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Sandra E. Mancinas Espinoza Professor of Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, México Facultad de Trabajo Social y Desarrollo Humano

The influence of neoliberalism and the “new spirit of capitalism” in social work education in Mexico

In Mexico, the trend to include knowledge that comes from pocket psychology in the curricular plans has to be questioned and problematized. The use of the best sellers of self-help, motivation, self-esteem, coaching, personal development is reflected of this trend. In this article, I argue that the knowledge assumption from pocket psychology is settled in the “new spirit of capitalism” as a strategy of neoliberalism to guarantee the wealth hoarding. The participation in this project, in an uncritical way, gets to be a self-defeating point to the ethical principles of the social work profession.

In Mexico, the “new spirit of capitalism” ideology seems to be expanding. This ideology makes reference to a “set of beliefs associated with the capitalist order that helps to justify this order and, by legitimating them, to sustain the forms of action and predisposition compatible with it” (Boltansky and Chiapello, 2007: 10). It is important to point out that “the new spirit of capitalism” does not only show in the subjectivity of the individual, but into material form. This is the reason for the establishment of a distance from the mentioned authors. Due to this, I am referring to the “new spirit of capitalism” as the ideology which reproduces the capitalist order, embraces both subjectivity and changes in the wealth accumulation regime, that includes the labor world transformation (particularly in the production model), from the State to the Market in the neoliberal context. Inside Social Work, the “new spirit of capitalism” is represented in courses that incorporate knowledge that comes from pocket psychology and its respective literature in their contents. It has become more frequent to find out courses for personal development, coaching and others in the educational curricular plans. The objective of this is to expose the social-political project behind, and the negative effects in social work, have as a result of the appropriation and reproduction of the mentioned ideology.

Neoliberalism and “the new spirit of capitalism”

In the world’s work transformations, the pressure exerted from it, occurs in a parallel way to the material and subjective sphere by establishing a dialectic relationship among both dimensions. The toyotist accumulation model needs to coopt the working class thinking to integrate their initiatives, imagination and creativity to the objectives of production (Escobar, 2004:68). The workers have to be flexible and competent, cooperatives and implied (Marzano, 2011). In fact, the integration of subjectivity (emotionality included) to the production, is converted in a material development work condition.

The cooption of subjectivity in the labor environment has reached such levels in which the income and permanence processes for the labor market are explained as individual determinations and are predominantly volitional. This position eliminates, as Marzano (2011) states, the analysis around the influence in which structural components and market fluctuations or the elastic management to the wage bill have on unemployment.

The subject produced in the toyotism, in its most dramatic version, alludes to a person who succeeds with the time flexibility and emotional disposal criteria that guarantees without any major problem the accumulation of the super profits. We might say that today, the alienation mechanisms do not appeal to the gross violence, but to subtle machinations which operate to the wage earner “consent”. To Marzano (2011) the nowadays wage earner, with its consent:

[…] it is found, 24 hours a day, in disposal of their employer, by e-mail or mobile. The old fordist chain has been substituted by a psychological violence. The business management discourse is there to try to make them forget this cunning from history and to convince the workers from the act for their welfare belief, when they are actually integrating at full the most relentless market constraints. They endure the consequences, at the time they are forced to believe that it is for their happiness (Marzano, 2011). To sustain the needed conditions for the toyotism person to reproduce the flexible accumulation model requires a neoliberal project. In other words, a series of political and economic practices are needed to asseverate that: “human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within and institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (Harvey, 2005: 2).

