Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship: a remedy for neoliberalism

Many see the world as a more divisive and hostile place than ever before. Two philosophers, May and Schwarzenbach, as well as many others point to the rise of neoliberalism as the cause of our current state. To remedy neoliberal ideals, they offer the simple, yet profound solution of friendship. Below I outline both how and why the two describe friendship as the appropriate solution to neoliberalism and, to that end, could not agree with them more.

May and Schwarzenbach see Neoliberalism as valuing capital above all else and thus being a destructive and divisive force. Neoliberalism does not value balance of equity as its soul focus is on capital. This makes for those with more capital to horde it as it is perceived as the ultimate good, and also makes them bad friends. Because capital does not necessitate relationship and only good/capital exchange, the value of friendship becomes a side value. By re-centering friendship the two philosophers call for an opposing relational system that is not at all about capital exchange. This is a radical rejection of neoliberalism in which capital is valued by all else. Civic friendship thus challenges the mono-value system of neoliberalism to be one about being virtuous instead of wealthy.

May and Schwarzenbach see neoliberalism to be about the growth of ‘consumer sovereignty’ in which consumers get to define market. Within neoliberalism the market is rationalized as a site of ‘truth’ in which if something can sell they are proven right. Thus consumerability of something deems it good or right creating a new value system. Valuing friendship imposes another value system that counters this system of use to be one of morals. Instead of seeing things to be deemed good only based upon their usability, friendship sees people as good within themselves.

By insuring the goodness in people, friendship thus offers a counter narrative of human nature to the dividing forces of neoliberalism. With today’s political environment there is little denial of the divisiveness between groups. As neoliberalism asserts everyone is out for their own self-interest and only the strongest(wealthiest) survive, it increases potentials for violence between individuals and states. The human nature narrative of goodwill that friendship offers leads to a lack of investment in defense/military between countries and individuals.

Schwarzenbach outlines the three ways that Aristotle’s model of civic friendship can be scaled to work within nations. She lists the Aristotelian trio to be: 1) Be aware of the nature of population and general way of life 2) Have concern about their welfare 3) Be willing to help my fellow citizens through taxes and help in crisis. This relation between nations and within states would once again challenge neoliberal ideals as it would encourage working together over competing over resources.

With negative assumptions of the other there can be no genuine justice as Schwarzenbach claims; “genuine justice can only result if a flexible give and take or friendly background exists to make us yield.”[i] In this way she argues that if people do not trust each other’s goodwill then there cannot be actual justice. To make a true society with justice there must therefore be the foundation of friendship. In this way friendship is transformed to being civic as it has direct ties to the well-being of the nation.

May offers two relationships of neoliberal economics; entrepreneur or consumer. By offering friendship as a relationship there is a disruption of the essentializing neoliberal system. In interjecting a relationship that cannot be categorized into the neoliberal binary relation system, friendship can lead to questioning the system that some have passively accepted as reality. By disrupting these binary roles in society the insertion of friendship creates “…a reciprocal awareness of the moral equality of the other, reciprocal goodwill towards them and a practical doing become embodied in the background “basic structure” of society.”[ii]

May argues that friendship introduces sacrifice as a liberator from thinghood that neoliberalism promotes. By reintroducing the radical discontinuity of the sacred into the minted economy of utility friendship disrupts the cycle of neoliberal economy based on ‘equal’ exchange. May asserts that deep friendship is the ultimate sacrifice as it is not based on economic interest or calculation. This means that friendship is not always an equal exchange and the flow of resources it offers is fluid and beyond capital calculation which is radical in the context of neoliberalism. Schwarzenbach explains this relationship valuing as choosing a reproductive society(friendship) over the productive society(neoliberal).

Schwarzenbach offers an example of how friendship poses a relational or reproductive labor vs neoliberalism which poses a material or productive labor. Schwarzenbach explains how reproduction is not individual and requires another, while production is. She poses that the values of reproductive labor are; reason, memory, planning, deduction, generalization and imagination. All of these values can be seen to aid in reproducing human relations. Production can be seen as a divisive factor between people as it disregards values mentioned above in exchange for material profit. By valuing friendship, we value reproduction of relations over the lonely production of insignificant relations or goods.

Freedom and equality also play into the neoliberal agenda. Freedom in economy is one of the highest values within neoliberalism as it is tied to political freedom making economics the foundation of politics. However, Schwarzenbach counters that we must have values “…beyond freedom and equality only, and being to embody and realize in its public norms and institution the forgotten value of friendship as well.”[iii]  In this way she states how friendship balances neoliberalism through lessening the values of freedom and equality that have become intertwined with economy and upholding neoliberal norms. Instead, friendship extends values to be beyond these neoliberal values that limit sharing and responsibility. Friendship, as we have learned in previous lectures, requires the limiting of independence which has been tied to notions of freedom and equality. In doing so, friendship challenges the neoliberal values placed on freedom and equality by insinuating that the value of friendship is more important than them and thus is are worth compromising for friendship.

Many have linked neoliberalism to the downfall of societal relations.[iv] May and Schwarzenbach offer ways in which friendship can combat destructive and divisive elements of neoliberalism. They ultimately describe an alternative value system to that of neoliberalism valuing relationship over material wealth. In their proposals they offer how very simple acts of friendship become radical in the context of neoliberalism making us question its rationality. Successfully poking holes in the values of neoliberalism they offer friendship, a much more appealing alternative, instead.


[i] Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. On civic friendship: Including women in the state. Columbia University Press, 2009.P 55

[ii] Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. On civic friendship: Including women in the state. Columbia University Press, 2009. P 92.

[iii] Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. On civic friendship: Including women in the state. Columbia University Press, 2009. P 202.

[iv] Brohman, John. “Economism and critical silences in development studies: a theoretical critique of neoliberalism.” Third World Quarterly 16.2 (1995): 297-318.

Dawson, Matt. Late modernity, individualization and socialism: an associational critique of Neoliberalism. Springer, 2013.

Taylor, Marcus. “Success for whom? An historical-materialist critique of neoliberalism in Chile.” Historical Materialism 10.2 (2002): 45-75.


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