Neoliberal Capitalism, Emotion and Morality

Roy Coleman


“Human passions and emotions stop only before a moral power they respect” (Durkheim)

Neoliberal capitalism operates according to particular interests. It involves particular ideas, values, even beliefs.  Neoliberalism does not however, as some have claimed, have its own moral framework. For sure, the advancement of a neoliberal political economic agenda relies on an illusion of moral unity in fabricating claims about the ‘public good’, ‘fairness’, and ‘justice’. Indeed, those driving neoliberalism may even claim it is a ‘moral’ project in these terms.   Neoliberalism is not a moral project, but an emotional project. This distinction is important.

Interests, norms, values and morality are different things. Yes – neoliberalism has cultural dimensions that extend its power and influence. However, acknowledging the role of culture is not the same as implying neoliberalism has a supporting moral order despite the likes of Thatcher and others attempting to persuade us that it does. Neoliberal capitalism has things that lend it support and legitimacy. These things are found in emotions and passions that are generated within capitalism regimes. However, these socially resonant and circulating emotional energies are what make neoliberalism profoundly immoral. The capitalist freeing up of passions associated with greed, aspirationalism and possessiveness render capitalist development profoundly immoral – if we take seriously Durkheim’s view of how economies are the sources of immorality and derangement in modern societies. The argument begins with the distinction that neoliberalism is buttressed emotionally not morally. In this way we can retain some absolutes or at least have a firmer basis to talk about ‘the right’ and ‘the good’.

Neoliberal capital has intensified the liberation of certain emotions and emotive practices that are bound up with a very broad notion of deregulation. Deregulation here refers to loosening or abandoning constraints – over making money, owning stuff, aggrandizing status, quantifying knowledge or as evident in governments talking the language of business (‘growth’, competition, well-being through markets etc.).  Taking this line of argument implies an earlier sociological view found in in the work of Emile Durkheim. It might be easy for some to dismiss his ideas as ‘liberal’ or, even more inaccurately, ‘conservative’. Durkheim’s view is more complex. He presents us with a definition of morality and its relationship to the economic. Such a view gives a non-relativistic definition of morality based on assumptions about human nature and its relationship to social relations.

The starting point for Durkheim is that modern economic practice (what he saw in terms of the spread of “industriousness” and “market” sentiments) are sources of social derangement (or “anomie”). This is not the same as normlessness but it does imply a lack of morality or its perversion. Derangement, wrought by the economic, is at once psychic and social, instilling marketed selves, inter-individual competition and egoism. It is founded in the unleashing of emotional forces generated when market practices propagate “the infinity of desire”. As others, including Erich Fromm, put it market economies unleash “possessiveness” (of people, places and consumables) and a “mode of having” at the expense of a “mode of being”. These point to unruly and ill-disciplined aspects of human nature that can encouraged or discouraged by types of ‘civilization’, identified by writers such as Plato, Freud, Elias and Durkheim – perhaps now unfashionable and ignored in social science. This means that contemporary capitalism ‘works’ on the basis of the desiring and striving aspect of human nature and its insatiability (unfettered desire and constant dissatisfaction). It also works in tandem with obsolescence (fuelling human cravings to remain ‘up-to-date’, constantly ‘upgradable ‘and ‘staying connected’). This implies that capitalist economics, politics and culture are fostered on the basis of inflamed passions (for greater material gain and supposed happiness), cravings, anxieties, stresses, psychological pains and (short-lived) hopes. This renders capitalist economics profoundly emotional: or more accurately emotionally turbulent and fevered – in Durkheim’s terms, “unhealthy”.  In this view, emotional capitalism is the opposite of moral because such emotional drives and the lives they propagate are torturous precisely because there is no moral restraint on the boundlessness of the passions.

So – the unleashing of the emotional and the irrational and its affects for psychic and social ill-health, means that capitalist economics is, for Durkheim, immoral. The same would apply to any economic social system that propagated values around egoistic individualism and/or proposed well-being through rationalistic and willed politico-economic programs. For Durkheim such rationalistic programs cannot be the sources of morality – they are, more often than not, its antithesis.

So can we say that neoliberalism is immoral? Within this perspective we can say ‘yes’. Why? There are number of reasons.

