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Commentary :: Labor
Neoliberal Rule as Trauma
24 May 2007
With the absolutizing of profit maximization and its merciless amorality, the neoliberal elites pursue a ruthless dehumanization of workers by reducing them to a cost factor to be lowered. With the dehumanization of theirvictims, they dehumanize themselves.

How victims internalize exclusion from society as personal failure

By Reinhold Bianchi

[This article published in: SoZ-Sozialistische Zeitung, May 2007, is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Reinhold Bianchi, a psychologist in Freiburg, is a co-author of “Solidarisch Mensch Werden” (Becoming a Solidarian Person. Mental and Social Destruction in Neoliberalism. Ways to Healing), Hamburg 2006, 510 pages, 19.80 euro.]

Millions among us are affected by mass unemployment, social cuts and Hartz IV – these millions suffer under the destructive effects of the globalized neoliberal economy and policy. They are not only supported in serious distress; they are threatened and injured in the depths of their personality and identity. To properly understand this, psycho-dynamic-psycho-analytic instruments and perspectives could help answer the question what psychic blockades oppose a stronger resistance. The school of inter-subjective or relational psychoanalysis that has grown in the last decade in Germany can contribute. This school starts from an understanding of persons as relational beings and thematicizes this human relatedness in its psychic, social and economic conditions. The starting point of inter-subjective psychoanalysis is that a child is defined by relational experiences in his or her inner development and no longer an isolated instinctual being as in classical psychoanalysis. The ingenious sentence “There is no such thing as an isolated baby” comes from a distinguished English psychoanalyst. A baby can only be understood as part of his or her primary relational world.

The relational persons of the early psychic period have an essential psychic function. They contribute constitutively to the structure of the self and their failure leads to fragmentation of the self through damage to coherence. The earliest inter-subjective situation of the suckling is defined by extensive dependence. As he depends on sucking, he tries to work out psychic experiences of frustration and rejection by the earliest relational persons through internalization. The Scottish psychoanalyst Fairhairn has emphasized how much the developing self soaks up the aggressive and alarming parts of relational persons. The child spontaneously orients himself in securing relations to early relational persons that are important for survival and should be experienced. The inner world has a threatening layer where early fears and guilt feelings are stored. Overpowering relational persons are pathologically idealized. Later and dependent on early encumbrances, the child develops the ability to resist, “to bit back,” as with tooth growth.


In the earliest relational experiences, the foundations are laid for connections to threatening and frustrating relationships. This explains the emotional bond of victims to perpetrators that seems puzzling in later traumatic experiences. Inter-subjective contexts are psychically important in the life of the adult individual. To form a developed identity, we depend on constructive inner and outer basic relations that now include larger realities: school, vocation, job, one’s family, friends, colleagues and social and political institutions. Constructive socio-economic structures have a vital basic function for a good self-esteem and identity structure. The importance of this structure first becomes clear when it is damaged by a destructive mutation of the socio-structural conditions.

The concepts of relational psychoanalysis give us a critical standard. A baseline extends from the necessity of a child’s good early inter-subjective experiential world for personal development to the necessity of large socio-economic structures for all members of society. These large structures must be oriented in central human needs and rights – above all in the right to deep roots, social security, work, education and democratic participation. They provide the basis for autonomous existence and life planning.


With the welfare state restraint of postwar capitalism, people gained important safeguards for stabilizing psycho-social-economic large structures: full employment, rising living standards and building structures committed to the solidarity principle and social balance corresponding to social generalization of concern for others. This is also the developmental principle of inter-subjective psychoanalysis.

The turn to neoliberalism represents a blatant change to a psycho-destructive economic and political regime. The welfare state connection to capitalism is understood in an increasingly radical way as an obstacle to the unhindered rule of shareholders, i.e. to orientation in the goal of short-term profits and higher stock prices. An uncoupling of economic success and employment, a growth without jobs, occurs through accelerated rationalization processes. Mass unemployment is not only accepted but even promoted in the course of permanent cost-cutting strategies through job destruction. Mass unemployment represents the central traumatization by neoliberalism.

