Resilience as Ideology

Resilience suggests being strong in the face of crisis. On the surface, it could be seen as a state of mind. Incorporated into the political economy of the everyday, however, it takes on an ideological form.

The idea of resilience – the ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity, and to ‘bounce back’ and ‘beat the odds’ in such crises – is becoming ever more present in economic, social and political discourse. The IMF and OECD worry whether economies are resilient to global downturns. Rating agencies assess the resilience of countries’ debt-to-capital ratios. The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities programme aims to help cities become more resilient to economic challenges. The European Commission has funded multiple international research projects on the concept. In the UK, the concept of resilience has pervaded myriad social and public policies.

The term originated in materials science to describe the amount of stress a material could take before breaking. It was (and continues to be) well-established in ecology and psychology. In ecology the concept is used to describe and examine how complex environmental systems and ecosystems react and adapt to shocks. The concept has also been particularly influential in educational, child and family psychology. The American Psychological Society describes it thus:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Resilience, then, suggests the ability to be strong in the face of crisis and hardship. On the surface it could be seen simply as a state of mind. When incorporated into the political economy of the everyday, however, it takes on a much more complex structure.

Resilience is as innocuous as it is pervasive. Who doesn’t want to be resilient? In our everyday use of the term – the ability to deal with hardship and come out the other end – it is nonsensical to think anyone would voluntarily choose to succumb to (what are presented as) the trials and tribulations of everyday life. It is this ‘common sense’ understanding (an everyday understanding of an idea in Gramsci’s terms, rather than the English understanding of ‘good sense’) that makes resilience so powerful in organising approaches to economic uncertainty, especially regarding the governance of households’ socio-economic practices and behaviour.

Surviving in a Neoliberal, financialised, world

Many saw (or hoped that) the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession would be the end of neoliberalism and the finance-led regime of accumulation. The reality is that this simply has not happened. The reasons for the resilience (sic) of neoliberalism and finance capitalism are not the focus of this article. What their continued centrality to contemporary economics and politics does show however is that the current system is extremely effective at reproducing itself. This is, in part, because agents of neoliberalism – financial and political elites – have been able to create and maintain a hegemonic bloc that has developed a robust ‘socio-cultural unity’ that has been able to incorporate, co-opt and coerce great swathes of people into accepting its organising principles and underlying philosophy. This is compounded by the political and economic reality in the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism especially: finance is simply ‘too big to fail’.

Pre-financial crisis, the dominant narrative was that we were living in an era of all boom and no bust. Financial products were available to, and affordable for, everyday consumers; credit was no longer just about big purchases, but now about funding ‘extravagant’ lifestyles as the norm. After the initial shock of the crisis, the blame lay fleetingly at the feet of the financial elite. Soon enough, however, the responsibility for the financial health of entire nation states lay not with global capital and national governments but individual households. The national budget has since been constantly likened to a household budget (ostensibly to help ordinary people understand austerity), and the public has accepted that it is they who need to tighten their belts.

What this points to is the fact that the system is not changing – in its current form it will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis without necessarily collapsing. What’s more, there is little impetus in the upper echelons of society for any kind of broad-based change. What we see instead is a sustained focus on changing the behaviour of the individual to be able to withstand the pressures and volatilities of late capitalism. Thus the hegemonic project initiated by Thatcher and Regan amongst others remains firm.

In The Great Moving Right Show, Stuart Hall explains how Thatcher(ism) was able to instil a new normal and change the mindset of the public to support key tenets of neoliberalism: the intense individualism, entrepreneurialism and the withering of the state as the provider of social goods. The idea that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, helps defend against criticism of systemic problems. In this sense, structural issues become individual problems, which individuals have no hope of being able to address. Rather, they must instead find a way to survive. Yet, where individual talent and ‘hard work’ are supposed to be rewarded proportionally, it is not good enough to simply survive. Instead, truly resilient people will thrive under pressure, and in fact find ways to improve their lot, despite the odds being against them. In this sense, the notion of resilience clearly retains as central the lauding of individual competition. That in reality this is seldom an attainable goal, as demonstrated by multiple pieces of research, is part of the ideological construct of resilience.

Resilience as a Way of Life

Resilience is focused on mobilising latent resources alongside personal and societal networks in order to withstand shocks, survive and ideally thrive. However, considering that it is couched strongly in the philosophy of neoliberalism (and as such it is no surprise that it is most prominent in Anglo Saxon varieties of liberal capitalism), the use of networks is largely transactional, rather than based on solidarity.

