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Why I don't really believe in personal responsibility

Neoliberalism is hard to notice or talk about because it shapes so much of our life that it can feel like a given these days. Neoliberalism is a political project and a cultural perspective that seeks to organize life under the lens of individual choice - under neoliberalism, we’re encouraged to think of our lives as a series of correct/incorrect, good/bad choices that we make, or fail to make. It's a political project because it works to protect and further capitalism, by encouraging us to believe that the exploitation we experience is the result of our choices, rather than the result of an extractive system. It turns people away from focusing on the responsibility of the state (governments) or capital (corporations, billionaires, etc) and towards a scrutiny and surveillance of self, of our particular choices.

If everything that happens to you is because of a choice you made or failed to make, that then makes us responsible for the things that happen to us. Don't like climate change? Stop using plastic straws, look at your individual carbon footprint, recycle, and definitely don't think about the responsibility that major corporations have in their extractive drive to destroy and use up the resources of the planet.

At the relational level, neoliberalism justifies a lot of cruelty. Because, if you are responsible for what happens to you, you can then be punished (or rewarded) for it. And by extension, what’s happening to you certainly doesn’t have anything to do with me, because you made the choices you made, and should “suffer the consequences” (even if those consequences are unjust, inhumane, violent).

And it maybe goes without saying, but not everything that happens to you is a result of a choice you made or didn’t make. Even without systems of domination, which make many people suffer so a few don’t have to, life is unpredictable and random. Things happen to us, that we didn’t cause, or choose, or ask for. We are not responsible for everything that happens to us.

This isn’t to say that we don’t have any responsibility or power. I think we have immense (especially collective) power, and I believe that we have a deep capacity for and responsibility to each other’s well-being, particularly people who have been made to suffer for generations under systems of domination like capitalism, ableism, colonialism, and white supremacy.

But/and, I think that when we’re encouraged to scrutinize our lives, and the lives of others, to feel an outsized sense of shame and guilt and blame and fear about our choices, past, present, and future, and when we live under an economic and cultural system that makes some of us responsible so other people don’t have to be, we have to look and listen carefully to our notions of responsibility, and what they point us towards. I think we can learn to care, deeply, with complexity and integrity, about each other, despite what these systems tell us.

Who do we make responsible? Who is presumed innocent of responsibility? And who benefits from us feeling this way about ourselves and each other? And, what might be possible instead?

The definition of neoliberalism I use in this post comes from Camille Barbagallo, who shared it in Left Book Club's Anticapitalism and Care event earlier this year. You can watch the full talk here and read some of the notes I took on it here.

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