C. S. Lewis on neoliberalism in 2017

From The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, written as a weekly newspaper column in 1941 and published in book form in 1942:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. “To be” means “to be in competition”.

Lewis puts these words in the mouth of his character Screwtape, a senior devil instructing his nephew on how to undermine a human’s progress as a Christian and as a person. They are intended to be too ludicrous to be taken seriously as anything but a satire of the most destructive and appalling philosophies on the market.

Yet somehow this has become completely conventional mainstream political theory in the UK, and now governs everything from how our universities and funded to the progressing privatisation of the NHS.



12 responses to “C. S. Lewis on neoliberalism in 2017

  1. It’s even more objectionable than pure zero sum economics – it’s become “not only must I win, but someone else must be seen to lose”.

  2. It’s a while since I read Screwtape and I don’t seem to have a copy to hand (or I’ve misfiled it on my shelves, that’s always possible) so I can’t check the context of your quotation, but the following points spring to mind:

    (a) I don’t recall Lewis writing much about ‘the market’. He may well have written about ‘commodification’ and indeed, for example, ‘The Shoddy Lands’ [nowadays available in ‘The Dark Tower and other stories] is about the commodification of sex) but that’s a different thing from ‘the market’. Specifically this is not about makets, as can be seen from the idea that ‘[w]hat one gains another loses’ — in a market trade, both parties gain, as no one would trade unless they were getting, in exchange for what they gave away, something they valued more. So for example if I have money, but no food, and I am hungry; and you are a baker, so have bread for sale; I give you some money (which you value more than the bread, that you have in abundance) and gain bread (which I, being hungry, value more than metal coins I cannot eat). So rather than one gaining and another losing, we both gain, this being the essence of the market: a series of trades in which both parties gain by trading something they value less for something they value more.

    (b) I do recall Lewis writing a lot about ‘the poison of subjectivism’ (indeed, he titled one of his essays that), so I suspect that this is what he means by ‘My good is my good and your good is yours’: the idea that rather than human life having a single goal, as determined by God, the idea that we can each decide to pursue whatever it is makes us, individually, happy, and that this is the chief end of life. This, in fact, is (as Lewis saw happening in his own time, and has come to full bloom in ours) the chief tenet of the modern worldview of hedonistic secular liberalism: that pursuing one’s own good, one’s own pleasure, is the chief end of life. He realised — as he pursues in The Abolition of Man — that this veneration of individual appetite inevitably means the domination of those whose appetites are stronger, against those whose appetites are weaker.

    So: I don’t know what ‘neoliberalism’ means (every time I’ve tried to find a definition it has either turned out to be meaningless, or, if meaningful, in contradiction to at least one other definition) but this passage, unless I am missing something from the context, doesn’t seem to me to be saying anything about the market but does seem to be saying that the demons are trying to bring about a state of affairs in which each person’s pursuit of their own personal pleasure is seen as the highest possible goal, that no one may legitimately interfere with.

    In other words, exactly the state of the world we see around us — and the one that is explicitly promoted by the Liberal Democrats, who have just forced a leader to resign due to his Christianity.

    Screwtape, in other words, has, in the twenty-first century, won.

  3. Scurra, I think you are right on target here. It’s one of the many, many reasons Trump is a terrible president for the USA: he doesn’t look to make the deal that’s for the USA, but the one that makes him look “toughest”, i.e. the worst deal for the other guy. So everyone loses, USA included.

    H, I’m sorry I wasn’t more explicit in the original post: I wasn’t at all arguing that Lewis was actually writing about neoliberalism, but ironically (or you might say flippantly) observing that his comments on another subject — a diabolical take on interpersonal relationships — are striking prescient of our present political situation.

    It’s true that it’s hard to tie down the definition of “neoliberalism”. It’s maybe best defined as classic market economics taken to its illogical extreme. There was a good analysis in The Guardian a little over a year ago.

  4. I wasn’t at all arguing that Lewis was actually writing about neoliberalism, but […] observing that his comments on another subject […] are striking prescient of our present political situation

    Oh. Apologies for my dimness. You’ll have to elucidate on which aspects of our present political situation you mean, because I didn’t spot it.

    There was a good analysis in The Guardian a little over a year ago.

    I’m afraid all I got from that was that ‘neoliberalism’ has been used over a long period of time by a lot of people to mean a lot of different things — some subtly different, some extremely different. When you use it in this article, do you mean what Hayek meant? What Friedman meant? What Monbiot meant? Or something different?

  5. Mike, despite SK (nee H’s) typically obtuse pretence he doesn’t know what neoliberalism means, his description of how the market works elucidates the thing reasonably well. Its theory, at least. Neoliberalism merely takes the next step of saying that the market isn’t just handy but a universal fix for everything.

    In fact to some degree its ideology is anti-self. It supposes that, should I invent a new smartphone more advanced than any on the market, custom would flock to me and the existing manufacturers adopt or go bust. No-one can ever be King, because the market is King.

