“What can I do?” he asked.
“Do you think it’s hopeless?”
“Of course. It has always been hopeless, right from the start. You will never be the object of any girl’s erotic dream, Raphaël. You will have to accept it; some things are not meant to be for you.”
This is one of the many morbid dialogues from the novel Whatever (1994) by Michel Houellebecq. The main character (“as much a misanthropist as the author himself”) is an IT worker, sent off to the country to provide software courses for civil servants working for the Ministry of Agriculture. He does this together with his colleague, Raphaël Tisserand.
“Houellebecq describes the ridiculous bureaucracy, the slogan-mongering managers and in general life as being one great big illusion, and does so with an vicious view,” says Thomas Thijssens, lecturer of accounting. “As far as he is concerned, neo-liberalism and the free market have changed life into a gigantic competition and struggle. In all areas, also in love. Beautiful people get everything they desire, the ugly ones are ‘condemned to masturbation and loneliness’. The tone is funny and depressing at the same time.”
Thijssens considers the book a must for students from the School of Business and Economics. “First of all, it is not too thick, 164 pages. Moreover, I feel that the philosophical thought about neo-liberalism generating struggle everywhere is a very interesting point of departure for a discussion. More so because criticism of market thinking is hardly touched upon in our programmes. We do have a subject that is called Business Ethics, but that is mainly about excesses in the corporate world.”
The SBE lecturer feels that Houellebecq’s reasoning is quite convincing. “Up to and including the morbid consequences. The neo-liberal model has brought us a lot of affluence, but actually I don’t agree with that unbridled consuming. I also wonder why many economists are so uncritical of the Utopian mantra of permanent growth. Why do we constantly have to grow? Apart from the personal dramas, zero percent growth means that as a society we are just as well off as we were last year; how bad is that? Unbalanced growth is worse: the ever-growing divide between the poor and the rich.”
Then there is another question: “Why do we only measure progress by economic growth? It is all about the economy these days, but you could also define progress in terms of art and culture. Why not? If you look at what has survived from old civilisations, it is mainly art and culture. Economists and entrepreneurs often talk of innovation, but I think they could learn a lot from artists and their wild ideas. It is just a pity that these are totally different worlds, without the slightest interaction.”