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How neoliberalism reinforced the psychotic culture of uninterrupted competition

A recent report from the World Health Organization indicates that depression and anxiety disorders worldwide are at an all-time high. It seems, though, that most of the increases in mental disorders have happened in so-called "First World" countries such as Europe and the US and Canada. Why is this? A study that was released last month in the Bulletin of the American Psychological Association tries to provide an explanation. According to the study, which looked at college-age populations in the US, Canada, and Britain, perfectionism has been on the rise throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. The study relates the rise in perfectionism to the increasing role in neoliberalism in these countries and also shows how perfectionism has a negative impact on mental health.


Gregory Wilpert of the Real News spoke with Thomas Curran, lecturer in the Department for Health at the University of Bath and one of the authors of the study described above.

In this particularly interesting interview, Curran begins with the definition of what we call 'perfectionism'. Then, he explains that perfectionism in on the rise in a global scale. Finally, he explains how perfectionism is related to the dominant culture defined by neoliberalism and how it's affecting even the mental health of entire societies:

Perfectionism is a personality characteristic, and it has a number of different elements.

The first element of perfectionism is one that most people commonly associate with perfectionism, and that's this idea that we have high levels or excessively high levels of personal standards and we strive for flawlessness. That's called self-oriented perfectionism, and that's the first element of perfectionism.

The second is a social dimension of perfectionism, and this is the idea that we perceive that our social climates, the people around us in the immediate environment and also the broader environment, is excessively demanding of us.

And the third element is the dimension of perfectionism that's directed outwards onto others, so it's this idea that we expect others to be perfect and we have excessively high demands of others.

Together, those three elements are what we understand when we talk about perfectionism.

We found that all three of those dimensions are rising. But what's really interesting is the dimension of perfectionism that has undergone the largest increase, twice that of the other two, is socially prescribed perfectionism. As I said, that dimension is associated with the perception that demands placed upon us are excessive. Now, those are the broad headline findings, and that's the main one.

We controlled for country, so between-country differences. These are American, British, and Canadian college students, so we did a control of a country to see if there's any differences in those trends, and we didn't find that when we controlled a country any differences emerged. So essentially, these trends are consistent across the nations, in our analysis.

We were very cautious about using the term "neoliberalism" because it can be considered a bit of a nebulous term. But short of anything better, we wanted to use this phrase because what we mean by "neoliberalism" is this idea that, or essentially a shorthand description for a political philosophy, which essentially suggests that the market and marketized forms of competition are the only organizing principle of human activity. Essentially what that meant is that since the neoliberal era and the market reforms of Thatcher, Reagan, and Mulroney in Canada, is essentially an introduction of marketized forms of competition into civic institutions where they never used to be.

One of the key institutions is education, and we see the market in education for things like standardized testing and the incessant standardized testing of young children from very young ages because tests give us metrics that allow us to rank, sift, and sort, so we can get an idea of which kids are better performing, which kids are worse performing, which kids are going to the top grades and therefore the top places in universities. It's a very useful way in a market-based society to organize.

But the problem with this, of course, is that what we're doing is we're teaching children that they need to compete against each other in an open marketplace. So we are essentially instilling a sense of social anxiety, of social hierarchy. We're suggesting that inequality is virtuous because those that have done well deserve the rewards. And so essentially what we have now is a culture where we are continually comparing, and it isn't just in education. The explosion of social media has put this idea of social comparison on steroids and essentially has given us a platform at a societal level for people to engage in social comparison, continually working out where we stand relative to others.

The link to perfectionism here is that if we continually worry about how we perform relative to others. And if the consequences of failure are so catastrophic, both economically but also for our sense of self-worth - that's to say, if we don't get the perfect score, if we don't get a high score, if we don't rank better than others, then we feel worse about ourselves and our self-esteem - what that means is that we tend to cope in that culture by developing perfectionistic tendencies because of course if we have high standards, then we're unlikely to fail, and if were unlikely to fail, we're unlikely to feel badly about ourselves and also we're more likely to ensure that we have a higher market price.

So that's why we link it with neoliberalism, because of this idea that we're almost forcing kids to compete with each other and to cope, perfectionistic tendencies are emerging.

But the problem is for perfectionists, because they have excessively high goals and because perfectionism is by definition an impossible goal, when we fail, because the consequence of failure is so catastrophic for our sense of self-esteem, because we tie our self-esteem on others' approval and a need for higher achievement, then when we fail or when we are rejected by others or when we don't receive positive feedback, then we tend to ruminate, we tend to brew over those, what could've been otherwise or what we should've done. And over time, those very negative thoughts and feelings turn into anxiety, depression, and in the most extreme cases, suicidal thought. So it's a highly damaging trait, and these trends are quite worrying because of that.


The findings of this study, summed up by one of its authors, are really astonishing.

First of all, they prove that we live under a cultural totalitarianism of global scale of which the core is actually the neoliberal doctrine.

A key element of this cultural totalitarianism is what Curran describes as 'perfectionism'. It appears that perfectionism is the product of certain theories that were being developed in previous decades, especially in the West. The building blocks of these theories were concepts like radical individualism and ego-power.

While these theories were being promoted as boosters of self-esteem, like Objectivism for example, they ended up to contribute to the dominance of this psychotic culture of uninterrupted competition.

Curran also gives an idea of how this cultural totalitarianism expanded and prevailed by basically 'penetrating' and dominating the educational system of the Western countries.

But the most astonishing result, according to the study, is that this culture impacts on the mental health of entire societies.

It seems that this terrible consequence has its roots to the absurdity of 'perfectionism' itself. The dominant culture attempts to persuade young people, for example, that they have equal opportunities no matter what their background. In real life, however, we know that this is not true due to a number of factors that have nothing to do with someone's efforts to achieve specific goals. Thus, 'perfectionism' pushes the individual to believe that what is considered and dictated as 'failure' by the dominant culture, is explicitly the result of the specific actions by the individual.

And therefore, this leads to some serious consequences. People feel shame and guilt for not achieving "success" according to standards that have been set by the dominant culture, and this often results to serious impact on their mental health.

This is actually a scientific proof of the destructive power of neoliberalism, which impacts people's lives seriously and in various ways.

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