By the previous context, the values and type of sociability spread, promote the idea about the subject being responsible of their own actions and their own welfare in terms of education, health assistance, pensions, etc. and has to answer for it:

Individual success or failure are interpreted in terms of entrepreneurial virtues or personal failings (such as not investing significantly enough in one’s own human capital through education), rather than being attributed to any systemic property (such as the class exclusions usually attributed to capitalism) (Harvey, 2005: 65). In such a way, the neoliberal project forms a subject whose citizenship can be disaggregated into two types: “the consumer citizen (a “free concurrent actor” in the Market, so, it is free to get any services wanted and that can be afforded) and a user citizen (the individuals, who have failed in the market, rely on social precarious policies, from the civil society, charity or the business “social responsibility)” (Montaño, 2014: 36). In both types of citizenship, the State assumes a flimsy position, by promoting actions that take to the individual the management of their social provision, by making them responsible for their own social security expenses or by offering poor social services, which will further discourage the State to offer social services which would then lead them into the search for their own solutions.

By all the previous statements, to disregard the neoliberalism influence in the constitution of the subjective and material areas of the life in society, contributes to the reproduction of the individualization for the social and into the responsibility of the subject from their own welfare in terms of education, health assistance, pensions, etc., by erasing any reflection around the economic system influence in the generation of social problems and the financial cut of the social politics.

The impact of the neoliberalism in the social work education

The previously discussed leads us to question ourselves: How does the neoliberalism and the “new spirit of capitalism” influence education of social workers? To Harvey, the neoliberalism has become hegemonic as a manner of discourse thanks to the penetration that it has had in our thoughts which, many of us, have incorporated to the way we perform and live in the world (Harvey, 2005). Such hegemony is taking a form in the curricular plans of social work. In Mexico, there is a tendency that is being shaped so it can include knowledge and literature coming from pocket psychology, and it is becoming more frequent to find courses which integrate in their basic bibliography, best sellers from national or international known motivational writers, whose contents embrace topics such as self-esteem, personal development, coaching, self-help, etc.

To Montaño, the instauration of neoliberal rationality is made through a triple movement: a) the subject self-responsibility, through self-esteem promotion, “empowerment”, training, autonomy in the entrepreneurship searching, and the autonomous sources of income; b) the disappearence of the state social action, ostensibly as a measure to end with the paternalism, through the development of a privatization or denationalization; and c) the capital relief, which stimulates the promotion of solidary and voluntary action of the civil society and the enterprises that are guided to help those individuals who fail in the Market (Montaño, 2014: 36).

From these three movements mentioned by Montaño, the first of them, clearly contributes to reproduce the “new spirit of capitalism”, to the “subjectivity mobilization” in the work management, by overlapping it in such way that the labor and private areas which ends transforming the subject into man-worker (sic). As Marzano (2011) states, the subject is convinced of his/her life success as mostly depending on success in work, and to accomplish this, s/he has to enter into a virtuous circle of the ‘self-esteem’, s/ he has to have a participation in the ‘personal development’ discourse, and by not doing so, it might be considered as a maladjustment to the world and lead to unhappiness. This rationality hides the structural determiners in the ideal man (sic!) construction to the flexible accumulation model due to the increasing overexploit.

To participate in a capitalist social-politic project which enhances the cooptation of the individual subjectivity to convert it into a man-worker (sic), by individualizing the social part and attempting to make him/her responsible of his/her capability of social self-provision, evidently goes against the ethical fundaments of social work, because those actions are not contributing to the social justice search, neither they advantage the respect for human rights. Indeed in this kind of practices, the professionals do not back up their actions in knowledge that comes from social science, the humanities studies or the discipline itself, but in superficial knowledge instrumented to maintain the status quo. Because of this, in Mexico, it is urgent to problematize the influence of the “new spirit of capitalism” as a neoliberalism strategy in the social worker's education.

  1. We are not referring to the labor’s psychology, which, as it is known, has pretended historically, through the equal and cooperative values, to democratize the relationship between workers and managers; this discipline “instilled the new belief that one´s personality -independent of social status- was the key to social and managerial success” (Illouz, 2007:18). We are referring, as we mentioned in the abstract, to the trending that vulgarises the knowledge that comes from psychology and it is converted into an instrument to depoliticize the individuals.

Acknowledgments: To Liliana Medrano Trejo for the translating of this text from Spanish into English.