example of individual regression (as Richard Sennett, referenced in the Verhaeghe article) to times where institutions were more powerful and their authority unquestionable. Heteronomous society, in Castoridian terms, is a society that is enslaved in its own institutions: a society lacking autonomy, comprising members with superficial interests, heavily conditioned, disoriented, who lack the critical reflexivity to claim (let alone exercise) their autonomy. That climate of apathy, cynicism and irresponsibility is outlined in Verhaeghe’s writings.

Castoriadis holds that genuine politics is ultimately, a philosophical way of life where reflecting, contemplating, and elaborating on the experiences of everyday is an integral part of living. This way of life must not be just for the privileged few who can endlessly engage in such activities. We are the society, and thus Castoriadis refers to a way of life in which humans strive, struggle for participation and constant re-engagement in deliberation about what is good for us. Verhaeghe shared his ideas and experiences on what is bad for us. Castoriadis prompts us to ask what is then good for us as society. If we are capable of genuinely posing this question, and interrogating the traditions, norms, trends and social conditioning in which these emerge, we are capable of Autonomy.

Identities need not be as stable and as separate from outside forces. Castoriadis’ thoughts call for a good look in the mirror; his work is a vital reminder that freedom essentially means taking responsibility and claiming autonomy, going back to our creativity and relying on our imaginative capacities. Beyond the mere task of prioritising our time and needs, freedom ultimately means re-defining ‘reality’, and pointing ourselves towards that reality by our conscious decisions and conscious direction in life. Are we bullied or intimidated by neoliberalist ‘reality’? Did we choose this, are we trapped in this ‘success narrative’ Verhaeghe described? Is that ‘really’ ‘us’ out there? If the answer is yes, can we elaborate further on the representational dimension of our social realities, the dysphoria, disorientation and oppression that stems from the adversities and paradoxes of today’s life? And can we then imagine something different and how that might look?

Anastasios is a BACP Registered counsellor and a trainee counselling psychologist on the PsychD at the University of Roehampton. His research interests bridge the fields of psychology, counselling, psychotherapy, philosophy, political science and sociology.


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