Wednesday 14 December 2016

Individualism and Neoliberalism

Right across the left, Neoliberalism is regarded as a class project. It was never about solving the crisis that came to a head in the late 1970s. What happened, partly by conscious design, partly through the exigencies of using the state to wage war against the institutions and organisations of the post-war working class and professional strata was a restructuring of capitalism. A restructuring in which the demands of capital were overweening, a mode in which it determined all in the first as well as the last instance. Its success represented a world historic victory for capital over labour to the point that any idea the latter should have autonomy from the former, never mind be the vehicle for an alternative form of society, is not so much heresy - it's more the stuff of cranks. Yet neoliberalism was more than a class strategy, it became a mode of subjection, a series of strategies that cultivated, filtered and selected ways of being appropriate to this age.

There is a temptation in social theory, and especially in Marxism to adopt a Fabian view of history. Despite the rolling waves of class struggle and the crashing of wars, revolutions and counterrevolutions, there is a tendency to see things from above. As if capital and the impersonal forces it sets in train are the only active elements, and the resistance and movements from below are prodded into activity by their depredations. However, while capital accumulation has its tendencies and laws of motion these are responses to the shifts among real people. Capital-in-general, after all, are sets of social relations that appear to have a life of their own. But they are not possible without human beings, and no matter how much the class parasiting off it tries, capital cannot be separated from the multiple resistances of those self-same human beings. They seldom fully cooperate, and capital has to manage. Therefore the pattern of determination, despite appearances, is stronger going from the bottom to the top, from the human power to the alien power.

What does this mean for neoliberalism? Ralph Fevre's provocative new genealogy of neoliberalism, Individualism and Inequality goes some way to providing an answer. The short version: neoliberalism is an evolution of kinds of individualism that have been around since the dawn of the modern age. The complex version: neoliberal subjectivity actually preceded the age of neoliberalism. What Fevre is interested in exploring is how inequality increased across Western societies from the 1980s on regardless of the adoption of neoliberal policies, and whether there is a relationship between this and individualism per se.

Neoliberal individuality justifies inequality. Wealth and power differentials are the outcomes of choices made. The argument that there are structural impediments meaning not everyone begins the rat race from the same position is a) largely irrelevant as freely available public goods have levelled the playing field and b) it's possible for people from humble backgrounds to seize opportunities and make it. If there is a structural impediment, it's the legacy of past structures that stymied aspiration and dulled the moral impulse to succeed. Chief culprits are welfare systems that stupefy its recipients through the provision of a no-strings income floor. But where did this sensibility this come from, and how did it become the political and cultural currency of an age?

For Fevre, modern individualism emerged from the crucible of revolution. It was no accident that Tom Paine, the firebrand prophet of liberty was at the heart of the American and French revolutions. His incendiary pamphleteering made the case for the dignity of the human being, and that could only be realised by storming the bastions of tyrants and monarchs and throwing out everything incompatible with the achievement of human dignity. His was a moral individualism in which character was tied to the moralities of one's choices, and not the behaviours expected of one's fixed station in life. In Paine's hands, it was also moral to spread it. For Fevre this comprises the tradition of 'sentimental individualism'. At the same time, Paine's understanding of the individual is couched in terms of property rights. Fundamentally, individuation is an effect of the market and property differentials. To navigate these choppy waters requires the exercise of critical faculties on the basis of one's senses. So far, so proto-neoliberal. Yet for all to exercise these fully, inequalities needed ironing out, which is why Paine was an advocate of universal education, something approaching the welfare state, and a basic income.

While Paine didn't originate them, his thought comprised the two great strands of 19th century individualism: that of the sentimental kind, emphasising self-actualisation and discovery, moral choice and purpose, and mutual respect and recognition of others (as well as a politics for disseminating it). But it was also inseparable from 'cognitive individualism', the self-interested individual looking out for their interests in the market place. Interestingly, it assumed national characteristics too. Drawing on the work of Steven Lukes, Fevre notes that the individualism embedded in 19th century British culture was of the sentimental kind, of "respect for human dignity, autonomy, privacy and self-development" while the American iteration emphasised "the right to property and to make a living as one chooses, free-thinking, self-help, minimal government and taxation, and free trade" (p.37). This was despite both being up to their necks in the blood of colonialism and slavery. Fevre makes the case that the different weighting of sentimental vs cognitive individualism conditioned the countries respective attitudes to slavery, child labour, education and workplace rights.

As Fevre traces the lines of descent down to the present, taking in Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen, he singles out and rehabilitates Herbert Spencer as a key influence on social thought, particularly where America was concerned. Famous for coining the term 'survival of the fittest', he's mostly remembered as a crude social Darwinist with few insights that have stood the test of time. Revisiting Spencer now, his argument was a touch more subtle. He argued that human society was tending toward a future in which everyone would have the possibility to live their lives out as fully fledged individuals, but this desirable outcome was possible only if the social was left to sort itself out. If this was the end point to which society was evolving, any attempt to hurry it along with progressive legislation (or, for that matter, stymie it via legal protections of entrenched privilege), the result would be disruption and potential disaster. Left to its own devices, sentimental individualism would come to dominate. This led to some peculiar positions, such as not supporting suffrage until a nation's character could bear it. It also meant that he was very suspicious of legislation aimed at regulating private affairs, especially as business selected for abilities and results above all else, a position that dovetailed nicely with American cognitive individualism - and aided his reception there. The state was relegated to administering justice, providing defence and outlawing unfairness.

