Friday, 28 March 2014

Resilience is Not a Neoliberal Construct

False Sunflower Heliopsis helianthoides 'Summe...
False Sunflower (Photo: Wikipedia)
by Dr Robert Muller

In recent times, the concept of resilience has become widely used in a wide range of industries in the areas of climate change, economic upheaval, education and personal development. 

It has been suggested that resilience is the latest buzzword for community engagement and in the corporate workplace, taking over from the concept of ‘sustainability’ which has been in common currency since the 1980s. 

It has also been suggested that resilience is a neoliberal construction and that it serves the purpose of maintaining the status quo; that individuals, communities, students, and workers should just accept that life is tough, unable to be changed, but should learn to bounce back and ‘just get on with it’. 

Further, it is argued that this passive acceptance is in response to the immovable ideological monolith of neoliberalism and its attendant constructions (self-regulation, managerialism, the ‘audit culture’, and so on).

As a thinker who believes that the neoliberal ideology is very damaging to community life, and to collaboration and the sharing of ideas, this critique has caught my attention. 

However, rather than providing a critique of this position, I would prefer instead to reframe the concept of resilience, and to argue that resilience is a neutral concept which has been hijacked and co-opted by neoliberalism. 

This is in the same vein as many potentially positive ideas/ concepts/ programs that have been co-opted by the overarching dominant ideology of the contemporary era.

The basic underlying notion of resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ from adversity (but it is also so much more than this as this article shows) and, as such, is a neutral concept without ideological backing. 

The fact that we live in a global neoliberal environment, and that when we ‘bounce back’, we do so within that environment, does not mean that we ‘bounce back’ in order to reclaim our place in enhancing neoliberal capitalism. 

Instead, we have no choice but to bounce back in this situation because that is the environment in which we live. However, perhaps we should see resilience as a site of resistance instead.

One of the key points in building resilience is to create social and community networks. As Emile Durkheim, the famous sociologist argued, when the bonds that attach people to society are weak, then people are at their most vulnerable. 

It is widely argued that neoliberalism destroys social and community networks by individualising people. After all, it was Margaret Thatcher who argued that there is no such thing as society, intimating that we are all just atomised individuals. 

If the active construction of social and community networks, and thus the strengthening of social bonds, is one of the keys to the building of resilience, then this surely can be seen as a site of resistance against the individualising tendencies of neoliberalism.

The next point is that resilience is not simply a ‘bouncing back’ to the way life was prior to the upheaval. After all, humans learn from their experiences. There is no reason that I can think of to suggest that people cannot ‘bounce back’ to surpass their previous quality of life under many circumstances. 

Again, if neoliberalism tends to make people passive and encourages resilience merely to restore the status quo of corporate power so that everyone can be a passive consumer in the corporate-led marketplace, surely the surpassing of the previous qualities of the individual or the community after bouncing back may also include the surpassing of previous knowhow, skills, and wisdom. 

This then appears, to me, to be a very active process of the individual reshaping themselves through the building of stronger social and community networks than previously, rather than a passive acceptance of the neoliberal corporate status quo.

There are many reasons such as the above for taking a positive view of the notion of resilience, which I will write more about in future articles, and which will feature in the resources I am putting together over the next couple of years in conjunction with a great team that I am collaborating with. 

Overall, the main point of the argument here is that resilience is a neutral concept and is not part of neoliberal ideology. The fact that it has been co-opted by the neoliberal corporate and government agenda does not negate the fact that it is, in fact, a neutral concept. 

Any idea can be co-opted by such a powerful all-pervasive ideology, however, if seen from a different perspective, and through an evidence-base, resilience can also be seen as a powerful site of resistance against neoliberalism. 

As it is a neutral concept, all of these notions of resilience are open to debate, but we should not be blinded by either side of the argument. 

Let’s treat the concept as a neutral one and work with it to strengthen those aspects of society that we want to see improved, rather than just applying more ideology to the concept.

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