On Personal Responsibility and Careerism

For decades, we've been hearing how everyone should 'take responsibility for their actions,' and that we are each responsible for our 'success' (or lack thereof). And because these statements are rather broad and simplistic, it's served to foster a kind of reflexive denial of same in others. Today, we're still stuck in that false dichotomy, which leads us to ignore a few pretty serious questions. Namely, what to make of the fact that, especially when we are performing certain roles within institutions, we are actually encouraged not to take responsibility for our actions, and not to think about how we feel about what we do. And that seems to me a pretty important question to ask, both because of how much of our life we spend playing such roles, and because it relates to how we think and act at other times. I'd like to explore this issue here, and see where it leads us.*

Throughout his life, Noam Chomsky has been trying to get people to think about public and private bureaucracies, and to understand how their rules, regulations and incentive structures affect both the public, and the people who work for such institutions (or the state). And with respect to effecting social and institutional change, he's emphasized, quite rightly, that if individual CEOs were to grow a conscience, they would quickly be replaced, because the structures in which they and we function require a near-exclusive focus on exploitation and growth, no matter the cost to others. And that, for the same reasons, attempting to replace them (or 'crooked politicians') is largely pointless, because it's the system that selects for and allows such people to climb to the top.

At the same time, he has also been calling on people, and especially the privileged, to stop devoting their time and energy to defending the status quo, and to instead endeavor to criticize those arrangements, and to organize to attempt to change any unjust institutional arrangements, and abuses of power.

An issue Chomsky's spoken to less often (this answer during a Q&A session is the only time I've heard him touch on it, and there too he mostly uses the case to illustrate the costs involved, as though that's the only aspect that matters), is the issue of our responsibility for the actions we take while lending our autonomy to others (such as 'our boss'). During his talks he in fact consistently draws attention away from this question (see e.g. the first 10 minutes of this talk), as he feels that lack of understanding of the institutional structures is the real or main issue, which causes everyone to unhappily, but steadily, march off the cliff. This even though he's always been highly critical of the institutional arrangement that used to be condemned quite harshly as highly illiberal -- wage slavery -- for the effect it had on the people themselves. I think it's important to broaden that discussion, and to include those on the inside in the discussion about what those institutions should be doing, and how this relates to their values. (Worker ownership of course is part of that, but not all; and it's an open question whether we'd actually go there, given what I'll be talking about here.)

So while I strongly agree with Chomsky that especially the educated need to start using our educations, networks and sway for purposes other than the near-exclusive promotion of the status quo and our own (peers', friends' and family's) prosperity and social success, I would add that the same goes for everyone else. We all need to consider the impact of our actions on others, no matter our or anyone's title or role, and no matter the incentives. So even when we only do the things we do because we feel unable to refuse because of the consequences or reactions of others, we need to always remain aware that we are nevertheless responsible for making those choices and trade-offs. Because such actions communicate that we feel that our own desire for financial security, promotion, and so on, outweighs the needs of those whose lives are affected by that choice of ours. And it worries me greatly that we hardly ever talk about this as a society.

An extreme, but highly illustrative example of this pattern of behavior and way of thinking is discussed by Corey Robin, in Fear: The Intellectual History of a Dangerous Idea. Before getting to the example itself, let's first consider a few general remarks Robin makes earlier on in the book, written from a bureaucrat's or professional-class perspective:

The careerist may not be the most attractive figure ... but his preferred walking path is the marketplace ... He cares for himself, not grand ideas. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism itself may be an ideology, that realism may be just as lethal as abstraction, that ambition may induce collusion with evil, that some of the worst cases of fear are the product of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas -- these were the suggestive implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem. But running afoul of the self-image of the age, they are ignored. (p.129)

Note that the choice presented here, between caring for 'oneself' rather than 'grand ideas', is false as well as misleading. (And the reason people pose the question this way, is to distract ourselves from that elementary fact.) We are never obliged to care about 'ideas'. But if we want to be fair, we do need to consider other human beings' needs in addition to our own, given that everyone has equal inherent value. So what does this mean concretely? Consider the case study he provides:

Whether the payment is status, power, or money, collaboration promises to elevate men and women, if only slightly, above the fray. Nazi Germany’s Reserve Police Battalion 101, for example, was a unit of five hundred “ordinary men,” drawn from the lower middle and working classes of Hamburg, who joined the battalion because it got them out of military service on the front. All told, they were responsible for executing 38,000 Polish Jews and deporting some 45,000 others to Treblinka. Why did they do it? Not because of any fear of punishment. No one in the 101 faced penalties -- certainly not death -- for not carrying out their mission. The unit’s commander even informed his men that they could opt out of the killing, which 10 to 15 of them did. Why did the remaining 490 or so stay? According to Christopher Browning, there were different reasons, including anti-Semitism and peer pressure, but a critical one was their desire for advance. Of those who refused to kill Jews, in fact, the most forthright emphasized their lack of career ambitions. One explained that “it was not particularly important to me to be promoted or otherwise to advance. . . . The company chiefs . . . on the other hand were young men and career policemen who wanted to become something.” Another said, “Because I was not a career policeman and also did not want to become one . . . it was of no consequence that my police career would not prosper.”

