Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Civic Friendship as the Solution to a Neoliberal Economy


Civic Friendship as the Solution to a Neoliberal Economy


Neoliberalism can be described as the theory of political economic practices which propose that human wellbeing can be advanced by entrepreneurial freedoms and institutionalized frameworks. Under a neoliberal model, it is incredibly easy for people across the globe to become a cog in the multinational corporation culture promoted by neoliberal politics. As a consumerism infects both politics and economics, individuals as well are positioned as pieces of the market. What results is a model devoid of community or care, which can only be remedied by civic friendship. Civic friendship is described as a “bond of reciprocal good will between fellow citizens expressed through norms of civic behavior, such as mutual recognition of moral equality, mutual concern, and mutual defense and support.”  

A neoliberal economic model places little to no importance on friendship or emotional wellbeing, and instead pits fundamental human needs like friendship against the neoliberal necessity for labor, production, and consumerism. Of the many issues created by neoliberal economics, a major one is the inflated interest in the growth of consumer sovereignty, and the shift from ideological politics to the use of market-based tools to achieve political goals. This removes the inherent emotionality and humanity of politics and instead offers a consumerist agenda, creating forms of political engagement that prioritize wealth and privilege.

Because neoliberal models create a consumer-entrepreneur political relationship between citizens, May and Schwarzenbach argue that civic friendship can be used both conceptually and practically to break the cycle of neoliberal consumerism. As stated by May, “Not only our economic but also our political, social, and personal relationships to one another become markets.” May posits that this consumerist approach to politics and economics seeps into our social and personal lives, creating a vicious cycle. By acknowledging the ways that neoliberal economics have failed us as individuals as well as a community, we can begin to understand the ways in which civic friendship and community building can create a positive difference in many realms: political, social, economic, personal, and spiritual to name a few.

According to Schwarzenbach, civic friendship can be applied to politics through manifesting care for one another through government programs such as expanded access to food, shelter and healthcare, where citizens can engage in economic civic friendship-building through tax reallocation. In providing basic necessities for all citizens, happiness, comfort, and therefor cohesiveness among communities are increased. Schwarzenbach states that a “Modern liberal political state must be preconceived so that its central organizing principle shifts away from being an instrument of proactive competition and war, and takes on an explicit concern with the conditions of civic friendship and a public function of care.” Political consumerism also feeds the desire for militarization by creating and feeding a war-hungry market. By shifting political economic focus from national consumerism to international wellbeing/friendship, we create stronger communal bonds and thus, a stronger nation-state.

Schwarzenbach states that regardless of personal feelings, civic friendship is to be honored: “I can thus personally detest a fellow citizen but still be his or her civic friend; this means only that I will continue to uphold certain minimal standards in my treatment of him or her.” Schwarzenbach posits that negative personal feelings towards another person must be transcended in the name of civic friendship to create a happier, healthier, harmonious community. By upholding these “minimal standards” of civic friendship, Schwarzenbach acknowledges the humanity of this other citizen, uplifting them as a civic friend instead of an economic competitor or emotional enemy. Schwarzbach’s ideal conception of civic friendship expands upon the Aristotelian Friendship Trio to include difference-based friendships, and broadens concepts from the private to the public realm to show how justice and friendship can be imbued in an international collective life.

Ultimately, civic friendship may not be able to pose as a complete alternative to a neoliberal model, but the introduction of civic friendship to both personal and political realms could balance the harm brought by consumerism and neoliberalism. Engaging in civic friendship by reallocating wealth and creating programs that ensure all humans have access to basic necessities (like food, water, shelter, and healthcare) are small but necessary changes that should be made to the existing neoliberal model. As May says, “If those in power benefit from a world in which we are encouraged to be consumers and entrepreneurs, we can expect that these figures would likely be more entrenched and less likely to be uprooted. And so it would be worth pausing over the current legacy of neoliberalism, to ask whom it benefits and at whose expense.”




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


Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “On Civic Friendship.” Ethics, vol. 107, no. 1, 1996, pp. 97–128. JSTOR,


Scorza, J. A. (2013). Civic Friendship. In International Encyclopedia of Ethics, H. Lafollette (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee555


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