Self-exoneration via Self-flagellation: The structure of neoliberal guilt

By Stephen D’Arcy

You may have seen the video: a young white woman declares her complicity with white supremacy, insists on her own affinity and commonality with racists who murder Black people, and yet — such is her genius — she manages to depict herself in the most idealized way, as a paragon of virtuous anti-racism.

I was thinking that there should be a proper label for this increasingly common, perhaps distinctively neoliberal communicative stratagem that deploys ritual self-flagellation (“We’re quite shit!”) as a vehicle for self-exoneration (“As one of those declaring that we’re shit, clearly I’m an exemplary figure, to be admired and emulated”). But then I realized that the whole point of ritual self-flagellation, in the literal as well as the metaphorical senses, is self-exoneration, or at least a taking of one’s distance, on a now-elevated perch, from the mundane sinners all around who don’t even bother to whip themselves. So, the observation that it is used as a self-exoneration tactic is redundant, ultimately. That’s just what what we mean by self-flagellation. Still, this somehow doesn’t satisfy my hunger for phrases, so for the time being I’m going to call it “auto-exculpatory self-flagellation.”

Why do I suggest that auto-exculpatory self-flagellation might be “distinctively neoliberal”? It’s because there’s an element of brand management and self-marketing built into this practice. It is self-promotion in a properly entrepreneurial sense of the word “promotion.” More specifically, like an app-flogging tech startup, one cleverly creates the perception of a lack (in this case, a lack of virtue), even as one offers up one’s services as the local monopolist provider uniquely positioned to satisfy the new demand.

So understood, it is perhaps the substitute, among suitably entrepreneurial, neoliberal egos, for the obsolete experience of “liberal guilt.” If liberal guilt wallowed in a longing for the lost confidence in one’s own innocence, expressed in a para-Keynesian displacement of agency onto policy makers, neoliberal guilt sees instead an opportunity to cash in on one’s complicity with wrongdoing by converting it into a kind of psycho-social “income” stream, in the currency of “social capital,” namely, the prestige of being “one of the good ones.” What this situation demands, the self-exonerator thinks, is a promotional video for a campaign of viral marketing…promoting me!

But is it a bad thing? Or more pointedly, should we blame these entrepreneurs of self-exoneration?

Well, that would be the wrong way to think about such things, especially if the context is political. The way to think about politics is politically, and that means to foreground two elements conspicuous by their absence from the discourse of the guilt-neoliberal: causal explanation and strategic analysis.

Instead of the individualizing, personalizing pronouncement that “we’re shit,” or “they’re shit,” political thinking analyzes why bad things are happening, with a particular interest in the institutions, structures and systems that generate harms and injustices. On this basis, it looks to develop a strategy for defeating and (to borrow Marx’s term) smashing [brechen] these systems by means of popular resistance and social struggle, including (where feasible) the construction of self-organized alternatives.

The question isn’t, is this person (me, you) or this group of people (us, them) bad or good? Rather, the question is, how can we find a plausible path toward smashing the systems that generate so much injustice? And here is where auto-exculpatory self-flagellation falls so short. It hides the systemic, institutional causes of injustice behind a screen of personalizing moral righteousness and it eschews the development of strategies for winning, preferring instead to focus on the accumulation of social capital. The way to relate to it is not with a counter-moralism that tries to shame the self-exonerator, but to analyze the causes of this phenomenon and develop strategies for undermining its influence. Above all, that means advancing radical politics as an attractive and effective alternative to liberalism. Liberalisms of every sort, as forms of individualism, thrive in contexts where the prospects for potent collective action seem bleak. It can be undermined only by showing in practice that collective struggle can win.

22 thoughts on “Self-exoneration via Self-flagellation: The structure of neoliberal guilt”

  1. The author seems to be confusing Neoliberalism with liberalism. It’s hard to tell for sure since a lot in this article is vague. Neoliberals tend to be conservative–not liberal. Liberalism today is actually the opposite of what Neoliberalism stands for, which is laissez-faire.

    1. I’m not confused; I just disagree with you about what liberalism is. Edmund Burke was a conservative; John Locke was a liberal. You’re using the typology deployed by political reporters in the USA. I’m assuming a different, more traditional, and in my view more accurate way of classifying political stances.

      Moreover, as I’m using the term, neoliberalism isn’t really an ideology; it’s a regime of governance, which (among other things) invites individuals to “market themselves” and their “skill sets” as “flexibly” as they can, and it is in this context that I refer to neoliberalism here: the imperative of self-branding, etc.

