1. Neoliberal Resilience: A Genealogy
Resilience is a popular but controversial and undertheorized concept. The best-known modern conceptualization of resilience emerged from child psychiatry and developmental psychology (John Bowlby’s 1960s attachment studies), but came to involve social psychology, counseling, clinical psychology, epidemiology, and other sciences (Vernon 2004). Still, there is no consensus on the definition of resilience. In its most generic form, resilience is a process whereby people bounce back from adversity. But there are debates about whether the proper locus of concern is neurophysiological factors, social factors, stable traits, variable mechanisms, or outcomes.
How did resilience become such a cultural touchstone? Interest in resilience increased dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, during the rise of the post-welfare/neoliberal era. This era ushered in the decline of secure employment, the disestablishment of the social safety net, the creation of underfunded “inner city” schools, redlining and racial segregation, “the use of paramilitary police practices to quell the resultant urban unrest,” the exponential growth of the prison-industrial complex, and other racist policies (Johnson 2016: 80). Neoliberal politics simultaneously pushed more women into the workforce while denying them equal access to social support, forcing them to register for social benefits as dependents, and withholding labour protections from female-dominant sectors like agricultural, domestic, part-time and temporary work (Nadasan 2012). This maintained the patriarchal structure of the family while driving many women to pick up a ‘second shift’ in low-paying sectors of the economy. Sexual minorities and gender-nonconforming people were stigmatized and excluded under the neoliberal regime, which defined them as mentally ill, and made it legal for employers and landlords to deny them paid work and housing. Disabled people were, for the most part, “effectively erased, excluded from paid work,” and “regarded as a social problem” (Russell 2019: 15-16). These neoliberal practices imposed cultural traumas on the groups most affected by them. As Johnson puts it, “the neoliberal age [has had] a traumatic impact on the material and symbolic worlds of African Americans,” along with other oppressed groups (2016: xvii).
Resilience emerged as a convenient substitute for the restitution of social support, justice, and inclusion. The neoliberal politics of resilience placed responsibility on individuals and local systems (families, communities, schools) to adapt to the neoliberal order rather than resisting and rejecting it. Neoliberalism denied the state’s responsibility to provide security and stability to underserved communities, and blamed the disenfranchised for their own plight. Concurrent with the rise of neoliberalism, the 20th-Century witnessed a proliferation of self-help books and training sessions promising to help individuals survive and thrive in the free-market economy, and this trend continues today. The University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center offers resilience services that claim to boost “cognitive and emotional fitness, strength of character, and strong relationships.” In “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” (2013), Facebook-COO Sheryl Sandberg advises women to take a leading role in corporate America, and urges men to support them. Resilience-informed urban projects uphold White suburban neighbourhoods as the standard of resilience, and use this standard to police and displace racialized communities (Bonds 2018). These resilience strategies encourage neoliberalism’s victims to assimilate into the free-market economy, and they blame dissenters for failing or refusing to adapt.
The rise of the resilience economy has raised a cluster of worries. First, neoliberal resilience distracts from the traumatizing impact of neoliberalism on minorities and the corresponding need for restitution and reparations. As Johnson puts it, “American neoliberalism… has functioned to impede public acts of remembrance, reconciliation, and restitution required to facilitate communal healing” (82). Second, neoliberal resilience promotes conformism and suppresses dissent by encouraging people to ‘lean in’ to neoliberal institutions. As Jesse Keenan remarks, resilience is a “conservative concept because it’s about a reversion to the [free-market] status quo” (Suarez 2020). Third, neoliberal resilience scapegoats and punishes those who defy the neoliberal order by failing or refusing to accept and participate in the source of their own trauma. Neoliberal institutions pathologize resisters as weak, parasitic, and mentally ill.
The neoliberal concept of resilience can be seen as an example of what Foucault referred to as a dispositif, or apparatus of power, constructed to regulate human behavior according to a certain agenda, so as to produce a certain political end – in this case, free-market capitalism. Neoliberalism encourages people to assimilate into the capitalist regime, and marginalizes those who fall short of this goal. In this way, it reproduces the conditions for its own survival.