If one looks at constructions of resilience in social policy, for example, it is clear there are ideologically sanctioned understandings. Working multiple jobs, savvy use of credit and assets, and leveraging networks is the ‘good’ kind of resilience. Utilising state benefits, engaging in the grey or black economies, or even refusing to work multiple jobs is the ‘bad’ kind. Workers in the gig economy are seen as industrious and responsible, while their intense precarity is swept aside. Furthermore, there are plenty of groups that organise and agitate for better, fairer conditions (Focus E15, tenants’ unions such as ACORN, the IWGB) which although are clearly practising resilience, are not practising the form of resilience that furthers individual gain. Rather, the articulation of collective demands for progressive social change is linked to reliance on others and the state rather than individual self-sufficiency and financial independence.

The central aim of resilience as a political, economic or social governance strategy is to internalise the inevitability of uncertainty. On some levels this is a good thing – uncertainty is indeed inevitable, and it can only be good that individuals and societies are equipped and prepared to adapt to change. However, how we structure our economic system is not inevitable. It has been constructed and is reproduced for the benefit of a small number of people. Yet we are told there is no alternative. The market is constantly reified as something that responds to events, when it is in fact individual actors that shape the market (the market does not boom or crash spontaneously; rather shares are sold and/or bought, debts are repaid or defaulted on, etc.).

The rise of resilience is part of the individualisation of risk. The ‘golden age’ of the welfare state, despite flaws, centred on socialising risk. The NHS is an exemplar of this, but look at any social security system from a few decades ago (regardless of whether it followed a social insurance model like Germany or social citizenship model like the Nordic states) and it will provide a similar image. Welfare now rests in the hands of the individual. Even if one receives social security, it is conditional on looking for work, learning new skills and so on. And although, devoid of context, skills training and other social investment strategies are laudable, they are unlikely to be able to provide claimants with the ability to earn enough money to escape hardship. Unfortunately it does not matter if a welfare claimant finds stable, rewarding and fairly-paid work; in this configuration, the important thing is that the individual takes responsibility for their circumstances, regardless of if those circumstances are related to the individual’s actions and choices or not.

What can be done?

Resilience is a product of neoliberalism and is intimately suited to the social and economic conditions created by finance capitalism. The long-term solution, then, is to challenge these structures and propose new ones. In this sense, effectively challenging the philosophy of resilience can be slotted into the broader struggles towards socialism. However, there are a number of things to focus on in the short to medium-term (and indeed into the long-term).

The first action is to continue to promote, support and organise within trade unions. The traditions of solidarity, collective bargaining and articulating economic alternatives provide a clear antidote to the philosophy of neoliberalism which is encapsulated in the dominant political and economic understandings of resilience. It is also important to understand that the most effective way of challenging resilience may in fact be to articulate an alternative understanding of resilience, based more firmly on collective endeavour, rather than a wholesale dismantling of the concept (as it is likely something similar will take its place if the structures of neoliberalism remain).

The second action is to campaign more strongly for a universal welfare state. Of course, this will require moving beyond the traditional welfare state designed for the industrial male breadwinner, so it is not simply a case of reverting to what existed before. Rather a new universal welfare state needs to acknowledge and mitigate the uncertainties of late capitalism and the knowledge and gig economies. Not necessarily through initiatives such as Universal Basic Income, which does not necessarily challenge the primacy of the individual, but through the provision of public and social services as public goods. This includes housing, transport, education, healthcare etc., which must be part of a much broader economic strategy based upon forms of co-operative and common ownership and economic democracy.

Resilience reinforces the recommodification of workers and does little to support those outside of paid work (in this sense resilience can be particularly gendered, considering that the vast majority of domestic labour is still undertaken by women, many of whom must juggle this with paid labour). It also shuts down recourse to action because of the inculcation of individual responsibility for socio-economic situations over which individuals may have little control. This encapsulates the notion of resilience as ideology: as a concept and organising principle it reproduces structural inequalities, insulates the economic system from sustained critique and challenge, and makes blaming the victim so natural as to be almost an unconscious act.

Become resilient to resilience

Resilience can be reframed as resistance.

The framework for resilience in Anglo-Saxon contexts crumbles when a rigorous critical analysis of crisis is applied. Crisis can be a moment of consolidation as much as it can be a point of systemic change. The task for intellectuals and activists alike is to be organised and ready to leverage future crises.

The genius of resilience is that is reconceptualises everyday life into a series of overlapping crises and forces short-termism as the norm. This does not allow for the long-term strategy needed to prepare for the next systemic crisis, be it political or economic. By promoting the reorganisation of both the welfare state and the wider economy along more collective lines, promoting social citizenship and the welfare state as the provider of social goods, resilience as currently conceived becomes meaningless. Why would you want to be a resilient individual when you can avail from solidarity and collectivism? If resilience means going it alone while others build a society for one another, why would anyone want to be resilient?


Matthew Donoghue (@drdonoghue)

Matthew researches and writes on issues around hardship and inequality in the context of critical and cultural political economy. He has published on topics including social cohesion, resilience, Brexit and social citizenship. He tweets at @drdonoghue and writes here in a personal capacity.