The invention of the unknown

Image: Suzy Hazelwood


Neoliberalism is incapable of responding to the crisis of our historical time. You can no longer convince people that you can keep your promises

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born. In this interregnum, a wide variety of morbid symptoms appear.” (Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks).

“To respond to such a primer, we must say that, if there is no politics without the desire to free ourselves from ourselves, to free ourselves from our limitations, without the desire to explore what does not yet have a figure, it is certain that history is the field within which this desire learns to better orient itself. That this learning is not in a straight line, that it is mistaken and often lost, this is just a way of insisting on consequences inherent to any and all learning. With learning about the strength of our freedom and our inventiveness, it would be no different.” (Vladimir Safatle, The left that is not afraid to say its name).

Neoliberal political reason[I] is incapable of responding to the crises of our historical time. Whether as a way of managing oneself (shaping subjects who act according to capitalist logic), or others (fostering a model of social interaction based on market logic), neoliberalism supports the exaltation of value – personal, monetary, etc. – and classifies as deviation any human will that is not in complete accordance with the aforementioned rationalities. Neoliberalism has generated, is generating and will continue to generate crises until it is faced and overcome by another alternative.

Exponential growth in the exploitation of the workforce combined with the progressive flexibilization of the labor market that pushes large human contingents into a situation of extreme precariousness; praise of the idea of ​​absolute technical-exploratory dominance over nature, on the part of human beings, which justifies the unrestrained destruction of the environment as a necessary consequence for progress (the generic use of the term is intentional); the widespread production and management of psychological suffering in line with the individualization of these symptoms, and, therefore, not seeing them as derived from a system that establishes them; the list of contradictions could go on and on ad infinitum.

What is important to remember from this brief exposition is described by Dardot and Laval as follows: “Neoliberalism is a system of norms that today are deeply inscribed in government practices, institutional policies, and management styles. Furthermore, we must make it clear that this system is all the more “resilient” as it far exceeds the mercantile and financial sphere in which capital reigns. It extends market logic far beyond the strict boundaries of the market, in particular by producing “accountable” subjectivity by creating systematic competition between individuals.”[ii]

In other words, this means that, as it is constituted as a system of norms, it is impossible to view neoliberal reason as an operator at the individual level – this does not mean, however, that its effects cannot be felt singularly by the subjects, but only that they need to be understood and, consequently, faced in the collective sphere.

This fact is “easily” confirmed, and here we reach a fundamental point, simply by examining the relationships that occur around us. After all, who doesn't know a person experiencing difficulties in closing the monthly bills, even experiencing intense exploitation at work; or how many are not the extreme weather phenomena that we see all the time in the news; How many of our colleagues do not face profound suffering, symptomatic of the demands of employment, college, etc.? Or better (or worse), how many of us, instead of being mere spectators, are often, within the statement, the subject who suffers?

This means that, despite what its enthusiasts would have us believe, it is possible to affirm that personal effort is not a sufficient force, even if fundamental, to overcome these contradictions: I very much doubt that anyone reading this text has the ambition not to having enough money to eat, living in a world where a climate-environmental crisis threatens the continuity of (human) life on Earth as we know it and/or living in a situation of psychological suffering.

So, returning to the point we mentioned above as fundamental, we know, “by looking around us” what the main morbid symptoms are, to use Gramsci's expression, of our historical time (1); also, we can see what its central causes are (2); and, whether at university, political parties or working within social movements, we spend a considerable period of time in contact with various authors who provide us with the theoretical tools to approach such situations and, ultimately, confront them (3). The obvious question arising from these findings is: why don't we do anything? You see, it's not about stating that there are no important initiatives underway that aim to build a new reality, it's simply about noting that it's inevitable not to get frustrated when analyzing their expressiveness and relevance for effectively carrying out this movement of transformation.

Trying to answer the previous question in a short text like this would be as laughable as it is unproductive. It is even questionable to believe in the (comforting) fact that there could be a single answer to the question. However, in line with some authors of critical theory, in general, and Marxist approaches, in particular, I believe that one of the initial steps is to denaturalize in order to move forward. In other words, as Fisher summarizes: “If capitalist realism is so fluid, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and powerless, where could an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it generates misery and pain, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, hunger and war can be presented as unavoidable aspects of reality, while the hope of one day eliminating such forms of suffering can easily be represented as mere naïve utopianism (…) emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of an “order natural”: it must reveal that what is presented to us as necessary and inevitable is, in fact, mere chance, and it must make what previously seemed impossible now seen as achievable (…) What we need is for these effects to be connected to a structural cause. Against the postmodern suspicion regarding “grand narratives”, we need to reaffirm that, far from being isolated and contingent problems, these are all effects of a single systemic cause: capital”.[iii]

Sometimes we lose sight of how internalized this natural order is. We study concepts of great abstraction (such as capitalism, schemes of psychological suffering, the media, etc.) as monolithic and homogeneous structures – with the same morphology over long periods. We lose sight, for example, that capitalism or the suffering of our time is not the same as that of our parents' time, much less that of our grandparents. The observation is far from completely denying the validity of Freud's or Marx's theses, to just focus on surface authors, but rather that it is imperative to give space to theses that seek to revitalize and/or improve such theories.

