Echoes of neoliberal unconsciousness



The eliminatory logic is predominant in the neoliberal world. In order for one to win in their uniqueness, there is no alternative but to eliminate their opponent. 'Or me, or the other'

Neoliberalism, understood as the reason that has operated most individuals on the planet for more than thirty years, tends to produce narcissically threatened subjectivities, inclined to paranoia and to the most primitive, violent and authoritarian defense mechanisms. It is governmentality, which M. Foucault defines as the way individuals lead each other and themselves, reveals a difficult and nebulous prognosis for democratic ideals.

Me, you and Bolsonaro, to a greater or lesser extent, are crossed by what can be called Neoliberal Unconsciousness.

Since the end of the 1970s until today, neoliberalism has been seen as an economic policy inspired by an ideology, according to which any State interventions in the laws of the market could only result in a disturbance in its spontaneous and self-regulating course, the market. In this perspective, it is understood that the market would have a 'natural reality', that is, it would be perfectly capable of achieving balance, stability and growth on its own.

In the anti-interventionist context, it is not that State interventions cease to exist, but that they pass to an exclusively negative plane; the State starts to intervene negatively in itself, withdrawing itself, undermining the foundations of its own institutions.

From the economic crisis of 2008, faced with the great discredit of the ideology of laissez-faire, many announced – prematurely – the death of neoliberalism. However, those who attested to this death forgot that the neoliberal system, in which the world is completely submerged, is called a 'system' precisely because it has, long ago, surpassed its merely ideological character or that of economic policy. Neoliberalism has become a normative system, a normal one, so ingrained in the state of affairs that it has already passed into unconsciousness.

It is a way of existing and relating – of governments, economies, businesses, schools, families and individuals – marked by an ideal of freedom that translates into self-sufficiency, generating a brutal life scenario when using crises and atrocious inequalities to inflate its main mechanisms: eliminative competitiveness and the dissemination of the business model to all spheres of this governmentality.

The culture of reality shows, already worn out by so many comments, continues to serve us as a good model for explaining this 'save yourself who can' scenario in which we are inserted, even if despite our will.

In these individual competitions, the community is left out. At each stage, individual after individual is eliminated, until only one remains – the winner. The fate of this winner matters little to the audience. In the vast majority of cases, he ends up forgotten by the general public who, at the end of that competition, immediately engage in the next one. What is at stake is winning for the sake of winning. Ultimately, what's at stake is surviving until the end.

Often disguised as disputes over who is more or less skilled in a given activity – who cooks better, who sings better, etc. – the true driving force of these competitions is the seductive game of identification created for fans marked by the neoliberal system. These identify both with the competitors – in their helplessness, since they are always threatened with extinction – and with the jurors who, like the final winner, have the power to eliminate the other in their omnipotence.

The eliminatory logic is predominant in the neoliberal world. In order for one to win in their uniqueness, there is no alternative but to eliminate their opponent. 'Either I, or the other.'

This logic can be easily perceived in popular expressions such as 'such an influencer was Cancelled after saying something that displeased your followers', or else 'the debater had dinner your opponent on a TV show'.

In sports, those who lose usually shake hands with their opponents, in an act that guarantees them the possibility of returning to the arena for a new dispute in an upcoming championship. already in cancellation culture, in which extreme polarization dictates the rules, losing means ceasing to exist, disappearing, being devoured by the other – therefore, if the question is one of life or death, the defenses against this condition must be increasingly incisive, becoming truly violent.

In the neoliberal championship, inequalities, whatever they may be, cease to be an impediment to the game and become the very pieces of the board. The notion of collectivity radically loses ground; in favor of “freedom” and individual interests, we are each for himself, no matter who it hurts.

In the radical nature of this mentality, therefore, the mission of the public service previously entrusted to the State is completely weakened, to guarantee fundamental living conditions for its citizens – housing, health, education, security, transport, culture – in order to flatten the curve of inequality. The price of this desired “freedom” is a life in constant paranoid threat, oppressed by frequent feelings of impotence or devastating feelings of helplessness.

