Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Decolonial and Anti-Neoliberal Friendship

Santiago Roman

Friendship and Peacemaking

Professor Jafar Mahallati

April 20th, 2019

De-colonial and Anti-Neoliberal Friendship

In a rapidly shifting world where politics, technology, humanity, and society are in flux and changing faster than ever before, a void, an ideological ozone hole, has been created by the lapse of a brittle, outdated, and now regressive entity known as classical philosophical thought. Ancient theses on economics, friendship, and government have begun to cocoon themselves into an unadapting, unwavering chrysalis. Sybil A. Schwarzenbach and Todd May have sought to manifest its metamorphosis. In her literature, Sybil A. Schwarzenbach effectively criticizes perceived contemporary radical ideology of friendship, community, and solidarity through a much needed examination of the patriarchal underpinning of labor, solidarity, and philosophical thought. On the other hand, Todd May, in his extensive work titled Friendship in the Age of Economics, attempts to offer a path of resistance away from neoliberalism and capitalism through the exposition of problematic socialization and internalization of self serving economic behavioral ideologies.  

For the sake of this paper I will briefly examine the economic observations and arguments of the philosopher, May, in order to contextualize a larger discussion on Sybil’s civic friendship. Neoliberalism is generally defined as a political and economic theory of human advancement through the means of absolute entrepreneurial freedom in an institutional framework that is underpinned by the belief that the free market economy can be the ultimate guiding and developmental basis of society. Under this ideology humans, divided into producers(entrepreneurs) and consumers, will act within the market in their exclusive self-interest. This selfishness forms the basis of all our relationships and is in “full contrast” with deep, meaningful, and civic friendship. When our lives revolve around consumption and the acquisition of capital we lose touch with the importance of sacrifice. When we are socialized to feel that every moment spent not working is a moment lost then we start to see our friendships as detrimental unless immediately beneficial to our neoliberal goose chase. We now have then reached a violation in the major tenets of friendship according to Aristotle: friendship for the other’s sake, and wishing well for the sake of wishing goodness upon others and not just for our own self benefit. This mentality weaponizes the idea synthesized by professor Jafar Mahallati that “every single friendship means compromising your absolute freedom.” Everything in life has a price, something that even neoliberal economics can agree with. When we form relationships with people that price is our freedom. But absolute freedom is absolute loneliness, and neoliberalism is this institution and factory of loneliness.  

While May addresses the economic side of the coin, Schwarzenbach develops her very radical ideas on adapting friendship to a globalized neoliberal world through critical examination reinterpretation of frequently used terminology. She takes important steps to move away not only from resistance politics in the last few decades that are now obsolete but also from Aristotle himself, a critique that has begged to be made since the beginning of our conversation on friendship. Schwarzenbach offers two main arguments and an upgraded take on friendship. The first is a criticism of care theory, solidarity, and patriarchal domination of resistance. This takes the form of a discussion on reproductive labor that underpins her advocating for civil friendship. Reproductive labor is work that is traditionally pushed upon women that almost always is unappreciated and uncompensated but is also, ultimately, friendship building in nature. It seeks to cultivate personal relations through caregiving and emotional development.  This idea later evolves, by the hand of Schwarzenbach, into a reproductive praxis, which, according to her, removes the gendered assignment of the task and imbues it with compensation and consent while also institutionalized it as civic friendship.

In order for this to work Schwarzenbach rewrites a long standing tenant of Aristotelian friendship, friendship through sameness.“It is the friendship through sameness that begins to emerge as narrow and narcissistic (not to mention chauvinistic) particularly in a multicultural and rapidly changing world.” (119) Essentially, friendship through sameness discourages cross cultural, gender, racial, class interaction and therefore encourages a system of xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. Schwarzenbach also offers a powerful caveat. That friendship doesn’t have to start from a position of equality, but it must seek to achieve it. This is where civic friendship comes in. Civic friendship is about taking our dated ideas of solidarity, care, and what it means to be radical or progressive in a time when politics is shifting, expanding, and morally atrophying rapidly and adapting. It acknowledges that there are too many people for traditional friendship but that we need some level of comraderie regardless and attempts to offer a solution. As a civic friend, one does not need to form deep relationships with everyone in your political, social, and economic cohort, but you must carry out your duty. This duty incorporates the ideology of the ethical reproductive praxis. This praxis means constantly challenging forces of power and inequality that seek to destabilize our relationships Not just being “not racist” “not sexist” or “not homophobic” because ultimately that implies passivity and passivity quickly turns into compliance, and compliance quickly turns into perpetration, but being anti racist, anti sexist, anti homophobia.

The key is institutionalization. More precisely, early education. Civic friends must be educated to a level of basic facts and awareness of their fellow humans lives. They must learn about how women have historically been forced into reproductive roles and how the very language that we use to talk about resistance is “Modeled on historically male forms of activity,” specifically the idea of solidarity and how it is gendered. Schwarzenbach envisions civic friendship to be an alternative and a solution to neoliberalism and its products, such as the colonization of the word solidarity.

Being an environmentalist, I would like to conclude with an environmental application of Schwarzenbach and Mays arguments to show how they have merit. Garrett Hardins Tragedy Of the Commons is the perfect example of what happens without civic friendship. In Hardin’s theory he sets a stage of a “perfect pasture open to all.” This pasture can be interpreted as and is a metaphor for many different things: the environment, the economy, the market, etc. In this hypothetical pasture farmers can raise cattle, but the more cattle they put in the less sustainable and the less return they get. Hardin believes that humans, following their innately selfish desires, will ignore the needs of the many and put as many cattle as possible on the pasture to give themselves the maximum benefit, at the detriment of their fellow farmers. This, of course, is unsustainable and eventually the pasture will disappear and the farmers will have to move on. This is neoliberalism. However, if the farmers institutionalize civic friendship and therefore also reject its free market principles they would not be so selfish. In this model the most sustainable thing to do would be for the farmers to collaborate and only allow a certain number of cattle to graze so that the pasture could replenish itself. This is the manifestation civic friendship, and proves why it is so important that we pursue this metamorphosis of our government, economy, and society. While this example is readily applicable to the environment, it is also metaphor for other spaces and other interactions, and other communities and reveals the truth of May and Schwarzenbach arguments.



Jafar Mahallati, Class Lecture + Notes


Hardin, Garrett James. The Tragedy of the Commons. University of California, 2009.


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.” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, vol. 10, no. 2, 2007, pp. 233–255.


“Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship,” Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies (2015) 3:1, 3-18


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