Socio-economic resilience: a result of being a good capitalist subject?

Note: These thoughts are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any of the research teams working on the project!

It has been a busy couple of months on the project I’m working on. I have been at the academic equivalent of the coalface, conducting lots of interviews concerned with people’s experiences and practices of resilience. And it’s got me thinking. Again.

We’re at the stage in the project where the data is rolling in and tentative analysis can start. So far the preliminary analysis is focusing on which extract relates to which area of the study, so there is not too much to say on the specifics (and this blog would not really be the appropriate forum for that, anyway). Yet engaging with the transcripts reminds you of the interviews themselves: the body language, the tone of voice, your own reactions. What’s more, the process of general coding allows me to engage with the big picture in a more focused way. And once again I find myself contemplating the notion of ‘resilience’ as a concept.

It is being used all over the shop at the moment. I cannot turn on the TV or radio without hearing how such-and-such economy or business is or is not resilient. The term is becoming embedded in the scoio-political lexicon. It is this, a series of photos of people living off the grid sent to me by my colleague, and a series of thoughts that struck me whilst coding that led me to writing this piece. In it I’m going to argue that ‘resilience’ is at a fundamental level the act of being a good capitalist citizen.

Now, there are some caveats here. Firstly, those people living off the grid are of course resilient, as you have to be to live such a life. In another context, those people who dedicate their lives to challenging socio-economic and political orthodoxy are certainly practicing a form of resilience. Both these kinds of resilience are just as legitimate (if not normatively moreso) as the one I’m going to discuss in this article. However, the most ‘popular’ notion of resilience will be that one that is taken as ‘common sense’. A way of living and interacting in the social world about which you would not think twice. Such a notion of resilience is the one that we unconsciously take in from the media and (perhaps to a lesser extent) the pronouncements and actions of the state.

To explain what I mean, let me use the financial crisis as a starting point. Before the crisis we were encouraged to get as much credit as possible. If it was available to us, why wouldn’t we take it? All boom and no bust. This leads to the development of multiple debt-financed economies (think 100% mortgages). When the bubble bursts, no-one has any money to pay back their debts; no-one thought they needed to save, as they could rely on finance.

Households, companies, and even states threaten to (or indeed do) default on their credit. After the crisis hits and those who are ‘too big to fail’ are given charity, we as citizens are lambasted for our lack of financial foresight and prudence; we will not get charity, because it is our fault we are in this mess of credit, and we will have to pay the price of austerity. We are told we must be sensible with our money, our debt, our outgoings. Just because we were offered credit, told it was a no to low risk option and encouraged to take it, doesn’t mean we had to. Yet we still have to rely on finance-led capitalism. As Glynos et al. describe it, it is a process of ‘cooling out the marks(£)‘ . Being successful in these hard times becomes a game of survival. Those companies, economies, and people who are best placed to weather the storm, or who are able to stay afloat, are thought of as resilient.

But this poses a number of questions. What does it mean to be resilient? How, if one is in a vulnerable position, does one become resilient? What does one need to be resilient in the first place? One thing that keeps coming up in my reading of resilience is that it requires a certain level of base resources. If you are going to be able to ‘bounce back’ or perform ‘ordinary magic‘ you need something that will be able to absorb some of the shock. Since we’re discussing socio-economic resilience, those resources can be thought of as capital. To borrow from Bourdieu: financial, social, cultural, human capital.

If you have a cushion of resources, you can withstand the extra repayments, you can fix the boiler if it breaks, you don’t lose your car, you don’t have to sign-on straight away; if you have enough resources you can use this time off work to reinvent yourself, to become the ideal liberal entrepreneurial citizen. If you have a middle-class habitus you are more likely to know how to work the system, or know which people to talk to to get a problem sorted quicker. It could be something as simple as knowing how to write an effective CV and/or cover letter. You may have better financial literacy because you grew up in a household where prudent managing of debt was a routine occurrence (as opposed to not being able to deal with debt, or knowing what to do but simply not having the money to make the repayments).

The majority of these things deal with capital/money and what you do with it. To an extent measures of moral value (think of the deserving/undeserving criteria people use to (de)legitimise people’s use of welfare) are an extension of monetary value. Liberalism is lauded for the focus on individual liberty; as an individual you can strive to achieve your own conception of the ‘good life’. Yet this means that if you don’t achieve the ‘good life’ the responsibility rests with you. As CB Macpherson argued, Liberalism and capitalism have developed side-by-side, which is no surprise considering the Pursuit of Happiness is essentially an individual endeavour. So, if you are resilient, you have made smart choices as a rational actor, which provides some respite from a volatile market. And in a market-based society these smart choices are about being sensible with money, aspiring to a better job, aspiring to own property, and living within your means whilst also living with the direct contradiction of indebtedness.

In a nutshell, then resilience is doing the things expected of you in a capitalist world. Yet such a conception of resilience does not particularly allow the incorporation of structural issues as explanatory factors in a citizen’s overall experience of resilience, or designation as resilient. Of course structural factors are not completely ignored or dismissed, but the frame within which they are seen and understood is overwhelmingly methodologically individualist. The fundamental outcome of this is that resilience can only really be seen as the pursuit or process of an individual unit (e.g. a citizen, a family, a household, a corporation, a state etc.).

Yet this doesn’t mean resilience has to be seen in this way. In fact, the research we are carrying out challenges such conceptions, whilst trying to build alternative understandings. Yet the dominant public discourse, as with anything related to value, capital, money (you pick a word), remains individualist. At the moment, I’m not able to outline an alternative, but I am sure that the first step must involve challenging these dominant discourses.

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