Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Harm of Neoliberal Economics and How Friendship Can Resist

While friendship may not be taken particularly seriously outside of people’s individual lives—it is often ignored in academia and takes the backseat to romantic relationships in books, cinema, television, etc.—most people consider friendship to be one of the “3 most important factors in life” [i]. However, when looking at the “economics of friendship,” where time is the currency, “any one individual friend will receive roughly 0.002% of your time per year,” with most of your time instead being consumed by work, sleep, general “life admin,” etc. [ii]. If friends truly are among the most important things in life, then this is a serious misalignment between our values and how we actually spend our time! This is generated in great part by the effect modern neoliberal economics; now, more than in any other time period, “whether the gain be instantaneous or consumption or future return, we are encouraged to look upon one another in economic terms. We are accountants in our relationships” [iii]. Instead of relationships being built on trust, shared values, commitment, etc., they become economized. Even with these changes, though—a decrease in both quantity of time spent with friends and the quality of those friendships (as a general trend, but not a universal rule)—friendship is still consistently rated as a top value, and high levels of loneliness worldwide indicate that friendship, while less socially valued more broadly, is just as important to our well-being now as it always has been. The negative effects of neoliberal economics on friendship are significant, but not irreversible, and there is much that can be done both individually and institutionally.

Before taking any action, however, it is important to understand what exactly is the problem, and the answer is that neoliberal economics negatively influences people’s lives and decisions in myriad ways. For example, the emphasis on being “sensible, pragmatic, and responsible” often leads to people making decisions like “doing overtime at work or buying a family home a 75 minute commute away” that make spare time for connecting with friends difficult [iv]. Friends do not factor into the cold rationality preached by neoliberalism. Additionally, if we are “accountants in our relationships” and only have time for a limited number of people, “then somebody who costs a little more in demands on our time or attention will inevitably get cut in the next budget” [v]. Both of these examples of undervaluing friendship seem so intuitively wrong, but unfortunately are the realities of modern economics’ effects on people’s worldviews.

Todd May explains that, due to these forces, almost all people in a neoliberal economy fall into one of two categories (or both): a consumer or an entrepreneur. The figure of the consumer involves “consumption as opposed to creation or production, inhabiting a time frame of the present, and individualization in a particular way” [vi], while the figure of the entrepreneur is “engaged in active investment… oriented toward the future… [and] an individualist figure” [vii]. The consumer cares about feeling good in the present moment and putting in as little effort as possible, while the entrepreneur is primarily focused on the future and, in a neoliberal economy, personal gain at the expense of authentic relationships. Both are individualistic, with their goals being personal pleasure or personal success, though neither of these ways of living are ultimately fulfilling.

On the other hand, cultivating friendships is ultimately fulfilling. While the neoliberal economy may not have been designed for deep friendships to exist, they still do, and there are many steps that can be taken to resist the influence of neoliberal-economical perspectives. As an individual person, making friendship a true priority when making life decisions is crucial—it should be build it into weekly and (ideally) daily routines and valued at the same, or even greater, level as romantic relationships. Additionally, in order to resist the focus on money that permeates society, being generous with friends and not always keeping track of exactly how much money one friend has spent on another is also a primary element of most deep friendships; by not monitoring down to the dollar how much one friend “owes” another, there is an assumption that, because of the closeness of the friendship, the friends will continue to support each other long enough into the future that, in the end, the exact balance sheet does not matter. This involves a level of trust that is discouraged by the individualistic, “everyone for themself,” nature of neoliberalism. However, “if we don’t trust anyone, we can’t live” [viii], and cultivating trust in one’s life and relationships helps to further deconstruct the influence of this individualistic-economical way of thinking. In deep friendship, you are “ready to compromise your individuality” for the sake of your connection with your friend [ix]. Trust and lack of individuality are entirely in contrast to neoliberal economics’ emphasis on complete self-sufficiency and no-commitment relationships, so making promises to friends and sacrificing for them are in fact revolutionary actions.

Additionally, beyond just personal actions, friendship paves the way for positive social change and should be supported institutionally. Close friendships can “train [people] in… trust, and in doing so train [them] to interact with others in a common project even where [they] may disagree” [x], including “offering support [in] confronting social norms” [xi]. Instead of only being either pleasure- or utility-based, friendships can, and often do, lead to larger actions and movements to improve the world. Friendship is not only a necessity for personal well-being, but a necessity for societal, and global, well-being, as well. Additionally, the creation of this larger friendship does not have to be solely the responsibility of individual people, but can be supported by governments and other institutions. Governments can promote a civic friendship among the population that includes a “reciprocal awareness of the moral equality of the other, reciprocal goodwill towards them, and a practical doing” and “become[s] embodied in the background ‘basic structure’ of society” [xii]. One idea for achieving this is to have a universal civil service. Through this service, “a minimal amount of care and concern for fellow citizens could become a part of the civic obligation of each citizen across the board, much as defense of the nation has traditionally been the duty of the male citizen-soldier” [xiii]. Instead of devoting a chunk of their life to the military, a citizen could join the civil service and spend the same amount of time both learning and promoting friendship, diplomacy, trust, understanding, etc., instead of violence, mistrust, and war. A civil service such as this, if executed effectively, would entirely revolutionize how friendship is perceived worldwide, making it a priority in a way that it has long deserved to be.

So, whether at the individual or institutional levels, there is much that can be done to resist the forces of neoliberal economics on how friendship functions and is perceived in our lives. As “humanity cannot continue without promise, forgiveness, and friendship” [xiv], this development of deep personal friendship and broader, universal civic friendship, is one of the most important actions a person can take.


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code of Oberlin College in this assignment.

Emily Cairncross



[i] GiveGet, “The Economics of Friendship: Paying for What We Value and Wasting Time on Crap.”

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, page 108.

[iv] GiveGet.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] May, page 35.

[vii] May, page 48.

[viii] M. Jafar Amir Mahallati, Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art, Lecture 4/11.

[ix] Mahallati, 4/11.

[x] May, page 137.

[xi] May, page 128.

[xii] Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship,” page 5.

[xiii] Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Civic Friendship: A Critique of Recent Care Theory,” page 135.

[xiv] Mahallati, 4/11, referencing Hannah Arendt’s views on promise and forgiveness and adding friendship.


Works Cited

GiveGet. “The Economics of Friendship: Paying for What We Value and Wasting Time on Crap.” Medium, 2 May 2018,

Mahallati, M. Jafar Amir. Friendship: Perspectives in Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Course, Oberlin College. Spring 2019.

May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books, 2012.

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Civic Friendship: A Critique of Recent Care Theory.” Friendship in Politics: Theorizing Amity in and Between States, by Preston King and Graham M. Smith, Routledge, 2007, pp. 117–139.

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship.” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies, 2015, 3:1, pp. 3–18., doi:10.5518/AMITY/14.

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