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Covid and the End of the Neoliberal Individual
The "personal responsibility" rallying cry is devoid of moral responsibility.
In the ancient Classical world, every home was a place of worship. The household alter, the lararium, was a hearth fire maintained in homage to the gods, and to the ancestors of that family. The premodern family thus constituted the focal point of religious organisation in society. Consequently, the fundamental unit in society was the family.
The modern Right, particularly in the past 40yrs, is fond of claiming opaque terms like “Western values”. Indeed, the Right-wing press constantly portrays itself, particularly in the current climate of ‘cancel culture’, as “defenders of Western civilisation”, often harking back to the societies of Ancient Rome and Greece. This rhetoric is married to the reified Right-wing concept of “personal responsibility” and the primacy of individual freedoms. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these concepts have been amplified as rallying cries against almost every measure proposed to help societies navigate a global pandemic. They have also been mobilised by promoters of quackery and pseudoscience to legitimise their claims.
Yet, unsurprisingly, these claims are both historically illiterate and ignorant of the Western ontological basis of responsibility as it relates to individuals. To understand why this is the case, we must understand the origins and evolution of the concept of the individual in Western ontology, before understanding its market-based hijack as a theory of economics in the 1970’s. This theory, adopted in earnest in political thought in the 1980’s both in the United States and the United Kingdom, become the dominant cultural lens through which the individual was conceptualised.
Origins of the Freedom of the Individual in Western Ontology
Two units provided the fulcrum of social organisation in the pre-Christian Classical world: the micro unit of the family and the macro unit of the State. In the ancient world, social structures were defined by assumptions of inherent inequality in the natural world, including among human beings. As Oxford's Larry Siedentop has exquisitely detailed in 'Inventing the Individual', while the concept of “freedom” now is almost exclusively defined in relation to the individual, in the ancient world freedom was conceived as a social status. Society, and individuals, were deemed to be ordered by the cosmos, thus the structures of society were predicated upon an assumption of hierarchy, both social and natural.
With social structures ordered in this pre-ordained manner, ideas of individual will were irrelevant to the functioning of society. Even with the evolution of concepts like citizenship, theories of individual rights would not have been understood, because the duty of citizens was to the State at all costs. This conceptualisation of the State was also distinct from modern concepts of the nation state, because the basis of the state - terra patria, or “land of fathers”, from which the word ‘patriotism’ is derived - was grounded in the cult of ancestors, represented by the eternal ancestral flame at the family household alter. To defend the State was not to defend an entity per se, but to defend the very lineage of ones ancestors, the unbroken familial ties to place. Thus, there was no room for the primacy of individual self-interest in such a society, because to serve the State was to serve ones family, ancestors, and land. It was inherently unselfish, a life of service to others.
Siedentop traces the emergence of the concept of the individual to the early Christian, post-Classical world, a period of relative uncertainty as to the role of the ‘old ways’. and what exactly the new ideas and beliefs meant for people and their organisation in societies. Fundamental to the emergence of this concept was the formation of monastic communities in the Eastern Roman Empire (modern day Middle East and Greece). These communities offered an alternative view to the pre-ordained, natural order of humans and society in the Classical world, one grounded in an assumption of moral equality.
For such a concept of moral equality to operate, it required the premise of individual agency. This was a radical departure from the hierarchical social structure of the pagan Classical societies, ordered by external forces, to a social structure predicated upon individual agency, ordered by internal conscience. The monastics rejected transient, material wants in order to create equality between each other. However, the concept of individual will emergent in this transitional period was inherently tied to the moral equality of all fellow human beings. Conceptualised in this way, individual agency was the freedom to act with conscience in a way that acknowledged moral equality of all.
As a result, the monastic orders catered to the poor, established schools, and hospitals. In this respect, it retained the service to others inherent in the premodern social order, while altering the motivation to act to one based on moral equality, rather than based on assumptions of natural and social order. The ancient Basilica became the site of this new social order, where all social strata gathered under a new model of moral equality proposed by Gregory of Nyssa. Under such a basis of moral equality, the prior social and natural order became untenable.
