Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Neoliberalism v. Schwarzenbach and May

Given arguments from May and Schwarzenbach, how civic friendship can be modeled and promoted to balance forces of Neoliberal economy?


You’d be hard-pressed to find modern philosophers writing on friendship theory that don’t see a serious lack of solid friendship in the status quo. Two of them — Todd May and Sibyl Schwarzenbach — look at friendship in the context of neoliberalism, or the free market.

In neoliberalist societies and systems, all individuals are condensed into two figures: the consumer and the entrepreneur. Some people can be both, or have attributes of both as well, and the names are self-explanatory: the consumer buys from the market, and the entrepreneur invests in the market. In neoliberalism, the market is everything, quite literally the “site of truth” for determining value. The dollar rules all, and the market is the center of everything. John Keynes argued that governments must become entrepreneurs in neoliberal economies, to bring economies out of depression and stagnation. A huge change from governments more or less being the economy; now the government is involved with this “third party” that has slowly grown to encompass nearly all aspects of society.

Unfortunately for friendships, a necessity for human survival and growth as so many theorists have argued over the course of human existence, they are not safe from neoliberalism. In a neoliberal society, friendship is simply a source of pleasure and escape for the consumer, and a source of investment and return for the entrepreneur. This lack of depth leads to friendships being more fleeting: as soon as your friend has outlived their usefulness, they are not needed anymore.

May and Schwarzenbach provide alternatives. May proposes the idea of “deep friendship” as a counter to neoliberalism.

“In our discussion of [Elizabeth Telfer’s] isolation of these relationships, we have already suggested three elements that are central to the character of deep friendships: regard for the other, passion, and the role of the relationship’s past. We will focus on each of these, and in addition add a fourth: the meaningfulness of a deep or close friendship.”1

Friendship, as explained by May, is not a transaction. It is a gift-giving process, where things are given (time, money, energy) without the expectation of immediate reciprocation. Trust in a deep friendship is “not a calculation that the friend will act in certain ways…It is instead a placing oneself in the hands of the friend.”2 These fundamental aspects of deep friendship not only do not exist in the neoliberal model, they run directly opposite to it. If you are an entrepreneur, your friends are returns, whether measured implicitly or explicitly. You “invest” time, money, and energy into them and then expect a “return” of the like – if the reciprocation is not equal, the friendship can be considered an economic loss. Additionally, if you are a consumer, by placing trust in an individual you are handing the reins of fate to them. Your own wants and desires are not the primary motivator in the relationship anymore.

Schwarzenbach, on the other hand, argues for the idea of civic friendship. “The central idea is that in civic friendship (unlike in personal friendships) the minimal traits of all friendship already noted by Aristotle – 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: in the way its major social, economic and political institutions work together in one scheme and distribute rights and duties.”3

Civic friendship is friendship gained from a methodical institutionalization of Aristotle’s values and ideals. It is part of what Schwarzenbach calls “reproductive labor,” where the goal is not to produce in a neoliberal world, but to create and further relationships. If each system had an ultimate question, the neoliberal question would be “what do you produce?” The question of reproductive labor is “what kind of relationships do you have?”4

Schwarzenbach first outlines a struggle in the history of movements similar to civic friendship, such as solidarity or patriotism. “…Solidarity all too often implies a kind of “negative friendship”: the Schmittian kind which is grounded in thwarting a common enemy. We stand together against Oppressor X (the capitalists) or Oppressor Y (the colonial powers), but once this oppressor is vanquished our social union all too often tends to fall apart…”5 Solidarity may be great for forming nations, but the longevity and wellbeing of a nation is secured by the bonds between its citizens – something civic friendship accomplishes.

Civic friendship is an interesting friendship theory because it focuses not on the depth of friendships, but on the breadth of them. Schwarzenbach goes so far as to say “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.”6

Balancing Schwarzenbach and May seems difficult, if not impossible at first. But one must recognize the difference in scale between the two. Civic friendship combats neoliberalism at a nation level: “Civic friendship requires the individual recognition of the moral equality of others, a flexible good will towards them, and a practical willingness to do things for them.”7 Deep friendship, then, combats it on a more localized level. Both are absolutely necessary to circumvent neoliberalism in society, but they must be appreciated at different personal levels.

What I mean by this is that simply, treat people you know well as deep friends. Aspire to learn from them, to grow with them, and to use effective communication to develop strong bonds. Those you don’t know, on the other hand, should be treated a civic friends. Even if you despise an individual, recognize their inherent humanity and morality, and help them in times of need. A system that corrupts ideals on all levels of society must be fought on all levels of society, and with a combination of deep and civic friendship, the powers of neoliberalism can be balanced out.

“But in the end it is the person, not the sum of the characteristics, that one likes in a friendship.”8 To take the famous John F. Kennedy quote, ask not what your friends and citizens can do for you, ask what you can do for your friends and citizens. The trivialization of friendship and close connection has serious consequences, but it is the perfect time to reverse them.



  1. May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics : Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books. 2012. Page 77.
  2. May, Todd. Page 108.
  3. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015. Page 5.
  4. Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Lectures. Mahallati, M. Jafar. 2019.
  5. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. Page 14.
  6. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. Page 11.
  7. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. Page 14.
  8. May, Todd. Page 78-79.


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

Friendship: Perspectives from Religion, Politics, Economics, and Art. Lectures. Mahallati, M. Jafar. 2019.

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015.

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