The people we might become: Personality and the organisation of knowledge
The media has sold us collective hallucinations of ourselves, from Keynesian man to Thatcherite man (and woman). Can we now create something better? Part of openDemocracy's "Left governmentality" mini-series.
Political projects with universalising ambitions implicitly or explicitly seek to create certain kinds of person. They recognise particular qualities of mind, particular forms of flourishing, particular personalities, and they seek to make from these the ideal types of their society. Politics is ethics at scale. In postwar social democracy the Fordist consumer-producer enjoyed rising material prosperity under the benign gaze of the philosopher-administrator. Postwar Man - this Keynesian subject was male and white - was a responsible employee, he enjoyed his summer holiday abroad, a new car every few years, and the comforts of family life. Moderation was celebrated and rewarded. The costs were paid by others; by women, by minorities and by the peoples of the global south.
In Thatcherite neoliberalism all of us were prodded by policy into becoming calculators of our own best interests. Before the judgment of the market we were all equal and we were all equally alone. The common good emerged from the work of countless individuals as we identified what we wanted and pursued it in a society that had become a marketplace. Thatcher’s relationship with Thatcherism is ambiguous. It is by no means clear that she understood how her economics would transform the British. But transform us she did. The reliable breadwinner gave way to the successful speculator as the epitome of virtue.
The human and material costs of this attempt to impose freedom on us are becoming increasingly apparent. In response centrist politicians hanker to recreate the conditions that made their careers possible and the collapse of neoliberalism’s legitimacy inevitable. The right are as ever more clear-eyed, and now make their accommodation with those forms of populism that offer, in exchange for continuing agonies of dislocation, the unifying consolations of spite. After all, almost everyone can look down on someone.
The left must now decide what manner of person its politics entails. What forms of excellence does it recognise that both Keynes and Thatcher missed? What is its conception of the good life? Who is the subject, if not the homme moyen sensuelle of the 1950s or the buy-to-let investor of the 1990s? There are many answers to this question, but as we begin to offer them, we must put the human being as sense-maker somewhere close to the centre of our thinking. Both the postwar settlement and its neoliberal successor had their own, highly unequal, distribution of knowledge. In the first the role of the credentialed expert was openly acknowledged. In the second the continuing importance of the state and its administrators was obscured by incessant chatter about market forces.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
There was precious little opportunity under either regime for the population to understand what was being done in its name, let alone to make the social order into an object of inquiry. And the discussion of public business is still bedevilled by mystifications. A politician halfway competent in managing them can act in ways that an informed electorate would probably not tolerate. For example, the Cameron government’s policy of austerity relied on a magical conflation of the household and the national economy that made no sense but established the terms of political controversy for five years.
A decisive move beyond neoliberalism requires us to become agents capable of comprehending our circumstances. In republican terms, we seek to become citizens in an assembly from which nothing can be hidden, or hidden for long, by the manipulative antics of factions. This implies a political order characterised by communicative equality, in which public resources are subject to detailed direction by the body politic as a whole. In ‘commonsist’ terms, we seek to convene around a ‘common pool resource’ of accurate descriptions of the world that can only be discovered in a shared life. This implies a diverse array of associations, independent of the state, in which we encounter one another as sociable animals with claims on one another, and on the environment. In socialist terms, we seek to become members of a cooperative through which we produce and distribute accounts of our experience and insights into the nature of things that then inform democratic planning. This shared labour of description makes possible what Karl Polanyi called ‘social freedom.’ We have at last the means to take our share of responsibility for the future.
Each of these registers has something distinctive to tell us - about how we relate to the state, what civil society looks like under eco-socialism, how we begin to theorise a post-capitalist economy. But they share a radical commitment to equality. They all call for media institutions in which each citizen has some defined share of voice or communicative power. In practical terms this means that public subsidies to the media must be subject to effective oversight and control by their audiences. In this approach to governmentality, each citizen allocates funds to media production and refines their opinions in a process of general deliberation in which competing worldviews face the potentially devastating scrutiny of democratic subjects. Institutions established on these principles create an organisation of knowledge and power that in turn recreates us. (I have written about this in more detail elsewhere, most recently in a chapter co-written with Tom Mills for an ebook published by openDemocracy.)
If we do not escape the heavily promoted and generously subsidised hallucinations that now pass for descriptions of ourselves and each other, we have little more than a decade before the accumulating crises of climate breakdown and endemic warfare bear down on each of us alone. What kind of person will be able to break with the neoliberal organisation of knowledge? Someone who can work with others in conditions of equality to build a better, because more subtle, more complete, more voracious, account of the world. The existing order punishes anyone who refuses to accept the logic of market competition in the production and reproduction of speech. It lavishes rewards on those who can contribute to the prevailing mystification. The candid citizen is the enemy of what currently exists, and is treated as such. Our immediate task is to create the institutional conditions in which such a human being can survive.
Get our weekly email