This time on the podcast we answered a listener’s question: What is this neoliberalism (that we often mention) and how does it relate to sex and relationships.
What is neoliberalism?
Although there is no definition of neoliberalism that everyone agrees on, broadly it’s the name for the capitalist economic and political system from the 1950s onwards where there is a shift in power from the state to business. With the common sense idea that states should be run like businesses and that if we trust in the free market determining and where there is trust that what the market determines will be best for everyone. The power resides in capital rather than in workers themselves. Everything is judged on whether the graph of capital is going up, rather than down. For example, countries are judged on their GDP rather than on the wellbeing of citizens.
Injustice is built into this system because it can only work by paying people less and less for the products they produce, in order that others can consume them (for example factory workers in poor countries on very low wages producing our clothes and technology). The system values some bodies, labour, and lives way less than others. It is also inherently non-consensual because it relies upon people continuing to produce and consume more and more, whether they want to or not, beyond the limits of what is good for mental or physical health. This system also ensures that we consume more and more, which requires the kinds of ecosystem invasion and environmental treatment that results in climate change, pandemic and related social and economic crises.
However there is a veneer of individualism over this injustice which gaslights everyone into believing that they live in a meritocracy where if they work hard as an individual they will be rewarded for it, and any failure is down to personal failings. People are also placed in competition against each other and told that resources are scarce, meaning they are unlikely to work collectively or unionise. This monitoring culture where people police themselves – and other individuals – through shame and blame also means a focus on individual change rather than recognising the systemic and structural change which would be needed to improve our relationships with work, ourselves, and each other.
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The non-consensual, competitive, and shaming/blaming nature of this system is inherently traumatising, but individuals are held responsible for any mental health – or other – struggles they experience as a result of this. Both possible responses to this – of continuing to overfunction, or of giving up and underfunctioning – are painful and maintain the status quo.
How does this impact sex and relationships?
On a practical level, sex and relationships are impacted because we’re caught up in a way of being which leaves nowhere near the time and energy we would need in order to have good sex and relationships: We see ourselves as what we do, we have to work longer hours, we often have long commutes, rent and house prices are high, and we’re placed on various escalators where the graph has to go up in order for us to feel okay about ourselves (the housing ladder, the relationship escalator, career progression, promotion, etc.)
Neoliberalism also creates ideals of ‘normal’ in relation to sex, relationships, and everything else which people are meant to aspire to, but which actually fit very few people, in order to create a sense of lack and scarcity and fuel consumption. Many industries then profit on people trying desperately to fit ‘normal’, and people don’t question it maintaining this system.
People exist in atomised units (individuals, couples, nuclear families) which are kept private, so the struggles that everyone is experiencing to function and be happy in such units – and certainly to meet the aspiration goals around sex and relationships – is hidden, and many suffer without support.
We’re expected to be sex and relationship entreneprenuers, working hard at sex and relationships – on top of everything else – and fooling ourselves that this is pleasurable and fun.
The solutions – in terms of our internal and external systems – involve slowing down rather than speeding up, being process-focused and present rather than goal focused and keeping the graph going up at all times, being with our feelings rather than overriding them or avoiding them, and treating ourselves and others consensually rather than valuing some things more than others.
If you want to learn more about the political theories we were trying to articulate you might really like these podcasts that Jeremy Gilbert put together. Here’s one about the ‘common sense’ ideas that Justin was talking about – Gramsci and hegemony. And here’s one which explains the work of Foucault and the idea of the panopticon.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020