The politics of futility
On one of his many post-presidential speaking tours, Barack Obama told a 2017 summit on food innovation in Milan: ‘People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don’t work, but as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve.’ He bemoaned the low voter turnout and leftist apathy that facilitated, he believed, the election of Donald Trump. ‘If you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention,’ he told the audience, ‘you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interest.’ We might counter that his eight-year term was characterized by a set of policies that did not reflect the interests of the majority who voted for him – from the bailout of corrupt financial institutions to the escalation of drone warfare and US imperialism. We could also suggest that his extension of a largely neoliberal agenda throughout his term could only lead to political apathy. Even the extension of healthcare provisions to millions of uninsured US citizens under the euphemism of Obamacare – the major political victory of the Obama era – reinforced the marketization of healthcare and further enabled insurance and pharmaceutical companies to capitalize on the ill-health of millions of Americans. The fact that parts of the Affordable Care Act were written in collaboration with these very companies was a warning sign.1
If Obama represented hope, as his initial 2008 election campaign promised, then his decision to reinforce the very economic and social system that engenders hopelessness undoubtedly helped stoke the rightwing anger and leftwing apathy that permeated the 2016 US presidential election. Also, if voter turnout was the real problem with the 2016 election, then the huge turnout for the 2020 election showed that Trumpism is built around a sizeable anger against, and deep desire to move beyond, the neoliberal status quo in the US. While Biden won the presidency, the Democrats will have to reckon with this reality sooner rather than later.
But, more significantly, Obama was talking of a kind of mythical democracy, where there exists a direct connection between the people and their representatives, and where legislation straightforwardly reflects the will of the majority. This imagined democracy of universal inclusion, participation and unity is the holy grail of contemporary liberal politics. We all have a say. Every voice matters. The danger in promoting this simplistic democratic vision is that it bears no resemblance to the actual reality of contemporary democracy. Governmental politics is increasingly influenced by a whole host of unelected players – from PR gurus and lobbyists to choice architects and nudge theorists – and legal and bureaucratic systems routinely silence voices through modes of exclusion and punishment. Moreover, Obama’s mythical democratic image obfuscates the fact that contemporary democracy is routinely used to cement neoliberal hegemony – especially a US democracy that has legalized corporate bribing of political parties – endlessly reinforcing the interests of the wealthy and reducing the role of the demos to the capacity to vote every few years. How could we possibly get the politicians we deserve in such circumstances? The more pertinent question being: what have we done to deserve this?
Emily Apter provides an indirect answer to this question in her book Unexceptional Politics. Apter locates a disconnection between the relentless expression of the political in everyday life and the institutional practice of politics. Here, she makes a distinction between ‘small p’ politics – what might be described as micropolitical expressions that anticipate large-scale political action – and ‘big P’ politics, which deals with analyses of power, governmentality, capitalism and the like. Apter argues: ‘The abandonment of “small p” politics to pundits and members of the chattering classes risks putting “big P” politics out of action.’2 In the spirit of Apter’s focus on ‘small p’ politics, I inspect micropolitical events to emphasize how ‘emancipatory politics’ are negated, even by political acts that aim at fundamental changes to the world order. It’s a spectrum I call the politics of futility, where politics routinely takes on a futilitarian form that consolidates neoliberalism. Futilitarianism is the term I use to describe how, in the neoliberal decades, we are trapped in a cycle of utility maximization that leads to the worsening of collective social and economic conditions. In some cases, political expression mirrors capitalist behaviour; in others, capitalism is relegated to the background and the responsibility of individuals is foregrounded. But what ties the various examples of the politics of futility together is a negation of emancipatory politics and a retreat into the safety of political forms that do not threaten the status quo.
