Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Scheitinger: Against a Transactional View of Friendship

Proponents of neoliberalism, the dominant political and economic system of Europe and America, promote the age-old principles of laissez-faire capitalism in a modern context. Such principles were intended to advance individual freedom, personal liberty, and financial independence for all, but these lofty goals are often antithetical to community building and the formation of global friendships. The blind assumption that all people, no matter their cultural origin, class background, or religious affiliation benefit from a system designed to specifically serve the interests of Western imperialists, oligarchs, and bureaucrats is an idea that must be countered in order to make way for civic friendship on an international level. First, it should be addressed that there already exists some notion of friendship within neoliberalism, although it is fairly limited in its scope; the fact that neoliberalism discourages deep and unconditional friendships in a world so heavily affected by the shifting tides of the market should be unsurprising. The neoliberal view is solely utility-based and only considers a friendship to be valuable if it is mutually beneficial to both parties, however, not to the extent that one party becomes overly reliant on the other or eager to form alliances outside of the relationship (which would be seen as a breach of trust). In this regard, neoliberal friendships work best when two individuals are most like one another, or in terms of international relations, when two or more nations share similar histories and customs. Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach writes, “I trust this other self fully — he is ‘another self’ — and indeed, we are ‘like brothers’. One eminent scholar goes so far as to argue that Aristotle’s ideal of friendship is the relationship between two identical male twins! In the fraternal ideal of genuine friendship, the presupposition of equality and sameness between the friends is critical to the relationship from the start,” (Schwarzenbach 8).

The fraternal ideal Schwarzenbach refers to finds its origins, most obviously, in the values espoused in the French Revolution, in which philosophers and ordinary people alike sought to replace the obsolete and oppressive rule of the monarchy with a new system built on democracy. Yet, fraternité proves to be most problematic for Schwarzenbach because of its fundamentally male orientation, proposing that two men, having equal status in society should, in theory, become amicable as there are no apparent barriers which would undermine their friendship. Applying this concept to foreign relations, economic liberalism continues misconceive that if two countries have comparable social systems, environmental norms, and similarly structured economies, then the free market could not possibly harm their relationship. If the free market is merely a stand-in for ‘external forces’ (those which may be pushed against, tampered with, but are ultimately chaotic), then it is foolish to assume that the relationship would continue unchanged, as the outside world tangibly affects this dynamic. On the personal level, those outside of the relationship between two friends could offer greater benefits to one friend (causing the friend to abandon the relationship in pursuit of greater pleasures), or alternatively could expose evident flaws within the relationship, prompting a reevaluation of the friendship which could lead to its demise.

It is the latter danger that provokes neoliberalism to respond — a response which draws more on an understanding of friendship through difference. Of course, in the Enlightenment, the Revolutionary period, and today, advocates of fraternal democracy acknowledge that no two subjects are ever truly identical, so some degree of negotiation must take place so that the relationship is preserved in the face of the unpredictable. Schwarzenbach continues, “Here, genuine friends strive to maintain a form of ‘give and take’ and a balance between themselves, whenever possible, even if they are highly diverse and differently situated…Moreover, only this model of aiming to maintain a rough equality in the midst of change and difference, can explain many deep and life-long friendships…” (Schwarzenbach 9-10). Here, we do not seek so much to deny that the transactional, “give and take” approach to friendship Schwarzenach writes about has not played a role in sustaining interpersonal and international relationships but rather its very premise warrants a reevaluation if civic friendship is to be attained. Even more than simply acknowledging that two individuals are different, neoliberal ideology goes further to posit that two individuals (and by extension, nations) are unequal. On its surface, this may seem to contradict the fraternal, revolutionary sentiment previously embraced but is easily explained by the fact that the French Revolution (and all bourgeois revolutions) never actually intended to establish true equality for all citizens, instead it replaced the dominance of the monarchy with the dominance of the wealthy. Theoretically, this system aimed to create equal opportunity for all citizens, but at its heart it recognized that the financial prosperity of the few hinged upon the labor (and poverty) of the many. Even more broadly, a developing nation with a relatively meager economy may, for instance, feel pressured to engage in an unfair trade deal with a larger one, believing that what they receive in return will be equivalent to what they provide; in actuality they are exploited as the “give and take” will necessarily favor the more powerful nation.

Certainly it seems that the analysis of neoliberal friendship has generated more questions than it has answered, but some truth may be found in the work of Todd May. He writes, “For a friendship to move beyond the parameters set by the figures of neoliberalism there needs to be a level of involvement that precludes the possibility of drawing the circle of one’s friends very wide. As a result, one might see friendship, not as we have suggested here as a support for an egalitarian politics, but rather in tension with it. There must of necessity be an inside and an outside, the inside including those with whom one has been able to construct friendships and the outside consisting in everyone else,” (May 125). Neoliberalism would have one believe that, in line with the ideas of Aristotle, extending friendship to all negates the preferential quality of friendship itself. One can understand the anxieties surrounding this utopian desire, as there is a fear that the irreplaceable value of the friend is lost when friendship is no longer singular. However, this does not mean that friendship should be extended to those who seek to do harm, rather global friendship should expect all people to be raised to a certain level of human dignity and treated with a minimum amount of compassion. Further, a willing friendship directed towards the stranger or the neighbor does not threaten the sort of intentional, close friendship shared between two friends (or nations), as the external no longer serves to endanger, instead it tests and strengthens the relationship as it develops.


Works Cited

May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books, 2014.
Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Civic Friendship: A Critique of Recent Care Theory.” Friendship in Politics, edited by Preston King and Graham M. Smith.
Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship.” Amity: The Journal of Friendship Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 3–18.

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