In light of discussions around personal responsibility on the left and Scotsman columnist Darren McGarvey's comments on the subject, Matt Parrott takes a nuanced look at the limitations of personal responsibility under capitalism. He argues personal agency needs to be channelled into collective agency...
The renowned Irish statesman Edmund Burke's (above) vitriol towards the Great French Revolution for having 'stormed Heaven' and having killed a king, makes us classify him, quite rightly, as an irreconcilable opponent of the revolutionary project. But this categorisation acts as an intellectual smokescreen, concealing the shared characteristics of the thought of this arch-reactionary and the revolutionaries on one very important point. When Burke argues the traditions handed down to us serve a purpose, in that they instil virtue in the masses – and that preserving these traditions preserves this blind virtue – his thought finds its mirror image in that of the revolutionaries.
They recognised it was simply not enough to dispense with existing tradition and expect the model citizen to materialise out of nothing. While Burke’s defence of the status quo and blind obedience is world famous, the revolutionaries who planned traditions to ensure the perpetuity of liberté, égalité, fraternité – and in much the same terms, with the same reasoning – is almost universally forgotten. The imperfect human material with which they worked required sculpting if ever it were to fit the mould they envisaged, and knew to be attainable, for it.
What's the significance of this wee historical jaunt? Both these political enemies accepted the fundamentally social foundation of individual belief and individual behaviour. Our present obsession with the individual as sovereign is a historically-contingent development just as myopic as the shared view of the belligerents mentioned above. And yet, once again, this is equally as prevalent on the political left today as on the right. Even supposedly conservative ideas like personal responsibility quickly show themselves to be compatible with extreme-left individualism.
The sharp focus on the individual is, to adapt the words of a certain revolutionary, a translation of Christianity into the language of postmodern philosophy. In typical bourgeois fashion, this flawed philosophy atomises and itemises every aspect of social life in order to commodify it. Individual souls liberated, as consumers, from the claims of society can endlessly reinvent and reclassify themselves according to desires that erupt spontaneously from within.
Let's consider the message we receive at every fundamental level, perpetuated through the media and reinforced by our politicians. If you're not a success in our society, which provides you with the tools to self-create and self-evaluate, you've nobody to blame but yourself. It's no surprise that the few truly self-made figures are regularly paraded before us much like the saints of ages past – the Richard Bransons, the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Bill Gates (below). They and their stories are presented as inspirational and in that there is at least a grain of truth. They are inspirational because they breathe artificial life into the pallid corpses of capitalism’s creations – into us. We denizens of the postmodern age are on the iron lung of the culture industry.
What converts to the doctrine of ‘personal responsibility’ see as social peace and social order is nothing but the triumph of class oppression. The features of this creed (widespread guilt and self-blame, coupled with the low-burning hope of a share in the prosperity we know to exist) act as a powerful narcotic. The oppressed class, in the grip of a punishing hallucination, forgets that it constitutes a class. This combination is so effective in maintaining the capitalist order that its current discursive incarnation owes much to Samuel Smiles’ 19th century Self Help, which promoted frugality, attacked materialism and claimed poverty was largely caused by irresponsible habits. Even modern figures on the left who call out systemic injustice sympathise with this thinking.
Instead of an encouragement to self-development for the good of the collective, amplifying individual agencies to something greater than the sum of their parts, we have the relentless rhetoric of individualist nonsense that betters life for only a heroic few. Worse still, it substitutes external transformation of the present, inhuman order for internal accommodation to it. This is the ideological work that the rhetoric around ‘personal responsibility’, detached from any critique of the economic base of society, performs.
Something we forget at our peril that we are social creatures, prey to the subtle, psychological influence of the different concentric rings of the society that surrounds us. There's a reason why more unequal societies have higher levels of homicides, greater incidence of drug abuse and many other things besides. There's a reason why, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tells us, being in any sort of poverty adversely affects the quality of your decision-making. The fact is that it is impossible to live in a society and be apart from it.
However, an acceptance of the limitations of individual responsibility in the face of concrete reality shouldn’t mean we totally deny the role of the individual in shaping her own past, present or future. Instead, it should simply lead to a better understanding of the interacting factors that influence individual behaviour and inhibit the smooth execution of individual grand designs. It should come as no surprise that the majority of these factors are anchored in socio-economic status. It's not about suddenly being ultra-determinists and consigning the notions of free will and culpability to oblivion; it's about understanding our socio-economic position determines the extent to which you are able to pursue your own best interests.
It's why anti-capitalists need to continually emphasise that individual responsibility is as limited a position as citing structural inequalities to negate the role of the individual entirely. Both ignore the category of the totality, forgetting the two interact with one another in a variety of complex ways, and any attempt to promote the former or abolish the latter must take the other into serious consideration.