‘It’s a dog eats dog world.’ But it hasn’t always been. And it certainly shouldn’t be. But the flames of neoliberal society have stoked this idiom into a collectively blazing societal maxim. Many people would argue that the phenomenon of humans acting out of self-interest is inherent to our nature. We trade favor for favor, make friends to gain footholds in corporate and social hierarchies, and always look out for oneself over others. And while I concede there is something natural about acting out of self-interest, I would also argue that there is something inherent to our core in caring for others for their sake primarily. Cicero, who lived before the birth of Christ, even said, “we do not exercise kindness and generosity in order that we may put in a claim for gratitude; we do not make our feelings of affection into a business proposition. No, there is something in our nature that impels us to open hand and heart,” (May, 79). So how do we reconcile these tensions between self-interest and genuine care for others? This question lies in how the paradigms of our time socialize us to act. For instance, when this essay started out with the phrase ‘it’s a dog eats dog world,’ the sentiment probably didn’t give the reader pause. But now I invite you to think about the image this paper began with: a dog engaging in cannibalism. Because we’re not experiencing this phrase for the first time, we don’t appreciate the gruesome nature of it—we’ve been socialized away from its connotations. So too have we been socialized towards the self-interested attitudes neoliberalism imparts; to counteract this, we must engage in a paradigm shift to encourage the open hand and heart parts of our nature.
To begin, I believe we need to connect how exactly neoliberalism fuels this self-interested streak that we display. It does not occur in a vacuum. Todd May, a person who we will get to in a moment, thinks of it in this way: during the hippie movement, people tries to encourage the naturalism behind the carnal desire to have sex. American society quickly adapted to make sex more of an open topic—and this was “co-opted by capitalism and sold back to the public as niche items,” (May, 65). Think of all the ways sex has become commercialized today. Neoliberalism takes advantage of the self-interested desires in our nature for its benefits. In his book Friendship in an Age of Economics, Todd May draws upon two paradigmatic figures that neoliberalism fosters within people: the consumer and the entrepreneur. According to May: “…the consumer does not actively engage with the present, but instead incorporates it, asks of it the provision of pleasure or entertainment,” (May, 37). The consumer will try to draw upon any immediate pleasures, whether it is shopping in a mall or pornography or video games. The entrepreneur, on the other hand has a different system of operation: “Whether the question one faces is that of how much education to attain, whether to marry, how many children to have, whether to break the law, how to discourage discrimination against minorities, the best way to settle these questions, both at the level of personal decisions and at those of setting policy, is to look at the various types of return that can be expected on the basis of different types of investment,” (46). In this way, the entrepreneur lives in the future. Neither the figure of the consumer nor the entrepreneur defines us, but they have become accentuated aspects of our ethos. People trend towards these qualities because these qualities are taught to be desirable.
Robert Lane argues that “the kinds of people who choose materialist values carry within them the seeds of unhappiness,” (May, 39). You might have noticed before that the entrepreneur lives solely in the future, which plays to the very same tune of this hedonic treadmill of not truly enjoying things. At first glance, the consumer lives in the present, which is undeniably a good thing—so is Robert Lane wrong in his assessment? I would argue no. The consumer lives in the present in an artificial fashion. Robert Lane even cites the hedonic treadmill of us chasing this non-existent instantaneous satisfaction that lasts shorter and shorter periods. The consumer integrates the present but they do not appreciate it beyond the pleasure they derive from it. However, deep friendship is something that owes its roots to the past, while it is indeed lived in the present. Todd May echoes both of these sentiments. “…to know who someone is, and to allow oneself to be known, takes time…[But] however indebted a friendship is to its beginnings, it must be animated by the time lived together between those beginnings and its present state,” (May, 94). Friendship integrates the past and the present to establish its centrality and looks to the future to be further established—it does not shortchange time in any way.
There are many qualities that make a deep friendship. And we must encourage these qualities to encourage a paradigmatic shift: “people are partly a product of their social conditions. If social conditions press toward more concern for the other, people will likely display more of it,” (May, 43). Todd May and I would argue that this shift takes place in fostering deeper friendships rather than just acquaintanceships: “a deeper friendship has the resources to challenge norms in a way that shallower ones do not,” (May, 85). So what are deep friendships? A deep friendship involves trust that develops over time. It is for the other person and not any one quality that they do or do not possess—in other words true friends cannot be replaced or exchanged. Deep friendship involves giving on both sides, challenging the other to become better people, and shared activities whereby people can ‘live together’. But there is also something ineffable about deep friendship. Todd May puts it best: “Deep friendships are best thought of as contributing not just (and not primarily) to the happiness of our lives but to the meaning they display both to us and likely to others as well. To get at this idea, we can return…to Brewer’s phrase “a jointly created world.” Friendships do not only intersect with one’s life; they help create it,” (May, 99). It is up to us to foster this creation into a love that can trump populism, selfishness, wage disparities, and the general evils of neoliberalism. We have the resources. Let’s make this a dog love dog world.
May, Todd. Friendships in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books. 2012