It is in this sense that, for contemporary studies in the field of psychoanalysis, it is impossible to dissociate the forms of suffering from the current social form. The “social symptom” of an era would manifest itself precisely as a consequence of the ways of organizing life and, what is more, would only be perceived as a deviation by a society where it itself denounces the contradictions of the ways of living in it. As an example of this, we have the hysteria of Victorian society, which exposes the gender relations produced by the patriarchalism of the time. Furthermore, the bet of Maria Rita Kehl, a Brazilian psychoanalyst, is that depressions would be the social symptom of neoliberalism.[iv]

We make this small point so that we can think, therefore, that the main forms of suffering in capitalism and neoliberalism are precisely symptomatic of an era. Furthermore, the very emergence of these deviant positions over time undo and confront – in their own way – the meanings that support these same systems. Thus, Capitalism (like Latour, the use of the spelling with a capital letter serves to identify its more “institutional” meaning[v]) and neoliberal reason are just a few examples among several other possible ways to deal with these “internalized norms”, which end up structuring our ways of living and suffering and creating a “natural order” also of our own being.

Em The Origin of Capitalism, Ellen Meiksins Wood, teaches us that – this statement may shock you – capitalism has not always existed in the history of humanity. For the author, therefore, far from viewing the history of the relationship between producers and appropriators as a straight line that would naturally lead to capitalism, the “origin” of capitalism is closer to the examination of the degree of dependence of both producers and appropriators. , in relation to a specific and historically localized type of market. Distinct, as it imposes new conditions on human beings and the environment; Some of them are: competition, accumulation and profit maximization.

Therefore, E. Wood highlights that developing a description that takes into account the analysis of the “historically specific social relations, constituted by human action” that constitute capitalism or, in other words, its history, is not only necessary, but fundamental to demonstrate that these relationships are “subject to change”,[vi] making it possible to move towards overcoming it.

In turn, neoliberalism (as previously defined) needs to go through a process of “denaturalization”. In this sense, it is worth pointing out that, as demonstrated by the various authors who focus on the topic, there is a consensus around the thesis that it is only since the 1970s and post-war years – that is, approximately fifty years – that in response to specific phenomena of the period in which neoliberal theses began to be put into practice.

It is worth noting that, with this observation, I do not seek to affirm, as it would be mistaken, that it is only from this period onwards that such a doctrine “exists”; This is because, in addition to not being possible to ignore the long path that leads (but is not limited to) to the creation of the Mont Pèlerin society, the observation of the practical application of this new reason for the world cannot leave aside the gradual gestation of its theory ( as an idea or fruit of intellectual activism).

However, since we can sometimes lose sight, the observation serves to, once again, affirm that the world was not always like this. By “the world” we mean, of course, the way we work, relate to ourselves and each other, consume, suffer and – why not? – we love it.

In the Brazilian context, for example, it would be possible to affirm that the bases that give concreteness to the neoliberal doctrine – it is not an exaggeration to remember –, within our geographical and historical specificities, only began to take shape at the beginning of the 1990s.[vii] – that is, just over 30 years ago. It is essential to remember, denouncing this reflexive impotence that takes over us: challenging this new rationality is possible, more than that, it is necessary as a historical mission.

Perhaps, at this point, psychoanalysis can contribute once again to the discussion: the horizon of a new society and the ambition of building new ways of relating to it, necessarily involves radicalizing our desire, so that it moves towards a something other than what is given. As an effect of language itself, the dialectic of our desire is not individual, it is inevitably collective by constitution, therefore, thinking about subjectivity is necessarily thinking about the subjectivity of an era.

In the same way, thinking about the denaturalization of the deep-rooted ways of suffering, feeling and relating that neoliberalism presents us with, is also thinking about the destitution of it itself, and, even more so, of the grammar that supports it. The change we place here is consequently an inauguration: the invention of the unknown.