This new moral equality was ultimately overtaken by new societal forces, namely the emergence of the feudal system. This system broke the nascent social contract based on reciprocal obligations. Because the social structures of feudal societies were enforced, it deprived individuals of agency, and therefore freedom. But these concepts did not die out entirely. They were extended and expanded by a pair of Franciscan theologians, John Scotus and William of Ockham. Scotus conceptualised freedom and responsibility as having both necessary and sufficient aspects. Freedom was necessary to moral conduct, but not sufficient, because freedom could mean acting in a way that was ‘blameworthy’ rather than ‘praiseworthy’. Therefore, to be sufficient, action had to be conducted with the right moral intent. It was Scotus who stated that “the ends do not justify the means.” Freedom thus meant the freedom to act, but that action was not sufficient if it was not also just.
Ockham conceived that knowledge of an individual’s freedom was the necessary basis for rational agency, and to act in a morally responsible way required freedom, i.e., action could not be coerced. This created a higher onus on the responsibility of individuals to act in good faith. To accept such a responsibility was to give effect to a social contract which acquiesced to constraints and reciprocity. This latter concept in particular, of reciprocal obligations from one to another, was fundamental to Ockham’s conceptualisation of individual freedom. A society based on individuals with rational agency was, by necessity, a society of shared responsibilities which could not simply be defined by proximity of interpersonal relationships (e.g., the family, as in the premodern society). Ockham’s principle of reciprocal obligations was thus one in which responsibility was equally distributed between individuals, and indeed institutions, in society, i.e., a broad commitment to the social whole.
Understood in this way, responsibility was, to use Barbara Sena's term, a relational responsibility. It could not be a responsibility that is reduced solely to an individual in isolation, because no individual in society exists in isolation. Rather, relational responsibility is based on the reality of “social engagement”, where multiple actors - both individual and institutional - exist. Although Scotus and Ockham did not express their conceptualisation of individual freedom in this way, Sena's concept of relational responsibility is a continuation of that emerging ontology of individual freedom, because of its emphasis on reciprocity of behaviour.
This emergent concept of the individual, freedom, and responsibility in Western ontology was thus predicated upon an assumption of acting in good faith. Individual freedom mandated the assumption of a responsibility to accept constraints on the exercise of freedom if the action was immoral or ‘blameworthy’, and the responsibility to accept reciprocal obligations predicated upon an assumption of moral equality.
What Scotus and Ockham had explicitly understood was not merely that reciprocal obligations and constraints defined relations between individuals, if we are each to be free and equal. It was also a distinction that Isaiah Berlin would come to describe as the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. The moral conscience of freedom that emerged in the monastic orders of the early Christian era was a freedom from, expanded by the Franciscan theologians to stipulate the freedom to accept the responsibility of reciprocal obligations to others, and to act with constraint so as not to behave in a way that was ‘blameworthy’.
This ontological construct would extend right up to Émile Durkheim. When Durkheim conceived of the individual as defined as part of society, not in opposition to society, he was building on the fundamental premise of the relational nature of responsibility and the principle of reciprocity. What this ontological lineage expressly acknowledged was that freedom and responsibility were intrinsically linked to society, because it was society that facilitated the realisation of both in any individual. These principles were eviscerated by a new liberalism which emerged in the post Second World War period.
Origins of the Neoliberal Individual
The theories which ultimately came to be defined as “neoliberalism” were derived from different schools of economic thought regarding the role of markets and relations with individuals and the State. The combination of these theories culminated in the so-called ‘Chicago School’ in the 1970’s, with Milton Friedman as the spiritual fulcrum of this new religion, defined as the minimisation of the State in favour of individual self-regulation within a self-correcting, omnipotent free market as the guiding social force, the social order itself.
The genesis for neoliberalism becoming the dominant social and economic ideology in the United States and United Kingdom from the early 1980’s onward was the opportunity presented by “stagflation” (the combination of poor economic growth and rising inflation) in the late 1970’s. Organised labour had gained significant power in the post Second World War period, and the first task of neoliberal policy was a vicious assault on the working class, dismantling and offshoring whole industries, slashing wages, abolishing unions, and undermining social safety nets.
This was not wanton destruction; it was deliberate. As Pendenza and Lamattina have suggested, this deliberate approach to policy was predicated on a new conception of both the State and the individual. The prefix “neo” reflected the role of the State, which was only to serve as “handmaiden of the market”. The only positive freedom (i.e., “freedom to”) the State would support would be the financial sector and market policies. The role of the State in relation to the individual was one of negative freedom (i.e., “freedom from”), including freedom from reciprocal obligations to society as a whole.
