Who would be against personal responsibility? Everyone believes that they should be responsible for their own actions and sensitive to the effects of their deeds, right? It’s the price we pay for all that autonomy we have in our free society as powerful and unique individuals jousting in the wide-open arena of the marketplace. As Margaret Thatcher pointed out, “There is no such thing as society,” and everything that for every thing that happens to an individual, there is some other individual that’s culpable.
Of course that’s silly. That presumes all individuals are born equal, and that institutions are transparently functioning, entirely neutral entities with no ends of their own, and that the aims of corporations are no different than the aims of human beings, a myth nicely exploded by the recent documentary The Corporation, which details all the sociopathic things corporations can do that individuals wouldn’t. 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 insultaed 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 only clubs the heads of the poor.
Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life has an incisive chapter on “proletarianization and the rise of subjectivity,” in which he argues that the consequence of capitalism’s removing production from the family space and centralizing it (making it entirely exploitative and useless in affording the worker a sense of meaning) 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 tradmill 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.)