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Against personal responsibility

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Wednesday, Nov 9, 2005

Who would be against personal responsibility? Everyone believes that they should be responsible for their own actions and sensitive to the effects of their actions, right? It’s the price we pay for all that autonomy we have in our free society as unique individuals jousting in the wide-open arena of the marketplace. Through our choices we create the life we want to lead, and if that life sucks, it’s because we’ve made poor choices, consciously or unconsciously, out of some pathological fear of success. As Margaret Thatcher so shrewdly pointed out, “There is no such thing as society,” and for every thing that happens to an individual, there is some other individual that’s culpable.


Of course that’s all silly. That presumes all individuals are born equal, and that institutions function transparently and are entirely neutral entities with no superceding aims of their own, and that the goals of corporations are no different than the aims of human beings, a myth nicely debunked by the documentary The Corporation, which details the sociopathic things corporations can do through an amalgamation of human action focused on smaller goals that individuals wouldn’t ever take on were they concentrating on the entire picture. The myth of personal responsibility is similar, in that it attempts to protect institutions from scutiny and force those individuals who suffer because of them blame themselves and feel guilty and helpless in the face of “reality,” in the face of “the way things are.“You’ll notice that people who are well insulated from the consequences of actions, people like George W. Bush, for instance, are especially fond of yammering on about how important personal responsibility is. It’s because he knows it is a cudgel that clubs only the heads of the poor.


Personal responsibility is an all-purpose explanation for things that forestalls critical thought, much like “lack of discipline” explains all phenomena in football. In some ways it is a reassuring explanation, even for those who suffer by it, because it promises a simple solution—pay more attention to what you do and you’ll see the results that you want. But in order for that to work, one needs a religious worldview to accomodate the gaps, to rationalize the failures, the ways in which institutional intractibility wastes and foils individual effort. “I am responsible for everything that happens to me” usually has a corollary of “things happen for divine reasons I should accept on faith and not try to understand.”


Eli Zaretsky, writes in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life of “proletarianization and the rise of subjectivity,” arguing that the consequence of capitalism’s removing production from the family space and centralizing it in factory and office space (making it entirely exploitative and useless in affording the worker a sense of meaning—her work is alienated, a thing that is taken fromher rather than defining who she is) is the creation of a separate non-productive sphere, “personal life” where workers can find life’s meaning and compensation for their empty work. The crux of this personal life is the feeling that one’s individuality is important, and should be nurtured through intimate relationships, which are rewarding for their own sake, and for the sake of reminding you that you are special and not an interchangable pawn in the hugh profit-making machine. But of course, while capitalism is setting up the conditions for dignifying the individual in private life, it is also making him into precisely that pawn. The contradiction holds in the ethos of consumption, which, as Zaretsky explains, “the rise of ‘mass consumption’ has vastly extended the range of ‘personal’ experience available to men and women while retaining it within an abstract and passive mode: the purchase and consumption of commodities.” (I love the scare quotes around personal in there). In other words, our vaunted individualism and our hallowed personal responsibility under capitalism amount to little more than shopping. And we dignify shopping, not autonomy. We replace spiritual identity with “lifestyles” which Zaretsky dubs “a word that is used to defend one’s prerogatives regardless of the demands of ‘society’ ” A lifestyle is what’s left when individual choices are seen as divorced from social reality, or are made in opposition to it, as a reaction to it rather than a part of it. A lifestyle is a parody of what personal repsonsibility is presumed to mean. When capitalism fails to dignify our lives, and consumption proves an endless acquisitve treadmill with more desperation and fatigue than pleasure, we’ll not blame the system that has empowered us to make such important and responsible choices (do I want a Ford or a Chevy?) but will instead wonder what is wrong with our lifestyle that makes us miserable (maybe I should go on a diet.)

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