      1. stevedarcy – This is an interesting conversation. Liberalism and conservativism go back in political history further than Neoliberalism, of course. Neoliberalism has been around for the last 100 years, and it’s not just a national movement, but has been influencing politics in the western world as well. There are some excellent sources that define liberalism, conservatism, and neoliberalism nicely. I’m reading one right now by Moeller van den Bruck called Germany’s Third Empire, but I have read other Neoliberal works that explain its philosophy by contrasting it with liberalism and conservatism. A couple of gems are by Hermann Rauschning called The Revolution of Nihilism (Neoliberalism) and The Conservative Revolution. The interesting thing about these movements is that they are not purely political, but ideological as well. This is evidenced by the fact that none of the these movements have really changed at all in the last 100 years. The main tenets of each of these ideologies remains purely the same. That is an amazing feat considering the world has changed so dramatically in the last 100 years. So I guess I disagree with you that Neoliberalism is not an ideology. Neoliberalism goes beyond regime of governance in that it’s also a way to see the world and the people in it. There’s a ton I could say about this and about the “marketing” or “self-branding” that you referred to. Just one question, though, what are the sources you refer to for your information?

      2. Excellent abstract of the book. Really nicely said about what Neoliberalism is. Thank you for sharing the link.

  2. Just want to chime in on the use of the word “neoliberal.” It seems that there are two uses operating. The more traditional use that I learned in the 90s has to do with horrific economic policies enforced on poor countries by industrialized nations. The name always confused me but these were the policies advocated by the capitalists powers (so, they are on the “conservative” side politically.) Recently neoliberal has come to be used to mean something like “the latest generation of liberals.” I think it’s an appropriation of the term, as far as I can tell, by people who maybe don’t know about its use in recent-history economics?

    1. Well the latest generation of liberals for the most part are neoliberals because it has become the dominant paradigm both in macroeconomic policy and (arguably as a result) in political ideology, but there are many significant differences between what has been called (classical) liberalism and what came into being under the name neoliberalism in the economic theory of the Mt Pelerin Society, and in turn the global economic and political order which has been built on that theory.

  3. This is a great analysis- I love the notion of the public performance of penance being connected to a marketing and branding l of the self. I’ll try and write a longer response and some of my own reflections in the coming weeks.

  4. One could argue that the self-flagellating stance aims to promote the kind of white person who is in fact involved in social movements, does strategy, and has an analysis. I would buy your criticism if you reduced your scope of applicability to only those white persons who self-flagellate yet do not do movement work. Such people indeed exist. But I also know multiple people who dialectically engage with their inherited identity and at the same time understand and strive to smash the structural causes of injustice. I might concede that such people rarely advertise themselves or center attention, but in private conversations with other white persons who are removed from the analysis and denounce social movements, these people do valuable work. What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Dato,

      Thanks for your comment. Here’s some thoughts in response.

      First, I want to make it clear that I’m not against (but on the contrary, welcome) a healthy dose of self-examination by white people, to break attachment to a white identity and some of the things associated with that, like maybe eurocentrism and an unconscious sense of racial entitlement. More generally, I’m in favour of a critical discourse on ‘whiteness,’ notably in the form of historical analysis of how whiteness as a pretext for differential access to advantages has been deployed historically, up to the present, as a stratagem of social control, accelerating the decomposition of antisystemic solidarities (in communities, in the wider working class, and so on).

      However, I do not believe that neoliberal white guilt makes a contribution to political engagement with anti-racist struggle. It may be that it is consistent with engagement, but it is neither a form of, nor a plausible incubator or stimulus to, serious political engagement with racism (that is, anti-racism), in my view. Why not?

      Consider an analogy. If I am sick, someone might say, “You’re sick because God is punishing you for your wickedness.” Now, it may even be the case that I am wicked. The mistake of this Evangelist isn’t that, on the contrary, I’m not wicked at all. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am in fact quite wicked. The problem is, I won’t cure my illness by improving my behavior, renouncing the ways of sin, etc. No. I need a medical intervention, which offers a diagnosis of the cause of my illness, develops a prognosis about whether and how I might cure it, and prescribes a course of treatment. This requires an examination and an understanding of the structures of the body, and why they are (mal-) functioning in this way. Wickedness is neither here nor there. It’s a distraction, a red herring. (That doesn’t mean it’s not real; it means only that it doesn’t produce the illness, and the illness can’t be removed by working on my virtue.) No amount of personal virtue will cure my illness. A targeted intervention based on a sober assessment of its systemic basis will be needed. The Evangelist isn’t really helping. He or she is indulging in an exercise the main effect of which will be to reassure him or her of his/her personal superiority. It is a generator of smugness and self-righteousness, but won’t cure what ails me.

