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Mental and Social Destruction in Neoliberalism and Its Overcoming

by Ulrich Duchrow
The majority of the world's population doesn't want to know anything about globalized neoliberal capitalism anymore. Many millions are dying in its consequences. Every five seconds a child dies of the avoidable consequences of poverty. The political institutions are extorted or corrupted by the economic and financial elites and their media aids. The interests of the big owners of capital prevail with their legal and security machines. Democracy decays to a farce.

Mental and Social Destruction in Neoliberalism and Its Overcoming

By Ulrich Duchrow

[This introduction to "Solidarisch Mensch werden" (April 2006) published by is translated abridged from the German on the Internet. Ulrich Duchrow is a professor of theology and co-founder of Kairos Europa, a base ecumenical network.]

The majority of the world's population doesn't want to know anything anymore about globalized neoliberal capitalism. Many millions are dying in its consequences. Every five seconds a child dies of avoidable consequences of poverty. The earth dies, trees, species of animals and plants, the air and the water. A minority of economists, political economists and others have drawn clear possible alternatives. But these have not been realized.

The political institutions are extorted or corrupted by economic and financial elites and their media aides. In any case with very few exceptions, the interests of the big owners of capital are enforced with their legal and security machines, not the interests of the majority of the population. Democracy decays to a farce.

Hope lies in the social movements. Alongside the unions, people are rising up worldwide and in all places, protesting, offering resistance and working on alternatives. They even win partial victories. However the globally economically powerful, traditionally called the bourgeoisie, find new ways to realize their interests. The counter-veiling powers from "below" are obviously still too weak. The question is" why aren't more people standing up and supporting in solidarity those fighting for the life of humankind and the earth? Isn't the majority of humanity dramatically impacted? Shock, dismay, and information about the causes of catastrophe and ways of overcoming are obviously not enough for resolute action. Where are the blockades and how can they be overcome? There is an old discussion about whether capitalism will break down through the crises it generates systemically. Theoreticians like Antonio Gramsci have long insisted that the subjective factor must be considered in a strategy for changing conditions besides the objective conditions. The great puzzle remains: how can this happen? How can impacted persons become strong and capable of action personally and communally?

This question is still too general. Dividing persons into different groups is part of the nature of capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form. Firstly, it splits them into losers and winners. This is very visible for those "at the bottom" and "at the top." However, it also splits the group that earlier was called the middle class into losers and winners. They are not only divided in their material existence. Rather neoliberalism wreaks havoc and mental destruction with these different human groups… The individual human groups must be seen in the context of neoliberalism and in their specific material and psychic situations. The world looks different from above than from below.

We take the perspective "from below," from the victims. This characterizes the social movements and the liberation theologies in the "global South." We try to understand the material, social, communal and psychic effects of neoliberalism on the different human groups in the perspective "from below" and search for ways for their liberation. This is not meant individually-psychologically. Obviously, it also makes sense to treat those made sick by neoliberalism in an individual psycho-therapeutic way – without healing the society if this is possible. Our question is meant politically, that is referring to the change of social conditions and the role of social movements, unions, churches and religious communities as alliance-partners in the struggles for such change. Healing and liberation of individual persons can only happen in the perspective of common healing and liberation. In other words, the strategic question is in the center for us. How can affected persons overcome their mental damages and blockades caused by neoliberalism to defeat this neoliberal capitalism through resistance and realizing real social and political alternatives?

We see a central problem for the future in how the middle class decides. Will they choose authoritarian or fascist options in the crises as after 1929 in Germany and during the dictatorships of national security in Latin America or will they fight for the solidarity overcoming the causes of the crisis together with the lower class and the socially excluded? The psychic mechanisms that lead the middle class to be deceived and instrumentalized by the elites can be uncovered. Does the constantly increasing danger of descent of broad section s of the middle class increase the possibility of becoming conscious of their real interests and motivate them to strategic alliances with unions and social movements?