Though ambitious collaborators like to believe that they are adepts of realpolitik, walking the hard path of power because it is the wisest course to take, their realism is freighted with ideology. Careerism has its own moralism, serving as an anesthetic against competing moral claims. Particularly in the United States, where ambition is a civic duty and worldly success a prerequisite of citizenship, enlightened anglers of their own interest can easily be convinced that they are doing not only the smart thing, but also the right thing. They happily admit to their careerism because they presume an audience of shared moral sympathy. (Fear: The Intellectual History of a Dangerous Idea, p. 194.)

While I realize the moral bankruptcy almost jumps off the page, I bring it up because it's still pertinent, as we have yet to get away from this notion that we may decide how much other people's needs matter. And it's this mindset that is the fundamental issue. To illustrate this, let's consider a few equally bankrupt modern examples. For instance, Heineken choosing to sell the Rwandans the beer they needed to facilitate their genocide (Dutch article here), or Shell destroying the Niger Delta for profit (and funding death squads), or Bill Clinton's choice to execute a cognitively impaired black man to signal that he was 'tough on crime'. But we find the same mindset when we consider more benign -- because extremely everyday -- cases. These range from selling people goods or services that they don't particularly want, to fleecing people for fun, status and profit, to going along with production and other targets in nursing, policing or customer care even though they get affect the quality of the service provided, to denying insurance or benefits claims for bureaucratic reasons, such as that the rule says that some percentage of claims must be denied (for example, this British DWP case); or, alternatively, doing so because the boss has promised "bonuses" to those who manage to meet those targets.

What these cases illustrate, is how easily we can convince ourselves it's okay to treat others as means when we're sufficiently (financially, which of course has indirect ties with our own survival) 'motivated'. And they illustrate how much easier it is to engage in violence and exploitation when we can distract ourselves from our own and the other's shared humanity, by hiding behind our assigned roles (whether 'soldier', 'bureaucrat' or 'salesman', 'robber'), and by encouraging others to stick to theirs ('protester', 'rebel', 'Muslim', 'applicant', 'gang member', 'mark'). And how used we are to this. Because remember how few have criticized Clinton's behavior, either at the time or since. As i see it, this is a huge issue, because it reflects how we (still) routinely treat both our own values and other people's needs as having no inherent value.

So how do we justify this to ourselves and others?

The first, pervasive response we tend to both offer and get when we talk about this is to assert that so-called "market interactions" are non-moral, and to reduce ourselves and/or the others affected to roles or titles, such as by telling ourselves 'it's okay to do this, because I'm a salesperson and I want to earn Most Valuable Employee status'. As the above quotations, and my own remarks hopefully make clear, this position is morally untenable. We are always human, and while treating people as "human resources" (or "bosses", "hands", "pigs", "cockroaches" or "slaves") may be pervasive, such reductionist thinking can never justify our treating others as means. Similarly, while we may say that actions have "no moral component", any action that impacts others necessarily has a (subtle) moral dimension, which we must take seriously.

So let's move on to the second response, which partly overlaps with the former. I've gone into this in more detail in other posts, but what it comes down is discounting others' needs either because they have or lack one or more traits that we treat as giving us an excuse to treat their equal needs as less important as our own, or because we are encouraged to do so by the rules or conditions of our employment, so that our own socioeconomic success depends on it (so that we'll be 'punished' if we don't, 'rewarded' if we do, or vice versa). And then, on the basis of that meritocratic/bureaucratic assessment, or after suggesting that we 'don't have a choice', allowing ourselves to do something because the other is 'old,' 'black,' 'stupid,' 'Moroccan', and so on (such as signing them up for a service we know they don't need, but that we want them to get), because the sale will help us earn money, promotions, or income stability, or to avoid penury, a lay-off, and so on. (Note that I'm not saying that it's never legitimate to try to sell anyone anything. Just that we should act with integrity, and with equal care for the needs of the person whose life you are hoping to enrich by selling them something as for your own and your employer's needs.)

Why are we so blind (and hostile) to these questions? A second layer.

Before we can talk about how we can we get away from this way of thinking about and treating others, we first have to talk about one further indirect contributor. Because most of that unequal weighting that we engage in professionally isn't something we do because we truly don't recognize that others are also human, or because we really see such behavior as just. It's just that we never look at it this way, as we've been taught to look at these questions in a very different way.

As I see it, a large part of the issue is that we (incorrectly) think of need satisfaction as a zero-sum game, and that needs may be met at a cost to others. In addition, all of us (but esp. women) have been taught to be highly sensitive to other people's valuations of us, and to care much more about others' needs than our own (which gets reinforced through messages such as that we're 'selfish' or 'narcissistic' when we try to take everyone's needs into account). And we are especially sensitive to the needs and opinions of those with institutional power over us, who tend to have little to no interest in the question whether our needs are being met, even as they ask us to help them meet theirs.

