On Neoliberalism, Whiteness, and Narcissism

As a white man, whiteness concerns me. But what is ‘whiteness,’ and is it the same as ‘white’? The website, RacialEquityTools, offers a handy definition.

White: “[t]he term white, referring to people, was created by Virginia slave owners and colonial rules in the 17th century. It replaced terms like Christian and Englishman to distinguish European colonists from Africans and indigenous peoples. European colonial powers established whiteness as a legal concept after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, during which indentured servants of European and African descent had united against the colonial elite. The legal distinction of white separated the servant class on the basis of skin color and continental origin … ”

Whiteness: “The creation of ‘whiteness’ meant giving privileges to some, while denying them to others with the justification of biological and social inferiority … Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color. This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviors that some individuals may or may not demonstrate, and goes beyond naming specific privileges. Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined, and elevated through their racialization and the individual and collective consciousness’ formed within it. Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes and practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone). Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels. These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all, but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.”

Another definition of white comes from Sara Ahmed, who highlights again the institutional and cultural dynamics involved constituting, in this case, the category of ‘white men.’ She writes, “[w]hen we talk of ‘white men’ we are describing an institution. ‘White men’ is an institution. By saying this, what I am saying? An institution typically refers to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. “White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.”

In short, ‘whiteness’ can be understood as being the institutional support upholding the racial category ‘white’ as a means to ensure that the members of this group continue to be the primary beneficiaries of everyday politics, i.e., the distribution of wealth and regard.

The distribution of resources is one of the primary concerns of neoliberalism. And so, what does this term mean? It seems to be ubiquitous and hard to pin down. I like the following definitions.

Jeremy Gilbert, in his article, “What Kind of Thing is ‘Neoliberalism’” writes, “[p]ut simply, neoliberalism, from the moment of its inception, advocates a programme of deliberate intervention by government in order to encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens, ultimately arguing for the management of populations with the aim of cultivating the type of individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behaviour which the liberal tradition has historically assumed to be the natural condition of civilised humanity, undistorted by government intervention. This is the key difference between classical liberalism and neoliberalism: the former presumes that, left to their own devices, humans will naturally tend to behave in the desired fashion. By contrast the latter assumes that they must be compelled to do so by a benign but frequently directive state.”

Stephen Ball offers another insight into the term ‘neoliberalism’ in his article, “An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University.” Ball writes about the impact that neoliberalism has on individuals who are increasingly defined, evaluated, and held to account based on their measurable performance. As he states, “[o]ne key and immediate facet of the new [neoliberal] paradigm is ‘the re-invention of professionals themselves as units of resource whose performance and productivity must constantly be audited so that it can be enhanced’ … there is a proliferation of new spaces of calculation and new visibilities within which we relate to one another, and seek our place and our worth and our needs. Our days are numbered – literally – and ever more closely and carefully. Increasingly, we are ‘governed by numbers’ … as ‘the technology of statistics creates the capacity to relate to reality as a field of government’.”

To this Alison Phipps & Isabel Young add, writing again about the neoliberal university, that “[m]arketised universities exist within (and perpetuate) a culture based on ‘having’ or ‘getting’ (grades and/or jobs), which develops a sense of entitlement and in which education becomes a transactional exchange … Students’ lives are directed towards economic self-interest and credential acquisition rather than connection … Such market-based views of personhood threaten the existence of community.”

So, what is neoliberalism? Another example may clarify further. Consider politics: the struggle over what services and resources will be provided, to whom, by whom, in what amount, and to what end. Neoliberalism, or rather, individuals and organisations committed to a neoliberal ideology, seek/s to undermine the interventionist welfare state—this is the idea that the state should intervene to provide a range of social services to its citizens, including education, health care, unemployment insurance, welfare, and so on—and promote/s a managerialist and individualist approach to service provision as being more efficient. Under this model, services, rather than being made available universally (which is deemed as being too expensive and inefficient), are increasingly targeted to particular populations who often have to prove repeatedly that they meet the criteria for service—i.e., that they are worth investing in—in order to receive services; meanwhile, government budgets always seem to be ‘tight.’ Inadvertently, this creates competitive wrangling for decreasing government services.

