Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Gardiner, Michael E.


This dissertation traces the roots of neoliberal selfhood to the rationalist ontology of modernity in the 1600s. The historical tension between materialism and immaterialism is expressed in the historicisation of work into Fordism and post-Fordism where embodied factory toil is apparently replaced by immaterial work, recalling Descartes’ mind-body split. If post-Fordist work addresses the Marxist critique of alienation in its emphasis on entrepreneurial inner selves, it does not explain the post-Fordist preoccupation to efficiently “Taylorise” the body through obsessive productivity. I argue that the factory prevails in the entrepreneur’s adoption of factory efficiency as a learnt behaviour from the Fordist era to enable perpetual self-fashioning, creating a productively pliant body to aid in self-discovery – an embodied rhetoric of cognitive labour. This follows the rationalist tenet of a rational mind ordering the causal body. Descartes and Marx converge as both the cogito and the commodity-form are retroactively rediscovered as essence. Both the cogito and the commodity-form are arrived at while the body is doubted, and the production process is mystified respectively. The entrepreneurial goal is the achievement of selfhood that is financially verifiable. Neoliberalism is capitalism’s version of humanism, allowing for self-actualisation, but rationalised by market forces.

Rationalism, negating contingent, embodied contexts, remade reality in negative terms that is measurable. The fallible body, in the face of the mind, became a site of deficiency to be transcended, recalling Original Sin. This state of deficiency provided the scarcity paradigm that justified endless capitalist growth. In the scarcity paradigm, the neoliberal individual must overcome indebtedness – student loans, housing mortgages – to achieve a redemptive financialised oneness. However, indebtedness in anarchist societies did not carry guilt but was instrumental in creating lasting bonds, notes David Graeber. Debt as transgression has not only created entrepreneurship under punitive market forces, it corresponds to negative freedom – reinterpreted by Eva Illouz as negative relationships – the freedom from bonds. This also has consequences for the environment as ecomodernism views modernity unbonded from nature which needs technocratic reordering to solve climate change. My project examines the material consequences of the Cartesian cogito and a way out of growthism through care economies.

Summary for Lay Audience

I examine the roots of neoliberal entrepreneurship to rationalist history that prioritised the power of the mind over the body. The present time is described as the era of immaterial work as opposed to embodied factory work before the 1970s. This view of history repackages Descartes’ mind-body problem. Although the body is no longer central to work, the entrepreneur has a heightened sense of productivity, on the way to profitable self-discovery. I relate Descartes’s discovery of the mind as human essence to Marx’s commodity-form – the final form an object reaches at the end of the production process. Both the mind and the final form are arrived at but treated as how humans or commodities were meant to exist. Descartes treats the body as a site of lack that must be rationally overcome. This translates into the debt economy in the real world where individuals must redemptively undergo financialisation to overcome this state of lack. This process towards rationalised security involves the body through obsessive productivity and voluntary regulation through habit trackers, smart devices and sleeplessness techniques such that the unfree body adheres to the free-willed mind. This self-fashioning stance of disembodiment is the embodied rhetoric of cognitive labour.

Disembodiment occurs along three levels – individual, social and ecological “bodies”. By relegating the body to a state of deficiency, Cartesianism parallels Original Sin. Sin translates into initiatory financial instruments like loans and mortgages – the debt economy. The entrepreneur seeks absolution through financialised reinvention of the self, enacting the assigned sacrificial function of the deficient body. However, debt as guilt is a modern concept. Anarchism informs that indebtedness would build interpersonal trust, forming communities.

Socially, the rationalist principle of unmaking embodied reality transforms into the unmaking of bonds – what Eva Illouz refers to as negative relationships. The productivity paradigm upholds the working relationship such that any social bond becomes a self-serving tool. The negation of the body is transferred to the climate crisis as ecomodernism views human civilisation as opposed to nature which needs profitable technocratic solutions. I examine the material consequences of rationalism and ways out of endless growth through care societies.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.