Individual responsibility in a neoliberal world

The third logic of neoliberalism is the cultural trope of individual responsibility. A common statement of this is its use as justification for arrest or incarceration, in the form,”Lots of people are poor, but this individual deserves punishment because everyone else chose not to steal a loaf of bread to feed their kids.”

There is an appeal to moral certitude in this logic which harks back to the idea of commandment. “Thou shalt not steal” is non-negotiable: theft of property is always wrong. The individual who steals has a clear choice to make, whether or not to break this commandment. There is no appeal to extenuating circumstances, such as the situation of the individual’s poverty or that of starving offspring. Once again, neoliberalism and moral religiosity become almost indistinguishable.

Of course what the individual has actually done is to evade or disrupt (and certainly to disrespect) “the markets.” All goods are assigned a monetary value which must be used in exchange. If the individual herself does not have sufficient wealth or credit with which to purchase food, then that is not so much her fault as her choice: it is her “individual responsibility” to have sufficient wealth to purchase food for her children, and her individual responsibility to produce no more children than she can purchase food for. None of the individual’s circumstances or history: her birth, family, health, mental ability, education, immediate society, country, or misfortune or any other factor allow her to escape even for a moment what is seen as the “natural order” of the market. Individual responsibility means that a decision to disobey the market is not permitted.

The arguments are not new: during the Putney Debates, the agitators argued for the return of the “commons” which was land held in common and used for food production. The men of property wished to protect their ongoing enclosure of the commons and its expropriation from the poor and establishment of ownership by the owners of large estates. This looks like theft, as does the expropriation of common lands from the Irish, the American Indians, and others during the period of Empire building which accelerated after 1650, but in neoliberal logic everything must be property, have an owner, and have a monetary value. The landowners (Cromwell, who drained fenland and displaced the previous occupiers, included) did not consider themselves guilty of theft but obliged to create wealth and end the ownerless state of the commons.

This in turn explains why neoliberal governments are opposed to public welfare programmes. Any form of state welfare is a criminal (from a neoliberal perspective) interruption of the “markets”. Someone who is given wealth without providing labour in exchange is clearly evading the labour market, and guilty of evading their own individual responsibility to provide for themselves. Neoliberal governments therefore remove welfare by first transforming it to “workfare”, where individuals must provide some work. This also reiterates the cultural trope of individual responsibility, repeated on so many radio “phone-ins” where individuals shout that because they are working, so must everyone else: because they are not poor or unemployed or imprisoned, everyone who is must have chosen to be in that state.

Individual responsibility is, however, limited to the responsibility to act within the “natural order” of the markets. Consequently, the idea of a natural market has to be invoked to explain and control every human action, even, seemingly ironically, denial of responsibility.

This is manifest in the Health and Social Care Bill currently being passed through the UK Parliament. The provisions of this legislation remove the accountability and responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health to provide a national healthcare service created by Aneurin Bevin (on the sophistry that these obligations never existed), while legislating for individuals to take on the role of consumer of healthcare services; to renounce their common ownership of (and shared participation in) the National Health Service. When this bill is fully enacted (extraordinarily, it is already being put in place before the legislation is passed) a competitive “market” for healthcare provision will be set up between “competing” existing hospitals, charitable health provision, and corporate healthcare providers.

The Secretary of State must therefore officially renounce accountability and responsibility for the nation’s health, because if he were accountable or responsible in any way he would be interfering with the “markets” he has just created.

This is the the neoliberal order of things and explains why a US TV audience shouted “Yes” when a presidential hopeful was asked whether someone should be allowed to die if they had not provided for their own healthcare with adequate health insurance.

The neoliberal trope of “individual responsibility” excludes our responsibility for others, or indeed for anything but our predefined role in the market. In the doublethink of neoliberal logic, liberty is the obligation not to be responsible for the consequences of our actions, but only to comply with the “natural order” of the markets.


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