Ari Amala

Neoliberalism, New Age Spirituality, and the Just-world Fallacy

Woman dressed in new age clothes holds a peacock feather to her face

The just-world hypothesis was made popular in social psychology through a series of experiments run by Melvin Lerner in the 1960s. The just-world hypothesis stems from the subconscious belief that the world has some kind of in-built mechanism for justice. This mechanism ensures that people get what they deserve, and that the world is ultimately just.

It is also known as the just-world fallacy because even the most cursory glance around at what is happening in the world is enough to take in a litany of examples of personal, systemic, and planetary injustice.

So where does the belief in a just world come from? Lerner saw the just-world fallacy as a self-protective cognitive bias; a safeguard against feeling of anxiety, vulnerability and powerlessness. The world is less terrifying if we believe that bad things only happen to people who deserve it, because that means we hold the power to keep ourselves safe and above water. Our brains tell us, there’s no need to worry because we would never put ourselves in the situations that lead to poverty, sickness, or abuse.

The belief that we can always influence the world in predictable ways creates a false yet comforting sense of safety. By the same token, it can also foster feelings of superiority. If we believe that misfortune is avoidable, then the people experiencing misfortune must have a poor sense of judgement, they must have done something wrong, or have some kind of flaw in their character. This is, of course, the root of victim-blaming.

When confronted with terrible realities, our brains do all sorts of things to try and avoid intense feelings of grief, rage, or hopelessness, and clutching onto the just-world fallacy is just one of them. For many people, the just-world fallacy exists mostly as a subconscious mechanism, ticking away below the surface. If we don’t want this bias to influence our judgement of people and events, it needs to be brought into awareness and consciously resisted. This means acknowledging that no one is immune to tragedies or hardship – and that no one deserves to suffer. This is a prerequisite for moving our focus from justifying injustices towards the work of addressing them.

How do Neoliberalism and New Ageism Reinforce the Just-world Fallacy?

If the just-world fallacy only showed up as a cognitive bias, that in itself would be a robust enough task to tackle, but unfortunately, the just-world fallacy also exists as an ideology – one that is reinforced by different political, spiritual, and religious worldviews. In this article, I will be focusing on how neoliberalism and new age movements propagate and benefit from the just-world fallacy.

On the new age side of the fence, the just-world fallacy is observable in the Law of Attraction catchphrase, ‘you create your own reality’ and the distorted view of karma as a cosmic order that ensures that people will get what’s coming to them. It’s also apparent in the Louise Hay perspective that we are responsible for any ailment or sickness we experience.

From the neoliberal side, the fallacy is upheld in the belief that deregulation, self-interest and the ‘invisible hand’ will guarantee a market that will always be of benefit to society. It’s even more evident in the capitalist myth that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor.

The just-world fallacy props up the nefarious belief, shared by both entrepreneurial new agers and neoliberals, that one’s bank balance is an accurate and reasonable representation of a person’s worth. Perhaps, the purest example of the internalisation of capitalist values one could possibly imagine.

Neoliberalism combined with the just-world fallacy feeds the idea that people don’t need social safety nets, because of the belief that people always have the mental and material means to stop themselves from falling. Yet, one of the things Covid-19 has made clear is that we are all vulnerable to hardship. And by all, I mean the 99% of us who aren’t billionaires. Nothing like a global crisis to reveal the holes in social security and the alienation of communities.

The just-world fallacy could be one the reasons that some of the working class vote in the interest of the capitalist class. If they believe that they are good, hardworking people and that good people get what they deserve, then by extension their sympathies lie with the ‘good’ millionaires, rather than ‘lazy’ people living below the poverty line. Even though, as articulated in a tweet by John Rogers, the working class, ‘are always three very bad months away from being homeless, but never three very good months away from being a millionaire.’

A similar misidentification happens within the minds of people making vision boards with images of the 6-figure income they are attracting into their lives. In John Steinbeck’s words, ‘Socialism never took root […] because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.’

The belief that the economic system is fair, and everyone has an equal opportunity to become a millionaire is reinforced through privilege (neoliberalism) and delusion (new ageism). These beliefs are in direct opposition to the progressive material goals of socialism.

When we extricate ourselves the just-world fallacy and the magical thinking of both neoliberalism and new age movements, it becomes very obvious that we need to build strong social safety nets. Everyone deserves to get what they need to live happy and healthy lives. This would be supported through the implementation of universal healthcare including mental health care, debt cancellation, universal basic income, free education as well as vibrant public spaces which are designed to grow and nourish communities.

Without these social safety nets, people are slipping through the gaps all the time, and the worse thing is, these injustices are being consistently justified. In Melvin Lerner’s experiments on the just-world fallacy, he found that when people believed they were helpless to intervene in an unjust situation, they were more likely to devalue the person who was suffering. They made critical comments about the person’s character and appearance. This was a way for the witness to make themselves feel less horrified or enraged. It’s easier to witness people’s pain if we make ourselves believe they are bad people.

If we extrapolate this finding, it’s easy to imagine how the enculturated belief that there is no alternative to capitalism could blunt our compassion for the many who are suffering under this system. The systemic solution isn’t obvious, so we critique individuals.