      Now, suppose someone says to me, I want to do two things: on the one hand, I want to pray for your wicked soul; on the other hand, I want to offer you some antibiotics, which will address the underlying biosystemic malfunction that is generating these pathological symptoms. My response should be: fine, pray for me if you must, if it comforts or flatters you; but what I really want and need is access to those antibiotics, because that is what will really do the work of transforming my situation. The prayers are like wheels on a mechanism that spin, to no real effect except a decorative one.

      The moralism of the guilt-neoliberal is a kind of decorative wheel spinning, which — because it ignores the systemic causes and the strategic challenges of tackling systems of white supremacy — fundamentally fails to get at the problem it pretends to take so seriously. And that’s the basis upon which I criticize it. If the decorative wheel-spinning moralism is accompanied by more serious strategic analysis and systems analysis, and the political organization and mobilization that such analysis encourages, then it can be said to be harmless. But in fact, I think it is more likely to actively interfere with such strategic/systemic analysis and action, because it highlights a dimension — the individual goodness or badness of particular persons — which has little to do with how racism reproduces itself and shapes the lives of people and the operation of institutions. In short, then, I think it is at best harmless. But to the extent that one really buys into the idea that the personal fault or vice of individuals is a crucial factor in racism as a systemic injustice and form of oppression, it is actively discouraging the kind of systemic engagement that the problem requires.

      1. Thank you for such a detailed response. Firstly, I must say that, this particular example aside, I do not consider prayer a mere decorative exercise in self-indulgence or what have you. Prayer, meditation and intentional spirituality has a lot of healing power (at the very least). I am not implying you believe in the contrary, I just want to put this out there before I proceed.

        Your metaphor was very strong, even somewhat persuasive. Here’s where I need some help and clarification from you:
        “I think it is more likely to actively interfere with such strategic/systemic analysis and action, because it highlights a dimension — the individual goodness or badness of particular persons — which has little to do with how racism reproduces itself and shapes the lives of people and the operation of institutions.”
        and, later, you seem to doubt that “personal fault or vice of individuals is a crucial factor in racism as a systemic injustice and form of oppression.”

        Then, my questions are:
        How do you understand “systemic” factors? And how do you suggest racism reproduces itself? Perhaps my analysis is wrong but I thought the term “systemic injustice” meant the following: that a group of racist and violent individuals introduced and enforced a set of practices which found their way into the culture of “whiteness,” i.e. these notions and practices were taken up and practiced by OTHER PEOPLE. The violence and injustices were reproduced by other human beings who explicitly or implicitly believed the notions that justified such violence. Eventually these practices were codified into laws, policies and cultural beliefs that PEOPLE still espouse. Therefore, I understand systemic injustice as the sum total of practices that PREJUDICED PEOPLE enforce. In other words, it seems that you draw a stark contrast between the individual and the systemic but for me the systemic is nothing but a collection of individual actions. In my interpretation, then, changing individuals and individual behavior CAN BE a way to disrupt how racism reproduces itself, that it CAN BE an “incubator or stimulus” for anti-racist work. I am not saying that it always is. I am not saying that the category of self-exonerating white people who do it for kudos but freak out at the mention of reparations or socialism do not exist. I am, however, saying that it is much easier to work with these people because at least there’s something that you can use to hold them accountable – their own desire to get rid of their own racism, and their own explicit commitments.

      2. First, I should clarify what I do and don’t want to say about the matter of prayer, meditation, and intentional spirituality, and how it might or might not affect illness, and so on. I should say, more precisely, that I am talking about praying for another person, to invite divine intervention (grace, or something like that) to shift someone’s conduct away from sin, in order thereby to heal that person’s physical illness. It is one thing to say that spiritual life generally, or prayer more specifically, might have benefits of some kind (such as stress reduction, among other things), for people who are sick. It is something else, and in my view it is more obviously questionable, to assert that inviting Divine grace to steer someone away from sin will help cure the illness of the alleged sinner. That’s the only point I was trying to make about praying for the sick person: it does not engage with what is actually causing the problem. Moreover, the failure to do so has the predictable effect of probably delaying a cure, by misdirecting attention away from the necessary process of diagnosis and treatment. Now, if someone believes that illness is caused by the sins of those who get sick, then that is a pure disagreement with what I’m assuming. By contrast, if someone thinks that prayer, or even more so, meditation, etc., might be of real benefit to people who are sick, then that’s not something I take myself to have addressed, and it’s not something I wish to deny, or indeed to say much of anything about. For my part, I would basically assume that meditation by the sick person would obviously have some potential health benefits. I’m more doubtful about praying for others, as an activity that can cure their physical illnesses.