Indeed, Friedman’s view was that freedom from for individuals and corporations included freedom from moral obligations and constraints. This was also deliberate, because the neoliberal individual was expected to be, in effect, an entrepreneur, freed of any moral or social obligations to pursue self-interest in an unimpeded market. In this respect, the market substituted for society. Paraphrasing Mark Blyth, fascism sought to abolish society to control the market; communism sought to abolish the market to control society; neoliberalism sought to replace society with the market.
Thus, within neoliberal ontology the individual is the main protagonist, the author of his or her own fortune or misfortune; the emergence of the modern conception of “personal responsibility”. Pendenza and Lamattina highlight that in the neoliberal ontology, because the individual has sole responsibility for their own destiny, the individual owes nothing to society and, further, society is in fact an obstacle to the pursuit of self-interest. As society is a barrier to individual self-interest (termed ‘freedom’), the State should, in neoliberal thought, replace society with a self-governing market. Indeed, it was Thatcher herself who stated: “...who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families...”
These distinctions are fundamental to understanding the bastardisation of the concept of individual freedom and responsibility by the neoliberal and libertarian ideology. The conceptualisation of the individual as distinct from society is anathema to the true ontological origins of individual freedoms across a period from the monastic hermits to Franciscan theologians to Durkheim and Berlin, in which the individual was part of society and responsibility extended to the inherently relational nature of our nonindependent existences.
Echoing Pendenza and Lamattina, the neoliberal ontology denies the relational aspect of society, with the express implication that there is no longer a duty to be responsible. Because the neoliberal conceptualisation of ‘freedom’ with regard to the individual was only a freedom from, it fundamentally altered the meaning of ‘responsibility’ by removing any positive obligations and the core ingredient of reciprocal obligations. The post-Classical theories of freedom and responsibility, and Sena’s concept of ‘relational responsibility’, were predicated on the freedom to act in a way that was moral and just. By removing the relational aspect of society, the neoliberal ontology degraded the humanity of the concept of ‘individual freedom’ by divorcing morality and justice from individual interests (and market behaviour).
In this regard, the neoliberal conceptualisation of freedom is, ironically, divorced from responsibility, because it lacks the essential ingredient of sufficiency, i.e., the responsibility to accept constraints and reciprocal obligations. This is what renders the cries of “personal responsibility” in the neoliberal and libertarian ideology an oxymoron, self-defeating and self-contradictory, because it denies the requirement to be responsible at all, merely to pursue individual interest. By its own ontological definition it is freedom from responsibility.
The shift from the premodern family as the fundamental unit of society to the individual as the fundamental unit was, initially, a basic freedom from that evolved over time to incorporate responsibility, i.e., freedom to. By emphasising negative freedoms (“freedom from”) for individuals, neoliberalism in effect represents the interim step in the evolution of the ontology of individual freedoms, before positive freedoms (“freedom to”) were added with the inclusion of moral sufficiency.
The exercise of individual freedom in the neoliberal ontology lacks the moral component, and is therefore an express rebuke of its core tenet of “personal responsibility”, because the element of moral sufficiency necessary to promote responsible action is absent. Viewed in this way, the neoliberal and libertarian individual represents a form a social atavism, a regression to the intermediate step between the acknowledgment of freedom, to the acceptance of responsibility that comes with freedom.
A wholly autonomous individual within the neoliberal ontology, by definition, cannot also be a responsible individual, because the neoliberal conception of the autonomous individual is one independent of constraints. To quote Vickers:
“...an autonomous person is one who makes his own rules and sets his own standards. He is at the opposite pole from the responsible persons.”
Relationship Between the Individual, Society, and Risk
To paraphrase Scott D. Cook, the only realm in which morality enters the neoliberal conception is when the right to exercise individual interests without constraint is viewed as a moral entitlement. The limits and immorality of this conceptualisation of the individual and freedom was clear before Covid, most notably in 2008 with the global financial crash. But nothing has exposed this ideology for the naked emperor that it is more than an infectious disease that has ripped through our societies.
There is nothing like a pandemic to highlight that responsibility in an individual sense cannot be divorced from society, that individuals are of a society and not independent of society (per the neoliberal ontology). Nothing like an infectious disease to affirm the concepts of Scotus and Ockham, Durkheim, Berlin, and Vickers, that the expression of true individual freedom was the acceptance of responsibility, not freedom from responsibility.
