“No man is an island” John Donne
How obsessed our society in the western world has become with individual well-being, performance and time control…from being productive at work to maintaining a healthy sex life and maximising happiness, pushing ourselves beyond limits has become common practice. Many would comment that, apart from nurturing the ego and unleashing our narcissist tendencies to compulsively expose our achievements on social media, this trend should be regarded as positive. After all, who wouldn’t want to maintain a healthy and dynamic lifestyle? Who wouldn’t want to be able to maximise his time between getting fit and taking care of his kids, just like this guy demonstrates in a rather extraordinary fashion?
Of course, seeking to achieve control on oneself and to maximise some individual aspects of one’s life is not inherently wrong. It even denotes a form of courage and a sense of commitment which are largely laudable. The problem here is that contemporary obsession with well-being reveals far more than just a desire for self-control. Rather, it exposes how the neoliberal mindset has reached its apogee: an individualistic mentality that denies the social and political dynamics at work in our welfare, and which inclines us to take full responsibility for our life by becoming healthy and productive elements of the capitalist system. As a result, the search for individual well-being is rapidly replacing collective forms of struggle for socioeconomic rights, and our energies are now channelled against ourselves, in an infinite quest for control and performance.
The hidden social and political roots of “individual” failures
It seems rather obvious that inequalities in socioeconomic backgrounds make it more difficult for some people to succeed or to maintain healthy habits. Just look at the distribution of people smoking in the UK – as a research paper from Action Smoking Health demonstrates, “death rates from tobacco are two to three times higher among disadvantaged social groups than among the better off”. And ask a family of three kids from this social background what it thinks of the list of ten superfoods everyone should add to their daily food intake in order to live longer. For most people, the current cultural phenomenon of maximising health through intensive pilates and kale juice absorption is absolutely out of reach.
And think about the injustice at work in the fact that all Londoners, regardless of their wealth, or of their travel options, be it green or not, are subsumed to such a high level of pollution that it is impacting lung growth of their children. Indeed, London has been over its legal limits of air quality over the last six years, leading a charity to push for the British government to be sued in high court for breaching its legal duty.
All these factors do not depend solely on us; they are embedded in social and political dynamics that largely exceed the individual level. Nevertheless, the neoliberal mentality does not care and continues diffusing its injunction for people to remain smiley, resilient and dynamic elements of society, masters of their own future. Social factors such as precarity and structural unemployment, or exposure to various forms of ecological degradations are always obscured, so that your professional career, your health and your capacity to repay your debts depend solely on your tiny shoulders.
No time for being idle, the culture of personal success does not allow it. You’d rather not fall sick unless your professional achievements allowed you to secure a decent private health care, as public purses devoted to health and accessible to everyone are increasingly being swept out of the way by waves of austerity in advanced economies. Overall, be reassured that if you fail somewhere, it will mean that you messed up somewhere.
Why Michel Foucault was a visionary
Things have not always been like this. And in this regard, the French philosopher Michel Foucault offers an interesting dive into the historical developments that allowed for this kind of mindset and practices, or “governmentality” as he would say, to become prominent. Offering a genealogy of how power expresses itself in societies, Foucault observed how modern societies shifted from a traditional form of sovereign rule being aimed primarily at containing rebellion inside a territory and that can be described “as the right to take life or let live”, to a later regime that “ exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (Foucault 1990).
In short, the prince’s head has been chopped, but that does not mean that men are entirely free, as much as the tenants of liberalism would want to affirm. Rather, life is being socially and morally ordered through the dissemination of “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (Foucault 1978).
Latest neoliberal phase of modernity insists particularly on a certain form of control that Foucault called “technologies of the self” – these subtle encouragements or nudges addressed to individuals in order for them to behave in a particular way – juxtaposed to a mindset that refutes social and political responsibility in welfare and erects individual choices as sacrosanct. The pressure to achieve, to eat healthy, not to lose time, or to lose time only to meditate in order to regain some productivity are all part of this neoliberal paradigm.
“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels. The troublemakers…”
This framework of governance, while it succeeded in liberating people from the yoke of the mighty sovereign, has created new forms of alienation by making it economically and socially costly for individuals to differ from the role they are expected to hold in society. The idles, the artists, the ones unfamiliar with business strategies or tech and unable to cope with computers, the women not willing to reflect an image of glamour and beauty, are all seen as deviant and encouraged to regain control over their destiny.
Sometimes the difference between encouragement and more authoritarian forms of nudging is thin, as demonstrated by this headline three years ago in the British press which announced a proposal by a council-funded think tank to force fat benefits claimants to go to the gym or they would be penalised on their rent subsidies provided by local councils.
Of course, the spread of new technologies such as the internet and smartphones have facilitated the establishment of external forms of control on the way we behave, as a long but absolutely brilliant read from Evgeny Morozov in the Guardian exposed in 2014. As a result, some companies now ask their workers to maintain a healthy lifestyle by monitoring the quality of their sleep, or they risk being let go. Overall, technology is making Michel Foucault’s vision of a world of self-governance and invisible control entirely possible – and this is all at the service of the capitalist money-making machine. Do not dare taking a walk on the wild side, big brother is watching you.
Karma vs. Agora
In order to resist this individualistic tendency, let us remember that the idea that we rely entirely on our own selves is simply an illusion. From the quality of the air we breathe to the goods we buy and the skills we exchange, from the institutions we share and the imaginative communities that help us bond and find stability, we all rely on each others. Our inherent state of precariousness comes from this very acknowledgement. We are precarious because of “the fundamental social dependency of a living being due to its vulnerability, due to the impossibility of a wholly autonomous life” (Lorey 2011).
That is why we need to work on our self-control and our independence as much as to act at the collective level to regain some influence on our shared future. Technologies of the self such as meditation should be aimed at achieving peace of mind and liberating oneself from the yoke of productivity and the tyranny of time control, not the other way around. And even if meditating encourages a form of acceptance to all things being, it does not in any way inclines to stay inactive in front of the injustice made to ourselves, others, and nature.
These practices should go hand in hand with re-engaging with our political selves and reconnecting with the battles that truly count for our health, our job prospects and our capacity for experimenting happiness. The possibility to shape our institutions, to preserve existing forms of public welfare and to create new forms of collective resilience to poverty, illness, and pollution is in our hands. Only that way will we be able to recreate a society which encourages the deviants, the misfits, for they are the ones that are crazy enough to make our world sparkle, and preserve its diversity and complexity.
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Foucault, M., 1978. “The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge”. Allen Lane.
Foucault, M., 1990. “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction”. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 135-159. Print.
Photos Credits to d26b73 on Flickr – “Jogging” – no changes were made