12 August 2013

The Moral Imagination of Neoliberal Society

In an interesting essay on the Jacobin website, David V. Johnson describes the perils of moral sentimentalism, "an excessive, even obsessional tendency to view the world through the narrow lens of the moral." As described by Johnson, moral sentimentalism is a debasement of complex social and political issues into a simple matter of proper conduct, implying that any such problem can be boiled down to personal failings. This distracts attention from the systemic nature of serious social problems and acts as a powerful block to effectively addressing them through political projects that might hold a real potential to change the world.

Johnson tries to describe moral sentimentalism as something more than a ploy on the part of the rich to confuse the poor about their true interests. He stresses that moral sentimentalism "offers the fantasy of feeling empowered, of taking pride in their own individual conduct as all that really matters." Despite his gesture towards the very broad appeal of this world view, I don't think that Johnson convincingly shows that moral sentimentalism is anything other than a key stratagem in a class struggle rendered in mechanistic terms of economic interest. In other words, Johnson describes moral sentimentalism as part of the upper class's attempt to trick the poor into perpetuating their own class domination, but this does nothing to explain the way that these classes come into being in the first place.

Johnson is also attempting to draw a distinction between moral sentimentalism and genuine moral claims, and cautions against moral sentimentalism "because it ultimately serves immoral ends." But I'm skeptical that this distinction can be sustained. It's hard to argue against Johnson here because apart from noting that he "take[s] moral claims seriously," he doesn't define what real morality actually is. I would like to suggest that what Johnson is describing as moral sentimentalism might best be understood as the variety of morality that is most at home in our neoliberal society. The examples of moral sentimentalism that he gives are particularly debased, but I think that even very serious contemporary moral thinking partakes of a similar logic that I will try to begin teasing out in this post.

According to Johnson, there is a crisis of legitimacy in bourgeois society that springs from a certain contradiction between the actual functioning of our market-based economy and the ethical norms that govern interactions within the market. Without ethical norms, trust relationships cannot be maintained and common business transactions would be incredibly difficult to perform with any regularity. But losing the ability to get around inconvenient regulations would similarly hamper the business innovator.

Moral sentimentalism steps in at this point to give voice to the discontent generated by the gap between the way things should work and the way that they do in fact work. The problem is that as a universal vision, morality not only applies to all individuals, but also makes claims on them as individuals. So rather than drawing attention to the injustices perpetuated by the ruling class on a systemic level, it encourages us to bemoan their lack of morality, and prevents us from gaining the critical consciousness necessary to making real changes in society.

This is a fairly persuasive description of what has actually happened in the past years as we've moved from the tepid response to banking scandals as the result of a few rotten eggs to indictments of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden on the basis of their alleged personal failings. Johnson uses both examples to illustrate how systemic problems with the financial sector and the state's lack of respect for civil liberties are twisted into stories about corrupt individuals. These are easy examples, but I don't think they come close to the heart of moral discourse in our neoliberal society. It is far more revealing to consider the way that this moral discourse has served as a lens through which to understand, and to come to grips with, the existence of a racialized underclass in the US, one of the richest societies in the world.

Problems like drug abuse, poverty, and racism are understood to be the result of personal failings that can't ultimately be attributed to factors that are properly speaking social. The narratives of "welfare queens" and "crack babies," staples of popular discourse in the 80s and 90s, described problems that inevitably resulted from intense concentrations of poverty and joblessness as the result of poor choices and a lack of proper moral sense. In the case of so-called crack babies, a recent study has revealed the purely ideological nature of this assumption.

It's interesting to bear in mind that these tropes found such wide acceptance just a few decades after Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, which was to the contrary premised on the widespread belief that social problems were structural, the result of larger, impersonal forces that profoundly constrain the life possibilities of certain people. It seemed natural that such problems would be confronted as a unified social effort through the democratic processes and administrative services of the federal government.

Yet in a neoliberal society this political approach is ruled out, and the most that popular consensus can generally allow is charitable projects to create more moral people through instilling better values in children or granting scholarships for the "gifted few" who struggle to make the proper choices amidst a climate of lawlessness and moral anomie.

Clinton's grand strategy for pulling together a deeply divided legislative branch was, of course, "the end of welfare as we know it." In other words it was workfare, an agenda proposing work as the solution to poverty that is caused by the limited availability of gainful employment in the first place. And yet such a proposal is not considered to be incoherent because of the persuasiveness of the idea that it was poor choices and laziness that actually lay at the root of supposed abuses of welfare.

In a sense, the moral focus on individual choice is a circular proposition. Once you accept the premise that individual choices are the most relevant factor in shaping life outcomes, all social phenomena, whether they be the success of particular startup businesses or the high rates of impoverishment and drug abuse among a certain group, become the results of better or worse choices. The form in which we see society, including its racialized and class-identified sub-groupings, becomes the manifestation of a cosmic morality play in which good is rewarded with good and bad with bad.

