Individualism and Inequality
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Individualism and Inequality

The Future of Work and Politics

Ralph Fevre

A belief in individual self-determination powered the development of universal human rights and inspired social movements from anti-slavery to socialism and feminism. At the same time, every attempt to embed individualism in systems of education and employment has eventually led to increased social inequality. Across the globe individualism has been transformed from a revolutionary force into an explanation for increasingly unequal societies where dissent is largely silent. This book explores the possibility of rediscovering the original, transformative potential of individualism.
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Chapter 13: The hidden injuries of cognitive individualism

Ralph Fevre


Chapter 1 mentioned research linking neoliberalism and depression, for example arguing that people’s mental health suffered when they were made entirely responsible for their own fate. Neoliberal individualism, it was suggested, subjected people to chronic insecurity, not simply because they might lose their jobs but because they never knew whether they were doing well enough in them. More recently, Paul Verhaeghe (2014), a Belgian professor of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis, claimed that neoliberalism caused not only depression but also self-harm, eating disorders and personality disorders. According to Verhaeghe, all of these illnesses could be caused by the ersatz moralities described in previous chapters of this book, especially the attachment of moral meanings to success and failure in the labour market and workplace. Within the workplace, performance was ascertained through intrusive systems of monitoring, measurement and comparison, which increased our anxieties and made us fearful of other people, both as judges of our performance and as our competitors. One consequence of this fear was an increase in workplace bullying as workers vented their frustrations on those in the workplace who were unable to stand up for themselves. This was an example of a more general increase in childish behaviour as people became dependent on arbitrary, shifting and often trivial signs of their worth. As a classic American sociological study would have put it, they were ‘other-directed’ and unable to rely on their own moral sense (Riesman 1950).

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