Spencer was an episode, and one whose influence seeped into American structural functionalism, as well as firming up the foundations of a neoliberalism yet to be built. This consolidation, particularly in the US, was marked by a retreat of sentimentalism and individualism was increasingly of the hardnosed kind. Religion filled some of the gap, but in its absence cognitive individualism overcompensated. The primary production units of the economy - the big corporate entities - went from machines for chewing up workers and producing surplus value to, at least in the literature of managerialism, custodians and facilitators of individualism. Managers sold their expertise to capital as the specialists in human relationships - they "knew" how to engineer the workplace to get the most out of employees. Key to this was the individuating of the worker (essential for preventing collective resistance from developing), but for it to work meant also having to treat them as individuals. This was aided during the course of the 1970s as equality legislation meant that the sorting of workers moved away from classifications based on prejudice and discrimination to performance metrics and employee attitudes. There was an elision between work positive attitudes and the moral acquittal of one's individualism. With an emphasis on individual achievement, cognitive individualism was deepened even further in the workplace.

This bedding down of cognitive individualism spread from middle class corporate culture into the working class. Aspirations measured in terms of material goods and funded from disposable income and, later, credit was a lifetsyle bought into by enough working class voters to provide a political basis for the overt neoliberalism prosecuted by Thatcher and Reagan. In this scheme, work was the vehicle for individual realisation whereas the state and, particularly, the unions were fetters on the achievement of working class aspirations. Hence, from the standpoint of establishment politics post-Thatcher (and whose basic outlook she carved into the body politic), it appeared that voters were demanding more opportunities for individualism. This was the trojan for further privatisation and marketisation in education and health, under the guise of "choice", as well as the highly individualised workers rights New Labour implemented.

It follows that neoliberal individuality condenses a number of historic trends, but is by no means an inevitable outcome of individualism per se. Nor is cognitive individualism forever destined to win out over sentimental individualism. There is a move in many corporate environments toward staff wellbeing, defined in terms of good mental and physical health, work/life balance, and the provision of opportunities for more self-actualisation. Slowly but surely, while politics remains obsessed with work these issues are starting to claw their way up the agenda. Its language the robber barons of the so-called gig economy jump on to justify their transparently exploitative practices and the sentiments encouraged by cultures of peer-to-peer sharing. It seems cognitive individualism is bending over into the more sentimental kind. Therefore, a politics that pushes beyond neoliberalism must ride this wave of individualism and letting it wash over very aspect of its programme.

Fevre's book is more than just this. It is an examination of individualism in political thought and a history of managerialism. As a genealogical account, what it definitely doesn't suggest is that neoliberalism is an outcome of ideas operating behind the backs of material processes. It traces the descent of a set of notions, attitudes and philosophies, and how they came to be embedded in material practices through the maneouvrings of professional groups and capital as management techniques. Its strength lies in where neoliberalism has come from, and makes tentative suggestions for the future - though this is weakened by comparatively little attention paid to the proliferation of digital technologies and their potentials. Nevertheless, Fevre has produced an indispensable contribution to the growing literature that deserves a wide audience.


Igor Belanov said...

To me, suggesting somehow that neoliberalism is another shift in the balance between individualism and collectivism tends to lose the importance and novelty of neoliberalist ideology.

The crucial facets of neoliberalism are the concept of human capital and the extension of contract to cover all relationships. Contracts have thus spread from the codification of an economic agreement to something approaching the regulation of relationships between citizens and the state, and within public services. Most of these contracts are compulsory and coercive, which makes their ethical and practical status dubious. What it does do is shed a great deal of responsibility from the state and place it on private citizens and on lower levels of administration. It also involves an enormous mushrooming of managerial interference and legal oversight, thus increasing bureaucracy and state expenditure in the long run (PFI being the operative example).

Human capital is the underpinning of neoliberalism’s individualism, but ironically often involves a significant increase in state interventions that are intended to increase this ‘capital’ and enable individuals to compete effectively within the wider ‘marketplace’ that society is supposed to have become. Thus education is the central plank of this drive to improve human capital and, not coincidentally, education is now a morass of constantly shifting targets and assessments that affect both educational establishments and individual students. Yet, given that ‘human capital’ is a concept that can only be measured (if it can be measured at all) if it is ‘cashed in’ in the marketplace, most of this target-setting and results measurement is effectively pointless, and functions more as a way of facilitating state interference and, where OFSTED and league tables are concerned, ‘pour encourager les autres’.

These essential facets of neoliberalism as a form of individualism are novel and do not have historical precedents. They have reached their peak (or nadir) under ostensibly centre-left governments such as the European ex-social democratic parties and the US democrats. They need to be differentiated from mere economic austerity in the form of cuts in state expenditure, or economic individualism in the sense of looting the existing state to provide gifts of property to certain privileged groups (or relatively privileged in the case of those who were able to afford discounted council houses). The ironic fact is that the latter ploy, common among the 80s and 90s right-wing, proved to be politically successful, while neoliberalism as adopted by the ‘centre-left’ is showing itself to be electorally disastrous.

Phil said...

I'm afraid I'm guilty of not making Ralph's ideas clear enough. He does not dispute the novelty of neoliberalism, but his project is interested in a documentary history of how the neoliberal subject came to be. Hence why he spends a great deal of time sifting through its antecedents - I recommend checking the book out.

Igor Belanov said...

It's an interesting concept, but also complex, and I suppose it irritates me when the term is used so lazily just to describe policies that are favourable to business and the private sector. I'm a bit disappointed your post didn't elicit more comment!

johnny conspiranoid said...

So then, a giant scheme for handing out tax money to rich people, using some flim-flam about markets.