The Shock of the Real: The Neoliberal Neurosis in the Life and Times of Jeffrey Sachs


Correspondence to: School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK. E-mail:


This paper draws on Slavoj Žižek's critique of ideology in seeking to account for the persistence and transformability of the neoliberal project. Against understandings of neoliberalism as a utopian representation projected onto an external reality, I argue that neoliberal ideology operates as a social fantasy, which structures reality itself against the traumatic Real of Capital. The evolution of the neoliberal project should be understood, not as the meticulous manipulation of social reality, but as a series of increasingly desperate attempts to hold the very fabric of reality together. Reconceptualizing neoliberalization as a form of obsessional neurosis can help to explain the relentless persistence of “zombie neoliberalism” and its paradoxical trajectory towards increasingly intensive forms of social engineering. This argument is developed through a critical engagement with the work of the economist Jeffrey Sachs. From shock therapy to the Millennium Villages Project, Sachs's trajectory embodies the characteristics of the neoliberal neurosis.

The paper aims to undermine the apparently monolithic power of neoliberalism, by challenging dominant critical representations of the neoliberal project in terms of a hyper-rational governmentality. It also aims to subvert the attempts by Jeffrey Sachs and other neoliberals to reposition themselves as opponents of the Washington Consensus, and as spokesmen of the Occupy movement. The chosen method of attack is more satirical than polemical. Neurotic neoliberals such as Sachs have successfully appropriated ethical objections to neoliberalism in the name of “globalization with a human face”. In the present conjuncture, an immanent critique that reveals the internal incoherence of neoliberal ideology, and the hapless floundering of its proponents, is perhaps more effective than a repetition of familiar forms of moral condemnation. An alternative subtitle for this paper might therefore be “Towards a satirical materialism”.