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English review - Selling Your Soul to the Market

In contemporary society, self-improvement is often equated to the maximisation of personal market value. How did this come to be the case? Can we imagine self-improvement in alternative ways? Nijmegen celebrated the start of the national Book Week with the annual Book Fest, held at De Vereeniging. Jeroen Linssen, who teaches political philosophy at Radboud University, was one of the many poets, writers and thinkers who was invited to reflect on this year’s theme: ‘rebels and dissenters.’ He gave a lecture on the phenomenon of the entrepreneurial self.

A Short History of Self-Improvement: Salvation and Bildung

Linssen opened by quoting the famous statement by the economist Adam Smith that human endeavours have always been directed towards some kind of improvement. Though this might be the case, Linssen argued, what we understand ‘improvement’ to be has remained far from stable throughout human history. During the Middle Ages, the hope for better days was directed towards salvation in the afterlife. As such, becoming a better person meant renouncing the material world through ascetic practices and ceasing to identify yourself primarily as a subject in society. This changed significantly with the advent of humanism in the 14th century. The ideal of the humanist was to work on oneself in order to become a better human being in this world. One had to contribute to making the world a better place by developing oneself through education and training (Bildung), which was seen as a never-ending, life-long process.

The Neoliberal Perspective: Increasing Your Market Value

This idea of never-ending self-improvement is still prevalent in our day, but Linssen argued that its focus has underwent a significant shift somewhere along the past forty years. Nowadays, self-improvement does not seem to be strived after for the sake of bettering the world, but rather with the aim of increasing our personal market value. Becoming a better person seems to be equated with the search for new possibilities of making profit. We are encouraged to do this via endless trainings, investments and re-brandings; we are encouraged to look at ourselves as little businesses. It is okay to put ourselves first and act a little greedily, to view each other as competitors. How has this neoliberalist ideology gotten such a grip over the way in which we see ourselves? Linssen argues with the philosopher Michel Foucault that we live in an entrepreneurial society, and that the only way to succeed in this society is by conceiving of ourselves as profit-driven entrepreneurial subjects. The business model is an essential aspect of contemporary subjectivity, which many of us have internalised.

Back to Renouncing the World

Yet, when you ask someone what they value most in life, it is likely that they will not mention money or profit. The only way to function well in an entrepreneurial society is to conceive of yourself as an entrepreneurial subject, but the question is whether this model is really making us happy. Is there a way out? Linssen suggested that through reflecting critically on what ‘self-improvement’ can mean, we can begin to conceptualize our subjectivity in new ways. Perhaps we should choose to renounce the world a bit more: just like the Christians used to do, we should take a step back from what the world asks from us – not with the aim of achieving salvation in another life, but in order to distance ourselves from oppressing forms of neoliberal subjectivity.

This report was written by Kyrke Otto, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.