Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Neoliberalism’s Impact on Civic Friendship

Civic friendship has increasingly relied on neoliberalism over time, resulting in a skewed outlook of how communities (whether it be neighborhoods, cities, countries, nations, etc.) should form relationships with one another. In order to promote friendship beyond a personal level, there needs to be an understanding of how gender and class play into our cultural understanding of cultural relationships. Todd May and Sybil A. Schwarzenbach each outline unique outlooks on civic friendship, it’s role and contributions to personal friendship, and the ways in which neoliberalism inhibits effective community-building. May uses an economic lens through which to analyze the importance of civic friendship, while Schwarzenbach uses a gendered lens to point out the flaws in certain theorizations surrounding neoliberalism, civic friendship, and the increasing promotion of individualism.

May’s Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism outlines the origins of neoliberalism, who it benefits, and how it affects human relationships. They develop a comprehensive definition of neoliberalism, which includes “the view, dominant in many circles over the past thirty or forty years, that an unfettered (or largely unfettered) capitalist market is the best and most efficient way for an economy to be run” (9). This propensity towards capitalist ideals promotes a form of individuality, which May argues is what is causing civic friendship to seem so unattainable. Neoliberalism turns human relationships into markets, and thus corrupts them with seeing economy as the site of truth. Although economic freedoms are one of the requirements for political freedom, May asserts that there are ways to achieve this freedom without disenfranchising the power of communal friendship.

Schwarzenbach’s Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship and Civic Friendship: A Critique of Recent Care Theory expand upon concepts of friendship and neoliberalism through examining the gendered inequalities present themselves in such theorizations. Schwarzenbach defines civic friendship as, “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” (5). She uses the Aristotelian model of friendship to formulate the ideal form of civic friendship, which she outlines as: 1) Being aware of the nature of a population 2) Being concerned about welfare and 3) Having the willingness to help fellow citizens.  She criticizes the classic feminist care theory, which promotes a maternal relationship between citizens and thus promotes a falsely unified narrative of familial tranquility.

In order to understand how civic friendship can be modeled and promoted to balance the forces of a continuously growing Neoliberal economy, May and Schwarzenbach delve into the deeper aspects of harm reduction, and how compounding identities complicate civic friendship. This, however, does not detract from the importance of civic friendship in unifying communities, as is especially necessary in the current political climate. I found Schwarzenbach’s point of empowering people through civic friendship while not necessarily enforcing personal friendship to be particularly impactful, as it promotes a healthier communal dynamic. This also ensures that larger communities have the potential to unify themselves to some degree, rather than being entrenched in interpersonal conflict.

The marketability of human relationships is something that has become increasingly relevant with the continual economic freedom that allows corruption. This has resulted in many of our relationships relying on the consumption of goods, as touched on by Schwarzenbach in her evaluation of civic theory in the context of marxist theory. By attaching capital value to our relationships we become more aware of how people’s strengths and weaknesses can benefit someone, and how one can leverage social relationships for capital gain. May and Schwarzenbach seek to oppose this cultural phenomenon by bringing forth their own ideas on how to better promote civic friendship.

Both May and Schwarzenbach contribute to the discourse of civic friendship overpowering neoliberalism by presenting their own lenses through which to view these ideas. May takes an economic standpoint, highlighting the negative impacts of neoliberalism on concepts of friendship. Schwarzenbach takes a different approach that focuses more on the gendered dynamics of care theory to highlight the importance of reforming our understandings of civic friendship. Both scholars hold similar opinions in the realm of solidarity and “fraternity”, while promoting civic friendship as a means to oppose neoliberalism.


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