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The self-help myth

Corporations
Illustration: Marco Melgrati

What’s the point of responsibility? This seems like an odd question in an age when social inequalities, human rights abuses and climate change make it abundantly clear that we have an inescapable responsibility to others and the environment.

And yet our age seems to be defined by an intractable paradox: taking on greater responsibility is ultimately useless in ensuring individual, collective or environmental wellbeing. The reason for this paradox is not that responsibility is pointless, but that the kind of responsibility we are encouraged – and in many instances, forced – to take is one that places the entire burden of systemic problems on us as individuals.

For as Ronald Reagan asked in his first Inaugural Address in 1981, ‘if no-one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?’ One need only take a glance at the ever-increasing shelves of self-help books in bookstores to see that Reagan’s question has been effectively answered by the wider populace in the last four decades. Personal responsibility is the order of the day.

The pervasive rhetoric of personal responsibility has transformed the role of government and society in the neoliberal era. Where once the role of government was to safeguard the general happiness of the majority of citizens, albeit to varying degrees, its primary role now is to facilitate the conditions where each citizen can take on more and more individual responsibility, absolving the state from its responsibility towards its citizens.

Rather than supposedly liberating the worker from the disciplinary restraints of the industrial workplace, this era of personal responsibility encourages utter sacrifice and surrender to the capitalist cause, without any safety nets

While we might attribute the emergence of the language of personal responsibility to the New Right – a collection of rightwing political groups that emerged across Western democracies in the 1970s and 1980s – it developed more systematically in the politics of Bill Clinton in the US and Tony Blair in the UK. In fact, Clinton’s 1996 reform bill that effectively killed off the notion of welfare in the US was infamously titled: ‘The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act’.

The aim, Clinton argued, was ‘to achieve a national welfare reform bill that will make work and responsibility the law of the land’. Clinton’s goal was not to merely encourage personal responsibility as part of his welfare reforms. He legally enforced it by placing time limits on welfare recipients and created a vast surveillance system in collaboration with law enforcement to monitor those who received assistance. Furthermore, he created an inextricable interweaving of work and personal responsibility: in order to work one must possess responsibility, and in order to take responsibility one must work.

The pejorative juxtaposition of ‘dependency’ with ‘responsibility’ was key to Clinton’s welfare politics. He argued that the ‘current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency’.

The role of the state, Clinton argued, ‘should be about moving people from welfare to work,’ which ‘gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives’. To be dependent on welfare, he implied, was a mortifying condition, which effectively entailed living a meaningless and undignified life. This bout of welfare-shaming epitomized neoliberal politics on both the Left and Right in the 1990s (and beyond), with personal responsibility viewed as the magic cure.

Carrot and stick

Blair built on Clinton’s re-imagining of social democracy through a similar glorification of personal responsibility and the denigration of any notion of dependency. In the 2002 Queen’s Speech, Blair admonished previous social democrats who ‘divorced fairness from personal responsibility. They believed that the state had an unconditional obligation to provide welfare and security.

The logic was that the individual owed nothing in return.’ He suggested that the ‘language of rights was corroding civic duty and undermining the fight-back against crime and social decay’, and commended Thatcher and the New Right for ‘restor[ing] personal responsibility’, because previously the ‘the obligation of society to advance the individual was denied’. He argued that in the Thatcher years the old Left ‘became a mirror image of the Right’, as it stressed ‘social rights to the exclusion of individual responsibilities’. In response, he proposed that ‘we [build] an enabling state founded on the liberation of individual potential’.

Not only did Blair so often present a bastardized history of leftwing politics in the UK, he also positioned himself in-between the conservatism of the New Right and the socialism of the old Left – a political philosophy many political commentators described as ‘Blatcherism’. Part of this political vision, which Blair shared with Clinton, was to re-imagine welfare benefits not as a right, but as an opportunity. This linguistic shift enabled leftwing parties to link individual autonomy to notions of social justice and equal opportunities.

