Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Growth of Neoliberalism

It is clear to see what Neoliberalism has done to social dynamics in America. Yes, Tremendous economic growth has occurred over the past several hundred years. But Neoliberalism itself is responsible for more harm than than good, and should we even call it “growth” if the richest 1% of Americans own more of the nation’s wealth than the bottom 90%? Needless to say even distribution has not occurred. We need a new, healthy alternative. We need something to fight against the prevailing mentality of “me vs. them.” Civic friendship is the only thing that can curb social dynamics and return civic values into the mainstream.

I will begin my argument with political philosopher Todd May. May cites civic friendship as a remedy for the effects of Neoliberalism, which he argues has both created and continues to  reinforce the consumer- entrepreneur divide. But May also argues that people are “Not simply the figures they are molded to be” (May 20). By being boxed into these “figures,” our autonomy is lost. Meanwhile, the vast majority of power remains concentrated in the hands of the very, very few. They make the decisions, and they control the market. And by being marked simply as consumers, we are made to do just that- consume. This sentiment is mirrored by Mahallati, who stated that “We are constantly made to feel stupid when we hear buy one get one free.” We cannot always buy after all, especially since consumers tend to fall into the socioeconomic lower and middle-classes. Mahalati went on to say; “So the message sent by the neoliberal economy is this; buy or feel stupid” (4/11/19).

Civic friendship is the alternative to Neoliberalism. It is the healthiest, most far-reaching alternative available. In its newest form capitalism has incorporated Neoliberal Economics, but this is not to say capitalism is all bad. As stated by May, “During the period of industrial capitalism (prior to Neoliberalism), people identified themselves largely as producers. They were consumers, but their sense of themselves lay more in their role as producers than as consumers” (May 35). American society was partly based on individualism back then as well. However, there was togetherness. People looked at themselves as producers, as a part of something. It is not in jest when I say it is so important to view oneself as important. Today, this is not the case. Or perhaps this is not totally true. Think of the 1%, all those who have “made it.” Though I formerly identified them as “entrepreneurs,” they are certainly producers as well, important in that they quite literally control the economy from the ground up. The largest businesses, controlled by the few, have the most far-reaching influence. I acknowledge that we need to support oneself, but why has it become so normative to believe that in supporting oneself, we can’t support our fellow human being?

There is room for ethical business practices in civic friendship. In Neoliberal Economics, there is not. The former may function as societal support, thereby lessening the wealth gap and bringing people outside those roles they have been boxed into. Mahallati said that the “Moment of ethics is when you sacrifice interest for the sake of somebody else” (4/11/19). There are enough resources to support the varying levels of society. It is a known fact that there is enough food in the world to feed everyone, and surely a nation so rich as America has the capabilities to feed all its own. Hoping to do so equally is a foolish ideal; Schwarzenbach herself even acknowledges this to be impossible. But in stating that “A post-Reformation civic friendship must operate via a doctrine of individual rights,” she elaborates how people are entitled to basic living standards (Schwarzenbach 11). Is feeding its people not one of the most essential criteria for a just government to induce? So while absolute equality remains impossible, meeting the basic needs of everyday Americans is not.

In this same vein, Schwarzenbach details certain aspects of civic friendship as antithetical to Neoliberal thought, “The central idea is that in civic friendship {…} (there is) 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:” Note that “reciprocate” is used twice. Yes people should be aware of one another- perhaps this would be more than Neoliberalism ever created. But this is not enough. To put it in Colloquial terms, we cannot just walk the walk, we must talk the talk. Merely identifying society’s ills is not enough; remedies must be put in motion as well. Schwarzenbach identifies such remedies when stating that “In civic friendship, that is, the above traits and values are not expressed directly (as in personal friendships) but operate indirectly via society’s laws, by way of the norms embodied in its constitution, and in its central institutions and social customs” (Schwarzenbach 5).

Individualism lies at the heart of Neoliberal economics. To combat this, let’s look at the aforementioned strategy of incorporating reciprocal relations into “the background” of society. What if I become rich beyond my wildest dreams? In wanting to keep my wealth, of course I would support Neoliberal economics. It is my money, I earned it as an individual and want to keep it as an individual. Thus, David Harvey was spot on in labeling Neoliberal Economics “A political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of the economic elites” (May 14). In civic friendship however, the structure of society would run counter to this “political project,” and economic regulation would be a backbone of society. This is so essential due to the fact that “Economics is the realm of private activity” (Mahallati 4/11/19). Privatization and deregulation have promoted the socioeconomic imbalance we see today.

Imbalance. Wealth gap. The 1%. The 99%. With every new year I hear the news that “America is the most divided it has ever been.” Politically, I don’t have much faith that any side can make the change we need, at least not in the future. But I do not want to end purely as a pessimist. America needs restructuring; government intervention and ethics in business needs to be enacted, and societal institutions/customs must be established to ensure more even distribution. Inducing a system of civic friendship would initiate these changes. Doing so is the only thing that will stop the rich from getting richer, and the poor from getting poorer.



Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, 2014, Lexington Books

Mahallati, Class Lecture, 4/11/19, Oberlin College

Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship, 2015, AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies

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