Profit, Self, and Agency: A Reevaluation

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In 1939, Erich Fromm argued that capitalist culture imbues the pursuit of economic advantage with moral tensions that harm self and psyche. Since this time, the inner implications of such tensions have been somewhat overlooked by theorists, and not without seemingly good reasons. By many accounts, social and technological developments in the later decades of the 20th century have ostensibly reduced the cultural tensions surrounding profit making and mitigated their inner effects. This article, however, presents a different account. Drawing from literature on culture, self, and subjectivity in the neoliberal era, it argues that the tensions Fromm identified have actually been recreated in new, sometimes more elusive ways that bear substantial inner costs. Moreover, focusing on economic elites, this article analytically explores the agentic implications of these inner costs. It argues that the moral tensions that haunt profit making ironically stand at the basis of capitalist agency, shaping its materialistic default through processes rooted in self.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-264
Number of pages14
JournalCritical Sociology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

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  • agency
  • capitalist culture
  • neoliberalism
  • self
  • subjectivity


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