Before looking at some specific examples of the politics of futility, I want to reflect on the relationship between political desire and the practice of politics. The Covid-19 pandemic has not only exposed the catastrophic impact of a decade of austerity, it has also highlighted problems with political systems and institutions and the complete incompetence of many politicians. The pandemic has accentuated the simultaneous decline of political deliberation and increase of political desire. These developments might seem paradoxical, but increasingly we are inhabiting a political environment in which serious political debate is negated – exemplified by figures like Donald Trump – but there exists a desire for some change in the current state of affairs, which leads to the election of leaders like Trump. William Davies, professor of political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, highlights this paradox when discussing the proliferation of political referendums and binary choices in the last decade. Situating this development within the rise of social media platforms, and specifically the centrality of the ‘like’ function, Davies illustrates that ‘clicking a button marked “like” or “dislike” is about as much critical activity as we are permitted’, creating what he calls ‘a society of perpetual referendums’. When this situation overlaps with an increase in political engagement – especially on fundamental questions of national sovereignty, colonial histories, or how to respond to a pandemic – the binary choice simplifies political deliberation to good versus bad and like versus dislike, generating bitter divisions. Deliberation takes a backseat and an instantaneous rating system is prioritized. But as Davies points out, ‘a polity that privileges decision first and understanding second will have some terrible mess to sort out along the way’, which, he notes, is evident in the post-Brexit debacle. This situation is exploited by populist politicians, especially of the conservative variety, who can mobilize an electorate by presenting them with simple and extreme binary choices that mirror their online behaviours. For example, Stalinist Soviet Union or contemporary North Korea are seemingly the only alternatives to capitalism, an elaborate hoax is the flipside to climate change, and burning down 5G towers is a substitute for a coherent response to a pandemic.
Davies observes that ‘it is easy to lose sight of how peculiar and infantilizing this state of affairs is. A one-year-old has nothing to say about the food they are offered, but simply opens their mouth or shakes their head. No descriptions, criticisms, or observations are necessary, just pure decision.’ No one on Twitter, for instance, wants to hear from the person who asks how the UK is going to navigate its way out of EU agricultural regulations. It is much easier to write ‘Boris Johnson is a knob’ or to rant against ‘woke warriors’ who have the temerity to raise the issue of colonization or child poverty. The relationship, then, between the desire for politics – actual deliberation and participation – and the environment in which politics is expressed is increasingly fractious. And what develops in the space between political desire and this environment is disillusionment, not with the idea of politics itself, but with the options for political participation. If your desire to participate in political discussion can only be met by joining ranks with increasingly diverse poles of political expression, represented by objectionable politicians, then it is the sense of futility that this situation precipitates that brings about disillusionment.
Where the current political environment might entail an abandonment of political participation, it can also breed subcultures of political pretence, where groups of people engage in small-scale activities that they perceive to be political, but instead either reinforce the status quo or turn away from the stickier aspects of the political altogether. These forms of political pretence are often tied to consumption practices, which deepens the idea that politics can only be expressed through capitalist behaviour. Thus, neoliberal hegemony is defended against the political on two fronts. First, disillusionment ensures that large swathes of the populace see no means to change the current state of affairs, even if they desire to do so. Second, those who translate this desire into forms of consumption or lifestyle ethics reduce politics to a level that is unable to challenge the universality of neoliberalism. Stuck in this dilemma, many glorify the heroic individual as the archetypal political subject, who sees her or his own reflection in systemic injustice.
This heroic individual is exemplified in the increasingly popular practice of buycotting. Unlike consumer boycotting, which entails avoiding purchasing products from a particular company, buycotting is the process through which people express their dissatisfaction with a particular company by ‘rewarding’ what are perceived to be more ethical companies through buying their products. As one commentator puts it: ‘Political consumerism is on the rise and presents an opportunity to bring serious social justice issues to the marketplace.’ Setting aside the fact that buycotting requires a certain amount of disposable income and that companies can exploit the desire for political consumerism by marketing themselves as ethical, the point of buycotting is it allows us to spend money and still feel political. Furthermore, if consuming certain products makes us good political and ethical subjects, then why not consume more and more of these products?
