What About Me? The Struggle For Identity in a Market-Based Society by Paul Verhaeghe

What About Me

This 2014 tome from Belgian professor of clinical psychology and psychoanalysis Paul Verhaeghe targets the modern infatuation with big business and work, work, work.

The Professional Moron stance on life is for a sense of minimalism, humility, magnanimous actions, and policies that benefit and support everyone in society.

Yet what we’re seeing involves governments and businesses ensuring a select few wealthy sorts get the moolah whilst inequality rates skyrocket. So what’s this all doing to the collective wellbeing of nations?

What About Me? and the Consideration of Success in Capitalism

“What life would be like in a society whose chief motto was that everything can be had. Imagine a society which taught that pain is exceptional and avoidable, and pleasure the normal state of being—that everything can be monitored and predicted, and that if, very occasionally, something goes wrong, it must always be someone’s fault. In this society, to forbid a child something is almost tantamount to abusing him or her because children are perfect beings who are entitled to everything that money can buy … Of course, there’s no need to set up this experiment because it is already in full swing. Every flat screen, every billboard is constantly sending us the following messages: all your wants can be met, there’s a product for everything, and you don’t need to wait until the afterlife for eternal bliss. Life is one big party, although there is one very important condition: you must make it.”

Verhaeghe argues that, as social animals, our identities form through the values of those around us. Each country defines a normality—and an abnormality. And these are based off popular concepts, which we all citizens have to adhere to if they want to get by in life.

A lot of pro-capitalists are increasingly infatuated with business and money, but modern capitalism (especially since the financial crash of 2008) ensures only a finite amount of people benefit.

What we find disturbing is the more of a ruthless and raging narcissist you are—the more inclined to screw people over, lack empathy, and have a singular and individualistic outlook—the more chance you’ll have of “succeeding”.

By which we mean you’ll have lots of money. You may be utterly vile and insufferable, but in the eyes of current economic thought that’s irrelevant. You’re a success—your boat, couple of houses, and bulging bank account confirms it.

These people then rest back from their lofty situation and observe those around them. They presume if they have little money it’s because they’re not bright enough or are lazy.

It’s a thoroughly bizarre state of affairs, but a perfectly normal state of mind to have. No matter how stupid, “Oh, it’s basic economics.” Indeed.

What is Success in Capitalism?

What About Me? primarily focusses on the psychological impact of this shift on the masses.

But it’s also leading to a global climate crisis in the name of a select few becoming extremely rich. They get to feel good about themselves—be egotistical. And they can sneer down at those around them and say, “If you’re poor, you should work harder.”

Alongside a structure to society that often depends on sheer luck and circumstance, we have the bizarre idea anyone who “fails” must have something wrong with them.

Modern life is about pay for performance meritocracy, as Verhaeghe notes. He feels the mindless focus on wealth is creating a psychic crisis for humanity.

We’re now three decades into neoliberalism, a free-market and privatisation policy courtesy of Thatcher and Raegan. Many like to think it can solve any problems—economic, social, or political.

But the Verhaeghe highlights neoliberalism harks back to the ancient Greek concept of innate ethics and that humans are pretty selfish things. And the current big business outlook, especially since the 1980s, is an outright push for unrestricted competition created by self-interest.

The idea is this creates innovation and economic growth. It makes us all better off and opportunity is available for everyone. As the ever essential George Monbiot notes in Sick of this market-driven world? You should be:

“The reality is rather different. Even at the beginning of the process, when markets are first deregulated, we do not start with equal opportunities. Some people are a long way down the track before the starting gun is fired. This is how the Russian oligarchs managed to acquire such wealth when the Soviet Union broke up. They weren’t, on the whole, the most talented, hardworking or innovative people, but those with the fewest scruples, the most thugs, and the best contacts – often in the KGB.”

Capitalism has lifted many millions out of poverty, yet it’s now plunging many more back into it. And creating a mental health crisis.

And ensuring only a select few benefit from the vast amount of wealth big business generates—socialism for the rich. Monbiot again:

“The same forces afflict those who can’t find work. They must now contend, alongside the other humiliations of unemployment, with a whole new level of snooping and monitoring. All this, Verhaeghe points out, is fundamental to the neoliberal model, which everywhere insists on comparison, evaluation and quantification. We find ourselves technically free but powerless. Whether in work or out of work, we must live by the same rules or perish. All the major political parties promote them, so we have no political power either. In the name of autonomy and freedom we have ended up controlled by a grinding, faceless bureaucracy.”

And Verhaeghe highlights this is ensuring a massive spike in psychiatric issues—mainly mental health disorder such as depression and social anxiety. Loneliness is also becoming an epidemic issue.

We’re not economists, but we do feel we have strong moral compass and sense of what’s right.

And in a country where the Tories, over a decade, have bent over backwards to ensure the rich get richer, the poor ever poorer, we can only hope there’s a seismic shift towards greater wealth distribution amongst the masses. As in, a bit of compassion and reward everyone for their hard work.

Really, hoarding £100 million for yourself as it helps you feel smug is this thing called greed. It’s not “basic economics”, you’re just greedy. Recognise your good fortune. Be humble and generous.

Reject the current trajectory that’s leaving the masses struggling in silence and the world facing an environmental crisis. As Monbiot puts it:

“So, if you don’t fit in, if you feel at odds with the world, if your identity is troubled and frayed, if you feel lost and ashamed – it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud.”


  1. I must check this book out. I agree: ‘minimalism, humility, magnanimous actions, and policies that benefit and support everyone in society’ – exactly what’s needed. My stance too. What I lament is that, to some extent, the west had that in the past among governments that tempered capitalism with moderate controls to promote the prosperity this system could generate, while at the same time curbing its unbridled swings and ensuring reasonable re-distribution of wealth to those who, through no fault of their own, were in difficulty (those notably doing it were the Scandinavian countries, western Europe, UK, New Zealand, Australia etc – there was, of course, a very large exception in the western mix there…). It wasn’t perfect, but what system is? The problem today is that society has been swung so far to an extreme that what, thirty years ago, was a reasonable stance supportive of general society, establishment and so forth – one that would ensure such establishment continued happily – now presents as some kind of extreme of itself. People have been conditioned not to care for others and the same attitude has leaked into government policies around the world. Damn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Certainly in the last few years it’s really dawned on me what’s going on, with a cost of living crisis, falling wages, and mass hoarding of wealth by a select few.

      And it’s that casual callousness that’s taking over I find shocking. The people who think those in poverty have brought it on themselves. Or that there’s no issue, everything is fine and dandy right now so long as you work hard. It’s naturally interested me, especially after reading Orwell’s works when I was a teenager. Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London etc. We seem to be swinging back towards that. But with the added climate crisis. Hurray.

      And I can’t offer a solution or help, which is frustrating. I get batted down as a frothing socialist lunatic if I so much as mention this in business circles. Thankfully The Guardian broadsheet here is regularly documenting the issues, so there’s a sane and compassionate voice out there. Columists such as George Monbiot are terrific (or frothing commie bastards, depending which publications you read).


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