There is a table in Walter Benn Michael’s book, The Trouble with Diversity, at once vindicating and disquieting. The table shows average American SAT, college admission tests, results ranked by family income. It is no shock that students from rich families have much better scores than students from poor ones. What is fascinating, though, is that scores rise smoothly depending on family wealth. Students from quite rich families do well, but not quite as well, as students from very rich families.
The Spirit Level, written by the English epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, uncovers the same trends across a whole range of malaises from obesity to teenage conceptions.
The percentage of young British women from the second richest quarter of households who become teenage mothers is double that of women from the richest quarter. Mothers from the second from top social class group are more likely to say they have a poor relationship with their children than mothers from the very top social class.
It is not just that extreme differences in circumstances produce different real-world outcomes. But also that small differences in circumstances appear to produce palpably different outcomes.
Even something as personal as mental health is intimately related to kind of economic system you live in, actually the kind of capitalism. Americans, for example, are far more depressed, on average, than Italians. And mental health can change remarkably quickly, apparently in response to changed economic conditions. Oliver James in his book The Selfish Capitalist shows what happened when Australia deregulated consumer credit in the 1990s. Within a few years Australians had three times as many credit cards as Europeans and worked the longest hours in the developed world. During the same period, mental distress spiralled. The number of Australians who were severely distressed, to the point of seeking treatment, rose by two-thirds in four years.
The idea that how you think is basically a product of your social environment is not new. It was Karl Marx who famously said, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
Before Marx there was the socialist pioneer Robert Owen, who said the problem of his age was the Christian insistence on “individualization”, fixing responsibility for problems on the individual and denying the all-powerful influence of society.
Just as in Owen’s time, there is now a clamour for fixing responsibility for problems on the individual. Growing and convincing evidence for the indisputable influence of society explains why books like The Spirit Level, which meticulously document how social and economic systems influence behaviour, have been attacked by right-wing thinkers. They know it’s on to something.
But there is also something in this line of thought, call it determinism, that people who aren’t right-wing ideologues recoil from. It’s not inevitable that if you are well off, as opposed to very rich, you will have a slightly more fractious relationship with your children. Most people can’t help but rebel against the idea that “their social being determines their consciousness”, no matter how many statistics are around which say that it does. They are not just puppets of circumstance. They still feel free.
And they are right. Nobody but you decides whether to slump on the sofa for hours watching tv or go out and exercise. Nobody but you decides who to sleep with or who to marry. Whether you like it or not, you are responsible.
This feeling explains the stubborn allure of the right-wing emphasis on personal responsibility, despite its myriad contradictions. You choose your own destiny, say conservatives. Chick lit writer turned British Conservative MP, Louise Mensch encapsulated this perfectly in a Guardian profile last September. “I take the classic Reaganite view that if you want something, you have to do it yourself,” she said. “Life is what you make it, don’t accept your limitations, jump before you’re pushed, leap before you look.”
You can scoff like the author of the profile, and scoff quite justifiably, that nothing will shake Mensch’s opinion that the only difference between her and some jobless loser on a council estate, is a go-getting attitude. Mensch, of course, was privately educated and comes from very wealthy family (something like the great ‘rags to riches’ entrepreneurs Rupert Murdoch and Richard Branson). But when she says nobody else wrote my novels for me and “my achievements, such as they are, are my own”, she is right. Even if you are the privately educated daughter of Catholic gentry, it’s not inevitable that you will write crap novels or get elected as a Tory MP. You have to want those things.
Is there a way out of this conundrum, where the claims of both free will and social determinism appear justified in their own way? “It makes no sense to complain since nothing foreign has decided what we feel, how we live, or what we are,” said Jean-Paul Sartre in 1943. Sartre was the father of existentialism, an unforgiving doctrine of personal responsibility that would make even Louise Mensch blush.
When Gary Cox, author of How to be an Existentialist says “Freedom is not freedom from responsibility, freedom is having to make choices and therefore having to take responsibility,” he sounds like a stern conservative fundamentalist. Sartre was so uncompromising on personal choice that he even wrote, “I can not be crippled without choosing myself as crippled.”
To existentialists, consciousness was all about future possibilities. You always have the freedom to respond to a given situation. Even you are being escorted by prison guards down a strip-lit corridor leading to a lethal injection chamber, Sartre would say you still possess the freedom to respond to that situation in the way you want to.
His major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, was written against "determinists of all stripes" .
His major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, was written against "determinists of all stripes" .
But Sartre was not a conservative. He was a Marxist. He wrote a long book, Critique of Dialectical Reason, trying to reconcile existentialism and Marxism. His brand of Marxism ranged from the flawed to the bizarre. He was a long-standing supporter of the Stalinist French Communist Party and ended up dallying with Maoism and the Baader-Meinhof gang. I’ve no interest in defending these allegiances, but the point remains that Sartre, the most unforgiving and anti-determinist existentialist, was not a conservative or a neoliberal. The reason why I hope will be apparent soon.
Here is a film about Sartre::
Another existentialist, the psychologist Viktor Frankl, wrote a book about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Even in the worst imaginable circumstances, you can find meaning, find a way to react, he said. He wrote a critique of what he called, pan-determinism.
