Neoliberal Realism and Conflict as Property

As this amazing year winds down (for real, where did the time go?), I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict. Perhaps because there’s so much in the world right now (though there has always been, of course, acknowledged and unacknowledged), perhaps because we do seem (hot takes and journalistic clichés aside) to have become more polarized, more prone to feeling that the ability to live together peacefully is predicated on absolute agreement and affinity, rather than interesting tension and difference. By difference I mean deep differences of opinion and identity and belief, not self-congratulatory fairly superficial ones.

This sounds like a political point, and it is, but the trickle-down effect of our relationship to conflict influences how we think about fiction, what we think it is, and how we approach writing it. Basically, the more conventional wisdom about fiction is that conflict must be introduced, worked through, and ultimately (this is key) resolved.

Sidebar: I know some kind of conclusion is necessary, of course. The characters need to come through something and out the other side. They need to change. Sometimes there are weddings, or births, or deaths, or forgiveness, and that is how stories work. As in life, something needs to change, or what’s the point?

And yet. The idea that conflict must be introduced and then concluded and resolved seems lacking. Seems like a pretense of story, verging on a lie about the world and our relationship to it and to one another. Perhaps conflict is not there to be managed. Perhaps tidy resolution is not the goal.

The American writer and activist Madeline ffitch, in a wide-ranging essay in The Paris Review about solidarity protest and Standing Rock and what writing fiction means, uses the term neoliberal realism as pertaining to how conflict is approached by mainstream editors, writers, and teachers of writing. In her argument, the editorial idea that conflict must be managed and then resolved is a by-product of capitalist social management. A form of control, of coercion, and a limited view of the world. Because, in her telling, conflict is not something to manage or resolve. It’s something to live with. Conflict is constant, important and productive. We do not want a frictionless world (and we won’t get it whether or not we want it). We live together in our conflicts. This reminds me of the late Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie’s phrase about “conflict as property.” Meaning that we need to view our conflicts as something belonging to us, not something that we outsource to the state or to an expert class brought in to manage us and reconcile us to one another. Of course, there are exceptions to this. Sometimes the state must intervene. But for Christie, this happens far too often, because we have lost the habit of viewing conflict as something we can figure out on our own. Something that we must cherish as part of our lives with one another. Something precious.

So, as we work on stories and on our own lives, let’s think about productive conflict. How we can make it meaningful. How we can see it as a source of vitality, not something to control.