Self help

What, then, should the new relationship between society and individual consist of? First, it involves a new concept of citizenship, in which rights and responsibilities go together…. As is so clear the more you examine the rise in crime and social disorder in Britain, the problem has been that the Left has tended to undervalue individual responsibility and the Right has ignored the influence of social conditions….
A modern notion of citizenship gives rights but demands obligations, shows respect but wants it back, grants opportunity but insists on responsibility.
Tony Blair, 8 July 1993

This morning we want to talk about teen pregnancy, because it is a moral problem and a personal problem and a challenge that individual young people should face and because it has reached such proportions that it is a significant economic and social problem for the United States….
This is not a problem that can be solved in Washington…. Ultimately, I believe what is needed on this issue is a revolution of the heart. We have to work to instil within every young man and woman a sense of personal responsibility.
Bill Clinton, 29 January 1996


The language of personal responsibility has come to occupy a prominent place in the political discourse of the American and British centre-Left, at least since Bill Clinton borrowed the rhetoric of family values and personal responsibility from the Republicans during the 1992 US presidential campaign. Now employed by both the Right and much of the centre-Left, this language conservatively shapes how social and economic problems are conceived, including their causes and solutions.

We ignore political discourse at our peril. What may seem like hot air to citizens and political analysts alike has concrete political effects. The terms of political debate determine which issues are perceived as political – and thus put on the agenda – and what role government will play in addressing these issues. Murray Edelman, for example, writes that particular definitions of problems and enemies reinforce particular ideologies, subject positions and exercises of authority. Others influenced by Gramsciʼs theories of hegemony and common sense, such as Stuart Hall and Anna Marie Smith, insist on the importance of looking beyond narrow definitions of political discourse to the politics operating within cultural and moral debates. They point out that a political party or movement becomes hegemonic when it succeeds in normalizing (or naturalizing) its conception of the world – in making its world-view part of the cultural and political common sense, while simultaneously discrediting alternative world-views. In this way, the movementʼs political framework becomes the unquestioned interpretive background against which everyday politics is conducted and perceived.


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