The buycott emerged in the 1990s as a positive alternative to negative forms of political consumerism, which usually entailed boycotts of particular companies or products. In a 1996 article, behavioural psychologist Monroe Friedman observed that evidence of the success of boycotts was very limited, and that buycotts represent a promising alternative. Friedman compares a series of buycotting events, from the Florida Gay Rights buycott of the early 1990s to the Twin Peaks buycott, where in the wake of its cancellation by ABC, loyal fans of David Lynch’s cult TV series started buying products that were advertised on the show, hoping that these advertisers would persuade ABC to renew it. But it is not so much the examples of buycotting that are revealing about Friedman’s analysis, but rather a point he makes about the expectations of the consumer engaged in the practice. ‘While it may be reasonable in theory to employ buycott campaigns to reward business firms for their contributions to the community,’ he contends, ‘most consumers would baulk at participating in such campaigns if the products or services to be purchased are deficient from a consumer economic perspective.’3 The key difference between boycotting and buycotting, therefore, is the relationship between politics and consumerism. In the former, the political is used against consumerism, whereas in the latter, consumerism becomes the condition for the political, even to the point that the political is abandoned if the products consumed are not fulfilling enough.
It is hard to overestimate the consequences of this subtle shift in forms of activism in the late twentieth century. As Jason Hickel and Arsalan Khan write: ‘Rebellious and virtuous consumption are products of a neoliberal logic that posits market solutions for political and economic problems, celebrates “the consumer” as the supreme agent of change, and obscures the coercive dimensions of capitalism that generate the very problems that these forms of consumer activism aim to remedy.’4 In this sense, the phenomenon of buycotting reveals a futilitarian logic, where political interventions in consumer practices perpetuate the very conditions that precipitate the need for such interventions in the first place.
Buycotting has now become a mainstream form of consumer activism. There is even an app called ‘Buycott’ that matches users with products that reflect their political and ethical concerns. Buycotting is undoubtedly a form of sociality, but it is reflective of the transformation of the social in the neoliberal decades, where social capital becomes a synonym for social solidarity. In an essay from the mid-1980s titled ‘The forms of capital’, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that ‘it is impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory.’5 Alongside economic capital, Bourdieu introduces cultural and social capitals. Where cultural capital entails a symbolic order that binds or differentiates individuals – from one’s taste in music to qualifications and education – social capital is built through relationships ‘of mutual acquaintance and recognition … which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital’. These relationships are protected by what Bourdieu calls ‘institutionalized forms of delegation’, which enable a spokesperson to ‘shield the group as a whole from discredit by expelling or excommunicating the embarrassing individuals.’ This delegation facilitates the ‘reproduction of capital’ within the social group and prevents the infiltration of that group by others who do not hold the same amount or kind of capital.
Bourdieu’s ultimate aim was to try and explain the social reproduction of capital, illustrating how power is maintained and protected through social relationships between the privileged. The concept of social capital has come a long way since. In his popular book Bowling Alone, US political scientist Robert Putnam reframed social capital around notions of community and ‘civic virtue’. For him, social capital referred to ‘norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness’ that arise from ‘connections among individuals’. His point was that virtuousness could only be expressed collectively when individuals were bound together by ‘reciprocal social relations’, which he felt were rapidly disappearing from American society.6 Putnam viewed social capital as essential to ensuring communal bonds and, consequently, to protecting democracy. Such an analysis could have led to a critique of neoliberalism, accentuating how the neoliberal assault on the concept of the social had dissolved communal bonds or how the inability to access healthcare or affordable housing reduced trustworthiness. Instead, in a study of 41 urban and rural communities across the US, Putnam turned towards diversity and immigration as reasons for this decline.7 While he acknowledged that diversity and immigration are likely to be good things in the long run, his conclusion played into the hands of US conservatives. It gave them the sociological evidence to directly tie notions of social capital or civic virtue to race and cultural homogeneity.
In our century, social capital has become a buzzword at organizations like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and politicians routinely throw it around when discussing policy. In all these cases, social capital looks much more like Putnam’s definition than Bourdieu’s. Social capital is a helpful way for governments to compartmentalize all social relationships and institutions into one concept, often obscuring the ways in which specific policies are designed to dismantle such relationships and institutions. Furthermore, the development of social capital depends as much upon who is excluded from a group as it does on those included. Consequently, social capital can be used to justify systems of exclusion, from tight border regimes to gated communities. But, perhaps more significantly, social capital is often employed to protect the rights of capital. For instance, in his IMF Working Paper on ‘Social capital and civil society’, the liberal philosopher par excellence Francis Fukuyama writes: ‘States indirectly foster the creation of social capital by efficiently providing necessary public goods, particularly property rights and public safety.’ He continues: ‘States can have a serious negative impact on social capital when they start to undertake activities that are better left to the private sector or to civil society. … If the state gets into the business of organizing everything, people will become dependent on it and lose their spontaneous ability to work with one another.’ So, in other words, social capital works best when private property is protected and the state either steps aside for the private sector or gets its nose out of our business. Sound familiar? It is not hard to see why this term has become ubiquitous under neoliberalism.
