Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Achieving civic friendship in a neoliberal world

Rachel Wolchok

Professor Mahallati

RELG 274

April 19, 2019


Civic Friendship


Civic friendship is the key to Aristotelian and Platonic societies. These ideal political spheres should encompass “freedom and friendship allied with good judgment”1 according to Plato. Aristotle views friendship as a cohering agent to promote concord and justice within a political state. To take these ideologies, apply them to the nation states of the 21st century, and expect the exact results that Plato and Aristotle saw would be naive. Todd May and Sybil Schwarzenbach offer different but nevertheless effective, complimentary, and cooperative theories based in the Platonic and Aristotelian values of friendship to a modern society. Together, May’s friendship in the economic realm combined with Schwarzenbach’s more social justice oriented views could make a powerful basis for governance.

Schwarzenbach defines civic friendship and uses this idea in her dialogues about different political realms. Schwarzenbach concisely states that the key to civic friendship is “…  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…”2 These tenets are simple and do not qualify for deep friendship, which is key to Schwarzenbach’s argument. Throughout her texts, especially in her piece about care theory, Schwarzenbach criticizes the idealistic way in viewing laws as omnipotent and giving equal access to all. She cites the common political belief “the universal individual rights will help further from within and below3; this summary of modern politics is reminiscent of the Reaganism, trickle down economics, and neoliberalism. As will later be discussed, individualism is crucial to neoliberalism, and our current obsession with values such as freedom and equality, as Schwarzenbach agrees, pose an impediment to achieving true civic friendship. The logic that individual freedoms will inspire political and economic societies to then help others is the dogma of trickle down, leading to decreased taxes on the richest citizens, and, in actuality, little motivation to use their resources to stimulate the economy for those in the working classes. Schwarzenbach finds this idealistic and utopian, just as she views equality; she finds that aiming at equality is important, yet it is impossible to expect that a society will ever achieve it.

While Schwarzenbach’s rejection of equality, criticism towards existing law theories, and simple definitions of friendship may be seen as cynical, the structure of her argument allows for a more accessible, applicable, and holistic approach to civic friendship. Schwarzenbach finds that instead of promoting the ideals for a unrealistic society,  the content laws should aim to “express a concern for all citizens (to whatever degree),” and urge “citizens must be educated to an awareness to the basic facts of the fellow citizens’ lives.”4 The emphasis on others would foster empathy and care within the society and transform it into a community based in friendship. This attitude, if instilled in law and constitution, would inherently promote equality as genuine care for others demonstrates a peer relationship. Ultimately, Schwarzenbach envisions a praxis called ethical reproduction in which society moves away from focusing on production as success and towards viewing reproduction and strengthening. She describes this when critiquing the motto of the French Revolution, “liberté, egalité, fraternité”; as aforementioned, Schwarzenberg sees equality as a virtue to strive towards but not one that can be realistically achieved. She further claims that fraternity is sexist and elitist, and this inaccessibility does not allow for friendship to manifest within a society. Throughout the 19th century, fraternity developed into solidarity, which is also problematic as it emphasized the importance of individual rights more than creating community. Schwarzenbach’s ethical reproduction praxis is a perfect pivot point in discussing the contrast between friendship and neoliberalism.

Todd May discusses the possibility of incorporating friendship into economics and calls for a shift away from neoliberalism to do so. In his book, Friendship in An Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, May introduces topics such as trust, speech community, and deep friendship into the concept of the economy. May cites Mary Telfer’s expertise treatise Friendship in his discussion, using her 4 central elements of friendship to outline his argument: 1. Regard for the Other 2. Passion and Friendship 3. The Role of the Relationship’s Past 4. The Meaningfulness of Deep Friendship.5