We can see this in Blair’s attempts to continually tie opportunity to responsibility: ‘Respect … makes real a new contract between citizen and state, a contract that says that with rights and opportunities come responsibilities and obligations’; ‘The New Deal … seeks to provide new opportunities in return for new responsibilities’; ‘With these new opportunities comes responsibility’. Blair incentivized responsibility in a carrot and stick form of governance. And if you were not persuaded by incentives, then a strong criminal justice system loomed above your head to enforce responsibility.

The exceptional few

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) presented serious challenges to the rhetoric of personal responsibility, one that Barack Obama and his administration in the US confronted by doubling down on this rhetoric. His first inauguration speech in 2009 was, in retrospect, an ominous moment for the future of leftist politics in the wake of the GFC. At exactly the time when the illogicality of the market was laid bare for all to see, Obama eschewed any critique of capitalism that had once been the instinctive response of the Left.

In Obama, the neoliberalization of leftist politics that was instigated initially by Clinton and Blair’s politics in the US and UK, respectively, was made concrete precisely at the moment when the sanctity of neoliberal economics had been exposed as fraudulent. The GFC removed any illusion that a deregulated and flexible market might bring about greater collective prosperity. And faced with this reality, Obama chose the market.

He did so by leaning heavily on the language of personal responsibility: What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining to our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

But while Obama implied that this ‘new era of responsibility’ extended to all US citizens, his bail-out of the banks and strengthening of the financial institutions that caused the crisis suggested that this new era absolved certain citizens of responsibility. Here, he taps into an important loophole in the doctrine of personal responsibility.

Both Clinton and Blair, following Reagan and Thatcher, preached the gospel of universal personal responsibility, while encouraging a small section of citizens, predominantly those in the financial sector, to be freed from the shackles of responsibility. And when the irresponsibility of this select few came to fruition in the first term of Obama’s presidency, he drew on the very same doctrine to legitimize the passing of responsibility for the post-GFC clean-up to those citizens who had already been carrying the weight of responsibility.

There is a great irony in the fact that after decades of proselytization about personal responsibility by its mainstream politicians, the US now has a president who refuses to accept any for his actions. Of course, Donald Trump still demands it from the majority of US citizens – although not, it must be added, from his billionaire cronies – but he is the embodiment of the very loophole in the gospel of personal responsibility created by Reagan, Clinton and Obama. He is the cartoonish personification of untrammelled capitalist irresponsibility.

For your own good

The demonization of the notion of dependency and the legal enforcement of personal responsibility by New Right and Third Way politicians (and their offspring) is nothing more than an attempt to privatize risk. We see this most evidently in discussions around healthcare, where victim blaming is the modus operandi of contemporary political rhetoric.

Recently, the Conservative MP and Secretary for Health and Social Care in the UK, Matt Hancock, told us that ‘[illness] prevention is … about ensuring that people take greater responsibility for managing their own health. It’s about people choosing to look after themselves better, staying active and stopping smoking. Making better choices by limiting alcohol, sugar, salt and fat.’ Furthermore, and following a similar logic to Clinton and Blair, he claimed that ‘the biggest impact on your health from the economy is whether or not you have got a job.’

And yet we could legitimately ask that if having a job leads to greater health, then why are governments going out of their way to make the world of work increasingly precarious? If the role of government is to ensure the wellbeing of its citizens, and if that wellbeing is tied to the security of employment, then surely the government should be safeguarding the labour sphere from exploitative practices by businesses and corporations.

But the idea of prioritizing the wellbeing of citizens over the freedom of capital would contravene the rhetoric of individual autonomy that governs both the contemporary economic and social spheres. Personal responsibility and work ethic: these are the only things that we can use to keep the cancerous cells and dark thoughts at bay.

Of course, the real reason for Hancock’s remarks has nothing to do with the general health of the majority of citizens in the UK. Rather, his appeal to personal responsibility is a smokescreen for the privatization of the National Health Service, which effectively began with the introduction of the Health and Social Care Act in 2012, and will no doubt continue apace under Boris Johnson’s increasingly autocratic government.