This sensitivity is fostered and sustained in part by the patriarchal family structure, but especially by the school system, where we are taught subjects, of course, but also learn time discipline, obedience and hierarchy, by being forced to spend up to two decades in a system in which the actions, preferences and judgments of people with institutional power have enormous impact on us, given that they can promote or demote, pass and fail, admit and expel us, inside a larger society in which we can only thrive if we have a stable source of income and that functions along highly similar lines.

This creates a great deal of moral confusion, because if we don't even allow ourselves to take our own needs seriously, why would we do so with those of others? Conversely, it also creates great personal insecurity, and worry over not being heard, respected, cared for, because of how we're taught that it's not okay to take care of our own needs. The pathological version of this is called 'extreme' narcissism -- basically, the (near) inability to worry about anyone but one's own needs, while running roughshod over others, even as they're highly sensitive to being judged, praised, and earning rewards (that prove their value -- an impossibility). But less extreme forms of this mentality, tendency and fears are pervasive. And the more focused people are on extrinsic rewards like money and status, the less they tend to think about whether their actions are in line with their other values, and the more likely they are to have interests that closely align with those that help you to thrive in contemporary society.

So what can we do?

If what I've talked about here seems on point, and you want to become aware of, and start to own and combat the more subtle habits of mind I've discussed, I'd highly recommend familiarizing yourself with NVC. If you want to learn to look at workplace dynamics through a different lens, I can highly recommend reading David Graeber's Bullshit Jobs. (Though note that the author mostly ignores the questions whether/how to organize to change the organizations from within, and whether we're okay with the actions and values of the organizations we work for, and the things we are asked to do.) And if you want to organize to change organizations for and with your co-workers, I'd recommend Jane McAlevey's No Shortcuts as an up to date starting point. Aside from attending to our own needs and values, this would also help others who have to deal with constant (unpaid) overtime takes, internships, and so on. In brief, no matter how insane it might sound given the context in which we find ourselves, work should once again become play, as Rosenberg and others have argued.

A few remarks on nonviolent resistance within this context: not hiding behind rules, roles and status.

As I have tried to illustrate, we've learned to constantly deny responsibility for the things we do, and the violence to which we contribute, while outsourcing it to others. Either by hiding behind titles (forgetting that nobody can or should be reduced to such), or by pointing to rules (without acknowledging our choice to follow them), to authorities (without acknowledging that it is us choosing to listen), and to punishments and rewards (again without acknowledging our responsibility for making those trade-offs).

If we want to have any hope to get away from this behavior as a society, we will not only need to unlearn thinking this way ourselves, but we'll also need to help those around us to do the same, and to point them to, or create, materials that aid this process. Because just as we didn't realize that and how we were doing this, they don't either. Frustrating though it may be, the only way we can get out of this quicksand if we also pull each other up by our bootstraps, and point it out when and where we go wrong.

In cases in which the people we're trying to help have institutional power over us, this can be risky (or scary), and we should of course use our judgment to determine whether we feel up to it, and can afford take the risk. But do keep in mind that we all want to do good; it's just that most of us are really stuck, caught up in the game of telling everyone including ourselves that they are responsible for our actions -- of which "don't make me do it" is just a very crude example. Note, however, that I'm in no way suggesting we need to be "understanding" to our own detriment, and that we should coddle those "who don't understand". My point is the opposite: treat everyone as equals, starting with ourselves and our needs, and don't write anyone off as irredeemable or hopeless. (While keeping in mind that we can only do so much, and only have one lifetime to live.) And this applies especially to those of us who have it better, as we are most able to avoid conflict, while those at the bottom have no choice but to try, and to be solidaric.

And a large part of how we can do this, is by reminding others of their and our humanity, and to get them away from reducing humans to titles (like boss, employee, cop, or man). So when we're worried that someone will do something that doesn't align with their or our values, and that they will harm others, we protect everyone, and remind them that they are not robots executing orders, but human beings, who just happen to be hired to perform certain tasks in exchange for money and financial security, and a "chance" to climb the ladder. To make this more concrete: when we fear that police officers or soldiers will harm or kill someone because they see that as their job, or because they see the other as something other than fellow human beings (such as "cockroaches", "gangsters" or "the enemy"), remind ourselves, and them, that we both the officers and their targets are equals, who all want to live our lives, Yes, this will be hard, especially at first, and especially because we so strongly believe in the myth of redemptive violence. But luckily, there are lots of institutions and movements that can provide conflict mediation and deescalation training already, and lots of materials available (though be mindful that they may have their own ideas of the kinds of action are "appropriate", and the same blinders that I've discussed in other posts).


* I'm deliberately not talking about other forms of organized resistance against institutions here. Will do so in another post.

Permalink - Categories: introductory, essay - Group: Core Essays - Tags: neoliberalism, rosenberg, resistance, careerism, responsibility, graeber, capitalism, liberalism

« Linking (Neo-)Liberalism, Identity Politics and Bureaucracy - Remarks on Violence, War and Terrorizing »