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Anne Manne and the “Asshole Effect”

In a recent article in Aeon, Eric Schwitzgebel suggests that in order to fully understand the problem of “moral ignorance,” we need “a theory of jerks.” In her new book The Life of I, Australian writer Anne Manne gives us one: late capitalism breeds jerks, rewards jerkism, and fosters contempt for the non-jerkish.

Manne is best known for her sharp critiques of the reification of work, and of capitalism’s impact on both feminism and the family. These threads coalesce in her latest book, which neatly encompasses her analyses of motherhood, care, and pornography, and also echoes a 2006 essay on “the cult of the self.”

In Manne’s analysis, narcissism is not solely an individual disorder, but also “a problem of cultural significance,” and accordingly her book is divided into two parts. In the first, which focuses primarily on narcissism at the individual, clinical level, Manne reviews the relevant literature, from Sigmund Freud to Christopher Lasch and beyond. The second part is necessarily more amorphous, and explores narcissism at a societal level.

Although the latter section briefly takes up Australian domestic politics, the book is global in scope, surveying figures as disparate as Anders Breivik, Ariel Castro, Elliot Rodgers, Lance Armstrong, and Amy Chua. In Manne’s reading, “narcissism has become the go-to-diagnosis for a host of modern ills,” our equivalent of “hysteria,” and the book’s unifying theme can, likewise, feel a little stretched: Manne seems to paint the personality trait as the pathway to everything from sexual assault to climate change. At several points, the reader may also fear that she has been lured into an extended op-ed on the contemporary evils exemplified by selfies, plastic surgery, and reality television.

Manne’s core argument is compelling, though: she contends that “free-market fundamentalism” plays a largely unacknowledged role in the phenomenon of modern narcissism. This trait is not maladaptive, then, but rather “a quality required for survival in the hyper-competitive paradise of the new capitalism.” Manne names Ayn Rand’s Objectivism as an “ideology of narcissism” and posits that the “neoliberal ideal,” an unencumbered individual with a desire for consumer goods, a drive to earn, and a disregard for the needs of others, looks not unlike a classic narcissist.

Manne quotes feminist economist Nancy Folbre, who coined the term “the invisible heart” to describe the world of unpaid (female) care overlooked by Adam Smith. Similarly, her book presents the other side to contemporary debates about inequality, effectively challenging us to examine the cultural as well as the material aspects of the societies that capitalism has wrought. The radical English historian E. P. Thompson wrote that there was “no such thing as economic growth which is not, at the same time, growth or change of a culture,” and Manne contends that “neoliberal economics” has created a world which is “less empathic, more ruthless, less kind.” According to Manne, “as people get more affluent, they can become more entitled, more grandiose, meaner and less charitable, and even more likely to cheat. Call it the asshole effect.” (A term coined by psychologist Paul Piff.)

This argument (set out in an edited extract in The Guardian, here) is a satisfying counterpoint to endless high-handed political assertions from the right about the pernicious effects of government assistance on the poor. But Manne doesn’t limit herself to convenient progressive homilies, and The Life of I also challenges conventional left-liberalism: it contests all self-centered ideologies, including those that are shaded pink and slapped with a feminist label. Manne contends that “[f]ighting patriarchy with individualism runs the danger that we will all become too selfish”; her vision of the good society stresses care and communitarianism rather than individual you-go-girl liberation.

A culture-wide eruption in narcissism is often cited in gloomy analyses of “entitled millennials” as evidence that a lack of stern parental discipline creates self-absorbed, selfish children. Manne rejects this well-trod route, contending that our “social ecology,” built out of stressed-out parents working long hours, is what is most actively hostile to childrearing. Combating narcissism in kids, then, should not merely be a matter of blaming indulgent parents. This distinction is consistent with the book’s overriding theme: Manne’s concern throughout is not simply to denounce individuals, but to indict the social and economic context in which narcissism blooms. She writes:

All the tut-tutting and headshaking over the increase of narcissism pretty much misses the point . . . The narcissism epidemic is not an aberration. Without the narcissistic character, the new capitalism might collapse.

If it did collapse, what would replace it? Manne’s book is not a manifesto and, somewhat disappointingly, the politics that could take us from a world of consumerism to one of care are not considered. Nevertheless, The Life of I is part of a necessary dialogue about the kinds of societies being created on our watch, and what they’re doing to us. How we might go about building a world characterized by kindness and altruism is a question for another book, and another day.