However, to accomplish this task we cannot rely solely on the strength of ideas. As Lévi-Strauss pointed out, the spread of the Western lifestyle: “It results less from a free decision than from an absence of choice. Western civilization established its soldiers, its trading posts, its plantations and its missionaries throughout the world: it intervened, directly or indirectly, in the lives of populations of color, it revolutionized their traditional way of existence from top to bottom, whether imposing its own, or establishing conditions that would engender the collapse of existing frameworks without replacing them with something else”.[viii]

The statement in this excerpt, taking into account that it was published in 1952, despite not dealing with the developments analyzed here, can easily be extended to them.

Therefore, in addition to denaturalizing ideas – as we defend throughout the text – we understand that it is also necessary to seek ways to denaturalize our practices. Because it often remains in the field of ideas, even though it affects the way we act in the world, the “natural” needs to find an equivalent (note: not a substitute) in concreteness. We argue that the “real” (realism, pragmatism, etc.) would be, in practical terms, this correspondent. After all, where else can we act if not in reality? In common sense, other than realism or pragmatism, what other characteristic do we need to take into account to base our actions on? It is imperative, therefore, to derealize (?) the real!

An exemplary case of this complete identification between the natural and the real can easily be rescued if we evoke the current context of Brazilian politics. Since Lula's victory in the elections held in 2022, the scenario of political immobility of the radical left has been clear – not to mention the complete submission of the parties that still claim to be “left” and make up the base of the PT government. Many justifications are given for this scenario, but I believe that the two most common are: the danger of the extreme right returning to power and, the most infamous of complaints, the negative correlation of forces (in institutions, society, etc.).

While the first part of an analysis is not very precise in which “power” is understood as a homogeneous, indivisible entity – represented only by the person who occupies the Executive chair –, the other subverts the very logic of what is understood by correlation of forces viewing it as a natural and, therefore, immutable given. Despite their differences, they share the same origin already mentioned in this text: reflective impotence.

We conclude the text with an excerpt from an article by Heribaldo Maia entitled “The shameful death of the Brazilian left” and which, by coincidence, we came into contact with while writing this text. In our opinion, the excerpt perfectly summarizes the idea we wanted to discuss here (obviously, without the intention of exhausting the topic) and invites us to reflect: “Most of the voices that call themselves “realists” today repeat dogmas of a reality that doesn't even exist anymore. Since the 2008 crisis, there has been no safe prospect on the global horizon of a new cycle of economic growth that would produce jobs and reduce inequality. Trends point, on the contrary, to low productivity capitalism, returning to income extraction, and an increase in structural unemployment. Furthermore, the inescapable evidence of the environmental crisis calls into question any promise of infinite progress and the short-term calculations of corporations and countries. If a growing number of people are opening up to positions that would previously have been seen as “extreme”, both on the right and on the left, it is firstly because the “center” can no longer convince them that it can keep its promises. . This is why the middle ground between conservative-neoliberalism and progressive-neoliberalism loses its aura of a point of natural balance (…) Without facing our own death, we will be unable to be reborn free from the shackles of fear. Facing it, we will emerge with enough strength to say loud and clear: yes, there are alternatives!”[ix]

Matheus C. Martins He is majoring in Social Sciences at UFSC.


DARDOT, Pierre; LAVAL, Christian. The new reason of the world: essay on neoliberal society. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2016.

FISHER, Mark. Capitalist realism: is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?. São Paulo: Literary Autonomy, 2020.

FRANCO, Fábio et al. The subject and the market order: theoretical genesis of neoliberalism. In: SAFATLE, Vladimir (org.). Neoliberalism as a management of psychic suffering. Belo Horizonte: Authentic, 2020.

KEHL, Maria Rita. Time and the dog: the current state of depression. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2009.

LATOUR, Bruno. Where to land?: how to orient yourself politically in the Anthropocene. Rio de Janeiro: Bazar do Tempo, 2020.

LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude. Race and History. Lisbon, Editorial Presença, 2008.

MAIA, Heribaldo. The shameful death of the Brazilian left. 2023. Available at:

SAFATLE, Vladimir. The left that is not afraid to say its name. Sao Paulo: Three Stars, 2012.

WOOD, Ellen Meiksins. The Origin of Capitalism. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Ed., 2001.


[I] Here we are thinking, above all, about the description made in DARDOT; LAVAL (2016), but other authors who deal with the topic are also mentioned throughout the text.

[ii] DARDOT; LAVAL, 2016, p. 30.

[iii] FISHER, 2020, p. 33-4 and p. 129.

[iv] KEHL, 2009.

[v] See footnote nº 32 in LATOUR, 2020.

[vi] WOOD, 2001, p. 35.

[vii] FRANCO et al., 2020.

[viii] LÉVI-STRAUSS, 2008, p. 13.

[ix] MAIA, 2023.

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