Under neoliberalism, the dismantling of the welfare state goes hand in hand with the push towards pro corporate / business policies, a shift payed for by the privatization of social services. If those services then become too expensive, since they are not being funded by government, people may be asked to turn to their families for support. Neoliberalism therefore tends to deepen inequality and desperation, a reality which is readily obfuscated by doubling down on vilifying the ‘poor’ as greedy, lazy, and unmotivated. Such rhetoric makes ample use of the tropes individualism, asking people, for instance, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Finally, Neoliberalism’s push towards efficiency and measurable results also often leads to the reorganization of the workplace along the lines of “managerialism,” an approach that seeks “business-like management solutions” to issues as opposed to non-market initiatives stressing social connection, equality, and a public service ethos. (A great book that elaborates on the impact of neoliberalism on service provision, is Doing Anti-Oppressive Practice: Social Justice Social Work by Donna Baines).

What about narcissism? What’s the connection to neoliberalism and whiteness? Well, an interesting article that I recently stumbled across, called “Whiteness as Pathological Narcissism,” draws some controversial and thought-provoking links. The authors of the article adopt a psychoanalytic perspective to argue that many white people are experiencing a “racialized form of oedipal splitting, the so-called Madonna–whore conflict” which creates racial divisions between idealized (i.e., white) and devalued (i.e., black) love and lust as part of a “mass fantasy.” In a highly individualistic, competitive, neoliberal, and capitalist society, oedipal winners (un)consciously attach to whiteness and, driven by a fear of becoming ‘oedipal losers’ (i.e., the ‘left behind white’), narcissistically defend this institution.

The authors are worth quoting in full: “[w]hiteness and white racial identity are social identities through which white people are granted access to unearned ‘resources, power and opportunity’ … and use that power to render these privileges invisible. We argue that white superiority, white privilege, and repudiated white identity reflect forms of pathological narcissism driven, in part, by the desire to be an oedipal winner at any price and the dread of experiencing the trauma of being an oedipal loser. Whiteness functions as a kind of denied grandiosity. By the splitting off and projection of repudiated aspects onto black people, whiteness is inherently fragile, unstable, and prone to disintegration. This creates vulnerability to states of narcissistic decompensation characterized by white shame and rage, which through projective identification, may be turned into black shame and rage … We suggest that the traumatic social mortifications of growing up in an intensely competitive, individualistic, materialistic, and status-conscious society unconsciously create entrenched oedipal fixations.”

So, what does this all mean? In summary, we live in a highly competitive and individualistic society that valorizes winners and winning and that stigmatizes losers as incapable and lacking. Neoliberalism drives this myth, pushing values of self-sufficiency and meritocracy. Remember: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. In such a context, who wants to lose?

As the old institution of whiteness that has for centuries maintained white dominance slowly crumbles, it is less and less available to white people as a means to safeguard their privileges, resources, and status. Hence, the fear of being left behind, of losing ground, of becoming the oedipal loser. In classic narcissist style, once your unearned grandiosity is being challenged, you experience a “narcissistic scar,” as Freud called it, and lash out, defending yourself. You attach ever more strongly to your delusion and reject all viewpoints that might suggest otherwise. This is what makes narcissism so difficult to treat in therapy.

In addition, you double down on your views that non-whites are less than you; for if they are less, you are more. As the authors note, threatened white people may experience “an unconscious need to omnipotently construct a reality in which black people are denied an independent mind of their own (i.e., “They don’t really understand why things happen or how things work”). White winners view black losers as attempting to salvage self-respect by defensively construing themselves as innocent victims of racial oppression and persecution, a paranoid adaptation. The accusations of racism, that the game is rigged, are just the sour grapes of sore losers who cannot admit defeat on a fair playing field.” This is an example of victim blaming, a process which also frames black anger as unreasonable and pathological as opposed to seeing it as the inevitable response to the range of indignities experienced when living in a racist society.

