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The New Way of the World, Part I: Manufacturing the Neoliberal Subject

The conception of society as an enterprise made up of enterprises comprises a new subjective norm, which is no longer precisely that of the productive subject of industrial societies. The neoliberal subject in the process of being formed, some of whose main features we wish to delineate here, is the correlate of an apparatus of performance and pleasure that is currently the subject of numerous works. There is no absence of descriptions of hypermodern, uncertain, flexible, precarious, fluid, weightless man today. These valuable, often convergent works at the intersection of psychoanalysis and sociology register a new human condition, which according to some even affects the psychic economy itself.

On the one hand, numerous psychoanalysts say that in their consulting rooms they are receiving patients suffering from symptoms that attest to a new era of the subject. The new subjective condition is often related in the clinical literature to broad categories like “the age of science” or “capitalist discourse.” That the historical should take possession of the structural should come as no surprise to readers of Lacan, for whom the subject of psychoanalysis is not an eternal substance or transhistorical invariant, but rather the effect of discourses inscribed in the history of society. On the other hand, in the sociological field the transformation of the “individual” verges on an incontestable fact. What is invariably referred to by the ambiguous term “individualism” is sometimes related to morphological changes, as in the Durkheimian tradition, sometimes to the expansion of commodity relations, as in the Marxist tradition, and sometimes to the extension of rationalization to all areas of existence, as in a more Weberian strand.

In their fashion, psychoanalysis and sociology thus register a mutation in the discourse on the human being, which can be related (as in Lacan) to science, on the one hand, and capitalism on the other. It was indeed a scientific discourse which, from the seventeenth century, began to state what a person is and what she or he must do; and it was in order to make the human a productive, consuming animal, a being of toil and need, that a new scientific discourse proposed to redefine the measure of personhood. But this very general framework is insufficient to identify how a new normative logic came to be established in Western societies. In particular, it does not enable us to pinpoint the reorientations the history of the Western subject underwent over three centuries, or still less the ongoing changes that can be related to neoliberal rationality.

This is because, if there is a new subject, it must be grasped in the discursive and institutional practices that engendered the figure of the man-enterprise or “entrepreneurial subject” in the late twentieth century, by encouraging the institution of a mesh of sanctions, incentives, and commitments whose effect was to generate new kinds of psychic functioning. To achieve the objective of comprehensively reorganizing society, enterprises, and institutions by multiplying and intensifying market mechanisms, relations, and conduct—this involved a becoming-other of subjects. The Benthamite subject was the calculating figure of the market and the productive person of industrial organizations. The neoliberal subject is a competitive person, wholly immersed in global competition.

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