Our question contains a host of problems that we cannot claim to solve… The first problem is the problematic role of the workers' movement in the present situation of the capitalist society… A second problem is that the question can only be answered interdisciplinarily. The important disciplines are psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology and theology with different sub-disciplines… A third problem is the lack of resources to carry out our own empirical investigations. We rely on current material and secondary literature as well as our own experiences. We hope for future empirical studies that take up and deepen our questions and not only confirm and correct the feedback of the readers.

Lastly, we have a language problem. On one hand, we want to speak in an academic way. On the other hand, our book aims at impacted persons understanding their own situation better and drawing the consequences for their life and conduct. Social movements, unions, and churches feel addressed and draw conclusions from our results. The goal in speaking about liberation is liberating people to transformational praxis and not merely speaking abstractly with academic terms. We want to write understandably. The best outcome would be a great discussion provoked by the book.


The psychic, social and ecological destructions caused by the global, neoliberal-imperial capitalism cannot be explained as a natural necessary process of globalization. Rather they are the consequences of a demonstrable ideological, political-military and economic project of the capitalist owner elites and their political, academic and media accomplices. Globalization is the veiled term for an increasingly totalitarian imperial system of capital accumulation at any price (chapter 1). Only a hermeneutic and praxis "from below" (chapter 2) can interpret and overcome this system from psychological, sociological and theological perspectives.

The analysis of the systemically inflicted destruction cannot simply discuss "people" and "society" in general. Rather the groups and classes in which neoliberalism divides people must be analyzed – both regarding their psychic dynamic and also the blockades hindering them from the solidarity struggle for alternatives to capitalism. We treat these questions from economic, political science, psychological and theological perspectives (Part II). The losers suffer above all under traumatization experiences. The reasons for that are the double victimization through discrimination, traumata inflicted on them by the elites and the media controlled by the elites (chapter 3). The winners are characterized by a pathological narcissism driving them as a mania – not as a purely personal problem but in interacting with the system driven by greed (chapter 4). The situation of the middle class is very complex. In the present phase of neoliberalism, the middle class is divided in a majority of losers and a minority of winners.

In Germany, this happens on the basis of Agenda 2010 which is part of an overall European project of the "Lisbon strategy" of the EU to make the European economic zone the most competitive region worldwide by 2010. The middle class' fear of falling triggered by the social cuts revitalizes early childhood mechanisms of idealizing strong persons and leads to an illusionary consciousness that elites traditionalize in their interest. From there, the crucial strategic question is raised whether parts of the middle class can be enlightened and mobilized to make alliances in their own real interest with the losers and struggle together for alternatives (chapter 5).

Strategic alliances of this kind are the vital hope for the future. However, the question about the rich and their role is the question about the forces blocking necessary change, not the question about the subjects of change. This is consciously in opposition to social strategies, particularly the strategies of western churches that assume "dialogue" with the "powerful" or "dialogue with the experts" is the way to a future-friendly society. Such dialogues may have a place in a secondary role in the framework of a total strategy. However neoliberal capitalism can only be overcome through counter-veiling power "from below," not on the way of rational insight or the religious conversion of the rich and powerful.

The liberation and healing of people damaged by neoliberalism is the necessary precondition for developing good economic and political alternatives. When not enough subjects realize this, they will be kept ineffective by the dominant power system. On the other hand, such liberation and healing are not possible without offering the impacted theoretical and practical models on which they can act (Part III). Psychic and social liberation are mutually conditioned. Both are necessary and possible. However, they presuppose overcoming the hidden theology of capitalism. "Life in relations" is emphasized as a concept of a new paradigm of the person and society in all the involved disciplines. These fundamental questions are discussed in chapter 6.

The following chapters develop this basic approach in its different dimensions, firstly narratively with biblical stories on healing, liberation, and conversion (chapter 7). Then the subjective dimension is sketched: the conversion of losers and the middle class into solidarity human life to become subjects of change – the rich and powerful in isolated cases can be solidarity persons – and strengthen solidarity persons so they do not lose stamina and hope (chapter 8). Liberation to solidarity subject existence is only possible when clear perspectives are shown for the strategy and praxis of realizing an alternative economy and politics (chapter 9). The last chapter 10 explores the resources within the Christian-ecumenical movement and other communities that could help overcome the hidden theology of capitalism and encourage alliances for an "economy that serves life."
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