May takes the topic of regard for the other to highlight the impossibilities in neoliberalism and friendship. From a neoliberal view, relationships are an investment, “The other is not someone to whom I bind myself, but rather someone from whom I either consume pleasure or invest time in.”6 Further, May adds that relationships  involve “interactions with others for the sake of some future goal in which those interactions are determined by the most efficient means of reaching that goal.”7 To look at friendships from a neoliberal perspective shows little to no regard for the other, as the other is used in order to gain pleasure and the time spent bonding is minimized in order to ensure efficiency. Passion and friendship might be the most interesting tenet to apply to a neoliberal society. Telfer comments that passion translates to “liking” in friendship, and this “liking” or affection is possible in relationships without respect or between people who are not seen as virtuous. I feel that this aspect can repair neoliberal relationships in which Telfer argues liking does not exist; however, I disagree. If, during the Reagan era, a neoliberal businessman might have disrespected someone who required welfare or social security programming but might have cracked a joke with this person while passing on the street. Liking and friendship, especially in a neoliberal society, does not need to be deep or substantial. It matters more to me that we assume we like everyone and will become friends with them even if they do not meet Aristotle’s definitions of friendship or respect is lacking. Instituting the role of relationship’s past is pretty difficult within a neoliberal setting, since it is opportunistic and aims to be as efficient as possible. This aspect of friendship is “tied not only to the historical character of any deep friendship but to issues of trust and the irreplaceability of friends.”8 This qualification poses an issue in neoliberal civic friendship because relationships are seen as disposable as long as there is a new, more beneficial option; therefore, trust is not a value in such relationships. May argues that trust is vital to deep friendship since it binds friends together and is crucial to the history of the friendship. This might seem to make deep friendship impossible in a neoliberal society, then raising the question of how to foster deep civic friendship in a time of neoliberalism. Is it necessary for civic friendship to be deep friendship? Is it worth sacrificing deep friendship to achieve civil friendship in a neoliberal society?

I believe that Schwarzenbach’s model of ethical reproductive praxis answers these questions and confronts the same issues seen in May’s argument. Schwarzenberg details that the aim of ethical reproduction is an appropriation not in the physical world but in the social human world, specifically the tending to and creation of relationships.9 The general benefits of this praxis are two fold: i. The ideology removes citizens from an individual mindset and places them in one of a community or collectivisim, and ii. recenters the idea of success and production on less material goods, emphasizing quality over quantity. In order to achieve such virtues, the laws should de-emphasize the importance of freedom and equality, as Schwarzenberg states. Freedom, whether it be economic or social, is crucial to democracy but can be positioned as the anti-friendship. It removes a sense of responsibility to uphold a friendship and to only do what is good for oneself. Leaning into what May calls “trust as willed dependence” then would be the solution. Trusting someone is to remove a sense of reason and evidence, depending on them for truth and responsibility. To create a body of law that instills trust, confidence in others, and reproduction of relationships would allow for civic friendship to manifest in a more neoliberal society. The American constitution, for example, would work well for this, as individualism appears throughout the document and its amendments. As Schwarzenberg notes, lessening the significance of equality, freedom, and solidarity would be most helpful. Replacing these values with those of friendship, which encompasses some of these ideals, would help promote justice. Especially in the United States, justice is seen as being upheld by fairness and treating all equally. Schwarzenbach argues that “Genuine justice only results if a flexible ‘give and take’ or friendly background exists to make us yield.”10 Just as friendship can replace notions of equality and freedom, that, as Schwarzenberg notes, can actually serve to inspire isolation. Using Schwarzenberg and May’s theories on the implementation of civic friendship would greatly improve the isolating and individualistic neoliberal society of the United States, specifically benefitting justice and economics. I would propose implementing ethical reproductive praxis, changing the wording of the constitution to focus less on the individual and more the community, and redesigning the justice system so trust is of higher value.


End Notes

  1. Plato, Laws, 639e.
  2. Sybil Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship,” Amity Journal, 2015, 5.
  3. Sybil Schwarzenbach, “On Civic Friendship: Including Women in the State,” Columbia University Press, 2009, 30.  
  4. Sybil Schwarzenbach, “Friendship and Revolution in Poland: The Eros and Ethos of the Committee for Workers’ Defense (KOR), Taylor & Francis, 11-12
  5. Class lecture on May
  6. Todd May, “Friendship in An Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism,”Lexington Books, 2012, 86.
  7. May, 79.
  8. May, 101.
  9. Class lecture on Schwarzenbach
  10. Class lecture on Schwarzenbach


Works Cited


Illutiok, Emily Pangnerk. Bear Skull Sculpture. 1990. Polar bear skull, musk ox horn, and baleen bristles. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin.

May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics – Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books, 2014, Amazon Kindle.

Plato, Laws.

Schwarzenbach, Sybil. “Fraternity, Solidarity and Civic Friendship.” AMITY, 2015,

Schwarzenbach, Sybil. “Friendship and Revolution in Poland: The Eros and Ethos of the Committee for Workers’ Defense (KOR).” Taylor & Francis,

Schwarzenbach, Sybil. “On Civic Friendship.” Columbia University Press, Columbia University , 2009,


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.


Leave a Reply