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Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul

The problems of our time will be solved by our collective capacity to change the world, not self-therapy.

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Sam Polk was one of the wolves of Wall Street. In a self-lacerating memoir in Sunday’s New York Times, Polk looks back at his time as a brash young trader and is disgusted with the person that he used to be. “I was a giant fireball of greed.” “I wanted a billion dollars.” “I was lying to myself.”  I, I, I.

Despite the pretty blondes, the NoHo loft, ready entrée to Manhattan’s most exclusive restaurants, and second-row Knicks tickets on speed dial, nothing could make up for the “inner wound,” the spiritual hole that couldn’t be plugged with piles of easy money. Like his fellow “wealth addicts” on the trading floor, Polk was convinced that being rich would solve all of his problems. It didn’t, and he eventually left the wolves’ den (but not before making a killing by short-selling derivatives during the financial crisis).

On first glance, Polk’s harrowing narrative seems like a scathing indictment of neoliberalism. He praises the contributions of working people like his mother, a nurse practitioner, while equating traders and financiers with junkies, always on the lookout for the short-term fix instead of the long-term interests of the system as a whole. But though he’s left Wall Street behind, Polk has not been nearly as successful in escaping the affective and ideological spaces of neoliberalism.

His confession is drenched in the therapeutic language of self-help culture: political phenomena like financialization, inequality, and class power are redefined as personal pathologies to be treated with psychotherapy and support groups for those poor souls suffering from wealth addiction. In the coup de grace, Polk ends by — you guessed it — founding a non-profit organization to make up for all the bad things he’s done.

Its purpose? Not to combat the power of finance capital, or even to attend to the spiritual needs of former Wall Street traders, but the eating habits of poor people.

In her excellent new book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, the sociologist Jennifer Silva analyzes the ways in which neoliberalism has radically transformed our sense of self. As Silva argues, the assault on working-class organizations and living standards has led many young adults to adopt a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and their personal development.

The scores of young workers that she interviewed for her study had no faith in politics or collective action to address their problems or to give their lives meaning. Instead, they deal with the traumas of everyday life by crafting “deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from painful pasts — whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment — and forging an emancipated, transformed, adult self.”

In the language of C. Wright Mills, they lack a sociological imagination that allows them to connect personal troubles to public issues. The social damage wrought by deunionization, financialization, and deeply embedded patterns of gender and racial discrimination are consistently transmuted into evidence of personal shortcomings that, if left uncorrected, hold individuals back from attaining stability and security.

Though Polk is a child of the middle class who made a fortune before turning thirty, the narrative he crafts to explain his personal trajectory bears all of the same characteristics of Silva’s working-class interviewees. He traces all of his personal shortcomings — his youthful drug and alcohol abuse, low-level criminal activity, workplace fistfights, sexual infidelities, and lust for money — to childhood trauma at the hands of an abusive father. In his telling, it is individuals with propensities toward addictive behaviors, not political actors or socioeconomic structures, that are responsible for the vast gulf between the rich and the rest of us. It was not revulsion at the vast social wreckage of neoliberalism, but rather the development of a “core sense of self” honed through years of therapy, that finally spurred his decision to leave Wall Street.

Like his counterparts occupying the lower rungs of an increasingly precarious labor market, Polk has made sense of his life and the world by creating individualized solutions to confront and transcend a traumatic past disconnected from any wider social context. This affective orientation is a generalized condition of neoliberal subjectivity across classes.

At the height of her reign, Margaret Thatcher declared that in the neoliberal counter-revolution, economics was the method but the object was to change the soul. Judging from the bleak emotional landscapes that so many of us seem to inhabit, that project has succeeded beyond its protagonists’ wildest dreams.

The appeal of individualistic and therapeutic approaches to the problems of our time is not difficult to apprehend. But it is only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken. Until then, the only thing that the Sam Polks of the world can offer us is a solitary bowl of chicken soup for our neoliberal souls.


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