    It doesn’t (or at least pretends not to) see the economy as a zero sum game, where we squabble over possession of finite resources. One of the Tories’ current annoying buzz phrases is “no magic money tree”. Which is pretty ironic when you consider that they treat the market precisely as a magic money tree. If we submit ourselves to it, “wealth” will appear.

    Had I read that Lewis quote in isolation, I would have thought more of right wing authoritarianism than neoliberalism. (Which could easily have been on Lewis’ mind, given the date of writing.) It basically says “to the victor the spoils”. Which it tries to ‘naturalise’ by it’s comparison to “beasts”.

    It may be significant that you jump from neoliberalism to Trump. Because, at least in the eyes of many of his supporters, Trump stands for a right wing authoritarianism they see as the antidote to neoliberalism. He’d proclaim he’d rip up free market treaties and reintroduce protectionism and they’d cheer.

    And Trump is just one example of a global growth of right-wing authoritarianism, as a supposed ‘answer’ to neoliberal globalisation. Putin’s Russia is the obvious example (and significantly he’s someone Trump sees as both ally and model), but there are plenty more. We need a big strong guy to stand behind and represent our nation. Some of the Alt Right explicitly say that what they want is a King back.

    Trump is of course flat-out lying to his supporters over protectionism. Not least because he is one of the metropolitan elite he pretends to rail against, so increasing the wealth of working Americans decreases his. His presidency is as much a con job as Trump University. But in other places the picture is more murky. Putin for example has expropriated ‘plutocrats’, particularly if they looked to be political rivals. And much of Russia’s current political clout comes from the state having taken control of the lucrative Gazprom.

    But then again, who cares about the theory of neoliberalism when it’s the practice we need to worry about? If we want to know what neoliberalism really means, we should simply look out of the window. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum, and the most powerful ideas at any one period are always those of the most powerful group. The rich and powerful can now operate with less checks on them than in decades past, and unsurprisingly respond by pushing for an ideology which advocates them having still less checks.

    They might say they want a system which makes everyone better off, but all they actually care about is a system which makes them better off. They’ll shift between advocating theoretically different systems, such as neoliberalism and right-wing authoritarianism, just as it suits them. So while the two things are distinct in theory, in practise they’re far from irreconcilable opposites. Don’t ever forget the first country to practice neoliberalism was Pinochet’s Chile, which was of course a military dictatorship built around the classic ‘strong leader’.

    Don’t expect consistency. Expect to get shafted.

  6. Gavin, you’re right of course that in many respects Trump is the very opposite of neoliberal. He has no free-market ideology because he has no ideology: he just proposes whatever he thinks most people want to hear at any given time, which is often protectionism.

    But he does have one core thing in common with neoliberalism, which is what Lewis highlighted in the original quote: a strong emphasis in, or even a religious belief in, competition as a good in itself. For Trump, no deal that the other guy is happy with can ever be a good deal. For a lot of modern policy-makers, competitiveness per se is a sign of health, rather than one of many possible routes to it: see for example How ‘competitiveness’ became one of the great unquestioned virtues of contemporary culture. For both Trump and neoliberals, co-operation is not so much disliked as simply not perceived as an option.

  7. Then what about someone like Tony Blair? He was perhaps the biggest architect of neoliberalism in British politics, but I don’t think he ever portrayed himself as the strong man in the way Trump does. In fact I think he went to great lengths to portray himself as a national unifier and consensus builder. (And he eventually unified us all against him, of course, but that’s another story.)

    The inherent nature of capitalism is a war of each against all. Less ameliorated versions of capitalism, like neoliberalism, are more happy to leave the injured to die on the battlefield. This is obvious enough. But you specifically mentioned ‘philosophy’ in your original post. And the philosophy of a thing is often quite different to the reality.

  8. BTW, that link didn’t seem to work when I tried it.

  9. I fixed the link — sorry about that.

    I don’t see how Blair fits into this discussion. It certainly wasn’t my intention to say that neoliberalism implies or is correlated with strong-man imagery — only that Trump, who does use that imagery, has in common with neoliberalism an uncritical worship of competition for its own sake.

  10. Thanks, I found the article by Google.

    If you’re not saying that neoliberalism is connected to strong man imagery, then I’d have to say it’s Trump I don’t see as fitting in the discussion! But Lewis’ quote reads to me like “I am stronger than you, therefore I am entitled to squeeze you out”. People can and do flock to that sort of thing, just like the squirt kids at school who’d sidle up to the school bully. The calculation is that there’s always someone punching and someone getting punched, so you want to angle your way onto the right side. But that’s something older than neoliberalism, in fact probably older than capitalism.

  11. But that’s something older than neoliberalism, in fact probably older than capitalism

    It (bellum omnium contra omnes) is, as Hobbes noticed, as old as mankind: indeed, it is the natural state of mankind.

    The greatness of capitalism, that Hobbes did not foresee, is that it harnesses this unending war and uses it for good: given that it is inevitable that people will try to defeat each other, then better they war against each other to try to sell better bread for cheaper prices, a war from which we all benefit, than that they (the only known alternative) war against each other to achieve a higher position in the politburo, the better to appropriate for themselves the production of the country.

  12. Strong and stable.

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