For some people, the belief in reincarnation functions in a similar way in that it can dampen compassion. This comes across in statements like, ‘people who are born into poverty chose to incarnate in those circumstances. They are working off karmic debt from past lives.’ I’ve also heard people say that animals that have been slaughtered for human consumption, actually chose to give their lives to be eaten. As if they wanted a lifetime in the metal confines of a factory farm. As if the soul of the animal agreed to some kind of contract. To me, this thinking is an effective way to short-circuit empathy and grief and to sidestep ethical responsibility.

Obviously, not all people who believe in reincarnation bandy it about in such a careless way. However, the hyper-individualism of a society steeped in capitalist values and the new age movements that have emerged in this zeitgeist, certainly give heed to this kind of interpretation.

The Denial of a Shared Material Reality

In speaking about the consequences of a hyper-individualistic society, it seems fitting to return to the new age belief, ‘you create your own reality’. I’ll begin by saying that on a subjective level, I think there is truth to this. Through therapy, self-development, meditation, and co-regulation tools, we can dramatically transform our experience of ourselves and the world. These tools can help us to respond to and interpret the circumstances of our lives in more generative ways.

However, the problems begin when there are no boundaries to this belief, and it is applied to objective material reality. It seems to assume that everyone can create their own material reality without those realities overlapping or colliding into one another. This type of thinking with capitalism in the denial of finite natural resources.

It doesn’t examine the fact that Jeff Bezos ‘creating his reality’ and hoarding 182 billion dollars might have a direct impact on the reality of others or the environment. Or, if there is an acknowledgement that Jeff Bezos reality impacts others, all the responsibility lies on the shoulders of those who are impacted. The Amazon workers who were forced to work during the pandemic in unsafe conditions for minimum wage should quit. But what about the reality of the diminishing job market post-covid19? To this, the most avid believers would probably say, ‘Don’t have a victim mindset. Ask, believe, receive.’

However, I would argue that the most pertinent recognition in this scenario is that Jeff Bezos could end world hunger but chooses not to. There is actually an entire twitter account dedicated to this fact called Has Jeff Bezos Decided to End World Hunger? It’s a long-term fave.

It would seem that the shrinking perception of a shared reality is one of the biggest impediments to social change.

The Problem with Self-Responsibility

Another pillar of belief that both neoliberals and new agers hold dear, is self-responsibility. Radical self-responsibility. Take control of your life. You are not a victim. There are no victims. The only thing standing in your way is yourself. That kind of thinking.

The problem with believing people get what they deserve and seeing self-responsibility as the solution to everything, is that it doesn’t account for structural inequality. It fails to acknowledge the impact that systems have on individuals, societies, and the environment.

The god of self-responsibility and the just-world fallacy work wonders for the capitalist class. Both serve to propagate the myth that the 1% are wealthy due to their good character, innovativeness, and hard work, rather than through inheritance, financialisation, and the ruthless exploitation of the working class. These ideologies continue to protect and project the illusion that we live in a socioeconomic system that is fair and just.

They are also convenient for the 1% because rather than focusing on tackling ever-increasing wealth disparity, the working class is self-flagellating. Wondering why, despite their good character and consistent hard work, they haven’t made it. So they continue being good, working hard and doing their utmost to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

As for the ‘conscious’ and new age entrepreneurs, well, they aren’t focusing on the concentration of wealth in the hands of the 1% because they’re busy trying to join them. You know, to increase their impact. To reach more people with their message. Their time and energy is going into repatterning their wealth blueprint, practicing sex magick on beds of cash, manifesting, and hustling at the speed of Gary Vee.

The 99% are busy. They are hustling. Trying to take some self-responsibility. Trying to survive. Distracted from the fact that monopolisation and inequality are inherent features of capitalism.

Another problem with the gospel of self-responsibility is that it’s a hop skip and jump away from blame and shame. People living below the poverty line are ignored or treated with disdain. They are automatically blamed for their situation. This blame too often becomes internalised as shame and acted out in addiction, violence, or self-harm.

Stratification and economic inequality have a dramatic impact on public health. Societies with the largest wealth gap, also have the highest rates of violence, crime, suicide, and mental health crises.

All of this to say there is more at play than a lack of self-responsibility.

As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism:

"I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatisation of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?"

We need to acknowledge the impact of the socioeconomic system on individuals and communities. I would go as far to say that there is too much self-responsibility and not enough community care. Too much self-responsibility and not enough ethical responsibility.

If we want to enact social change, we need a framework that is more inclusive and effective than self-responsibility. We need a framework that acknowledges that we don’t just create our own reality, we also influence the realities of others. We exist in an interconnected ecosystem. We need a framework that is more compassionate than the just-world fallacy and more intelligent than the neoliberal and new age ideologies that reinforce it.

Because without these self-protective ideologies and biases, we’d be forced to reckon with the systemic violence inherent in capitalism. Violence that manifests as poverty, classism, racism, transphobia, sexism, rape culture, speciesism and on and on.

Without these frameworks, we’d be forced to acknowledge we live in a world that is full of fucking injustice. My hope is that in this acknowledgement, with our hearts full of rage and grief and love, we’ll turn towards one another and ask,

So what are we going to do about it?

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