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Neo-liberalism isn’t just an economic doctrine

With its obsession with money and markets and targets and competition, it also shapes our emotional cultures. But how does it get under the skin and into the way we relate to one another in public institutions as well as private life?

It’s a sneaky and insidious process. The culture shifts, and we absorb its values without noticing as it becomes more and more difficult to think in any other way. Who has the time to really listen and respond to each other, let alone enjoy playfulness, when financial outcomes override all other considerations? As a result, the quality of relationships inevitably suffers.

These values are passed on to children through parenting practices. As society becomes increasingly unequal, parents are more stressed. And stressed parents—whether the driven, ambitious, wealthy minority or the financially struggling majority—are often less tuned in to their own feelings, and less able to respond sensitively.

In an instrumental culture, where the primary goal is to achieve shorter waiting lists or higher grades or successful prosecutions, how can people make a place for listening and relating sensitively to others as individuals?

Maybe the political economy of neo-liberalism requires insecure and aggressive people, instead of secure individuals who are more likely to be open and empathetic? If so, is this what we want? If not, we have to address everything that shapes the neo-liberal culture, from parenting practices to the design of health and education systems to the incentives that run through economic policies. 

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