Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Across the Aisle: Friendship Despite Neoliberalism (Cat Potts)


The phrase “America First” is not one that is new to the ideologies of Americans. Even though it now is representative of a particular individual and the attached political party, it is an idea that has existed for decades. I am reminded of the illustrations by the famed Dr. Seuss, who drew up several political cartoons around World War II[i]. This ideology, having been around for a while, does not seem to be going anywhere, particularly due to the rise of the Trump administration, and will likely continue to circulate. This is more than likely a result of the capitalist assertion of the importance of possession—as mentioned in the class lecture on March 27th, there is a pervasive idea that since America is ours (or, rather, mine), it should come first. A result of neoliberalism and capitalism is the prioritization of the self, sprung from the division between consumers and entrepreneurs, the two figures of neoliberalism mentioned in Todd May’s Friendship in an Age of Economics and discussed in the class lecture on April 3rd. The infiltration of this division adapts our worldview so that “our political, social, and personal relationships all become markets.”[ii] When we view our entire world as a market, everything becomes a competition, and everyone is our competitor. Thus, “neoliberalism undercuts solidarity”[iii] and drives a wedge between individuals, leaving “no room for trust”[iv]. Neoliberal markets certainly do not help the already very deep divide between sides in our nation, as with every day that passes, tensions between the left and the right grow tighter and tighter. It is only a matter of time before something snaps. Yet, if we turn and face those around us, we might be able to find a solution after all: that of conversation and friendships.

In Aristotle’s writings on friendship, he emphasizes that only the virtuous can form deep friendships, and other sorts of relationship dynamics are not true friendships[v]. However, Graham Little notes that there are other types of friendship that, while perhaps not as robust and full of substance, are still valid: “social, familiar, and communicating”[vi]. I believe that if we look to these different types of friendship, there is something of value that we can glean from them. In order to bridge the gap between warring sides of American society, we must start with developing a relationship. Even if these relationships are not communicating relationships, the deepest and most meaningful kind of relationships that Little mentions, they can still have value; Little notes that social relationships, “although they would not reach deep into one’s sense of oneself…they would provide a venue for activities, emotions, geographic locations, in short they would give structure to one’s life”[vii]. It is these structural and surface level “fruits of social friendship” that are needed as the basis for “[binding] people together”[viii]. Social relationships are the foundation for deeper relationships, as they create a space where trust can be created , and “by finding trust among the most basic of our relationships, we can recognize that the elements of resistance to the figures of neoliberalism are not far to seek, but are instead lodged in the most common of our interactions with one another”[ix]. Trust, then, is how we begin to communicate in productive and with an across-the-aisle mentality. When we trust those around us, we see them for the humans that they are, and are able to empathize with their standpoints. Granted, not every idea is worthy of empathy (neonazism, for example, should not be tolerated), but if there is trust between two people, or at least a mutual respect, there is potential for listening, communication, and maybe even a space for someone to see the danger of their beliefs. Thus, the “Slow Train Effect”[x] is created; we are able to sit down, to listen, to learn, and to offer up our own opinions and ideologies, walking away with a broader mind and an openness to ways in which our own ideas might be flawed.
How, then, does this trust and communication relate back to neoliberalism and capitalism? It is the idea of lending one’s own energy to another person, or committing your time to them, that is “in itself a challenge to the figure neoliberalism”[xi]. Through commitment and care, neoliberalism and its ideologies are able to begin their dismantling. It is these conscious extensions out toward other people, friendships of any depth, that “can form the basis for political solidarity. That solidarity in turn can be mobilized in resistance to or confrontation of the practices of neoliberalism itself.”[xii] We cannot isolate friendships from our neoliberalist world[xiii], so we must find a way to make them work together, and continue to develop them regardless of existing in an environment which is not conducive to their survival.


[i] These illustrations can be found with a simple google search of “Dr. Seuss political comics”. I haven’t included them in this particular piece, but they are not difficult to find, and are pretty fascinating. For reference, here’s a link to an article about them, published in 2017:

[ii] Page 30, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[iii] Page 13, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[iv] Page 113, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[v] I don’t have a particular reference for this since it’s been mentioned time and time again in both our readings and our lectures, although Todd May does bring up Aristotle around page 60.

[vi] Page 85, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[vii] Page 100, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[viii] Page 249, Friendship and Politics, Chapter 9, written by George Carey.

[ix] Page 68, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May

[x] A concept discussed in the lecture in class on March 29th.

[xi] Page 65, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[xii] Page 3, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.

[xiii] “Friendships don’t arise, and they aren’t sustained, in an environment sealed off from the neoliberal world.” Page 118, Friendship in an Age of Economics by Todd May.



Works Cited

Heyking, John Von. Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.


Lavin, Enrique, and NJ Advance Media. “Before ‘Cat in the Hat,’ Dr. Seuss Drew Cartoons to Fight America First, Racism, Fascism.” March 02, 2018. Accessed April 2018.


May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014.

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