Choose and Be Damned: Responsibility and Privilege in a Neoliberal Age

By Sean McCannJuly 2, 2017

Choose and Be Damned: Responsibility and Privilege in a Neoliberal Age

The Perils of “Privilege” by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
The Age of Responsibility by Yascha Mounk

WHEN KARL MARX envisioned the better world of the future, he imagined inscribed on its banners the slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Our own world, Yascha Mounk observes, is governed by a different principle. Ours is an age of responsibility, Mounk contends, and the most prominent voices on left and right, in the realms of high theory and the byways of common sense, are united in the premise that individual people should determine their paths through life and bear the consequences. From each according to her desires, to each according to what she has earned. “We must do what America does best,” newly inaugurated President Clinton declared in 1993: “offer more opportunity to all and demand responsibility from all.”

At the heart of such reasoning, as Mounk’s important new book makes clear, has been a political vision nearly as utopian as anything in Marx — and one just as given to ideological zeal. Over the course of the past half century, Mounk points out, political officials of both major parties have turned repeatedly to the core value of personal responsibility, calling on it to redefine the purposes and design of government as well as pushing the state to play an ever more disciplinary role in relation to its most vulnerable citizens. They have been motivated, Mounk suggests, not merely by a political agenda, but by a fantasy of the just social order — a vision in which each individual person cares for herself and the government acts to ensure that citizens receive only the public support their efforts merit.

The dream, as Mounk reveals, is a narrow and crabbed one. Placed under his precise and dispassionate analysis, it shows itself to be conceptually dubious and empirically unworkable. But the fantasy has attracted plenty of influential adherents. Indeed, among the most troubling of Mounk’s arguments is the claim that the liberal defenders of the welfare state no less than its conservative antagonists have signed on to the dream of personal responsibility. No surprise, then, that a thin theory of individual agency has come to dominate our ideas about freedom and that an impoverished language of citizenship has crowded out alternative visions of democratic society.

In some respects, Mounk’s analysis may sound familiar. Few readers will need to be reminded that at least since the Reagan era, conservatives have fought mightily to roll back the welfare state, and few will have forgotten that centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton and, later, Barack Obama sought to stem the tide in part by embracing the right’s language of personal initiative. As Mounk notes, it was Clinton who in 1996 signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, thereby fulfilling his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” It was Clinton’s administration, as well, that presided over a massive expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, now the nation’s largest anti-poverty program, and that oversaw the creation of the Child Tax Credit. In one respect, the combined effect of these various measures meant that the growth of total social welfare spending slowed little in the Clinton years or after. In another respect, however, such measures shifted resources from the most impoverished to the working poor. The aim, as Clinton himself explained, was to help those “who want to work, who want to be independent, who want to support themselves.” Barack Obama later echoed the reasoning when he promised to serve the “[m]illions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules.” If the country was to survive and prosper, Obama added, it would have to demand “responsibility from everybody.”

What’s wrong with such language? Mounk is a political theorist rather than a policy analyst. His concern is less with the impact of particular laws or the design of specific institutions than with the values implicit in public discourse. But he mounts a compelling case, that political rhetoric in the United States — and to a lesser, but still significant degree in other industrialized democracies — has shifted over the last half century toward a markedly punitive vision of social welfare. This trend has coincided with policy transformations that have served to discipline individual citizens by demanding that they bear the costs of their own behavior and the risks of a hazardous world. The age of responsibility, in this view, is not only the period that brought us workfare and conditional unemployment benefits — and, one might add, mass incarceration. It is also the era of the 401(k) and the health savings account and the college-savings investment plans that middle-class families are now encouraged to rely on to fund tuition at once affordable public institutions. Where ideas of the public good or of shared responsibility once prevailed, private interest is now the presumptive guide. Be provident, and be fortunate, all these policy shifts demand, or pay the consequences.