2. The Emergence of Radical Resilience
As neoliberal resilience ascended to hegemonic status, competing paradigms of resilience emerged in marginalized communities and academic discourses. Cedric Johnson, for example, argues that (anti-neoliberal) radical resilience is important to the besieged Black community. Black people can foster radical resilience through “prophetic soul care,” which involves critical analysis of: (i) neoliberal racial exploitation, (ii) networks of globalized capitalist forces, (iii) neoliberal-induced trauma, and (iv) strategies of community resistance, healing, and liberation. This form of resilience is radical, transformative, and anti-neoliberal, and strikes at the heart of racial capitalism, viz., a political economy that uses slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide to extract capital from racialized groups. Feminist theorist Angela McRobbie (2020) similarly suggests that anti-neoliberal resilience is important to women and sexual minorities, and can be achieved by fostering a non-individualistic, anti-capitalist ethic of care, detached from the neoliberal ideals of wealth, competition, excellence and perfection. This strategy targets patriarchal capitalism, a system of class-based oppression that exploits feminized subjects.
Perhaps the main source of anti-neoliberal resilience research is Indigenous studies, which focuses on Indigenous communities’ ability to adapt to environmental crises caused by industrial-capitalist processes, such as genocide, displacement, and environmental racism. Indigenous communities that have maintained a traditional lifestyle have achieved a high level of resilience, or adaptability to ecosystem variability, even in the face of capitalist-induced crises. Key to Indigenous resilience, says Kyle Whyte, is a “sacred” (or inviolable) network of “moral relationships of responsibility,” which are expressed in kinship relationships and coordinated responses to harsh colonial pressures (2018: 139). In Indigenous studies, humans and non-human animals and ecosystems are all moral agents with reciprocal responsibilities to each other, and these responsibilities create an adaptable social network. For instance,
This network of responsibilities generates a robust capacity for survival, adaptability, and flourishing.
3. The Fragility of the Neoliberal Order
Indigenous resilience is lacking in industrial-capitalist societies that lack relationships of respect for the oppressed. This includes the working class and the poor, who are exploited as ‘human capital,’ and nonhuman animals and ecosystems, who are objectified as ‘natural resources.’ This corporate mentality is driving the neoliberal West to the brink of global ecological collapse, revealing the vulnerabilities caused by an irresponsible, predatory culture. The neoliberal order, which presents itself as indomitable and historically inevitable, is inherently fragile and non-adaptive because it depends on a continuous, uninterrupted cycle of exploitation and commodification of an oppressed underclass. Any disruption to the ‘supply chain’ has system-wide ramifications. For example, covid-19, a preventable virus, caused a host of disruptions in 2020, ranging from toilet-paper shortages to the collapse of the healthcare system in many regions. Covid-19 is one of many crises that have revealed the volatility of the neoliberal order.
Indeed, according to anticapitalist thinkers, neoliberalism functions to manufacture a never-ending series of crises, which call for neoliberal solutions, which in turn exacerbate instability and insecurity. Neoliberalism, then, is a vicious cycle of collapse-response-collapse patterns. Pandemics, for example, demand neoliberal interventions that weaken social cohesion and ramp up the production of consumer products like PPE, fuelling waste output and climate crises. Why does neoliberalism produce crises necessarily? Key reasons include that: (i) capitalism increases the concentration of wealth amongst the (predominantly white) corporate elite, generating extreme inequality and social unrest; (ii) capitalism allows corporations to over-accumulate wealth and generate ‘bubbles’ and market crashes; (iii) globalization allows corporations to exploit weak labour laws in (racialized) low-income countries to create global competition and a ‘race to the bottom,’ exacerbating inequality and instability; (iv) crises are lucrative because they allow corporations to expand their stake in the privatized disaster-response industry; (vi) crises allow corporations to exploit people’s trauma to ‘shock’ them into compliance with the neoliberal regime. As Marxist theory indicates, crisis is “an essential and ineradicable feature of the capitalist mode of production,” due to capitalism’s reliance on material inequality, overaccumulation and overproducion (particularly amongst the wealthy), and violence as a means of social control (Clarke 1994: 3). The attempt to indoctrinate traumatized people into “disaster capitalism” is what Noami Klein refers to “the shock doctrine” (2007), and what Whyte refers to as “crisis epistemology” (2021).
