Youth in Times of Neoliberal Crisis

Still from the Perks of Being a Wallflower.

A Critical Review of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

Maliha Iqbal and Yanis Iqbal

The US is witnessing the rise of fascist education. Numerous far-right wing governors have implemented a series of conservative policies. These policies include, among other things, the banning of books, the prohibition of teachers from discussing critical race theory and topics related to sexual orientation. Additionally, teachers are required to pledge their loyalty, share their course outlines online, give up their tenure, and allow students to record their lectures. Importantly, public libraries have become battlegrounds in the Republic war on “wokeism,” being denigrated nationwide as hubs of Marxist propaganda and child pornography. E. Tammy Kim writes, “Whatever faith there was in public learning and public space is fraying. Though book bans aren’t new, current bids at censorship are often paired with cuts to library budgets.”

One of the books that has faced the disapproval of right-wing ideologists is “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The reasons for its censorship are wide-ranging and include content considered contrary to family values, explicit sexual material, depictions of homosexuality, offensive language, references to drugs and alcohol, nudity, descriptions of masturbation, and discussions of suicide. Thus novel has a history of appearing on the American Library Association’s list of the top 10 most frequently challenged books due to its content. It held the 10th position among the most banned and challenged books from 2000 to 2009 and the 14th position from 2010 to 2019. In 2022, it was once again listed, this time among the 13 most banned books of that year. This ongoing criticism continued into 2023 when Conroe ISD, a public school district located north of Houston, made the decision to remove it from its high school curriculum following a parent’s complaint. Even as we recognize the unacceptability of the authoritarian silencing to which the book has been subjected, it is essential that we critically debate the politico-ideological effects of its content.

The novel’s persistent entanglement in censorship serves as an indicator of the political gridlock in America, caught between neoliberal democratism and conservative authoritarianism. Neoliberal democratism, characterized by the dismantling of the welfare state and the embrace of unregulated capitalism, replaces the concept of collective citizenship with fragmented, privatized consumer identities. The thrill of a counter-hegemonic lifestyle can be enjoyed within the bounds of marketized hedonism. In contrast, conservative authoritarianism capitalizes on the shortcomings of this commodified politics to cloak its pro-business agenda in the guise of xenophobic fantasies. In this political cycle, it becomes evident that neoliberal democratism carries an inherent potential for fascism, which can be seen as a radical, terroristic iteration of a weakened liberal democracy.

Fascism tends to thrive when there’s a state of political stagnation within the framework of neoliberal democracy. The bourgeois structures within this system find themselves incapable of breaking this deadlock, while the Left, which could potentially bring about change, lacks the means to do so. Consequently, the masses begin to lose faith in the prevailing common sense that has propped up political dominance for several decades. They start to doubt the credibility of the ruling elites and embark on a search for new ideologies, organizational structures, and leadership.


“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” perpetuates the structural reciprocity of neoliberal democratism and fascism through its depoliticization of the youth. It is an epistolary novel by Stephen Chbosky in which Charlie, the narrator, writes to an unknown person about the problems he encounters as a freshman in high school and how tries to find his own place in the midst of everything. Initially, he is quiet and reserved but soon opens up to two seniors – Patrick and Sam. They eventually make him part of their friend circle and he becomes involved in all kinds of activities with them – becoming part of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” going to parties etc.

Charlie’s elder sister is dating a boy who hit her in front of Charlie and this troubles Charlie. He turns to his teacher for an answer who tells him something that becomes central to the novel, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This message of self-love is central to the novel and the events in Charlie’s life or his sister’s or Sam’s or any other significant character can be explained in the context of this line. Charlie’s sister continues to date the boy who mistreats her until she is pregnant and he abandons her. She then gets an abortion and breaks up with him because she realizes her own self-worth. Sam, too, is dating someone older than her because it makes her feel better about herself even though she isn’t really being her honest self around him. Craig is cheating on her and when Sam comes to know of this, they break up. Later, she tells Charlie that she no longer cared if Craig loved her or not because he didn’t actually ever know her.

Even Patrick, who is gay, and in a secret relationship with Brad, realizes that his relationship with Brad was one where Brad never really cared for him. Brad is figuring out his sexuality and also has a girlfriend. He can be seen using Patrick throughout the novel. When Brad’s father finds out about Patrick, he beats him up and Brad doesn’t come to school for many days or answer the phone. When he finally does come back, he is seen to be ignoring Patrick completely. Earlier forced to keep his love a secret, Patrick now deals with this new blow. The person who he secretly met at golf courses and parties late at night no longer even acknowledges his presence and has severed all relationships without any form of closure.

