The therapeutic ethos in progressive neoliberalism (Fraser and Furedi)

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve read two pieces recently that I found helpful in understanding today’s politics, especially today’s identity politics, in a larger context.

The first is Nancy Fraser’s “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump–and Beyond” (link). It portrays the present (American but also global) political moment as a “crisis of hegemony”, using Gramscian terms, for which the presidency of Donald Trump is a poster child. It’s main contribution is to point out that the hegemony that’s been in crisis is a hegemony of progressive neoliberalism, which sounds like an oxymoron but, Fraser argues, isn’t.

Rather, Fraser explains a two-dimensional political spectrum: there are politics of distribution, and there are politics of recognition.

To these ideas of Gramsci, we must add one more. Every hegemonic bloc embodies a set of assumptions about what is just and right and what is not. Since at least the mid-twentieth century in the United States and Europe, capitalist hegemony has been forged by combining two different aspects of right and justice—one focused on distribution, the other on recognition. he distributive aspect conveys a view about how society should allocate divisible goods, especially income. This aspect speaks to the economic structure of society and, however obliquely, to its class divisions. The recognition aspect expresses a sense of how society should apportion respect and esteem, the moral marks of membership and belonging. Focused on the status order of society, this aspect refers to its status hierarchies.

Fraser’s argument is that neoliberalism is a politics of distribution–it’s about using the market to distribute goods. I’m just going to assume that anybody reading this has a working knowledge of what neoliberalism means; if you don’t I recommend reading Fraser’s article about it. Progressivism is a politics of recognition that was advanced by the New Democrats. Part of its political potency been its consistency with neoliberalism:

At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy…. The progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top. And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class.

A less academic, more Wall Street Journal reading member of the commentariat might be more comfortable with the terms “fiscal conservativism” and “social liberalism”. And indeed, Fraser’s argument seems mainly to be that the hegemony of the Obama era was fiscally conservatism but socially liberal. In a sense, it was the true libertarians that were winning, which is an interesting take I hadn’t heard before.

The problem, from Frasers perspective, is that neoliberalism concentrates wealth and carries the seeds of its own revolution, allowing for Trump to run on a combination of reactionary politics of recognition (social conservativism) with a populist politics of distribution (economic liberalism: big spending and protectionism). He won, and then sold out to neoliberalism, giving us the currently prevailing combination of neoliberalism and reactionary social policy. Which, by the way, we would be calling neoconservatism if it were 15 years ago. Maybe it’s time to resuscitate this term.

Fraser thinks the world would be a better place if progressive populists could establish themselves as an effective counterhegemonic bloc.

The second piece I’ve read on this recently is Frank Furedi’s “The hidden history of t identity politics” (link). Pairing Fraser with Furedi is perhaps unlikely because, to put it bluntly, Fraser is a feminist and Furedi, as far as I can tell from this one piece, isn’t. However, both are serious social historians and there’s a lot of overlap in the stories they tell. That is in itself interesting from a scholarly perspective of one trying to triangulate an accurate account of political history.

Furedi’s piece is about “identity politics” broadly, including both its right wing and left wing incarnations. So, we’re talking about what Fraser calls the politics of recognition here. On a first pass, Furedi’s point is that Enlightenment universalist values have been challenged by both right and left wing identity politics since the late 18th century Romantic nationalist movements in Europe, which led to World Wars and the holocaust. Maybe, Furedi’s piece suggests, abandoning Enlightenment universalist values was a bad idea.

Although expressed through a radical rhetoric of liberation and empowerment, the shift towards identity politics was conservative in impulse. It was a sensibility that celebrated the particular and which regarded the aspiration for universal values with suspicion. Hence the politics of identity focused on the consciousness of the self and on how the self was perceived. Identity politics was, and continues to be, the politics of ‘it’s all about me’.

Strikingly, Furedi’s argument is that the left took the “cultural turn” into recognition politics essentially because of its inability to maintain a left-wing politics of redistribution, and that this happened in the 70’s. But this in turn undermined the cause of the economic left. Why? Because economic populism requires social solidarity, while identity politics is necessarily a politics of difference. Solidarity within an identity group can cause gains for that identity group, but at the expense of political gains that could be won with an even more unified popular political force.

The emergence of different identity-based groups during the 1970s mirrored the lowering of expectations on the part of the left. This new sensibility was most strikingly expressed by the so-called ‘cultural turn’ of the left. The focus on the politics of culture, on image and representation, distracted the left from its traditional interest in social solidarity. And the most significant feature of the cultural turn was its sacralisation of identity. The ideals of difference and diversity had displaced those of human solidarity.

So far, Furedi is in agreement with Fraser that hegemonic neoliberalism has been the status quo since the 70’s, and that the main political battles have been over identity recognition. Furedi’s point, which I find interesting, is that these battles over identity recognition undermine the cause of economic populism. In short, neoliberals and neocons can use identity to divide and conquer their shared political opponents and keep things as neo- as possible.

This is all rather old news, though a nice schematic representation of it.

Where Furedi’s piece gets interesting is where it draws out the next movements in identity politics, which he describes as the shift from it being about political and economic conditions into a politics of first victimhood and then a specific therapeutic ethos.

The victimhood move grounded the politics of recognition in the authoritative status of the victim. While originally used for progresssive purposes, this move was adopted outside of the progressive movement as early as 1980’s.

