A recent interview with sociologist Andrew Cherlin at The Guardian provides reason for reflection on the conception of self in contemporary society. Although Cherlin lends his attention to the transformations in the American working class, childbearing and marriage, he briefly evokes a related problem, though familiar to us here:
How can the movement from the “utilitarian self” to the “expressive self” explain the marriage gap?
People talk a lot about American individualism. In the old days it meant working hard, striking out on one’s own, succeeding in your career. Today it often means striving for personal growth, individual development, a happier sense of self. That change occurred among the middle class a few decades ago. It’s now occurring among the working class. We’re now seeing young working-class men and women talk about their lives in the same kind of therapeutic personal-satisfaction sense that the middle class has been showing for decades.
One can say that thinking about one’s personal development is a luxury that could only happen when one’s economic life is in good shape. That’s what happened with the middle class. What’s surprising is that we see the shift to the ‘expressive self’ among the working class even though their economic lives are highly unstable and unsatisfactory.
If I’m concerned about my own personal satisfaction and my wife is not allowing me the personal growth I need, I may be justified in leaving. So the shift to expressive self has some positives and negatives.
It is first important to draw attention to the economic underpinnings of the old American individualism, the precise extent of which remains to be unpacked. A crude appraisal suggests that the old individualism is one of economic self-reliance achievement. If this model has largely fallen by the wayside, it is reasonable to associate this transformation, as Cherlin does, with the middle class’ growing economic security. With necessities guaranteed, more energy and attention can be devoted to examining the organization of our lives. In other words, once we secure the utilitarian, there is greater opportunity to reflect on how utilitarian arrangements express our individuality (or what we perceive as such). Interestingly, we can see the importance of legal or juridical subjectivity in guaranteeing certain human necessities and thus securing the utilitarian.
Also of interest is the transmission of this culture to the working class, formerly utilitarian through and through. If we can plausibly link the middle class’ increased opportunity for reflection on how utilitarian arrangements express individuality to stable economic conditions, such a move does not seem possible in the case of the working class. Strikingly, in face of economic and domestic uncertainty, this class has taken up for itself the same sort of discourse for which minimal economic security was thought to be an enabling precondition. The question then becomes why more energy and attention are being devoted to such examination in the absence of sufficient resources. From an economic perspective, how can there be individuality without subjectivity in the sense here?
We might think to attribute this to human nature or essence, but such an attribution would be unsound. As studies like Taylor’s have shown, human nature varies from period to period, and we cannot ascribe such qualities as expressive individuality to any fixed and permanent existence. On the contrary, this is a distinctly modern formation, one that stems from the problems and interests of post-Romantic society. Thus, we cannot simply maintain that individuality in this sense is the predominant quality over subjectivity.
Yet this line of thought does not seem entirely without merit, and it is important to attempt an explanation at why the lack of resources (to some extent secured by subjectivity in the strict sense) can likewise prompt such a response in the latter’s absence. Undoubtedly, this could be due in part to liberalism’s own shortcomings, that is, the sense that current Western governments privilege economic well-being at the expense of other forms of well-being and the general discontent that stems from this widening realization. This would, however, be shortsighted on our part to ascribe this merely to some growing malaise on the part of the governed, i.e. as a mere reaction to developments in the political sphere.
Indeed, this development within the working class highlights a striking feature of individuality that the middle class’ own changes obscure: qua formation of self, individuality does not follow from subjectivity as a consequence from its cause. (In fact, it is a priori plausible that this new growth of individuality could in turn serve to bring members of the working class together to further and cement their own status as legal subjects.) Rather, individuality is a concomitant formation of self which stands neither as antecedent nor precedent to subjectivity in the sense outlined above. The middle class’ experience with expressive individuality owes not to some essential cycle which predetermines the relation between the two.
Quite the contrary, the relationship between individuality and subjectivity observed there owes to the contingent historical conditions in which this development unfolded rather than some formal, logical or causal necessity. Individuality is latent in our age and was present for the middle class in the 1950’s as a concern in much the same way that it is now for the working class. The difference owes to the way and form in which this need makes itself felt and apparent. In short, though independent of one another, subjectivity and individuality are equally necessary and capable of unforeseen joint articulations in differing historical, economic, and social contexts.