Jennifer Silva on working-class young adulthood in the USA

Jennifer M. Silva is a Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The following quotes are from her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, a contemporary classic.

“She taught me love
She taught me patience
How she handles pain
That shit’s amazing
I’ve loved and I’ve lost
But that’s not what I see
‘Cause look what I’ve found

-Ariana Grande

“Over and over again, the men and women I interviewed told me that growing up means learning not to expect anything from anyone. They told stories of investing their time and energy in relationships and institutions, only to find that their efforts were one-sided. I demonstrate how experiences of betrayal, within both the labor market and the institutions that frame their coming of age experiences, teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril.

They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust. Many make a virtue out of necessity, equating self-reliance and atomic individualism with self-worth and dignity: if they had to survive on their own, then everyone else should too. In an era of short-term flexibility, constant flux. and hollow institutions, the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.”

“For the vast majority of the men and women I spoke with, coming of age has been reimagined as a psychic struggle to triumph over the demons of their pasts. These ‘demons’ take several different forms: pain or betrayal in past relationships; emotional, mental, or cognitive disorders (e.g., depression, dyslexia, or anxiety); or addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Hurtful and agonizing betrayals within the family lie at the root of these torments, grounding their adult identities in the quest to heal their wounded selves. Through telling their stories of confronting a difficult past, working-class women and men stake a claim to dignity and respect, based not on traditional markers of adulthood but on having undergone emotional trauma and emerged, triumphantly, as survivors.”

“…couples who want to create relationships that foster the growth of their deepest selves find that self-realization requires resources that they do not have, and they must decide whether commitment is worth sacrificing their own interests and desires. For women, fears of losing the self predominate: their sense of self feels too fragile to risk in a relationship. Because many young people fear disappointment, betrayal, and dissolution, they often choose to be alone.

In a world where you have only yourself—hard-won through privation and suffering—to depend on, relationships feel overwhelmingly risky. Caught between two impossible ideals of love, many find themselves unable to forge romantic relationships that are both satisfying and lasting. Respondents thus numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by embracing cultural ideals of self-reliance, individualism, and personal responsibility.”

“As the coming of age stories of working-class young people reveal, the strain of risk-bearing has split individuals, families, and communities apart, leaving them with only the deep and unyielding belief that personal responsibility is the key to meaning, security, and freedom. In an era defined by neoliberal ideology and policy, collective solutions to risk run counter to common sense. Young working-class men and women understand personal choice and self-control as the very basis for who they are, and blame themselves, rather than large-scale economic precariousness and risk privatization, for lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures.”

Bourgeois individualism vs. universal personal development

“People commonly see individualism emerging alongside capitalism in the seventeenth century, but the concept itself is of more recent origin. It arose in France in the aftermath of the Revolution, and was first used by French monarchists and Catholics to condemn the ascendancy of private judgement and the dissolution of traditional hierarchy. In 1820 the monarchist de Maistre spoke of ‘this deep and frightening division of minds, this infinite fragmentation of all doctrines, political protestantism carried to the most ultimate individualism’. Lammenais deprecated the individualism ‘which destroys the very idea of obedience and duty, thereby destroying both power and law; and what then remains but a terrifying confusion of interest, passions and diverse opinions’. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had, in the opinion of these French conservatives, subverted the fixed order of the estates, the family, the church and the monarchy, and had unleashed upon society a turmoil of individual wills. Social harmony, they held, depended on the subordination of personal judgement to doctrinal authority and on the restriction of individuals to their proper station in life.

Although the word was invented by reactionaries it was soon taken up by socialists, who used it to describe the disorder of bourgeois society. The influence of French socialism was so great that this usage has passed into the modern socialist vocabulary. Some French socialists, however, recognised that individualism meant not only a war of wills but also the full development of individuals, and they held that individualism in the latter sense could be achieved only under socialism. Louis Blanc contrasted individualism with fraternity: individualism was a rebellion against traditional authority and therefore contributed to human freedom, but it was incomplete if it did not pass into fraternity. Fraternity transcended individualism, retaining its virtues and eliminating its vices, and it made individual freedom possible without competition and selfishness. Fourier denied that there was any conflict between socialism and individualism, and Jaurès held that ‘socialism is the logical completion of individualism’. From the first, the word ‘individualism’ has had subtle nuances, implying on the one hand the ruthless pursuit of individual self-interest, and on the other the self-development of individuals. It is important to appreciate these nuances and to recognise that individualism does not always mean competitiveness.

The sort of individualism I have been describing is often confused with competitive individualism, and is thrown out with it. All forms of individualism are condemned indiscriminately. From time to time one finds this indiscriminate anti-individualism in collective organisations where self-assertiveness, personal judgements, the nurturing of individual abilities or dissent from the collective consensus are discouraged as competitive. But these kinds of individualism are not competitive at all.

Competitive individualism — the capitalist doctrine of unfettered economic competition — embraces the following principles: the best interests of society as a whole are served if individuals pursue their own private interests; material inequality is a good thing because the prospect of exceptional rewards is the only guarantee of exceptional achievement; the market is the best social regulator and permits greater individual freedom than economic planning; the activities of government should be limited as far as possible; and collective bodies should be discouraged because they restrict economic activity.