A pervasive sense of victimisation was probably the most distinct cultural legacy of this era. The authority of the victim was ascendant. Sections of both the left and the right endorsed the legitimacy of the victim’s authoritative status. This meant that victimhood became an important cultural resource for identity construction. At times it seemed that everyone wanted to embrace the victim label. Competitive victimhood quickly led to attempts to create a hierarchy of victims. According to a study by an American sociologist, the different movements joined in an informal way to ‘generate a common mood of victimisation, moral indignation, and a self-righteous hostility against the common enemy – the white male’ (5). Not that the white male was excluded from the ambit of victimhood for long. In the 1980s, a new men’s movement emerged insisting that men, too, were an unrecognised and marginalised group of victims.

This is interesting in part because there’s a tendency today to see the “alt-right” of reactionary recognition politics as a very recent phenomenon. According to Furedi, it isn’t; it’s part of the history of identity politics in general. We just thought it was
dead because, as Fraser argues, progresssive neoliberalism had attained hegemony.

Buried deep into the piece is arguable Furedi’s most controversial and pointedly written point, which is about the “therapeutic ethos” of identity politics since the 1970’s that resonates quite deeply today. The idea here is that principles from psychotherapy have become part of repertoire of left-wing activism. A prescription against “blaming the victim” transformed into a prescription towards “believing the victim”, which in turn creates a culture where only those with lived experience of a human condition may speak with authority on it. This authority is ambiguous, because it is at once both the moral authority of the victim, but also the authority one must give a therapeutic patient in describing their own experiences for the sake of their mental health.

The obligation to believe and not criticise individuals claiming victim identity is justified on therapeutic grounds. Criticism is said to constitute a form of psychological re-victimisation and therefore causes psychic wounding and mental harm. This therapeutically informed argument against the exercise of critical judgement and free speech regards criticism as an attack not just on views and opinions, but also on the person holding them. The result is censorious and illiberal. That is why in society, and especially on university campuses, it is often impossible to debate certain issues.

Furedi is concerned with how the therapeutic ethos in identity politics shuts down liberal discourse, which further erodes social solidarity which would advance political populism. In therapy, your own individual self-satisfaction and validation is the most important thing. In the politics of solidarity, this is absolutely not the case. This is a subtle critique of Fraser’s argument, which argues that progressive populism is a potentially viable counterhegemonic bloc. We could imagine a synthetic point of view, which is that progressive populism is viable but only if progressives drop the therapeutic ethos. Or, to put it another way, if “[f]rom their standpoint, any criticism of the causes promoted by identitarians is a cultural crime”, then that criminalizes the kind of discourse that’s necessary for political solidarity. That serves to advantage the neoliberal or neoconservative agenda.

This is, Furedi points out, easier to see in light of history:

Outwardly, the latest version of identity politics – which is distinguished by a synthesis of victim consciousness and concern with therapeutic validation – appears to have little in common with its 19th-century predecessor. However, in one important respect it represents a continuation of the particularist outlook and epistemology of 19th-century identitarians. Both versions insist that only those who lived in and experienced the particular culture that underpins their identity can understand their reality. In this sense, identity provides a patent on who can have a say or a voice about matters pertaining to a particular culture.

While I think they do a lot to frame the present political conditions, I don’t agree with everything in either of these articles. There are a few points of tension which I wish I knew more about.

The first is the connection made in some media today between the therapeutic needs of society’s victims and economic distributional justice. Perhaps it’s the nexus of these two political flows that makes the topic of workplace harassment and culture in its most symbolic forms such a hot topic today. It is, in a sense, the quintessential progressive neoliberal problem, in that it aligns the politics of distribution with the politics of recognition while employing the therapeutic ethos. The argument goes: since market logic is fair (the neoliberal position), if there is unfair distribution it must be because the politics of recognition are unfair (progressivism). That’s because if there is inadequate recognition, then the societal victims will feel invalidated, preventing them from asserting themselves effectively in the workplace (therapeutic ethos). To put it another way, distributional inequality is being represented as a consequence of a market externality, which is the psychological difficulty imposed by social and economic inequality. A progressive politthiics of recognition are a therapeutic intervention designed to alleviate this psychological difficulty, which corrects the meritocratic market logic.

One valid reaction to this is: so what? Furedi and Fraser are both essentially card carrying socialists. If you’re a card-carrying socialist (maybe because you have a universalist sense of distributional justice), then you might see the emphasis on workplace harassment as a distraction from a broader socialist agenda. But most people aren’t card-carrying socialist academics; most people go to work and would prefer not to be harassed.

The other thing I would like to know more about is to what extent the demands of the therapeutic ethos are a political rhetorical convenience and to what extent it is a matter of ground truth. The sweeping therapeutic progressive narrative outlined pointed out by Furedi, wherein vast swathes of society (i.e, all women, all people of color, maybe all conservatives in liberal-dominant institutions, etc.) are so structurally victimized that therapy-grade levels of validation are necessary for them to function unharmed in universities and workplaces is truly a tough pill to swallow. On the other hand, a theory of justice that discounts the genuine therapeutic needs of half the population can hardly be described as a “universalist” one.

Is there a resolution to this epistemic and political crisis? If I had to drop everything and look for one, it would be in the clinical psychological literature. What I want to know is how grounded the therapeutic ethos is in (a) scientific clinical psychology, and (b) the epidemiology of mental illness. Is it the case that structural inequality is so traumatizing (either directly or indirectly) that the fragmentation of epistemic culture is necessary as a salve for it? Or is this a political fiction? I don’t know the answer.