Firstly, neoliberal economics promotes interests. Neoliberalism ‘has morals’ to the extent that it has moral interests – but this is a contradiction-in-terms or a misnomer. Morals and interests are mutually exclusive on this view.  ‘Interests’ imply rationalism and sectionalism in which the ‘public interest’ is a post-rationalizing fiction or postemotional illusion.  One could argue the neoliberalism has wrought not a clear set of values but the value of chaos in which any number of values can coexist with ‘equal merit’ and effectively cancel each other out leading to microcosms of competing but not compelling ‘moralities’.

Secondly, an issue can be regarded as moral when it involves self-abnegation and sacrifice. In this view a moral stance does not, therefore, promote a particular interest. Attitudes, behaviors and values can support particular interests – but these do not, of necessity, have to rely on a moral foundation at all.

Thirdly, in ever increasing ways capitalism processes continual unfettering at the level of human desire, supposedly promoting ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’. For Durkheim morality is, in part, understood as a constraint on this aspect of emotional life because of the pain it engenders. Ideally such constraint would be the task of society and state. However, such as morality is not imposed from on high: it is deliberative and relatively spontaneous; it is a debated morality not simple moralizing. How this might be inaugurated is not clear.

Fourthly, we can say neoliberalism is immoral because it forestalls compassion.  Compassion can be understood as the “’lowest’ common denominator essential to collective life” (Mestrovic) and include empathy, egolessness and an understanding for others suffering or victimhood. The values, habits and behaviors highlighted by neoliberalism are individualism, self-responsibility, self-interest, greed and individual marketability and fungibility (the replicability of people): the opposite of compassion. These may be based on rational principles of self-betterment and utilitarian happiness strategies, but they actually promote – to varying degrees and with various consequences – narcissism, anxiety, and a wider blasé attitude regarding so-called ‘compassion fatigue’. In extreme cases the propagation of such social practices heightens suicides, self-harm and harms inflicted on others. To this extent neoliberalism is immoral in that its decadence, rampant narcissism (there is no alternative!) and infinite desiring erode human dignity and understanding for others. Part of the capitalist economic rationale is the reduction of populations to spectators, whereby we are encouraged to see each other as measurable consumers and producers, encouraging what Georg Simmel termed “the blasé attitude”, amounting to the decomposition of compassion for others at the same time as judgmental narcissistic self-interest prevails.

For Durkheim morality is not just any old set of legitimating discourses. Morality is not a thing or a possession of a particular group but a process subject to deliberation and through which dissimilar lives in complex social formations can reach out and understand each other. For Durkheim ideas that promoted particular group interests at the expense of others are not moral but were merely interests with associated habits and ways of seeing and doing that jeopardized collective solidarity, compassion and understanding. For him the mere imposition of interests (and legitimating habits and thought and action), degrade morality and represent a “sociological monstrosity”.  I think this is important because we can identify and talk about contemporary states of demoralization, anxiety, and emotionally traumatized lives and other violence’s inflicted through deranged economics and associated political forms.

So if the powerful do not govern on a moral basis what do they govern on? Of course, they share ‘worldview’s’, cultural outlooks and norms and values. They have, to use Scraton and Hall’s phrase, “a correspondence of interests” but not a widely accepted morality as Durkheim grasped it. Were the police, tabloid media, government, FA and other powerful bodies involved in the corruption, cover-up and vindictiveness in the quarter century after Hillsborough bound and supported by a morality? Not in the manner we have spoken of it here. Cover-up suggests no legitimating morality can be appealed to. The fabrication of lies about a people, a city and a sporting fraternity suggest postemotionalism, revanchism or the fabrication of reputations of a class of people (as represented in the revanchist tabloid The Sun).  The promotion of fear/hatred and demotion of compassion are important neoliberal capitalist governing strategies.

The Truth

The powerful and inscrutable state cabal at the centre of Hillsborough, industrial phone hacking and the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal was bound by shared interests based on political and material affinities that, in some quarters, may have found normative support in wider values pertaining to the proper objects of governmental power in its widest sense. It’s important to say these were deeply immoral acts of state and any wider support for such action speaks not so much to moral affinities between powerful and powerless groups as much as it does to emotional inflammations engineered by governments that sustain popular fears, hopes and anxieties. This is a society of moral indifference towards those who are different and unequal. Capitalism is more a love [and hate] story than a moral one.

Thanks to Andrew Kirton for discussion on this topic.



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Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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