Several of these principles were first expounded in the seventeenth century by political theorists like Hobbes and Locke, and they found their fullest expression in the views of the Manchester school in the nineteenth century. Milton Friedman is their most passionate publicist today, and his role as the guru of right-wing governments has elevated him from the obscurity of the American academic community to the stardom of a television series. This is real bourgeois individualism. Bourgeois in dividualists pay lipservice to the other sorts of individualism, we know that well enough. But that is not the important thing. It does not matter what they say. What counts is that a regime of unfettered competition cannot respect individuals and cannot allow them autonomy. We should not be misled by high-sounding phrases and good intentions. Inequality, competition, and self aggrandisement prevent large numbers of people from leading the lives they want to lead. Capitalist society treats people as means rather than ends.
Faced with the unfulfilled ideals of individualism, some people adopt a curious attitude towards them. The ideals have been hollow under capitalism, they say, therefore we will have none of them; individualism in all its forms is a capitalist creation, so socialists must reject it; the ideas of personal autonomy, self development and economic competition are bourgeois to the core, so out with them all. Saying this is like saying that industry is a capitalist product, therefore we should go back to the horse plough, or that science is a capitalist product, therefore we should go back to superstition. It would be more sensible to recognise that the reason why individualism is an unfulfilled ideal is that it actually subverts capitalism and points the way towards a socialist society.

The fact that personal development has been possible for those with wealth shows its incompatibility with bourgeois individualism. The inequality praised by bourgeois individualists allows personal development to only a few. If it is to become possible for everybody, then there must be greater material equality. Without a reasonable standard of living one has little opportunity to develop because one’s energies have to be put into sustaining life.”

Pankaj Mishra on the 90’s “revolution of aspiration” and the “common present”

“Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration -of the kind Tocqueville witnessed with many forebodings in early nineteenth-century America- swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies, caste in India as well as class in Britain. The culture of individualism went universal, in ways barely anticipated by Tocqueville, or Adam Smith, who first theorized about a ‘commercial society’ of self-seeking individuals.

The emphasis on individual rights has heightened awareness of social discrimination and gender inequality; in many countries today, there is a remarkably greater acceptance of different sexual orientations. The larger political implications of this revolutionary individualism, however, are much more ambiguous. The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty. They not only suffer from the fact that old certitudes about their place in the world -including their sense of identity and self-worth- have been lost along with their links to traditional communities and other systems of support and comfort and sources of meaning. Their isolation has also been intensified by the decline or loss of postcolonial nation-building ideologies, and the junking of social democracy by globalized technocratic elites.

Thus, individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity, or what Hannah Arendt called ‘negative solidarity’, is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity.”

Bonus: Zygmunt Bauman

“We remain of course as modern as we were before; but these ‘we’ who are modern have considerably grown in numbers in recent years. We may well say that by now all or almost all of us, in every or almost every part of the planet, have become modern. And that means that today, unlike a decade or two ago, every land on the planet, with only a few exceptions, is subject to the obsessive, compulsive, unstoppable change that is nowadays called modernization, and to everything that goes with it, including the continuous production of human redundancy, and the social tensions it is bound to cause.”

Raymond Williams: ‘Mobile Privatization’

“There is then a unique modern condition, which I defined in an earlier book (Television: technology and cultural form, 1974) as ‘mobile privatization’. It is an ugly phrase for an unprecedented condition. What it means is that at most active social levels people are increasingly living as small-family units, or, disrupting even that, as private and deliberately self-enclosed individuals, while at the same time there is quite unprecedented mobility of such restricted privacies. In my novel Second Generation (1964) I developed the image of modern car traffic to describe this now dominant set of social relations in the old industrial societies. Looked at from right outside, the traffic flows and their regulation are clearly a social order of a determined kind, yet what is experienced inside them -in the conditioned atmosphere and internal music of this windowed shell- is movement, choice of direction, the pursuit of self-determined private purposes. All the other shells are moving, in comparable ways but for their own different private ends. They are not so much other people, in any full sense, but other units which signal and are signalled to, so that private mobilities can proceed safely and relatively unhindered. And if all this is seen from outside as in deep ways determined, or in some sweeping glance as dehumanised, that is not at all how it feels like inside the shell, with people you want to be with, going where you want to go.”

Bonus: Dahlia Lithwick on the Canadian truckers protest

“Many observers have noted that weaponizing trucks as machines of occupation was what was radically new about the Freedom Convoy, and that is partly true. Trucks are not just a signifier of economic realities, but also mobile units in which one can live and move, almost wholly oblivious to the world around you, if you so choose. You can build your own ecosystem, communicate solely with like-minded souls, broadcast your own reality, and emerge only to demand unmasked service in local restaurants and shops.

The enduring lesson of the Ottawa occupation was that such arrangements not only shelter individuals from the genuine suffering that happens all around but can also lead them to an information deficit that confirms any belief.”