Gerry B's Book Reviews

What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society, by Paul Verhaeghe

So, You’re a deviant? Congratulations!




what about me - coverBlurb: According to current thinking, anyone who fails to succeed must have something wrong with them. The pressure to achieve and be happy is taking a heavy toll, resulting in a warped view of the self, disorientation, and despair. People are lonelier than ever before. Today’s pay-for-performance mentality is turning institutions such as schools, universities, and hospitals into businesses – even individuals are being made to think of themselves as one-person enterprises. Love is increasingly hard to find, and we struggle to lead meaningful lives. In “What about Me?”, Paul Verhaeghe’s main concern is how social change has led to this psychic crisis and altered the way we think about ourselves. He investigates the effects of 30 years of neoliberalism, free-market forces, privatisation, and the relationship between our engineered society and individual identity. It turns out that who we are is, as always, determined by the context in which we live. From his clinical experience as a psychotherapist, Verhaeghe shows the profound impact that social change is having on mental health, even affecting the nature of the disorders from which we suffer. But his book ends on a note of cautious optimism. Can we once again become masters of our fate?

About the author: Paul Verhaeghe (November 5, 1955) is a trained clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst. His first doctorate (1985) dealt with hysteria, his second (1992) on psychological assessment. He works as a professor at the University of Ghent. Since 2000, his main interest lies in the impact of social change on psychological and psychiatric difficulties.

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Review by Gerry Burnie

To be at peace with a troubled world is not feasible unless one disavows almost everything that surrounds us. However, to be at peace with yourself within a troubled world, while not easy, can be achieved through self-reliance. That is the basic analysis put forward by psychologist and psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe, in What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society [Scribe Publications, August, 2014].

Being social animals, our personalities are unavoidably shaped by the norms and values of the society to which we subscribe. Moreover, the dominant values of that society are almost always shaped by the leading players – i.e. the resident elites: economic, political, and cultural.

Today, in western societies in particularly, the predominant value is market fundamentalism, a.k.a. ‘neoliberalism.’ The tenets of which teach that the marketplace can solve almost all the ills of society, social, economic and political, so long as it is not burdened by government regulations and taxes. Moreover, anyone who disagrees with this precept risks being labeled a “socialist” (a word that is bantered around even by those who don’t understand the meaning of the term) or “deviant.”

Verhaeghe points out that neoliberalism draws on Ancient Greek – more recently Hobbsian – idea that man is inherently selfish and grasping in nature, but neoliberalists are quite content with these shortcomings. In fact, they encourage them on the basis that unrestricted competition and self-interest foster innovation and economic growth.

The reality, of course, is something different. The playing field is far from even, and more often than not innovation is discouraged, and economic growth is achieved through mergers and acquisitions (takeovers), resulting in the monopolization of available resources.

All this is ignored by the major players in the market economy (including law makers, governments and bureaucrats). These elites continue to ascribe success and failure to the individual; the rich are the paragons, and the poor are the social parasites.

To assure these new deviants don’t get more than they deserve, the neoliberalist workplace has become a centre for assessments, monitoring, surveillance and audits designed to reward the winners and punish the losers.

Likewise, the unemployed contend with a whole new level of monitoring and snooping.

It must be said, as well, that the majority of major political parties either ascribe to these methods, or look the other way from them, and so in the cause of autonomy we have become controlled by a nit-picking, faceless bureaucracy.

To put all this into a psychoanalytic context, Verhaeghe writes that these outcomes have resulted in a significant increase in certain psychiatric conditions, including eating disorders, depression and personality disorders.

Associated with the latter, the most common are performance anxiety, social phobias, depression and loneliness.

Therefore, if you feel at odds with the world, or that you somehow don’t fit in, congratulations: You’re still human!

About the book

Admittedly, this is not a book for everyone, but it is surprisingly easy to read. Verhaegue writes with a journalistic (as apposed to academic) style, and his examples and anecdotes are ones to which the reader can easily relate.

However, the biggest benefit is Verhaegue’s insight and clarity in ‘psychoanalyzing’ an undoubtedly screwed-up world. He may not have all the answers, but he nonetheless prompts us to examine the questions. Five bees.


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August 11, 2014 - Posted by | Academic study, non GBLT, Non-fiction |

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