That black (and other racialized minorities) people don’t accept this framing and resist with counter-narratives is problematic for white narcissism. A therapist that pushes back against the narratives spun by someone with narcissism will no longer be available as a passive receptacle for the narcissist’s wishes and fears. Likewise, black people resist taking on this role. As a result, white people may prefer to live in segregated communities—“White Mutual Admiration Societies”—where their believes remain unchallenged and black people continue to exist as imaginary objects rather than as real people. When faced with black people, however, narcissistic whiteness may turn to the use of micro-aggressions, which are implicit and hard to detect racial insults and invalidations that serve to put black people in “their place.”

This raises the dilemma of how one can take pride in one’s white racial identity given its racist implications. As the authors of the article note, why not identify with your ethnic group? (e.g., German, Italian, Jewish, Irish, etc.) What do you really need whiteness for? (unless it’s your ticket to distinguishing your ethnic group as superior).

The authors, being therapists, also offer an interesting piece of insight with respect to white people seeking to speak up and address racist speech. When white people speak up and raise racial issues with other white people, they “may have to abide being perceived as a certain type of bad object; a moralistic, self-righteously indignant, and punitive object who persecutes the [other white person] by making slanderous accusations of racism.” This puts the white person speaking up against racism in the “hypocritical role of someone who [may be] unconsciously racist, analyzing the repudiated racism of a[nother] white [person]. Simultaneously taking on the dual roles of explicit racial accuser while remaining a closet racist oneself may often be just too much for [someone] to bear in one emotionally charged, paranoid, psychotic micromoment.” Since all white people harbour some degree of racial bias, this conundrum can have significant consequences for engaging in conversations across race in order to shift towards a more equitable and just relating with one another.

James Baldwin, astute, offers the following advice: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” And so, I suppose, what I am saying is that, at the very least, we should consider to what degree we (white people) are narcissistically attached to our whiteness. And if we are, what can we do to loosen the binds? How can we invest differently? The connection to neoliberalism suggests that one way in which we can act is in helping usher in what Martin Luther King called the ‘Beloved Community.’

In Martin Luther King’s ‘Beloved Communities,’ “poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Liam Barrington-Bush, in the article “Structuring our beloved communities”, ponders how to establish such communities where people are working well together despite their differences. Does it take something that is created—by place or process—or does it emerge through the individual relationships involved. Do we focus on building loving relationships or do we focus on the nuts and bolts work of creating places, structures, processes, and institutions that do not permit harmful while nourishing positive behavior?

Marina Sitrin, activist and writer, argues that “Beloved Community … doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage … people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way … We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours.”

Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, adds however, that: “Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them … So what do we do when these patterns come up? … No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.”

If we consider that many of us harbour unconscious biases that surface as harmful micro-aggressions, many of which we are not even aware off, then it would seem strategically wise to focus primarily on relationship building in hope of healing our divisions and avoiding giving rise to structures that might propagate our unexamined biases. Loving relationships therefore give rise to effective structures. This corresponds to a bottom-up approach to social change, and yet, in relationship building, we cannot avoid some form of structure. After all, how do we bring people together and how do we approach relationship building? What tools do we use, what processes and what spaces are open to us? Structure and relationship building are intimately connected. Therefore Tana Paddock suggest that we ask ourselves: “When we create structure, where is it coming from?” What is the intent behind it? Are we coming from a place of fear leading to rules and regulations or are we coming from a place of wanting to liberate human potential?

Martin Luther King passionately believed that: “Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.” Similarly, Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, writes beautifully about 5 habits of the heart that help us resist divide-and-conquer politics, restore flourishing, inclusive communities and introducing ‘heart’ back into our politics: 1) An understanding that we are all in this together, 2) an appreciation of the value of “otherness,” 3) an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, 4) a sense of personal voice and agency, and 5) a capacity to create community.

Whether we are engaging in building structure or building relationships, a love ethic as championed by Martin Luther King would appear invaluable. In forming such relationships, we can also draw inspiration from bell hooks’ notion of “love is as love does.” hooks sees love as a mixture of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust as well as honest and open communication to nourish each other’s spiritual growth. Combined with Palmer’s 5 habits of the heart, hooks’ definition offers us much to work with when facing the prospect of unravelling our narcissistic attachment to whiteness under neoliberalism.

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