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.