The message has been reduplicated throughout popular discourse, where, as Mounk observes, “a small army of advice columnists and life coaches” has arisen to tell us, in the words of Laura M. Stack, MBA, that “each of us” is “100% responsible for how our lives turn out.” Somewhat less evidently, Mounk contends, the idiom of responsibility has become an equally crucial feature of academic theory. In Anglo-American moral and political philosophy, as in social theory and criminology, he points out, the late 20th century witnessed the rise of theoretical frameworks that stressed, often with baroque inventiveness, the interests and opportunities of individual persons and downplayed the importance of both social structures and common purposes.

Of course, moral philosophers, like politicians and life coaches, have always invoked the value of responsibility. What happened in the late 20th century, Mounk claims, is that the very meaning of the word responsibility was increasingly individualized. The era’s most influential thinkers turned away from once prevalent ideas about “responsibility-as-duty” — about our social burden to care for or to act in common with others — and toward “responsibility-as-obligation.” In this new and increasingly prevalent framework, Mounk contends, each individual person is assumed to be responsible for all the consequences of her actions, but she must answer only for the choices she has made.

In accepting that vision, liberal thinkers and politicians have often stepped into a trap of their own devising. Like Clinton and Obama, many of the recent defenders of the welfare state have agreed with conservatives about the importance of personal responsibility, seeking at the same time to use its terms to justify the provision of public support. Their arguments have tended to follow two paths. On the one hand, liberals have demanded that the principles of personal responsibility be genuinely realized in practice. Agreeing that all people should be responsible and provident, they have called for the wealthy and fortunate to live by the same rules as the poor and middle class, demanding — if, perhaps, with not much enthusiasm — that predatory and reckless financial interests be reined in and urging that the most privileged shoulder the costs of ensuring that opportunity is available to all.

On the other, perhaps more urgently, liberals have sought to narrow the grounds of responsibility, pointing out that many people simply do not enjoy the circumstances that allow them to truly choose their fates. When conservatives demand that individuals take direction of their lives, liberals often respond by pointing out that many people, through no fault of their own, are denied the chance to make meaningful choices about their futures. It is unfair, the argument runs, to require responsibility from people who have so little opportunity to control their lives.

In Mounk’s view, such arguments have proven themselves to be philosophically dubious and politically ineffective. They have done little to convince conservatives, of course. Nor have they had much effect on public opinion. More importantly, the liberal defenses of the welfare state have often disregarded the many perverse consequences of the rhetoric of responsibility. As Mounk notes, the determination to make social policy “responsibility-tracking” virtually ensures that government acts to strip citizens of dignity and, in many cases, shunts them away from the resources they need to lead decent lives. On Mounk’s account, the liberal argument that it is unfair to demand responsibility from those who cannot fully control their circumstances turns out to be no less dehumanizing. Such a view, he notes, equates poverty and disadvantage with a pitiable lack of significance. Rather than encouraging all people to lead independent and autonomous lives, the rhetoric of personal responsibility tends to push the least fortunate toward a state of social abjection.

The problem, Mounk argues, is that we have been getting responsibility all wrong. Lurking behind the current use of the term is a pervasive distaste for the allegedly undeserving poor. But in the anxious desire to patrol the world for welfare cheats, the advocates of personal responsibility have obscured an evident truth. The vast majority of people, Mounk points out, in fact desire to lead full and meaningful lives in which they have the opportunity to care both for themselves and for others as well. Rather than searching for tools to punish the improvident and unlucky, we should be looking for ways to give all people the opportunity to lead not narrowly, but fully responsible lives and in doing so to participate as equal citizens of their societies. We should be concerned less with ensuring that each individual person gets exactly what she deserves than with designing policies and institutions that will encourage the kind of shared world in which most of us would prefer to live.

In short, Mounk would like us to think about responsibility in less harshly punitive and radically individualistic terms. Liberals in particular, he implies, should speak less about individual opportunity and more for the common good. His call would surely be met with appreciation by Phoebe Maltz Bovy. In The Perils of “Privilege”, Bovy provides a brisk, engaging, and sometimes chilling survey of the current popular obsession with privilege. The term, she shows in compendious detail, appears everywhere. It provides the predominant framework for current discussions of racial injustice, cropping up consistently in discussions of police killings and Black Lives Matter. It plays a prominent role in the curricula of elite educational institutions and in corporate training regimens. It courses through art criticism and commentary on pop culture, where it often dominates discussion of controversial exhibitions (the Whitney Biennial) and popular television programs (Orange Is the New Black). Perhaps above all, it rages through the rituals of humiliation that flourish in social media.