But why is it necessary to conceive of the social as capital at all? Many economists have asked this question, contending that the social does not meet the criteria to be defined as capital. More interesting is how the term ‘social capital’ exemplifies cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s definition of ‘capitalist realism’, what happens when ‘capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizon of the thinkable’.8 To think that social relationships produce something tangible that can be accumulated like capital fundamentally alters how we conceive of society itself, much in the way that human capital transforms the very idea of the human. And, if social capital and economic capital are interdependent, as the theorists above would have it, then any attempts to change the distribution of social capital can be conceived as interventions in the accumulation of economic capital. To enact social change, therefore, becomes as much about how one engages in the production and accumulation of economic capital as it does about how one relates to other individuals. This lays the foundations for a form of political participation that prioritizes marketplace interventions over concrete social relations. This is precisely why something like buycotting becomes a desirable alternative to boycotting.
Buycotting is the kind of social movement that develops when the social is filtered through the lens of capital. Hence we get statements like: ‘By continuing to engage in acts of buycott, consumers can support admirable or reject objectionable marketplace practices while bringing social change every time they take out their wallets.’ This statement reminds us of Davies’s ‘society of perpetual referendums’, where people display their admiration or disgust by ‘voting with their dollars’, which is a sentiment that has gained significant traction in recent decades. For instance, the ethos of Green America, a large non-profit membership organization with over 140,000 members, is to ‘harness economic power – the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace – to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society’. To help consumers achieve this goal they have developed a ‘Vote with your Dollar Toolkit’, which provides information on environmentally friendly clothes and food shopping, as well as socially responsible investment opportunities. ‘Voting with your dollar works,’ they tell us, ‘[because] if many of us shift our spending at once – to preference [sic] non-GMO foods, for example – it can force large corporations to scramble and drop harmful ingredients from their products. And in the case of small businesses, it helps them stay afloat in a competitive, deal-driven market.’ The use of a modal verb here leaves a lot of wiggle room – ‘it can force large corporations to drop harmful ingredients’ is very different to ‘it will’.
The idea of voting with your dollar presumes a simple relationship between individual consumer behaviour and ‘big P’ politics. That is, it is premised on the idea that a series of individual behavioural changes can directly initiate political ruptures, skipping the frustrating aspects of actual political organizing and participation. Instead, Green America tells us that ‘every time you buy organic, you tell the world you want more farmers to grow healthy, safe food’; ‘every time you buy fair trade, you fight poverty.’ But just because a shop sells organic food does not mean that its employees are treated well, as Nichole Aschoff illustrates in her analysis of the militant anti-union practices of the organic supermarket Whole Foods in the US.9 Likewise, the ethics of fair trade has been a continual debate, with Ndongo Samba Sylla showing how the Fairtrade organization favours large producers over smaller ones and the costs of certification disadvantage those in countries with low-income economies. As Sylla notes: ‘FT does not partake in a logic of international redistribution in favour of the poorest countries. In reality, this movement seems to follow a plutocratic logic, in other words, one that serves the government of the rich.’ When we find market solutions to problems caused by the market economy, these solutions merely create new market problems that will require new market solutions.