You cannot be free from conditions, said Frankl, but you are always free to take a stand towards those conditions.
“As a professor in two fields, neurology and psychiatry, I am fully aware of the extent to which man in subject to biological, psychological and sociological conditions,” he wrote. “But in addition to being a professor in two fields I am a survivor of four camps – concentration camps, that is – and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable.”
You can predict the future only within the framework of a large statistical group, said Frankl. The individual remains essentially unpredictable.
This is Frankl being interviewed:
There are similarities between the conservative and the existentialist emphasis on responsibility, but only superficial ones. The conservative explanation for the economic crisis is that people in general, an undifferentiated mass of people, were responsible. Conservative MP Jesse Norman blames “humans” for not understanding risk properly and misguided banks who hyped unaffordable mortgages on a credulous public. Companies, he goes on, are formed by human affection (stop laughing). So if companies spring out of human desires, then what they do is the responsibility of all of us. If the economy tanks, we have brought things on ourselves. The “economic system” has no impulses of its own apart from the desires of the people that comprise it, said the free market Institute of Economic Affairs in 1978. Capitalism “does what its users demand of it” says another British right-winger, Tim Montgomerie. “How can we put limits on ourselves?” he asks with perplexity?
But while conservatives say people cause their own problems, it denies their ability to change the underlying economic conditions save the contortions of trying to make themselves fit in. This is real cruelty of contemporary conservativism/neoliberalism. It says it’s all about freedom but really it’s just about adaptation.
Long ago Karl Polanyi noted the “rigid determinism” of free market economics. The market economy is a delicate machine that only works if government gives way to what the markets want. In modern times, while globalization was just something to be celebrated, the American journalist Thomas Friedman talked about the “golden straitjacket”. Countries would only prosper if they privatized state-owned companies, cut corporate taxes, balanced budgets and eliminated restrictions on foreign investment.
The straitjacket isn’t golden anymore, but it has been stretched even tighter. Debt-ridden governments, bankrupted by bailing out banks and recession without end, say they have no choice but apply drastic cuts to public spending to satisfy the same “markets” that lent to them. Prosperity isn’t the aim anymore, just survival.
What Karl Polanyi wrote of the Great Depression is now just as true eighty years later. “Whether wages or social services had to be cut, the consequences of not cutting them were inescapably set by the mechanism of the market.”
American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich has written of the plight of professional Americans who have done everything right – got impressive degrees and gained marketable skills – and still find themselves economically unneeded and jobless. They, in their thousands, turn to career coaches, who immediately locate the problem in them and their attitudes, rather than in an economic system that finds them dispensable. In the 1820s, Robert Owen spoke of individualization, denying the influence of society and blaming the individual for everything that befalls them. Now we have the same malaise. It has been termed responsibilization.
“If it is the individual, not the economic system, that is at fault then it is the individual, not the economic system, that must be reformed,” writes Dan Hind in The Return of the Public … “No matter how hard we try (my italics), the current economic system needs fewer and fewer of us.”
Contemporary conservative and neoliberal ideology are well-refined techniques for inducing depression, and the evidence suggests they do it very well. You are responsible for everything that happens to you but there is nothing you can do to change the situation.
The American economist Richard Wolff says a perfect recipe for unhappiness is trying to solve a social problem through individual action. It’s like trying to unlock a door using the wrong key. It won’t work and it won’t do any good blaming yourself for the door’s failure to creak open. You need to change the circumstances and use the right key. Alternatively you could just kick in the door (actually this metaphor might have legs).
Which is where existentialism comes in. Existentialists said consciousness was never determined. A person could never escape the freedom to choose how they responded to a given situation. But because consciousness is always about possibilities not inevitabilities, they never denied the possibility of responding by changing the situation as well. Conservatism (or neoliberalism) does deny this precisely because it is a philosophy of adapting to what is. It is, as Karl Polanyi realised, rigidly deterministic in its own way.
At the same time there is a brand of left-wing determinism that goes back to Karl Marx and Robert Owen that is equally disabling. Just as the economic system causes depression and obesity and drug use (pick your problem at will) so the system will cause people to rebel and change it. In Capital Marx said that capitalism would produce its own gravediggers. Unfortunately it doesn’t. It seems to produce at best apathy and at worst mass delusions so that even when it is cracking up people think nothing is basically wrong.
It seems glaringly apparent that the trajectory we are on, will lead sooner or later, probably sooner and in some instances now, to economic, social and ecological disaster. But changing that trajectory will be an assertion of genuine choice and freedom. It will be doing something that is unexpected, unwanted and undetermined, a classic Existentialist choice. The Occupy protests are a perfect example, unpredicted and unpredictable. They are unnerving to the powers that be precisely because no-one knows, including the participants, where they will lead.
“Waiting for someone else to do the job for us is a way of rationalizing our inactivity” says the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. It’s not wise to read Žižek unless accompanied by a barrel-load of salt, but in this instance he is right. The direction is history is towards biocide and total passivity. We can’t rely on “objective tendencies” as Žižek calls the crutches of deterministic Marxists, to save us. We must intervene against the grain, like deciding to run down the street naked, in an Existentialist assertion of freedom.
As Louise Mensch says, “Life is what you make it”.