Friday, 12 April 2013

No Such Thing as Society; No Such Thing as the Self

Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that 'there is no such thing as society,' and those on the Left, rightly, regret the gradual and continuing unravelling in our times, of the ties that used to bind us together: where we lived, how we lived, what we worked at, who we knew, what we hoped and believed...In the wake of Thatcher's passing, those with sense and courage enough to speak out are giving expression to this regret, describing the greedy individualism, the elbows-and-knees selfishness, that they believe to have resulted from neoliberal capitalism's unrelenting assault on the social fabric; see Polly Toynbee on BBC's Question Time last night, or Glenda Jackson's speech to the House of Commons on Wednesday. But this regret, admirable though it may be, is mistaken. For Margaret Thatcher's politics destroyed, not just the forces that bound us together, but also those that made us stand apart: if there is no such thing as society, then there is no such thing as the self; selfishness and individualism are, in fact, no longer possible.

Like society as we know it, the self was a disciplinary phenomenon: constituted by a range of identifications that worked to individualize as they worked to normalize. In becoming a nurse (really becoming one, in that transformative manner that is no longer possible under the pile of paperwork that dominates the job), one was both subject to the norms of the profession and defined by those norms in a manner that contributed to who one was. And, since one was never only a nurse, but also lower-middle-class, urban, a mother, Catholic, and so on and so on, one was entered into the endless discrete networks that went both to bind one into society and to isolate one as an individual in one's own right. There were millions like you, but you were like nobody else in the world. Dissolving the identifications that constituted society, then, simultaneously dissolves the identifications that constituted the self.

It is crucial that we realize this, for, as things stand, the notion that individualism is still possible is one of the most powerful fictions of our time, the very mode whereby we find our situation tolerable. We may express dismay at the extent to which society has broken up into loose networks of individuals, but we feel comforted too at the liberatory potential of a force of individualism, a core of self, that is our ground zero, the mode of being below which we will not stoop. In his otherwise enlightening The Enigma of Capital, David Harvey describes as one of the necessaries, but also one of the few remaining blockages, to the flow of capital, 'the sovereign individual,' whose 'freedom' generates the entrepreneurial activities upon which capitalism thrives but whose deeper identifications 'are perpetually at odds with the crass commercialisms' of the markets. But 'the sovereign individual' is the blight and the comfort of an era that is no longer ours. If Foucault observed that we required, in disciplinary times, to cut off the head of the king (for the king was, in those times, an anachronism), then we are required, in these times, to cut off the head of the individual (for the individual is, in these times, an anachronism).

There is, now, no such thing as society, only the most precarious of bonds forged in opportunism and cynicism; and there is, now, no such thing as the self, only the most passing and changeful of identifications rooted in low-lying fear and an empty nostalgia for belonging. But one thing does remain: insofar as a single person can be responsible for such an epochal falling off, Margaret Thatcher is that person.