A few weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article about how “we” almost stopped climate change. It is a remarkable piece, rich with detail, about how scientists and public officials raised the alarm on climate change and nearly succeeded in getting a binding international treaty capping carbon emissions. I am among those who was very critical of the framing of this story, which concludes with breezy generalizations about human nature that would be more at home in an undergraduate essay than the paper of record. In reality, the general public is not heard from at any step along the way — this is all a story about a power struggle among elites. And all the evidence points toward an obvious conclusion: hardline conservatives in the first Bush administration, following up on the climate nihilism of Reagan, wound up torpedoing the effort, with results that are by now familiar to us.
This critique is obvious. What I wonder about, though, is why the author would choose this framing when it is such a poor fit for the story he is telling. Clearly one motive is to avoid “politicizing” the issue and alienating conservative readers. Indeed, perhaps there was even an effort to highlight the fact that Republicans and industry representatives contributed positively, to encourage them to do so in the future. But it is interesting to me that this attempt to avoid partisanship should take the form of a gesture toward collective guilt. After all, there is evidence that pro-corporate Democrats also stood in the way of action, so why not go for standard both-sidesism? Why blame the people at large for something that happened almost exclusively behind closed doors?
The author of this piece is hardly alone in gesturing toward collective blame, which is one of the most characteristic gestures of contemporary political discourse. For instance, today on Twitter I learned that “we” made a mistake in adopting an ad-driven model for the web. I do not recall being consulted on that decision, nor on so many others where “we” are reportedly to blame. This discursive tic becomes most absurd, of course, when we are talking about the actions of the Trump administration, which was installed against the wishes of the American people, who continue to despise him at record levels. But since an election happened, whatever resulted from it, however perverse, must be “our” collective fault — presumably “we” should have arranged for a population transfer of tens of thousands of liberals into the Rust Belt states in anticipation of the election. Shame on “us” for not thinking of that!
In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown talks about the neoliberal strategy of “responsibilization,” which systematically invests formal decision-making power in the bodies least equipped to exercise it. In her example, a university decides to shift health care costs onto individual departmental budgets rather than handling them on an institution-wide basis. The predictable result that departments move toward more part-time labor to avoid ballooning health care costs was presumably what the upper administration was aiming at, but by using the strategy of “responsibilization” they get to blame the individual departments for their “choice” of adjunct labor.
The gesture of collective blame, where “we” are all responsible for political and economic outcomes, is the ultimate extreme of “responsibilization,” and like all strategies of “responsibilization,” it aims ultimately to displace blame for decisions that are made elsewhere. This is a hard-and-fast rule of neoliberalism, as I discuss in my forthcoming book: whenever someone talks to you about freedom and choice, they are looking for someone to blame. The strategy reaches a point of absurdity in the gesture toward collective blame, because the people at large actually have no meaningful moral agency whatsoever. We have no tools of collective action or deliberation — indeed, we are systematically deprived of them, and any new technology that might enable the development of collective action or deliberation is immediately corrupted and rendered unusable. If “we” can’t make reasoned collective decisions to take collective actions, then “we” are not a moral agent, full stop.
The illusion that “we” do have collective agency is actually one of the most effective strategies to prevent such agency from emerging. After all, “we” have apparently messed things up pretty badly — how can we be trusted with that kind of responsibility? Shouldn’t “we” instead hand that agency over to the nice technocratic elites, or the not-so-nice self-styled deal-makers, so that they can take care of everything for “us”?
This dynamic is not limited to neoliberalism — in fact, we can see the same basic logic at work in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, where “We the People” make a brief cameo appearance to legitimate a self-enclosed and largely unaccountable power structure where “the people” have no explicit powers or responsibilities. Indeed, in Federalist 78, Hamilton can even argue, paradoxically, that the Supreme Court is the branch of government with the most direct connection to “the people,” insofar as the will of the people is identified with and reduced to the continued enforcement of the federal Constitution. It is in this sense, I suppose, that “the people” elected Trump, because even though the result went against the immediate will of the people as expressed in the voting totals, it still reflected “our” deeper will-to-have-a-Constitution insofar as it followed the procedures laid out in that august document.
How do we — in the non-scare-quoted sense of actual people with actual identifiable collective interests — respond to this situation? Two possibilities present themselves. The first is to call the elites on their bullshit. “We” didn’t torpedo climate change action, Bush’s asshole chief of staff did. “We” didn’t despoil the planet, corporate elites did. Human civilization has been placed on a trajectory toward extinction by identifiable individuals with institutional power. But to make good on those accusations, we need to take the bad-faith accusation of collective responsibility as a prophecy and become the collective agent that they say “we” already are. That will require developing new institutional forms and modes of leadership, with many contemporary movements giving us promising models. If “we” have any genuine responsibility at the present political moment, it is precisely to become a non-scarequoted we that can really take responsibility.