Symbolic Wins for Losers

Milton Friedman, by the way, agreed that neoliberalism couldn’t possibly be labeled a conservative undertaking if words have any stable meaning at all:

Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservative. But this is not a satisfactory alternative. The nineteenth century liberal was a radical, both in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter, and in the political sense of favoring major changes in social institutions. So too must be his modern heir.

Capitalism and Freedom (1962)

Of course, it’s a long way from 1962, and neoliberalism is no longer an aspirational goal but a reality. In this reality, we are either good or not-so-good managers of our own lives. We get a consolation prize for this game where many people will be the irredeemable losers. That prize is a sense of grievance and a victim identity.

Victim identities proliferate. Grievances – even of a really crazy kind – are praised and paid lots of symbolic tribute. There are a few smart entrepreneurs of self who manage to milk these grievances for profit. But for the overwhelming majority of the grievously wounded victims of privilege, the gains never materialize. The symbolic becomes invested with exaggerated value because everybody except for the aggrieved losers knows that they will never get any actual rewards. And the funny thing is that the losers eagerly cooperate. They accept the symbolic rewards and often seem to beg to be given nothing beyond them.


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