This vision of the world in which money and credit cards carry magical political properties allows us to believe that every time we buy something, we are either making the world a better place or contributing to its downfall – another referendum. Consequently, organizations like Green America can pitch themselves as a supposedly radical alternative to the stagnation of governmental politics. Witness this example from the Vote with your Dollar Toolkit: ‘Green America’s mission of creating a green economy that works for all – one that preferences [sic] social justice, environmental preservation, and healthy communities, has been under direct threat from Washington lately, but no matter whether it’s election day or one of the hundreds of days between casting ballots, decisions we make every day cast votes for our values.’ Here, Green America proposes that we can change the world by simply bypassing the minutiae of governmental politics, sharing with the neoliberals a suspicion of such politics, and confirming the neoliberal thinker Ludwig von Mises’ conclusion that ‘the average man [sic] is both better informed and less corruptible in the decisions he makes as a consumer than as a voter at political elections.’10 Not only that, voting with your dollars means we do not have to do any of the messy and mundane aspects of actual politics, whether this is developing relationships, institutions, organizations, or party structures. Instead, we can simply get out our credit card and suddenly the world becomes a better place.
This post-political fantasy draws a straight line between capitalism and the individual, failing to grapple with the ways in which the state and governmental politics facilitate and sanction the very problems organizations like Green America attempt to confront. Green America is by no means alone in this post-political vision, especially when it comes to environmental concerns. The implications of this shift towards the individual are huge. American political theorist Jodi Dean, for instance, argues that ‘the individualization of politics into commodifiable “lifestyles” and opinions subsumes politics into consumption. That consumer choices may have a politics – fair trade, green, vegan, woman-owned – morphs into the sense that politics is nothing but consumer choices, that is, individuated responses to individuated needs.’11 When politics becomes ‘nothing but consumer choices’ – a variation of the like-or-dislike binary – it becomes impossible to think of it as anything other than a variant of capitalist experience. This acceptance, Dean notes, ‘enchains us to collective failure, turning us ever inward as it holds back the advance of a politics capable of abolishing the current system and producing another one’.12
Voting with your dollar and the practice of buycotting present two ways that the politics of futility operates in the early 21st century – principally that we can buy our way out of systemic social and ecological problems. Another avenue is to recast these systemic problems through the prism of personal responsibility. This is evident in another variant of the climate change movement: anti-natalist environmentalism. A cursory glance across some major media outlets confirms the ubiquity of this idea, where we have headlines such as: ‘How to save the planet? Stop having children’ (The Guardian); ‘Science proves kids are bad for the Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them’ (NBC News); ‘The couples rethinking kids because of climate change’ (BBC); ‘Climate change fears put young people off having children, YouGov poll shows’ (The Times) – and so on. The most obvious thing about these headlines is that all of them focus on individual moments of decision-making. But a key difference is that some suggest that individuals have to seriously question the ethics of bringing another human into a world that is heading towards a climate apocalypse, whereas others imply that the decision to not have children is somehow going to save the world from that apocalypse. The former understands that the individual is constitutive of its social and ecological milieu, to the point where bringing a new individual into the current milieu might seem unethical. The latter sees society in the individual, and all social and ecological issues are reduced to the level of individual decision-making. Like the idea of voting with your dollar, this is another form of magical thinking, where individuals are encouraged to believe that their daily life choices either save or annihilate the world.
Much of the anti-natalist environmental movement characterizes the politics of futility. It treats the carbon footprint as a natural phenomenon and immutable fact about the world, rather than something that is both the result of historical processes of production, colonization, extraction and exploitation, and a manifestation of neoliberalism’s translation of systemic problems into questions of personal responsibility. The trickier details of Western imperialism, the power of the fossil fuel industry and its hold over governmental politics across the globe, and the impotence of global climate accords retreat into the background. In doing so, this form of anti-natalism negates any possibility of overcoming the very system that makes climate change a reality. Instead, it largely encourages us to find individual ways to mitigate and survive the oncoming apocalypse. This is not only defeatist but extremely dangerous, because it concretizes the social and economic conditions that make climate recovery impossible. Fisher is particularly helpful on this point when he argues: ‘Instead of saying that everyone – ie every one – is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit, it would be better to say that no-one is, and that’s the very problem.’813 But to admit that no ‘one’ is responsible for climate change would be to undercut the ethos of triumphant individualism that fortifies neoliberal subjectivity. It is much easier to believe that individual choices can effect systemic change than to admit one’s life has little impact on how the world functions. If the choice is between saving the individual subject or the climate, neoliberal rationality ensures that the former will always win out.