The polarizing defense against this condition of oppression, through engagement in struggles for radical freedom, ends up leading neoliberalism individuals to seek support for their vulnerabilities, not in the collectivity, but in illusory omnipotent figures.

The subject who cannot move between the poles of impotence and omnipotence, seeks to identify himself with 'the almighty' to remedy his own unconscious experience of helplessness in the face of the voracious game of existence, even more inflamed by the violence of neoliberalism. For the psychism of these subjects, 'not being all potent' is equivalent to 'being all impotent', therefore doomed to extermination.

Der Fuehrer, in German, means 'the guide'. The one who, fatherly, takes the subject by the hand and covers him up; the highest authority that dictates what he must do to not be eliminated, canceled or eaten by others, the different ones, the enemies. The psychically helpless subject sees in the guide the exact image he wants to see in the mirror. In the everyday microcosm, the guide can be a an influencer digital, for example. In the macro, a head of state with a dictatorial stance.

In recent Brazil, many followers of the so-called Bolsonarism were inflated when watching the speeches of the President of the Republic in the video of the ministerial meeting that took place on April 22, 2020. In these speeches, the authoritarian tone predominates, interspersed with moments of seduction and manipulation discursive, typical of the stereotype of the populist politician. These are statements intended to be contained, which begin at low intensity, with apparently altruistic content, but end up erupting in foul language and egocentric and paranoid content.

In summary, it seems that what was at stake for the subject-president in that meeting was to guarantee that he would not be eliminated. When he refers to the people, he refers to his equals, his followers, those who applaud him in the public square. The self-proclaimed right to come and go to be with this specific people, despite the restrictive measures imposed by the scenario of a historic pandemic, denotes precisely the probable psychic helplessness of the head of state. The fanaticism of its electorate also serves as a mirror and confirms, even if momentarily, the illusory omnipotence that structures it.

But this illusion is known by the subject. Otherwise, so many requests would not be necessary, in a victimized tone, so that he would not be “surprised by news”; or else, that the ministers of his government would defend him; or even, for these same ministers to take care not to allow themselves to be praised too much by the media, overshadowing the image of their boss. Signs of a narcissically threatened image.

The much-remembered attack suffered during the election campaign is not the cause of the subject's vulnerability, as many justify it. The frequent evocation of the stabbing, the insistent tributes to agents of the military dictatorship, as well as his obstinacy for certain policies – such as the population's armament, insistently emphasized during that meeting – seem to reflect the tones of a psychic helplessness even prior to the pressures – inherent presidential office in a democratic country – about which he constantly complains.

When a child, who is starting to experience his aggression, hits the table top and hurts his hand, his first reaction is to cry and blame the table for the aggression suffered, asking the adults – in his view, omnipotent – ​​to do something to punish the table. It is called projective mechanism.

Paranoid is the guy who spends his days with the clear feeling of being persecuted, putting his life at risk. Linked to this symptom, megalomania works as a paradoxical agent, which both causes and remedies helplessness. “The FBI installed cameras in my house”, the paranoid can say. This delusion, on the one hand, relieves the subject's narcissistic helplessness, when it reaffirms his enormous importance to those who persecute him; but on the other hand, it further inflames their condition of powerlessness and vulnerability. As stated earlier, the greater the perceived threat, the more violent the defenses become.

Paradoxically, in the name of “freedom”, the president threatens cancel all those who are contrary to their ideals. “Against the dictatorship”, he becomes a dictator. Against oppression, he wants to arm the population.

Finally, the swear words. When we learn to speak, we gradually realize that words are not the things they represent. The word vase, for example, is not the vase itself, it just represents it. So much so that, generally, we need to resort to other words that better specify the vase we are referring to – glass vase, green, cylindrical, thirty centimeters high, for example. Yet each one who hears this description imagines a different vase. The more words, the closer we get to the thing represented.

Some words, however, are more attached to the things themselves. These are words that carry such an emotional charge – violence or obscenity – that, throughout an individual's civilizing process, they tend to receive restrictions on their use.