Once we recognize the circularity of this reasoning, we can appreciate the arbitrary way that the transcendent significance given to individual choices can lead us to "blame the victim," or in other words to ascribe the unequal status of a social group to the poor choices made by members of that group. As in the example above, if it seems that black Americans suffer from horrible social and economic inequality, this perspective suggests that this is a result of the failure to "say no to drugs," to say yes to education, and to work and study hard.

David Brooks's opinion piece on Haiti, blaming belief in Voodoo for Haiti's enduring poverty, is a classic example of this abysmal moral understanding. He even ends with an appeal for programs similar to the Harlem Children's Zone as an approach to addressing Haiti's poverty. Anyone who has passing familiarity with Haiti's political history can instantly dismiss Brooks's column as laughable, and anyone with a heart can begin to understand the depths of his depravity. Yet this writing is printed in our newspaper of record.

Above I made the claim that the basic characteristic of moral sentimentalism, the ultimate importance given to the actions of individuals, is actually a more general characteristic of moral thinking in our day. So far I have only showed that moral sentimentalism is not only applicable to business or government scandals, but also a decisive factor in constituting a moralistic discourse of race and poverty. In a future post, I will discuss how similar assumptions also underlie far more sophisticated and appealing moral visions. Eventually, I will try to indicate what this reveals about the process through which society constructs and continually transforms categories of class and race.


  1. Good stuff! This article becomes persuasive when you start looking beyond the moral sentimentalism of "proper conduct," toward structural issues. Here's the line: "These are easy examples, but I don't think they come close to the heart of moral discourse in our neoliberal society." Exactly. Moral sentiment is the stuff that norms are made of, and the personal lies at the massive heart of political power.

    You have covered the way that moral sentiment helps maintain the racialized class structure of the US, through a self-promoting discourse that allows privileged individuals to say, "at least I'm better than those dirty souls." Morality here becomes structural, it serves the class divide and the continuity of immense racial injustice. Another direction you could take the morality argument toward is the privatization of politics, through the characteristically neoliberal form of the NGO. Nicolas Guiohot's book, The Democracy Makers, has something to say about it. Here's a long quote:

    "Advocacy groups, NGOs, issue networks and the like operate within the repertoire of civic virtue, in the strictest sense of the word. In the classical political tradition, the republican language of virtue is opposed to the liberal and imperial language of rights (Pocock 1985). While the latter conceives of liberty as freedom from coercion (libertas as opposed to imperium), the former makes participation to power a condition for the exercise of liberty (libertas as participation in imperium). Civic virtue is precisely the active participation in the production of the common good. This form of dedicated citizenship is today enacted by NGOs on the global scene, in particular through their reliance on “participation” as a method for solving some of the world’s most pressing prob lems such as hunger, indigenous rights, human rights abuses, the oppression of women, child labor, or other causes. The idea of global “forums,” defined as institutionalized sites of participation, is also associated with this tradition. To the extent that it is not fixed de jure by some legal entitlement, such participation - which can take the concrete forms of lobbying, information campaigns, involvement in the policymaking process and other forms of action - becomes legitimate because of its moral nature: it takes place in the name of and for the sake of universal values or common goods. This form of political virtue is exactly the opposite of the pursuit of private interests through politics - which the classical political tradition equated with corruption. Indeed, as we shall see, most of the academic literature on NGOs stresses this moral dimension and ultimately posits their disinterestedness, as collective actors motivated by values and not by material interests.

    "Yet, this conception of civic virtue has always been the ideology of an aristocratic form of politics. For it is those who have raised themselves above material contingencies who can be trusted not to put their own interest before the common good and who represent the best guarantee against corruption. Civic virtue is best served by those whose already dominant social status is a guarantee that their motives are pure and disinterested. Virtuous government is the rule of the honoratiores, as Max Weber has taught us: it is those whose status and standing guarantees that they “live for politics, without living from politics” who emerge as the best defenders of political virtue (Weber 1978: 290). For the same reason, republican thought in the eighteenth century considered property as the material guarantee of civic virtue. The language of virtue, as historian Pocock reminds us, is also the language of aristocratic rule."

    Beware the moral claim, because it usually rests on totally unreflected foundations....

  2. Thanks Paul! Interesting point and quote. I hadn't really considered the work of NGOs from this angle before, but it's quite interesting.

    I found the original article interesting mostly because it skipped over what I find to be the most striking deployment of the language of morality in recent decades, which as I wrote is the corruption of the underclass. It seemed like a surprising and disappointing oversight. I think that Shu really did a nice job of critiquing the moralistic discourse around Syria in his latest post as well.