In an essay titled ‘Don’t blame the babies’, Liza Featherstone points out that when the anti-natalists highlight the carbon footprint of each individual human, they do not ask: ‘Why does each human have such a huge carbon footprint? It is not inherent to your (possibly quite charming) baby.’ She continues: ‘A Zambian has nowhere near the environmental impact of an American; even though her nation has a much higher birth rate, her society isn’t nearly as carbon-intensive. The problem, then, isn’t kids. It’s the carbon dependence of our society, which is set up to ensure that we drive, fly, heat, cool, shop, and eat in all the most polluting ways possible.’ Furthermore, fertility rates have been steadily declining across the globe over the last 70 years – mainly because of economic pressures and inadequate childcare provisions, and not environmental consciousness – and yet, global temperatures and sea levels have been heading in the other direction in the same period. Either we’re not reducing the fertility rate quickly enough or there is something else going on. That ‘something else’ is much more difficult to confront because it constitutes an entire social and economic system that requires more and more environmental plundering just in order to repropagate.
To believe in the myth that individual behaviour can change society is to cement the logic of futilitarianism, where by supposedly being useful – in this case, refraining from having children in order to save the planet – we actually facilitate the worsening of collective social and ecological wellbeing because we let capitalism off the hook. As Featherstone puts it: ‘ExxonMobil doesn’t care whether you have another kid. The actual “best thing you can do” for the planet is anything that will reduce the political power of the fossil fuel industry, while “the worst thing you can do” is try to convince people otherwise.’
This is all a long way around to say that any environmental politics that is not fundamentally anticapitalist is ultimately destined to futility. It is this problem that undermined the initial rebellious energy of Extinction Rebellion (XR). When one protester turned up to a rally carrying a sign reading ‘Socialism or Extinction’, the official XR Twitter account in the UK responded by saying: ‘Just to be clear we are not a socialist movement. We do not trust any single ideology, we trust the people, chosen by sortition (like jury service) to find the best future for us all through a #CitizensAssembly. A banner saying “socialism or extinction” does not represent us.’ Of course, direct action is a legitimate form of rebellion, and it has been shown to work in grassroots movements, but a climate movement that retreats from ‘big P’ politics, to the point where it is moved to distance itself from socialism, is one that is inevitably doomed to failure. Many people responded to this tweet with the words of the Brazilian trade union leader and environmentalist Chico Mendes, who reportedly said: ‘Ecology without class struggle is just gardening.’ XR has undoubtedly harnessed a disruptive collective energy but without continually tying climate change to capitalism, colonialism, and global systems of exclusion and exploitation, it will routinely retreat back into the safety of the politics of futility.
In his book The Death of Homo Economicus, Peter Fleming asks a very pertinent question: ‘Is resistance to capitalism still possible after such a devastating process of individualization has taken place?’13 If buycotting and anti-natalist environmentalism are anything to go by, then the answer would be a resounding no. Even contemporary anticapitalist movements have faltered precisely because of this process of individualization. Dean gives a good example in her experience of a 2011 Occupy Wall Street rally at Washington Square Park in New York. She notes that as police tightened the cordon around the park, the energy of the crowd built. ‘Speaker after speaker,’ she writes, ‘amplified by the People’s Mic (where the crowd repeats the words of a speaker so that those who are farther away know what is being said), urged us to take the park. We are many. We can do it. We must do it.’ And then a young man stood up to speak through the human microphone: ‘We can take this park! … We can take this part tonight! … We can also take this park another night … Not everyone may be ready tonight … Each person has to make their own autonomous decision … You have to decide for yourself … Everyone is an autonomous individual.’ As Dean notes, ‘The mood was broken … We were no longer a “we” … Collective strength devolved into the problem of individuals aggregating by choices and interests that may or may not converge. Reducing autonomy to individual decision, we destroyed the freedom of action we had as a crowd.’12 Exactly at the moment the crowd threatened to inhabit the political subjectivity of a ‘we’, it disappeared through fear of stepping on the toes of individual autonomy. Despite the Occupy movement naming its enemy – the one per cent – neoliberal rationality won out indirectly in the end.