Swear words fall into this group of words. They are gesture words, as if, given the impossibility of engaging in violent action, the swear word served as the closest substitute for the violent act itself. It is an expression of raw aggressiveness, which escapes decorum through the mouth of the subject, who momentarily loses his symbolic capacity for defense through arguments, that is, his capacity for debate. 'Lowering the bar', as they say, is not mere lack of education, nor can it, appealingly, be justified as a regional grimace, the 'way of speaking' of a region. To lower the level is to appeal to the primitive psychic modes of operation, it is to approach the animalistic sphere that accompanies every human being, as one of the last resources of defense. The rest is violence.

Another well-known primitive defense mechanism worth mentioning is the so-called “omnipotent thought”. It can be summarized as “reality is what I want it to be, regardless of facts that prove otherwise. What I think happens. What I think is!”.

The strategy of fake news it can only work when it finds echoes in this psychic functioning mode. “I strongly believe in what does not contradict my will or beliefs. I refuse the inconvenience of doubt, research work or the realization of a reality that frustrates me.” Under these conditions, the ability to think, reflect or criticize is absolutely impeded.

A very current example of this mode of action of the psyche – which seeks magical solutions to the anxieties of annihilation, and whose delusional force can cause irreparable damage to reality – is the excessive value attributed to chloroquine for the treatment of Covid-19, despite the extensive scientific research that not only does not prove it, but also shows serious risks to the health of its users.

It is important to emphasize that the psychic development of the human being does not occur in a linear way. The so-called 'primitive' or 'infantile' stages of functioning are not left behind as more elaborate modes of defense are developed. They remain latent in the subject as defensive cores that can be recruited at any moment. In the realm of the psyche, then, when it is the very existence of the subject that is judged to be threatened, the more brutal and less elaborate is the way of reacting to this threat.

Altruistic thinking, that is, thinking that considers the different beliefs, experiences and survival needs of the other in relation to the subject, is not something given by the chronology of each person's life. It is an arduous civilizing achievement that requires a permanent state of work, in view of the strong regressive tendency to the stages of barbarism present in all individuals and peoples.

If the collective support network is dismantled by neoliberalism, those on the tightrope have to balance themselves, or death is certain. This is the unconscious experience of the neoliberal subject. And the less aware of the system in which he is inserted, the more precarious his agents of self-defense are, and the more ghostly his experience of annihilation.

Those who so massively identify with authoritarian postures seek to heal their own neoliberal wounds. 'My house, my rules' is the dream of freedom for these individuals, daily frustrated by interactions with parents, bosses, spouses, co-workers – or even a new virus – who insist on demonstrating that no one is that master in their own lives. House.

The danger for democracy is that, if for the tightrope walker marked by neoliberal unconsciousness, in his solitary helplessness, there is no better balance bar than the delirious production of a 'myth', what remains for the 'myth' when he is faced with your own precariousness of psychic resources?

Neoliberalism, as a normative system, breaks with the ideals of Democracy when it proposes to its competitors, the individual-company, that they violently rise to 'freedom at any cost'. For in the logic of the democratic game, opponents must live together and respect each other, knowing the non-existence of 'myths' and how essential they are to each other so that there is a collective game.

For Democracy, to weaken and dinner the adversary would mean signing his own fate of extinction, as he understands that in the game of “one remains”, to the one who remains, there will be no one left who can be someone.

*Edward of Saint Thiago Martins is a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and coordinator of activities at the Psychotherapy Service at IPq-HCFMUSP.


DARDOT, P. and LAVAL, C., “The new reason of the world – essay on neoliberal society”, ed. Boitempo, 2016.

FREUD, S., “The drives and their destinies”, ed. Authentic, 2013.

FERENCZI, S., “Obscene words. Contribution to the psychology of the latency period”, ed. Martins Fontes, 2011.

FERENCZI, S., “The development of the sense of reality and its stages”, ed. Martins Fontes, 2011.

PEREIRA, MEC, “Panic and helplessness”, ed. Listen, 1999.

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