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Neoliberal Responsibility

My intention in this chapter is to reconstruct the notion of responsibility and to (re)establish its central role in a healthy democracy so that it motivates us forward in action. My call to responsibility is not to suggest that we haven’t already heard a lot about responsibility lately, even in the midst of the “rights explosion" Indeed, responsibility is a popular though troubling concept circulating within neoliberal discourse, where it is largely divorced from democratic public life. There, it neither reflects a notion of being reciprocal to rights nor does it convey the more detailed sense of forward-driven action guided by relationality. In this section I describe the problematic notion of individual responsibility popular in neoliberal discourse. Once revealed, I aim to show how a social and relational account of responsibility carried out through public work can help us resist neoliberal pressures toward individualism and atomism and achieve a more fruitful way and justification for citizens to live and act together.

Within a neoliberal worldview, the definition of responsibility has problematically shifted from a collective obligation in the public sphere to an individual expectation in the private sphere. Public school advocate Mike Rose explains,

Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the country has been in the grip of the individual-responsibility view of opportunity. Conservative writers and politicians have been skillful in encouraging an ideology of self-reliance and individual effort and in discrediting and dismantling the protections of the welfare state, social programs, and other means of intervening in the social order.32

Reagan and his followers sought to eliminate or reduce governmental regulation and protections, focusing instead on responsible, personal choices of individuals as the source for right action, self-preservation, and reward. This “personal responsibility” is to oneself and one’s family and is typically fulfilled by working to secure sufficient funds to support oneself and one’s family. It absolves others of being responsible for ensuring equitable work opportunities or just social conditions.

As a result, responsibility under this ideology works in a very individualist sense, putting the onus on each person to earn her own social standing and respect so that she can pursue her own opportunities and secure her own wellbeing. The individual’s concern for the state or the collective body is reduced to a mere personal interest in ensuring that they provide conditions conducive to personal success. Neoliberalism, aligned with many economic values of the Right, urges each individual to behave with more bravado, a competitive spirit, and enterprise to secure her own interests as she plots out a life trajectory for which she is solely responsible.33 Responsibility is both achieved and assessed through the choices one autonomously makes. As Nikolas Rose suggests, this differs considerably from a more social understanding of responsibility to others and is perhaps better called “responsibilization.”34 Alternatively, some on the Left have upheld what might be called a “therapeutic theory of responsibility” or a “sociological approach to responsibility.”35 In this view, instead of focusing on the acts and decisions of the autonomous individual, justifications for these are located in society itself, whether that be its systems of injustice or its popular practices. It is dismissive of the responsibility of individuals and points the finger solely at society instead.36 For example, if a black high school graduate does not obtain college admission, instead of considering his work ethic or academic track record, one might focus instead on systemic privileging of white students in college admissions.

However, there is another perspective. The sense of responsibility I propose, though it grows out of one’s position as a citizen and is often reflected in one’s internal sense of obligation, is outward directed. It is a social and ethical concern with the well-being of others and with democracy. We can evaluate and reject the discourse of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” because it leaves significant systems of inequality and injustice in place. If we step back, we can also see that relying heavily on imperfect decision making by individuals with few social or institutional supports often does not benefit society as a whole. Instead, it provides a convenient narrative to displace responsibility onto individuals with little social power to enact change and to absolve others who have the power to enact change. On the other hand, simply providing a pass via a therapeutic or sociological approach does not entail the active work on behalf of oneself, others, and justice that my sense of responsibility requires. Moreover, the therapeutic model, by focusing only on social structures, ultimately disempowers individuals who can and must actively strive for justice and who can act even within limiting conditions. My notion of shared citizen responsibility requires action by all citizens, thereby overcoming some of the problems of neoliberal and sociological views of responsibility.37

Rather than subscribing to neoliberal versions of choice and responsibili- zation, or even therapeutic views of responsibility, citizens—foregrounding our relationship to our rights-granting and -receiving community of fellow citizens—should be engaged in conversations and activities that are other- directed, highlighting the well-being and liberties of others. Individuals should learn about and be engaged in the power of the collective public that works together to protect our shared way of life, which is one role of public schools. Role responsibilities include actions individuals should take to fulfill their personal obligations as citizens, but more importantly they work together across citizens as a collective body, a responsible public, that upholds and acts on behalf of democracy. Our actions as individuals are likely better, stronger, and more effective when they arise out of care for other citizens and concern for democracy.

The neoliberal framework of competitive rugged individualism may offer an enticing way of life to those who possess the power, skills, and capital to secure happiness for themselves, because the system “works” for them and can enable them to get even further ahead, especially economically. It might seem that under a more deeply democratic, justice-oriented system, those people would “get less” To encourage such citizens—many of whom are current power brokers in our society—to accept such seeming loss, I emphasize here the ethical experience of role responsibility as an orientation of care toward others and the public good. On the face of it, I recognize that this may not sufficiently convince many citizens. I hope that through sustained exposure to the increasing struggles of fellow citizens exacerbated by neoliberal forces and a growing understanding of the historical trajectory and precarity of democracy and the role of schools within it, some will be persuaded.

I am hopeful that those of us falling within that category and others will come to see that apparent personal loss is more than compensated for in the collective gains of a more just and democratic public life that provides rich rewards in one’s own daily experiences.38 And, serving as stewards, citizens who embrace this view better ensure success and promise in the future lives of their descendants. Participating in public work related to education may be a first step that reveals and affirms benefits, thereby increasing buy-in and commitment to deeper democracy.39 But I also recognize that upholding citizen role responsibilities in support of democracy via schools in today’s political and economic climate requires one to face the practicality of working within the prevailing terms of consumerism.

Within neoliberalism, schools are often described in consumerist terms. But I contend that whereas a market economy is premised on disposable goods that are used for a short while to meet our needs and then are tossed aside, if we own the schools, then we have responsibilities to maintaining them, as a more durable notion of ownership implies. We have a commitment to them as a sort of communal property in which everyone holds a stake. Yet today, many people lack a sense of public ownership of schools and others outright evade it, preventing them from feeling collectively responsible for them. My redefinition of responsibility is based in public work, efforts that generate a stronger sense of public ownership and collective commitment. I’m putting responsibility at the heart of political participation.

Biesta helps bring together responsibility with political life in a public when he concludes:

Ultimately, redefining our relationships on the basis of responsibility might also be a way to regain and reclaim the political dimension of accountability, in that we can understand “the political” as taking responsibility for that which is of common concern (the res publica). After all, to take political responsibility is precisely to take responsibility for what is not directly of interest to us (as consumers), and may not even be of interest to us at all.40

Whereas accountability has increasingly been concerned with the subjective criteria described earlier, including private and often consumer-driven interests of individuals, focusing on responsibility re-centers the public and the democratic political life that sustains it, thereby offering a justification for caring about schools even if we are not in the market for purchasing their services. Moreover, as Noel McAfee asserts, this is the time “for the public sphere to become political—political in the sense of identifying what the important challenges are: deliberating and deciding in the midst of uncertainty and plurality of views what ought to be done; and developing public judgment and will about matters of common concern.”41 Schools provide a physical space for this political work. And we have a responsibility to engage in deliberations about the status and future of public schools as a matter of common concern.

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