Society of Guilt

There is this story on the news about a woman in the UK who is protesting against the subway ads that say obesity causes cancer. She says the ads make her feel guilty for being fat and that’s intolerable.

We can rag on the woman because yes, her complaints are silly. It’s true that obesity elevates cancer risks, and denying that is not a rational thing to do.

However, we can also look at the reasons why so many people perceive shaming or guilt-tripping in all kinds of things and react as strongly as this woman did to the most obvious, inoffensive statements.

All of the precariousness and risk of neoliberal societies is for individuals to deal with. If you are not successful, that’s your fault for not being a good entrepreneur of the self. You need to manage yourself better. And whenever anything bad happens, it’s your fault for not running fast enough, for not processing the change well enough, for not managing yourself better. That’s the essence of the neoliberal ideology I keep talking about.

People get tired of the constant interiorization of guilt for everything, so they freak out over the seemingly insignificant, trivial things like that subway ad about obesity. The woman who is protesting chose this particular innocent ad to concentrate on but what actually causes her discomfort is the larger environment of the constant recitation of the idea that there is nothing but isolated individuals who are completely responsible for everything that happens to them.

About Labor

We all know how I feel about organized labor. It is crucially, crucially important to have strong, functioning labor unions.

Look at the teacher strike in West Virginia. Isn’t it a wonderful, inspiring thing? The teachers refused to be further mistreated and abused. They organized, stuck together, and achieved a victory.

If you have ever done any organizing, you know that it’s not about making a logical argument, showing the numbers, and proving points. What’s a lot more important are human relationships, emotions, trust, feeling comfortable with people in your unit.

It’s a lot harder to organize in an environment of mistrust, suspicion, and mutual dislike between workers. Any collective action requires an enormous amount of trust between participants because getting atomized, alienated consumers to do any collective action at all is ridiculously hard.

The vision of self as an island that is better off outside of any collective process is formed slowly and by means we don’t even notice. Those people who tell me, “I don’t need a union. I can negotiate on my own behalf” or “and how do I know you won’t tell the dean what we’ve been talking about here?” are guided towards this vision of self and others. There’s a million strategies to make workers fear and avoid each other.

All of these microaggressions seminars, ethics trainings, gender parity tutorials – their whole point is to make workers detest each other. We tell ourselves they have no effect on us but that’s delusional and well in line with thinking that an exceptional individual can bootstrap themselves out of ideological and intellectual processes that everybody is subject to.

It does have an effect. All of these exhortations to suspect and fear our fellow worker have an effect. Nobody is an exceptional cookie that can rise above this. This is poisoning the workplace for all of us. This is what we need to resist.

Unless we have a clear vision of all the anti-labor strategies employed against us, we won’t win.