In all these venues, the way we talk about privilege shares a great deal with the language of responsibility. For as Bovy’s penetrating account reveals, privilege, like responsibility, is a word that reflects strong intuitions about the sources of injustice in contemporary society. Like the demand for responsibility, the charge of privilege highlights the painful stress fractures of the social order, those places where it is clear that the United States is not quite the society of free and equal citizens it pretends to be. If the voices of responsibility demand, in Barack Obama’s phrase, that we all work hard and play by the rules, the critics of privilege point to some obvious truths in turn. The rules don’t apply equally to all, and some people enter the game with a lot more in the bank than others. We aren’t even all on the same playing board.

The current meanings of privilege are all about that problem. As Bovy acknowledges, contemporary use owes much to a long history in civil rights and feminist organizing, where activists and intellectuals called on the idea of privilege to identify the social rewards that had historically accrued in the United States to white skin and masculine gender. But the recent vogue can be traced more directly to the seminal essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account,” published in 1988 by Wellesley feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh’s essay offered a lucid definition of privilege (“unearned assets”) and a striking metaphor for explaining its usefulness. Privilege, she claimed, is an “invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools […] and blank checks” that enables the fortunate to move successfully through the world.

More importantly, McIntosh provided a vivid checklist of some 46 mundane rewards against which her readers might consider their own experience. (“I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time”; “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race”). In effect, McIntosh noted, the checklist was a means to personal meditation — a way “to work on myself […] by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life.” As she later explained to The New Yorker: “it was like a prayer.”

The invention caught on like wildfire. Promoted by her own SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project for teacher training, McIntosh’s essay was widely adopted for K–12 and college education and simultaneously disseminated through nonprofits and activist organizations. But, as Bovy observes, the language of privilege quickly spread far beyond its original precincts. For McIntosh and her colleagues, privilege originally seemed a useful term for identifying the social and psychic rewards enjoyed by the beneficiaries of racial and gender hierarchy. But its meaning has since migrated to refer to any kind of advantage, and a virtual industry, along with a vast cultural discourse, have sprung up to encourage each of us to follow McIntosh’s path in scrutinizing our unwitting senses of entitlement. There are now academic journals and conferences devoted to the analysis of privilege; corporate workshops, complete with badges and certificates, aimed at training managerial recruits to be sensitive about racial entitlement; and college admission coaches who offer ambitious young people useful advice in acknowledging their advantages. It provides material for introspective stand-up routines and countless digital confessions. It may not be much of an exaggeration to say, as Bovy does, that privilege has become “the word and concept of our age.”

The Perils of “Privilege” makes the case for that view by tracking the discourse through its most prominent habitats, carefully parsing the minute shadings and variations of its current usage. The language of privilege appears to be especially suited not only to educational venues, but also to the roiling waters of social media, and Bovy patiently wades through the ephemera of blog posts and Tumblr humble brags and Twitter wars, hunting down the rhetoric in its most revealing, and sometimes most outlandish, uses. Precisely because the terrain she surveys is not one of monuments, it would be easy to dismiss Bovy’s subject as trivial or to disregard the analytical precision she brings to the subject. That would be a shame, because The Perils of “Privilege” has some important observations to make about the currently prominent ways popular discourse treats the problem of social injustice.

Indeed, the very fact that privilege has so rapidly entered into common parlance suggests that the term addresses an increasingly important need. As Bovy plausibly suggests, references to privilege fill “an absence in the language for discussing systematic inequality.” We need the word because it has become increasingly impossible to avoid the realization that the United States is a profoundly divided and inegalitarian society, where wealth and opportunity and even basic human rights are distributed unjustly and, more to the point, where there seems little hope that they might be shared more fairly. The language of privilege, Bovy points out, battens on the contradictions between democratic ideology and structural inequality, and it flourishes where the pretenses to meritocracy are belied by the insularity, nepotism, and desperate striving for advantage that a rigidly hierarchical society encourages. “In an unjust society,” she notes, “small slights add up.” Where they irk and burn, the demand to “check your privilege” is ready to hand.