There is also a fight between Brad and Patrick in the cafeteria when Patrick approaches him in desperation and Brad calls him a “faggot.” Brad and his friends from the football team then beat up Patrick until Charlie has to come to his defense. Later, Charlie helps him get through these harrowing days and Patrick slowly heals- realizing that he need not torture himself over someone who doesn’t really care for him. He comes to terms with himself. Finally, talking about the Charlie himself, we see that he seems to have a very low opinion of himself. He does not actively participate in class or any other form of social life but these things change when he is accepted by others. In the first party he goes to with Patrick and Sam, Charlie starts crying when he realizes that people were noticing him and not thinking that he was weird.

As the story unfolds, we see that Charlie somehow believes that he is responsible for his aunt’s death – who he describes as his “favorite person in the whole world.” However, towards the conclusion, it comes to light that his aunt used to abuse him as a child. Charlie is hospitalized for several days when he remembers the trauma. It takes him very long to come to terms with it and he realizes that he isn’t who he is because of what happened even though it was an important incident. Thus, Charlie blooms with the realization that “it’s okay to feel things. And be who you are about them”. The message of the story is clear – tolerance and acceptance can change people’s lives. This acceptance not only includes the acceptance of your personality by other people but also a self-acceptance of who you are and that you are good enough in your own skin.

Bourgeois Individualism

The constant refrain of the book about accepting the love that we think we deserve puts the onus on the solitary individual to increase their own self-esteem. It is inaccurate to say that our relationships with others is primarily shaped by our own self-perception. On the contrary, the kind of love that we think we deserve is itself a historical product of class struggle; individual notions of love are structured by the social backgrounds in which we are situated. Any reference to the social forces at work in the devaluation of specific youth lives is banished by locating the root cause of mental health problems in the emotional inability to extract an ahistorical core of psychological positivity.

The inflation of individual will as a quasi-supernatural force capable of overcoming all negative circumstances is consonant with the concrete situation of American capitalism. In present-day USA, the youth is facing mental health challenges, pervasive community, physical and sexual violence, and substance use. These crises are embedded in the exponential growth in inequalities and the resultant alienation of students from a system that doesn’t serve their interests. The absence of a unified political direction has been compensated by the production and circulation of mass-mediated images. In the communicative apparatuses of capitalism, messages are no longer meant to elicit responses. Rather, they become mere components in the global circulation of data. Jodi Dean notes: “Its particular content is irrelevant. Who sent it is irrelevant. Who receives it is irrelevant. That it need be responded to is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is circulation, the addition to the pool. Any particular contribution remains secondary to the fact of circulation.”

For the young person, alienated power arrangements appear as a gigantic flow of isolated events that hardly serve to enhance their own capacities. This disconnect between individual agency and social structures means that the latter is reduced to a senseless chaos that can only be redeemed through the inner tranquillity of the sovereign subject. George Lukacs call this the “ideology of the agony of individualism in the imperialist period,” in which the subject’s inability to comprehend how it has collectively constituted an unjust historical order makes it turn inward into the subjectivist refuge of vague notions. By preaching the mantra of self-help, Chbosky prevents the young characters of the book from realizing how their lives in are already connected through the structural mechanisms of a capitalist world that uses their disciplined bodies and passive affects to sustain profit accumulation. The recognition of this objective, historical tie leads not to the arbitrary craving for meaningfulness that is characteristic of the isolated ego but to the concretely determined goal of revolutionary reconstitution.

According to Nikolai Bukharin, “[t]he soul of the discontented bourgeois, feeling insecure, longs for consolation”. The scientific comprehension of the concrete evolution of social formations troubles the bourgeois drive for existential worth “because it is not guided by a saving reason, a goal of deliverance. It is so much more pleasant to take a nap after a good meal, and to know that there is one who watches over us.” The novel under discussion enacts a similar fascination with the quest for immediate identities when it reduces the potentialities of sexual experimentation and the portrayal of teenage mental health to the re-programming of the individual mind, which comes to internalize an ineffable exuberance about the future. In the words of Lukacs: “The man of the fetishized world, who can cure his disgust with the world only in intoxication, seeks, like the morphine addict, to find a way out by heightening the intensity of the intoxicant rather than by a way of life that has no need of intoxication.”

In the current conjuncture, it is imperative that the conflagration of culture wars in the US be resolved through a socialist alternative, which locates the crisis of the youth in the capitalist entrenchment of private property. The mental health of USA’s young people is negatively affected by the drive for surplus-value maximization, which deploys racist, sexist, heteronormative, ableist and other hierarchies to pre-empt any radical anger at the entire structure of economic competition and perpetual precarity. Neoliberal democratism worsens this oppressive condition by propagating the false notion that discriminatory norms can be changed through a change of heart. Youth militancy needs to burst out of the personal program of attitude adjustment if it wishes to avoid the onset of barbarism.