The human rights movement is another that routinely suffers from neoliberal intervention in its insistence on the individual as the foundation of political-economic life rather than on the more difficult task of building a movement in support of ‘open democratic governance structures’.14 Despite the rise of human rights discourse, it seems like rights abuses are only increasing, so we need to think seriously about how the notion of human rights neatly corresponds with a neoliberal value system that stymies the construction of political and social solidarities, all in the name of freedom. By placing the liberty of the individual at the centre of politics, human rights activists risk accepting the premise of hyper-individuality that consecrates the neoliberal project. A human right for the neoliberals, generally speaking, is basically the right to fend for one’s self in a competitive world order.
There are, however, reasons to be hopeful. Consider the important generational divide in the Global North between what we might crudely call the baby-boomers and the millennials. The boomers, for the most part, are relatively secure, especially if they bought their houses at the right time and have seen huge appreciation in the value of their properties. The millennials, however, have grown up into a deeply insecure world, where work is increasingly sparse and precarious, house prices are extortionate, higher education requires the absorption of serious debt, and the natural environment is irrevocably damaged. On top of this, Covid-19 has shown that deadly viruses can bring the world to a standstill at any moment and, even then, the rich seem to get richer. Some millennials are fine, of course, especially if they have access to the assets accrued by their boomer parents and families. But many are not, and the most precarious are the ones who are starting to make their voices heard across the globe. In this context, the economist Grace Blakeley asks a simple but powerful question: ‘Why … should young people support capitalism when they never expect to own any capital?’15 This presents a deep dilemma for neoliberal hegemony. The centralization of wealth within an ever-decreasing few might have worked for a few decades, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the momentary ‘end of history’, where capitalism seemed to answer every question posed against it. But a new generation has emerged who do not necessarily see capitalism as the golden ticket. In fact, they find themselves excluded from and exploited by capitalism every single day, whether it is by their boss, landlord, university, or government. Indeed, why would young people support this system?
Futility is not ours, no matter what we are told. Capitalism, especially in its neoliberal guise, creates the conditions for futility to spread, but through its operating logic, it manages to pass the upkeep of this futility on to us as individuals. Political expressions like buycotting, voting with your dollar, or anti-natalist environmentalism are the kinds of politics that emerge when we accept responsibility for this futility. It is not that these movements aren’t trying to make the world a better place, but that by accepting responsibility for the state of the world, they also accept the fundamental premises of neoliberal rationality, that the world is made in the image of the individual.
Under such circumstances, where people are ‘proletarianized alone’, in Dean’s words, it is unsurprising that the political forms that have come to dominate the 21st century also situate the individual at the heart of systemic problems. The politics of futility is a symptom of futilitarianism; individuals attempt to make themselves as useful politically as possible – often with genuinely good and ethical intentions – but in doing so, they end up reinforcing the logic of neoliberalism, which worsens the collective conditions for the majority of people. No matter what Obama and the like tell us, we deserve better than this.
This is an edited extract from Neil Vallely's recent book Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness, published by Goldsmiths Press, London, and distributed by MIT Press.
1 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Zone Books, New York, 2015.
2 Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic, Verso, London, 2018.
3 Monroe Friedman, ‘A positive approach to organized consumer action: the “buycott” as an alternative to the boycott’, Journal of Consumer Policy, Vol 19, No 4, 1996.
4 Jason Hickel and Arsalan Khan, ‘The culture of capitalism and the crisis of critique’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 85, No 1, 2012.
5 Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The forms of capital’, in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed John Richardson, Greenwood, Westport, CT, 1986.
6 Robert D Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.
7 Robert D Putnam. ‘E pluribus unum: diversity and community in the twenty-first century’, Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol 30, No 2, 2007.
8 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Zero Books, Winchester, 2009.
9 Nicole Aschoff, The New Prophets of Capital, Verso, London, 2015.
10 Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, translated by J Kahane, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1962.
11 Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2009.
12 Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party, Verso, London, 2016.
13 Peter Fleming, The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation, Pluto Press, London, 2017.
14 David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, Verso, London, 2006.
15 Grace Blakeley, Stolen: How to Save the World from Financialisation, Repeater Books, London, 2019.