the dirt is temporary

Aug 14 2012

Olympian voluntarism

Samantha Murray won Team GB’s last medal of the Olympics: a silver in the women’s modern pentathlon. Hers was also the last of the interminable post-event interviews, in which each Team GB athlete, whether they had won gloriously or were on the verge of tears, was encouraged/blackmailed into describing how they were feeling, and how wonderful the crowd were. By the time the BBC had got round to Murray, after two weeks of practice, both interviewer and interviewee had the routine down to perfection. After describing how she had been only competing on an international level for a short time, Murray launched into a (undoubtedly heartfelt) motivational speech which had Claire Balding and Gabby Logan in paroxysms of legacy-leaving joy. ‘Honestly, if you have a goal - if there’s anything you want to achieve in life - don’t let anybody get in your way,’ she said. ‘You can do it. If I can do it, and I’m a normal girl, anyone can do what they want to do.’

It’s a bit harsh to pick on Murray – they were all at it. Mo Farah: ‘It has been a long journey grafting and grafting, but you know, anything is possible, you just have to work hard and graft’. Helen Glover: ‘If I can do it so can you. Take the chance to do something, do anything. Work hard and do your best and you can achieve anything’. Nicola Adams: ‘I think the message is really, whatever sport you’re doing, even if it’s just a job if you work hard at, if you’re dedicated you can achieve anything. Anything’s possible.’

Try to put those words in the mouth of Usain Bolt. ‘Anyone can do anything if they have a dream, I’m just a normal guy, if I can do it, so can you’. It would sound ridiculous. One of the best things about Bolt is that he doesn’t play along with this nonsense – he is exceptional, a freak, and he knows it. ‘I am the greatest athlete to live’, not ‘everyone can run 100 meters in 9.63 seconds, you just have to work hard enough’.

There’s nothing new in this of course – it’s the same ‘follow your dream’ mantra that is repeated endlessly on X-Factor and every reality show going. But it seems to have been reaching a manic pitch over the past two weeks, as politicians and the BBC try to justify state funding of elite sport with the hopeful argument that Olympic success will ‘inspire a generation’. And what is this message actually saying? That everyone in this world gets a chance, and if you don’t take it, or don’t work hard enough, then it’s no-one’s fault but your own. It is the continual reiteration of the state of ‘perpetual possibility’ engendered by an economic system and class relation that denies its own existence: it is the message of the ‘level playing field’, of the individual’s heroic, solitary battle to succeed, neo-liberalism in a vest and shorts. What it masks is the redistribution of all responsibility for the welfare of its citizens onto those citizens themselves: the abdication of the welfare state and the very idea of society.

Mark Fisher has written that this type of ‘magical voluntarism’ – ‘you can do anything if you truly believe’ – is ‘what characterises capitalist realism…fatalism at the level of politics (where nothing much can ever change, except to move further in the direction of neoliberalisation) and magical voluntarism at the level of the individual: you can achieve anything, if you only you do more training courses, listen to Mary Portas or Kirsty Alsop, try harder.’

Fisher takes the concept of ‘magical voluntarism’ from the psychologist David Smail, who defines it in 'Power, Interest and Psychology' as the belief, dominant in the psychological establishment, that mental health problems are the responsibility of the individual, rather than a consequence of their social situation. Thus, with counselling, a depressed or mentally ill person ‘can change the world [they] are in the last analysis responsible for, so that it no longer causes [them] distress’ – in effect, turning ‘the relation of person to world inside out, such that the former becomes the creator of the latter’.

This ‘psychotic’ belief in the power of the individual to change the material conditions of her world, through will power (or ‘hard work’) alone, is the cornerstone of late capitalist subjectivity. It is the outright denial that the social world humans inhabit has any effect on their lives at all – a message rammed home everywhere from CBT and therapy sessions, the job centre, popular culture and sport. Rising levels of mental illness have nothing to do with the way we are forced to live our lives under capitalism – take these pills, it’s all in your head. The huge increase in public school musicians has nothing to do with their financial privilege allowing them to survive on a musician’s meagre wage – ‘it’s not about where you come from’. The ‘disappointing’ exam results of a school in a poor area has nothing to do with poverty, only the individual failings of teachers. Work harder. Achieve anything. It’s also why (as Fisher notes in the article above) whenever the latest ‘scandal’ is uncovered - in the media, at Westminster, or the financial sector - there always has to be a scapegoat, an individual badguy (Bob Diamond, Fred Goodwin), who gets the blame. The concept that scandals might be just the most visible consequence of a systemic, not individual, failure is one that is anathema to ‘magical voluntarism’.

When it comes to someone like Bolt, there is perhaps an element of ‘individual magic’ involved, in the sense that he is clearly on another level of performance. But even he had to be born in country with a incredible sprinting history and infrastructure, to have the luck to be spotted by a coach, to be able to survive during his pre-success training period. If he was born in the Sudan, say, the chances of his being an Olympic champion would have been much less, no matter how much he ‘wanted it’, or ‘worked hard’, or ‘followed his dream’. Social materialism matters even when it comes to exceptional individuals.

What’s interesting about the way in which the British athletes were churning out the ‘work hard and you can do anything’ message during the Olympics (alongside the BBC and the politicians) is the indication that as the reality of Britain in 2012 – endless recession, unemployment, the continued triumph of rentier capitalism – points ever more to the exact opposite, so the mantra of magical voluntarism will be looped and intensified to an even greater degree. It is just one more example of how the contradictions of late capitalism now run directly through the individual psychology of its subjects.

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