        Second, on the matter of how I understand the ‘sytemic’ dimension of racism, and how it relates to individual conduct, I’ll try to clarify my position. I would not accept your formulation that “the systemic is nothing but a collection of individual actions.” If that were so, then racism would be a discernible pattern, whereas I think it is something more than that: a system, which functions so as to produce the discernible pattern. To see what I mean by this, consider two examples of orderly human behaviour. The first example of orderly behaviour is how people file out, in familiar and predictable ways, from a football stadium at the end of a game. Every Sunday, after the game, people file out, walking along familiar paths, dispersing toward cars, buses, subways, and so on. That’s a pattern of behaviour, which we see people enact repeatedly, and we know what to expect. Contrast this with another example of orderly behaviour: the conduct of the players on the field, the referees, among others, during each of those football games. In this case, there is also a discernible pattern, but the order they enact isn’t just a familiar outcome of individuals making decisions, in ways that we might find predictable. Rather, what we have is a complex process by which people are ordered into roles (throwing the ball, or kicking, or tackling, etc.), which they are assigned by the imposition of socially recognized statuses (being ‘the quarterback,’ a ‘linebacker,’ and so on), and a meticulous process of training, and routines of norm enforcement for coping with non-compliant performances (penalties, expulsions, etc). This orderly, institutionally complex set of roles and routines is embedded in other powerful institutions: there are corporate sponsors, there are industries that produce fan paraphernalia, there are police officers overseeing fan behaviour, and the players are paid for their compliance in ways set out by contracts, and so on. Thus, when we compare these two types of orderly behaviour, it is clear that the efficacy of individual choice is much more potent as a potential way to shift or disrupt the first type of order, and much more limited as a way to transform or contest the second type of order. The second one has mechanisms of reinforcement, ways of neutralizing noncompliant behaviours, training processes operating from childhood to adulthood, and incentives to reinstitute normality in the event of a temporary disruption, whereas the first one is indeed much more a case of an order that is reducible the haphazard choices and performances of individuals. You can’t end football by quitting the team. Even if lots of people quit, they just become people disallowed from entering the playing field during the game. But the game will proceed as usual, with new players occupying those roles. If you want to end the pattern of behaviour exhibited by the players, you’ll need a much more well-considered strategic approach for actually contesting the institutional structures that generates these activities every Sunday.

        That, in short, is what I mean by ‘systemic,’ in contrast to individual. I hope that clarifies it. Racism is, yes, something that –- on one level –- individuals enact. But that’s a half truth, because the performances of individuals are generated by the system, rather than the other way around.

      3. Great and thorough response, I like this back-and-forth 🙂 Thanks for clarifying your thoughts on prayer. You have formulated it very carefully! I am inclined to agree that as soon as sin enters the paradigm of disease, things get ugly. I still believe (!) that praying for someone else’s health has positive effects on the diseased person. Needless to say, I firmly agree that if prayer/divine intervention is used a means to steer people away from effective treatment, then that’s a huge problem.

        Now for your response: the examples make sense, although I must point out that changing the behavior of people leaving the stadium is not easy either, and requires a systemic approach in itself: you need to convince multiple stakeholders, perhaps redesign the exits, run simulations, bring in architects, builders etc. But this is a minor critique, sincerely intended to help you formulate clearer examples 🙂

        Let me know if you consider this summary of your argument apt or not: the presence of feedback mechanisms (reinforcement, punishment, incentives, neutralization), and multiple individual “players” (speaking game-theoretically), creates patterns that are incredible complex. Analyzing these patterns from the p.o.v. of individual behavior is not an effective unit of analysis (due to its complexity), therefore one must first analyze the “rules of the game” and how they structure emergent patterns and individual behavior. Only if we can agree on our rule-analysis can we hope for agreeing on how to affect individual behavior.

        I hope you forgive me for insisting on me own vocabulary, but hey, “translation” is hard work 😀

    1. I do accept your summary of my argument. The very last part, about the need to “agree on our rule-analysis,” possibly goes too far. I would say we need to grapple with the fact that the order is regulated by a complex, all-too-resilient, institutionalized system of supports, and that this poses a real challenge for anyone who wants to oppose it. It requires that we engage with it at the level of institutional processes, and so forth. So, yes, I agree with your summation of my view, but I might quibble with the point about agreeing on how to analyze it. If that were true, we might never get started. Instead, I only want to say that anti-racism has to operate at that so-called (by me) systemic level, not just at the level of individual virtue/vice.

      By the way, I would say very similar things about environmental injustice, sexism, and so on. These are social problems, generated by social institutions and systems, not a lack of goodness on the part of individual persons, and they can’t be solved by individuals trying to be better people, even if being a good person is of course something to be commended, for obvious reasons. No matter how good someone is, though, these systems will continue to operate, unless they are broken up at that systemic level.

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