Because the neoliberal order depends on a continuous, violent regime of exploitation and expropriation, Whyte describes it as a “parasitic system” (2018: 287). More precisely, settler nations have established a “parasitic system of domination” that allows them to “metabolize the North American ecosystems [and subordinated cultures] to sustain their [ostensible] settler permanence” (2018: 278, 283). Neoliberalism denies its own precariousness and dependency on minorities by misrepresenting the colonized as the parasites and the colonialist system as the host. Hence, Indigenous people are “portrayed as dependents clamoring for the good graces of settler nations and settler populations, often asking for special privileges and benefits that they don’t deserve” (Whyte 2018: 287). In reality, the settler state is dependent on the continuous exploitation of Indigenous lands, labour, and knowledge, and on cultural myths and continuous denials of responsibility to maintain a thin veneer of permanence and sustainability. According to Whyte, Indigenous resilience requires rejecting the settler state’s parasitic way of life, which includes rejecting calls for reconciliation and assimilation into the dominant culture.
4. The Fragility of the Powerful
The notion that the privileged are fragile while the oppressed are resilient is gaining traction in academia and popular culture. For example, “white fragility” has been coined to refer to White people’s discomfort and defensiveness when confronted with the idea that they are complicit in systemic racism (DiAngelo 2018). The notion of ‘fragile masculinity’ refers to the anxiety and insecurity experienced by men who fear they are falling short of the patriarchal ideal of masculinity. “Fragile heterosexuality” has been invented to denote the anxieties that some straight people feel about being seen as queer (West et al. 2021). These ‘fragilities’ exist because Whiteness, masculinity, and straightness are tenuous social constructs that depend on contestable and historically-contingent social rules. The ‘one drop rule’ made Whiteness contingent on having no traceable non-European ancestry, rendering Whiteness more contestable and revocable than Blackness. Queer theorists propose a similar standard of straightness, on which a single same-sex experience could be sufficient to classify someone as queer (West et al. 2020). Masculinity is likewise threatened by any signs of femininity or queerness in men, whereas femininity and queerness are less rigid and normative (Ward 2020). Because dominant social categories are so fragile, those who identify with them tend to respond to threats to such categories with anxiety, fear, and anger. These responses reveal that social classifications are not as stable as one might think.
As feminist philosopher Kate Manne (2017) has argued, the more fragile a system of power is, the more violent its defenders will be. Less fragile systems rely less on violence and more on democratic consensus. It is precisely because masculinity is fragile that threats to masculine institutions and identifications evoke such hostile and violent responses in their protagonists. Likewise for Whiteness and queerness, which are malleable and impermanent social constructs, not fixed essences or natural kinds.
Recent political developments, ranging from mass protests to counter-discourses about gender, sex, and race, signal mounting awareness of the fragility of neoliberal apparatuses of power and their reification in social identities. Exploited groups have the collective ability to divest from neoliberal institutions (as many Indigenous communities have done), and to destabilize neoliberal concepts (such as ‘masculinity’ as a stable, biological category, imbued with rationality, authority, and credibility). Collective unrest and definitional challenges attest to an upsurge in uptake for anticapitalist resistance and radical resilience.
5. Final Thoughts
The disestablishment of the welfare state ushered in an era of neoliberal resilience, which substituted social responsibility and community support for individual perseverance and ‘grit.’ Neoliberal ideology blamed beleaguered members of oppressed groups for failing to adapt to the new economic conditions and join the ranks of the corporate elite. It scapegoated resisters as weak, delinquent, and parasitic, while (paradoxically) relying on parasitic practices to expropriate land, labour, and knowledge from its traumatized victims. An anti-neoliberal backlash emerged in marginalized communities, producing a more authentic and sustainable type of resilience, achieved through networks of reciprocal responsibility and selfless caregiving. This radical notion of resilience is gaining traction in the general population (as witnessed in growing unrest and resistance to capitalism), though it has yet to be fully incorporated into the sciences and the academic mainstream. The politics of radical resilience reveals the tenuousness of the neoliberal order and the importance of anti-neoliberal relationships of responsibility and care, which provide a bulwark against the adversity, marginalisation, and trauma inflicted by free-market capitalism.
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_____. (2018). On resilient parasitisms, or why I’m skeptical of Indigenous/settler reconciliation. Journal of Global Ethics, 14(2), 277-289.