Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Tool of Civic Friendship

Mazie Preite

April 19th, 2019

Given arguments from May and Schwarzenbach, how civic friendship can be modeled and promoted to balance forces of Neoliberal economy?

Before delving into a deeper discussion of philosopher’s thoughts on a neoliberal society, and most specifically a neoliberal economy, it is helpful to look into the topic of neoliberalism itself. Arguably one of the goals of neoliberalism that can best sum up the ideology is to maximize interest and minimize labor. Based on this summary, it is easy to infer that neoliberalism has an unbalanced focus on commerce, consumerism, and entrepreneurship. This, of course, leads to a neglect of other important elements in society like connection, mental wellbeing, and empathy. This is a major part of the issues some have with neoliberalism but, like any economic, political, and/or social ideology, there are many different reasons behind people’s opposition to it, or even their appreciation for it. For example, many people do not support neoliberalism because they believe it is too difficult, or even impossible, to achieve.

It is because of this lack of recognition of connection, mental wellbeing, and empathy in the core ideas of neoliberalism that friendship is able to act as a remedy or resistance to the negative outcomes of a largely consumerism based society. For example, out of the three types of friendship that Aristotle defined (pleasure, utility, and virtue), virtue is the truest and least egoistic because it is based purely on the interest for the other person, not something you are looking to gain by becoming friends with the other person, and is therefore the only one that can act as resistance to neoliberalism. The other two types of friendship proposed by Aristotle, pleasure and utility, thrive in a neoliberal economy. In fact, a utility approach to friendship and its connection to the economy can be seen encouraged and rewarded constantly in a neoliberal society.

Another tool to combat the harsh commerce economics of neoliberalism discussed is sacrifice. This is because, in a society based on the value of a free market and the importance of the freedom of trade and capital, giving to others with no goal of receiving something in return, and other forms of potential sacrifice are refreshing and even reintroduces the concepts of humanity and ethics back into the public ideology. The fact that these acts of sacrifice or charity to help others without the intention for personal gain are still valued and praised in society shows that neoliberalism is neglecting a valuable part of human life.

Although many of the philosopher’s may not agree, these modes of resistance to neoliberalism are extremely helpful because they act not only as models for the values we should replace as highest in our society but also, in a more realistic sense, they can be used on a heavily neoliberal society to reintroduce these values, even when it is not realistic to change the whole ideology of the society at that current state. Even this prompt question asks how civic friendship can best be used to balance the effects of a neoliberalist economy, not necessarily replace it. In fact, even if one’s individual goal is to completely replace a neoliberal economy, it will be helpful to achieve that through introducing virtue based friendships and programs based on the power of sacrifice into the neoliberal society and this would certainly be more realistic than replacing the system all at once.

Like the virtue based friendships that pertain more to May’s discussions, the civic friendship that Schwarzenbach talks about in great deal also has the ability to help combat the neglect for connection and compassion that neoliberalism has. She does this first by emphasizing the importance of connection and, more specifically, community through the ideas of many famous philosophers. Looking to open her journal with emphasis on the importance of elevating the role of friendship in all aspects of society, she describes how “A sense of community allows a society to remain one undivided polis and not two hostile and warring cities of rich and poor (Aristotle); it supports the formation of a general will despite individualistic and antagonistic differences (Rousseau); and it can unite, elevate, and make powerful a humiliated class in the general fight against systematic exploitation (Marxists)” (Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship, 3). It is on this understanding of the importance of connection to the unity of a society that Schwarzenbach is able to propose civic friendship as a possible way to encourage and increase this connection in society as a way to unite. The civic friendship that Schwarzenbach is proposing is not the same as personal friendships. The differences between the two exist in order to make civic friendship more palatable and realistic in today’s society because, unlike personal friendship, civic friendship requires only the “minimal traits of all friendship already noted by Aristotle – a reciprocal awareness of the moral equality of the other, reciprocal goodwill towards them, and a practical doing.”  (Schwarzenbach, Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship, 5).

The ideas behind civic friendship are not new; it is very likely that you were told similar ideas of treating others kind and equal as children. The difference though, is that civic friendship is designed to “become embodied in the background “basic structure” of society: in the way its major social, economic and political institutions work together in one scheme and distribute rights and duties” in order to have a larger and more insured impact (Schwarzenbach, Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship, 5). This emphasis on the importance of institutions is particularly why support for civic friendship is so exciting in a neoliberal society. It takes the existing human traits and values that encourage friendship and works to institutionalize those so that they no longer remain uncultivated and neglected but instead are used to create a better society that is more considerate and united.

An example of this that May discusses is the trust that is so naturally formed between people, especially through communication. May argues that when someone tells us something, they are asking us to trust them and that trust quickly turns into dependence. Although this sounds extreme and possibly negative if you, like many political ideologies, greatly value independence and therefore do not want to be dependent on most of the people you talk to, May emphasizes that “trust is a central element of deep or close friendship. It is part of the bond that keeps friends together, and is bound to the history of particular friendships” (May, 135). One possible way (of many) this concept of trust can be used to promote civic friendship is through charity. If one marginalized group receives charity, donations, or help from a different group, it will cultivate a better relationship of trust and empathy between those communities and therefore the larger community overall. Although these acts of charity already happen today in society, there is a strikingly lower amount of institutions that are giving than individuals. According to Charity Search, in 2017, 16% ($66.9 billion) of all donations were given by foundations, 8% ($20.77 billion) by corporations and nearly 80% ($322.35 billion) by individuals. The gap of donations between institutions and individuals is decreasing but, as evident by these numbers, still needs a great deal of work and using civic friendship to encourage friendship and empathy in institutions seems like a potentially useful way to help this.

On top of the many national problems that could be improved through civic friendship, it seems not improbable to predict that, because “political friendship operates via social and political institutions, as well as by way of the habits, social norms, and customs these instill,” it could also improve international relations overtime as we get more and more used to considering the wellbeing and humanity of others (Schwarzenbach, Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship, 11). In conclusion, no matter the level civic friendship is implemented into our society (especially through institutions), it will have positive effects on the relationships we have with those around us and even those across the globe.


Professor Hugh Blair receives China Friendship award from Vice Premier Ma Kai

Works Cited

“Giving Statistics.” Charity Navigator, 12 June 2018,

May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lanham, 2012. Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth: Lexington Books.

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A.“Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship,” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015.

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