But, if the language of privilege has grown so rapidly because it is a way of addressing structural injustice, it is also the case, as Bovy points out, that, at least in its current usage, the discourse typically unfolds in highly individualistic terms. The focus, she points out, is relentlessly on “identity and personal experiences.” In this, the wider discourse follows the practice pioneered by Peggy McIntosh. We are asked not merely to recognize social injustice, but to respond first by working on ourselves — with the hope that unspecified political consequences will somehow follow from our deepened self-awareness.

One of Bovy’s major complaints is that those consequences do not often follow. Although the advocates of privilege discourse often speak of self-investigation and consciousness raising as halting first steps on a longer journey, the political strategies and organizations by which such insights might be converted into concrete action are rare. Quite typically, as Bovy notes, the language of privilege casts introspection as a good in itself. More frequently still, its defenders make the case for self-awareness by lambasting the smug or clumsy figures who haplessly reveal that they have failed to sufficiently confront their own advantages. When the accusation of privilege is most fiercely leveled, its target often appears to be less structural injustice itself than tactless people who reveal inequality too starkly. “Your privilege is showing,” Bovy remarks, has become something like a conventional gambit in the rituals of social media charivari, and she makes a compelling case that its most frequent victims (white women, crudely striving middle-class college aspirants, Asian Americans, Jews) are not in fact the most wealthy and powerful but rather people whose uncertain positions reveal the bald truth of social hierarchy. There’s “nothing wrong with being privileged,” a college admissions coach quoted by Bovy explains. “You just want to show that you have a realistic sense of the world and your place in it.”

In such permutations, the rhetoric of privilege can look less like a complaint against injustice than a demand for good breeding and sensitive manners. Indeed, wherever its roots may lie, the current concern with privilege remains consistently focused on the experience and attitudes of the privileged themselves — a critical language for and about an anxious social elite. Bovy rather harshly sums this all up by referring to “fancy people contemplating their own fanciness.” But she has a point. As her many examples show, the discourse of privilege circles most obsessively around the uncertainties and grievances of the professional class in an era of widening inequality.

Indeed, if the discovery of privilege hinges, as McIntosh claimed, on the awareness that one has enjoyed “unearned assets,” the most influential feature of her advice may have come in the way she suggested those assets could in fact be deserved. Through the labor of introspection, McIntosh told her readers, one might turn the gifts of social position to account and use them in meritorious ways. By focusing on privilege, she and her successors implied, the privileged person could come to earn her advantages. Seen from this angle, the discourse of privilege functions less as a means of political critique or sociological analysis than as a kind of ritual language in which the fundamental injustice of a profoundly unequal society is at once acknowledged and symbolically resolved.

Reading Mounk and Bovy together it is hard not to get the sense of a social order in crisis and struggling against the limits of its ideology. As The Age of Responsibility emphasizes, for at least half a century American political and intellectual elites have been urging us to pursue our personal self-interests and promising that all will be well when social rewards are distributed according to true merit. As The Perils of “Privilege” makes clear, the result has been the realization of an increasingly divided, anxious, and angry society.

It seems appropriate, then, that the current languages of responsibility and privilege ascended throughout popular discourse nearly in tandem. The words respond to comparable circumstances in parallel ways. Responsibility is a demand aimed at the undeserving poor, privilege a charge lobbed at the unworthy rich. But both terms take their force from the thought that some people are getting rewards they don’t deserve. Rather than respond by calling for a redistribution of resources or for the kinds of structural reform that might enable a more egalitarian society, however, both ask mainly that rewards be given to the individuals who deserve them.

Privilege and responsibility are the words we call on when the dream of a society organized by individual merit runs up against the hard world of systematic and intractable inequality. Mounk and Bovy alike suggest that it will be difficult to achieve a more just and egalitarian society until the vain hope of meritocracy has been left behind.


Sean McCann is the author of A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (Princeton University Press, 2008) and Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2000).

LARB Contributor

Sean McCann is the author of A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government (Princeton University Press, 2008) and Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2000), which received an honorable mention for the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book in American Studies.


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