What the modern neoliberal and libertarian “freedom fighters” desire is freedom from responsibility. It is nothing but tautological reasoning to argue to be given “personal responsibility” when the exercise of that freedom is to behave without constraints, i.e., to act irresponsibly, and to scoff at the necessity for reciprocal obligations between individuals required for a society to be free of the burden of the pandemic. Reciprocal obligations lie at the core of individual freedom, the assumption of responsibility.
The issue for the pandemic context, borrowing a concept from Sena, is that individuals are both the source of the risk and responsible for the mitigation of that risk posed to other individuals, i.e., to society. Recall that the conceptualisation of the neoliberal individual is one independent of constraints. This is why they see no irony in arguing to be granted “personal responsibility” in order to then reject the behaviours deemed responsible for dealing with the pandemic. Given that true responsibility inherently includes constraints, their own ideology is a repudiation of responsibility, because constraint on their feral concept of ‘freedom’, be that a piece of cloth over their mouth on public transport or a vaccination, is seen as interference with individual freedom.
They believe their version of freedom is a purist interpretation, a ‘true’ freedom, and make opaque references to “Western values” without the slightest grasp that their conceptualisation of individual freedom is diametrically opposed to the concepts of freedom and responsibility in the tradition they purport to represent. But the only way their concept of freedom could truly exist is if they removed themselves from society and lived off the grid. Yet, this is expressly not what they want. They want to reject any constraints on their behaviour while also demanding they retain access to society. This is narcissistic self-interest devoid of moral responsibility that only neoliberalism could produce.
The relational nature of responsibility may be illustrated by way of a road traffic analogy. We have both individual responsibility as drivers, and other collective actors like local authorities have responsibility for the upkeep of roads, traffic lights, and street lighting, while governments enact regulations such as speed limits and laws against driving while intoxicated. These are constraints on unfettered individual freedom, but we have the freedom to accept the responsibility of adhering to these rules based on an expectation of reciprocal obligations (e.g., I won’t drive drunk with the legitimate expectation that you will reciprocate). This is real individual responsibility, entailing both freedom as necessary (e.g., to drive and go where we may please) and sufficient (i.e., morally accepting not to drive drunk). In this societal construct, as Sena proposed, there is equal an distribution of responsibility between individuals and collective actors, i.e., it is a relational co-responsibility.
For the neoliberal and libertarian ideology, however, yet another oxymoron emerges, because neoliberal and libertarian ideology advocates for minimising the role of collective actors in society (“small government”), which by implication shifts the distribution for responsible action onto individuals more exclusively. In the road traffic analogy, the neoliberal and libertarian ideology wants no constraints on, for example, wearing seatbelts, or having to stop at red lights, or driving within certain speed limits. It uses “personal responsibility” to argue in favour of such a model, but because the ideology expressly rejects the sufficiency of moral responsibility, in reality what they are arguing for is to be responsible only to their self-interest (“I won't crash if I drive really fast”) rather than others (“If I drive really fast I'll be more of a risk to crash into others”).
For the neoliberal and libertarian individual, the emphasis on individual pursuits divorced from moral responsibility is, ironically, entirely inconsistent with any concept of personal responsibility. Scott summarises this untenable juxtaposition:
“At the same time we have construed the autonomy that we accord the individual as entailing freedom from constraints, including the constraints that come with assuming responsibility.”
The neoliberal individual has been weighed, measured, and found wanting for the demands of an interrelated society. Its concept of the individual was born of economic theorising, a market-based version of the individual rather than a societal-based construct of the individual. It is society that ultimately provides for the expression, or not, of individual freedoms (ask any athlete in Beijing right now).
The true Western ontology of the individual and freedom, evolved over centuries from the post-Classical world, was one in which individual freedom was the freedom to assume responsibility, not the freedom from it. The neoliberal and libertarian individual stands in diametric opposition to this ontology, seeing freedom only as self-interest, and devoid of the sufficiency of morality. Ironically and tragically, neoliberalism has also created neo-feudal societies in terms of distribution of wealth and power imbalance between labour and gentry.
This ideology is incompatible with both the immediate demands of the pandemic, and the future challenges that will require a return to the fundamental premise of relational responsibility in order for society to navigate. And its time is up.