The narrative of personal responsibility is simply another story for austerity, but one that is masked as a tale of empowerment and liberty. Yet the effects of this tale are continually revealed as tragic and debilitating. In the UK, austerity has been cited as the primary reason for rapidly worsening child poverty, a sharp increase in suicides and suicide attempts, and even a decline in life expectancy, particularly in post-industrial areas. But Hancock is probably right. A bit less full-cream milk might help reverse these trends.

The sacrificed worker

My ultimate point here is that the denigration of the notion of dependency undermines an existential necessity. We are, and always will be, dependent on others for our wellbeing – no amount of personal responsibility can disguise this fact. Without any safeguards outside of our individual selves, we cannot trust that the external world will hold up its end of the bargain.

There are endless events that can put us at risk – economic downturn, redundancy, illness – and the inability to guarantee our security outside of ourselves can only breed a culture of fear. We cannot know the inner workings of the market, the minds of our employers, or even our bodies. But we can hazard a guess, which can lead to crippling paranoia and hypochondria. This is the real opportunity of responsibility that New Right and Third Way politicians are so fond of promoting: the opportunity to feel profoundly precarious in our responsibility.

The language of personal responsibility is the flywheel of neoliberal capitalism; it is a background mantra that sustains the public sphere and conditions its inhabitants. But this mantra conceals an ulterior motive: to legitimize divestment in education, training and social security for citizens. The ‘sharing’ or ‘gig’ economy, for example, is a consequence of this divestment, and it similarly rests on a set of mantras which are often celebrated as the zenith of freedom – be your own boss, work whenever you want, do whatever job you like.

But the flexibility of the labour market allows employers and corporations to ask a couple of key questions that significantly impact an individual’s responsibility in such an economic system. If the worker owns their own productive potential, then should they not also be responsible for investing in its development?

Why, neoliberals argue, should employers pay for developing an employee’s skills when that worker might leave and apply those skills in another position at another company? These questions also apply at the state level in the belief that taxpayers’ money should not fund the training or education of individuals who solely benefit from it, which is often a logic used to legitimize the hiking up of university fees.

In granting workers ‘freedom’ to choose how and where they apply their skills, employers and governments can shield themselves from the very relationship that threatens their power. This re-imagining of workers as individual corporations negates the Marxist call for workers to own the means of production. Rather than being the antithesis to the capitalist employer, the worker is merely a mini-version of the employer or corporation that they work for. They operate on the same principles, but the relationship is violently hegemonic.

In fact, governments regularly facilitate this hegemonic relationship by relaxing employment laws and restricting unionization, all in the name of unleashing individual creativity and ingenuity (and further enriching the corporations on which governments so depend). Rather than supposedly liberating the worker from the disciplinary restraints of the industrial workplace, this era of personal responsibility encourages utter sacrifice and surrender to the capitalist cause, without any safety nets.

Neoliberal ideologues might tell us that personal responsibility gives meaning to our otherwise miserable lives, but most of us experience personal responsibility as merely an act of survival in a deeply unstable world. Is this the price of freedom? If so, then we must divorce the confluence of human and capitalist freedom.

As Marx maintained, ‘it is not the individuals who are set free by free competition; it is, rather, capital which is set free.’ Greater freedom to be responsible for our individual selves might free capitalism from responsibility to us, but it does not free us from our responsibility to the accumulation of capital.

This is a one-way and abusive relationship, in which we are encouraged to see this violence as a reflection of our own inadequacies. This is ultimately the point of the politics of Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, Obama and the like. The violence of capitalism, they imply, is not inherent to the system itself but in the response of the general populace to this system.

By forcing citizens to absorb the punches of this violence through the mythical empowerment of personal responsibility, capitalists can escalate exploitation without the fear of a fight-back. Self-help becomes merely another term for self-destruction.

Rather than supposedly liberating the worker from the disciplinary restraints of the industrial workplace, the era of personal responsibility encourages utter sacrifice and surrender to the capitalist cause, without any safety nets

New Internationalist issue 525 magazine cover This article is from the April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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