This essay, “Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul” by Chris Maisano in Jacobin is so wonderful.
The scores of young workers that she interviewed for her study had no faith in politics or collective action to address their problems or to give their lives meaning. Instead, they deal with the traumas of everyday life by crafting “deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from painful pasts — whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment — and forging an emancipated, transformed, adult self.”
In the language of C. Wright Mills, they lack a sociological imagination that allows them to connect personal troubles to public issues. The social damage wrought by deunionization, financialization, and deeply embedded patterns of gender and racial discrimination are consistently transmuted into evidence of personal shortcomings that, if left uncorrected, hold individuals back from attaining stability and security.
Though Polk is a child of the middle class who made a fortune before turning thirty, the narrative he crafts to explain his personal trajectory bears all of the same characteristics of Silva’s working-class interviewees. He traces all of his personal shortcomings — his youthful drug and alcohol abuse, low-level criminal activity, workplace fistfights, sexual infidelities, and lust for money — to childhood trauma at the hands of an abusive father. In his telling, it is individuals with propensities toward addictive behaviors, not political actors or socioeconomic structures, that are responsible for the vast gulf between the rich and the rest of us. It was not revulsion at the vast social wreckage of neoliberalism, but rather the development of a “core sense of self” honed through years of therapy, that finally spurred his decision to leave Wall Street.
Like his counterparts occupying the lower rungs of an increasingly precarious labor market, Polk has made sense of his life and the world by creating individualized solutions to confront and transcend a traumatic past disconnected from any wider social context. This affective orientation is a generalized condition of neoliberal subjectivity across classes.