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Market-driven ills of a sick society

Steve Andrew recommends Paul Verhaege’s study of how rising levels of mental sickness are induced by the neoliberal agenda

What About Me? The Struggle For Identity in a Market-based Society, by Paul Verhaeghe (Scribe, £12.99)

Very much in the tradition of psychoanalysis, Paul Verhaeghe’s earlier books undoubtedly owed more to the likes of Freud and Lacan than to the ideas of, say, Marx.

Yet years of working as a clinician eventually convinced him that the current tidal wave of mental illness, manifesting itself in spiralling levels of stress, anxiety and depression, owes more to contemporary changes in work and society than it does to fixed, individualistic and biological reasons.

Verhaeghe understand these changes as ones brought about by the impact of a neoliberalism which destroys community, commodifies relationships, increases insecurity and generally works against the more co-operative aspects to human behaviour.

It is by no means an original thesis but Verhaeghe writes with flair, passion and insight in a freewheeling, eclectic way that smacks of Slavoj Zizek.

The fact that he comes to conclusions from a completely different angle to that associated with the left is also a bonus point. Arguing that a market-based society “brings out the worst in us,” he often draws on research in psychopathology, albeit anchoring it within a more overtly political perspective.

In that view, if you value socially useful work, think people matter and don’t regard material acquisition as the be all and end all in a society addicted to neoliberalism you are labelled a misfit and failure. Even if you do try to acquire more but fail then ultimately you’ve only got yourself to blame.

On the other hand, if you are articulate, good at fooling others and care only for profit and not people you’ll soon find yourself in the upper stratum of society. Hence, psychopaths at the top and depressed, anxious people at the bottom. No one particularly healthy, but certainly some suffering more than others.

Verhaeghe is given to making over-confident, definitive comments and some of his historical analysis is certainly questionable, particularly in dealing with the impact of Ancient Greece and early Christianity. Few of us would see Marxism as a secular religion and where does capitalism end and neoliberalism begin? Are conditions in the workplace really as bad as they were 100 years ago?

But the major drawback to the book is that while Verhaeghe is excellent on explaining the origins of the problem, he’s a bit short on solutions. Any ideas?

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