The stories in our heads

Mon 19 Sep 2016

Sometimes you order a book just for the title. I hadn’t heard of Paul Verhaeghe until I saw his book being recommended to me by the recommendation engine of a book-selling website I was checking out. The title was What About Me? It could be read as the book’s beseeching plea to the buyer — that is how I read it, and surrendered to it.

Verhaeghe is a Dutch psychoanalyst. In his books he combines the work of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and his own clinical experience to engage with the problems of modern living. What about Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-based Society (Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.) belongs to the tradition of theoretically informed yet accessible non-fiction about contemporary life, best epitomised by books such as Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society and Terry Eagleton’s The Meaning of Life . It is the first book I’ve read, and the only one I am aware of, to examine the impact of market society on psychological well-being.

All about us

Every one of us — even those who cannot read fiction unless it’s in Excel sheets and the story plotted on a graph — carries a story around in our heads. This story is the story of who we are. Another word for this story is ‘identity’. Constructing a stable identity is what growing up into maturity is all about.

Verhaeghe describes this process well: “Identity is always the temporary product of the interplay between merging and establishing a distance. The mirror that our environment holds up to us determines who we become.”

Traditionally, it was the community that served as the mirror. But as the community, under the onslaught of the market, dissolved into a sea of competing individuals, the cultural framework of identity formation changed radically.

As Verhaeghe shows in his book, there are several features of a market society that render the quest for identity a particularly fraught enterprise. The most critical of them is its replacement of authority with power. It is easy to confuse the two. But authority is power vested with moral legitimacy.

It is in relationship with authority — through parallel processes of submission/merging and resistance/autonomy — that individuals forge their identities. We see this dynamic most clearly at the level of nations: the more seamlessly a country submits to a uniform, global economic system, stronger are the mutinous impulses of nationalism and other collective identitarianisms that want to pull away and express an autonomous identity. It is no coincidence that right-wing nationalism has become a global phenomenon in the era of globalisation. At the level of the individual, ever present as a background to this dynamic is the identity a culture holds up as an ideal.

In a fascinating detour into the history of intellectual debates about identity, Verhaeghe points out that in ancient Greece, for instance, the ideal individual was “the one who has the most self-knowledge, making him or her the best-qualified leader.” Hence their dictum, ‘Know thyself’.

And what constitutes the ideal individual in a market society? “The most productive man or woman,” answers Verhaeghe. Productivity leads to ‘success’, which is equated with material prosperity. Since material prosperity is an outcome of individual effort, wealth becomes a marker of virtue as well.

The journalist Pritish Nandy hit upon this aspect of our society in a recent column titled, ‘We are all banias now’, where he argues that the caste identity associated with money-making has become the aspirational ideal for an entire nation. Verhaeghe says something similar: “We have gradually all become neo-liberal, in both thought and deed.”

Now, the term ‘neo-liberal’ is a red rag to both right-wingers and liberals, who hold that there is no such thing as a ‘neo-liberal’ except in the dyspeptic imaginations of ageing Left ideologues. Of course, nobody identifies as a neo-liberal, or even talks about this ideology, for the simple reason that you do not talk about what’s common sense.

David Foster Wallace captured this quality of ideology beautifully in his famous fable of the fish in the water: “An older fish says to two young fish swimming the other way, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

For Verhaeghe, neo-liberalism is the water in which the individuals of a market society swim (or sink). He presents a lucid summary of the neo-liberal worldview that has the power to dispel any doubts on this score: “People are competitive beings focussed on their own profit. This benefits society as a whole because competition entails everyone doing their best to come out on top. As a result, we get better and cheaper products and more efficient services within a single free market, unhampered by government intervention. This is ethically right because success or failure in that competition depends entirely on individual effort.”

Whether we call it ‘neo-liberal’ or not, it cannot be disputed that this is the cultural paradigm that rules the world today. But it was not always this way, says Verhaeghe. Indeed, this paradigm marks such a decisive break from the past that it has put identities in crisis.

Throughout history, economies have always been embedded in religious, ethical and social structures. But in a market society, Verhaeghe points out, for the first time ever, “religion, ethics, and society are subservient to ‘the market’.” Neo-liberalism, therefore, is not just an economic theory but a cultural phenomenon as well, and that is why it ends up shaping our identities, our values, and how we organise our lives.

So in a society where one’s identity is predicated on success, what happens to the failures? “If success is the criterion for a normal identity,” writes Verhaeghe, “failure is the symptom of a disturbed one.” If the ideal individual is the productive one who has attained riches purely on merit, failure not only signifies a humiliating lack of merit, it also condemns one as being unproductive, and therefore a parasite.

Verhaeghe, drawing on British politician Mark Young’s prophetic 1958 novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy , goes on to show how every society that fancies itself a meritocracy enjoys only a brief spell when merit actually engineers social mobility. Soon enough, in Young’s words, “those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” This is what explains the rising inequalities in countries where neo-liberalism is strongest, the U.S. being the prime example.

The logic of merit

Yet the logic of merit ensures that the class dimension of a meritocracy is never challenged, for each individual holds herself responsible for her success or failure. Given that in a meritocratic competitive society, by definition, there will be only a few winners but many losers, we see a growing prevalence of mental illness as people socialised into neo-liberal values struggle to reconcile their identity with failure, which is synonymous with dysfunctionality, or a breakdown of identity.

Verhaeghe explains that many normal human emotions and behaviours are getting pathologised if they conflict with the values of a neo-liberal society. A case in point is shyness, a perfectly natural human trait. But it is at odds with neo-liberal social norms, which expect ‘normal’ individuals to be articulate self-promoters with excellent networking skills. So shyness became a mental illness that the DSM calls “social phobia”.

Another reason for increasing mental breakdowns is the gradual disappearance of the “loving gaze” of the other, as contractual relationships proliferate. As Verhaeghe puts it, “There is no such thing as competitive solidarity.”

The bottom line of Verhaeghe’s book brings us full circle back to the question: What about Me? True to his profession, Verhaeghe suggests that it is with the self that the remedy must begin, for it is no longer possible to blame the politicians or the corrupt or ‘the system’ for our problems, because the system is us. Challenging the system is only possible with an interrogation, followed by a re-writing, of the story we carry around in our head; the story we tell ourselves, about ourselves.


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