Unemployment as individual traumatization leads to disastrous mental strains and injuries resulting in rebellion, helpless rage, depressive despair, exhaustion and the sense of worthlessness. The internalized negative experiences of the early psychic phase in which the developing self cannot yet resist are reactivated in the helpless experience of exclusion from the community of employed persons. One of the hardly bearable feelings of the jobless is the feeling of being superfluous, of not being needed any more and of being personally culpable.

The neoliberal elites raise the individual trauma of unemployment to a social trauma by means of the ideology of “voluntary unemployment.” According to the neoliberal theory, unemployment would not occur if the market were left to self-regulation. The market price is automatically produced for the abundant commodity labor. When it falls below the existence level, their owners are unlucky.

By definition, unemployment is always only the result of the excessively high price of the excessively high price of the commodity labor and thus always voluntary. The ideology of voluntary unemployment is a slap in the face to all victims of systematic job destruction and is manifest in traumatized perpetrator-victim inversion and incriminating suffering. This ideology legitimates ideological and social violence against victims that has delusional characteristics. At the same time, it represents a dehumanizing attack on the victim’s moral personality.

While the job is the basis of bonds and social security, the generalized experience of the threatened job and the open and latent discrediting of the unemployed as “idlers” by governments (from Kohl to Schroeder, Clement and the Hartz IV control regime) and the media is massively drummed into the whole society in the mass of employees spreading a mood of intimidation, disciplining, insecurity and fear in the population. Insecurity of living conditions (precariousness) follows insecurity of working conditions. The possibility for a reliable life plan falls away. The deep social rooting- and bond capacity is undermined surreptitiously.


The execution of the neoliberal program was first possible without resistance through the cognitive and emotional formation of mass consciousness by the increasingly powerful media. This process has many features of a disorientation trauma. In its core, a disorientation trauma consists in the confusion of the cognitive categories and emotional values of the victim. The trauma event justifying the perpetrator is represented as positive and necessary to the victim. The victim is confused in attempting to understand the situation. He is strengthened in his bond to the perpetrator and his motivation to self-assertion and resistance is undermined.

The media can influence people in the disorientation trauma since it is experienced by the population as a trusted authority and their advocate against state economic power interests. The media holds the position of an organ of social perception and judgment that should give reliable orientation to the population in modern society. In psycho-traumatology, the role of the media as an advocate of the population corresponds to its highly significant role as witness or advocate of the victim. Many traumata have a stronger effect in that no one is present as a witness of the traumatization of the victim by the culprit.

Neoliberal disorientation relies on the saturation propaganda of “practical necessity.” Politics and the media form a monolithic uniformity arising from the neoliberal opinion cartel in the economic- and social sectors of the media. Neoliberal “uniform thinking” (I. Ramonet) is not convincing any more. It operates through the sheer hegemony of the dogmas repeated daily and as a massive intimidation and demonstration of a magical power. The neoliberal property- and power elites are merciless social destroyers. Like all ruling elites interested only in increased property and power and not in the well-being of people, they are driven by a pathologically unrestrained narcissism that goes along with self-idolization and devaluation of all other people.

With the absolutizing of profit maximization and its “merciless amorality” (J. Robinson), the neoliberal elites pursue a ruthless dehumanization of workers by reducing them to a “cost factor” to be lowered. Ultimately these elites bid farewell to responsibility toward society as a whole. But with the dehumanization of their victims, they dehumanize themselves and rob themselves of real human acknowledgment. The increasing self-ghettoization of the rich in many countries is an expression of their social and psychic isolation and their fear of others.

Unlike the neoliberal program of separating the social and psychic wholeness of life, the perspective of social and psychic healing requires the restoration of the living relational wholeness of the psyche and society to overcome the consequences of psychic and social division. The basic principle is solidarity. This extends from the psychic development of a solidarian self that experiences all people as equal beings with equal dignity in an empathetic “species mentality” and the praxis of solidarian social movements as supporters of solidarian resistance against exclusion, incriminating suffering and disorientation to the vision of a solidarian post-capitalist society.
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