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The Responsibility Lie

by Roland Rottenfusser Tuesday, Aug. 06, 2013 at 2:38 PM

Responsible in little things and powerless in big things, the end consumer should compensate for mistakes committed by large powerful organizations. A kind of crowd-sourcing of the sense of responsibility occurs... Real problems can only be solved through structural change.


The term “responsibility” is misused in neoliberalism

By Roland Rottenfusser

[This article published on May 28, 2013 is translated from the German on the Internet, Roland Rottenfusser is a member of the Active Citizen community.]

The individual should correct the failures of politics through consumer decisions at his own expense. “Personal responsibility” is always emphasized when institutions withdraw from responsibility – and bring about a worsening of our situation. Still there is a real responsibility of the citizen. It consists in breaking the power of these institutions.

“A little personal responsibility is right,” my dentist said when he presented the enormous bill to me. My health insurance would not take over a cent of it. The FDP chairperson Bruederle urges more personal responsibility. Everyone should provide health insurance for himself as with pensions. “promote and demand” was long stressed on the labor market. The meager Hartz IV benefit should “strengthen the personal responsibility of the beneficiaries.” That sounds good. The ideal of an autonomous personality seemingly stands behind that. One frees oneself from dependencies and makes decisions for his or her life. If it goes wrong, one accepts responsibility. I am touched that people like Bruederle and my dentist are so engaged for my development to a full personality.

Did we have it too easy in the past? In any case, Angela Merkel reproaches us: “We have lived beyond our means.” Prince Charles decries: “We are destroying the air conditioning of our planet.” In a sweeping statement, Dirk Fleck, author of an eco-thriller, calls us the “culprit generation.” We destroy the foundations of life of our descendents with our way of life and our economies. This depresses me all the more since by birth I already belong to the culprit-people (Germany) and the culprit-gender (men). All this adds up to much oppressive guilt for a rather harmless type. I have not slept well recently.


The drastic and general assignment of responsibility to the broad multitude, to you and me, is common rhetoric today. If I want a better world, I begin with responsibility for myself. We should really be glad that responsibility has become a zeitgeist theme. There is genuine responsibility and genuine culpability. Still I criticize exaggerations, over-statements and the misuse of the term “personal responsibility.”

On the example of the dentist, I clean my teeth so well that my dentist could not grumble for many years… I act exemplarily in my responsibility. However I pay for my dentures out of my own pocket along with the dental fee, a kind of penalty for rational conduct.

On the example of light bulbs, we act as though using the right light bulbs were the linchpin or central issue for rescuing the world. The truth is: only a tenth of CO2 emissions come from private households and a twentieth of that is from lighting, that is a two-hundredth. Vast amounts of CO2 are senselessly blown in the air by the big energy users, for example the nuclear industry. The responsibility of the end-user in light is near zero, according to Hans Arpke, energy expert from Weilheim. “Bulbs of the old type give warmth. When they are replaced by temperature-neutral energy-saving bulbs, the consumers can compensate in the winter by turning up the heat again.”

The reproach “we have lived beyond our means” is another example. The fact is more and more people are forced below the poverty level. The squanderers are the richest 10%. Politics does everything to swell their gigantic assets.

On the example of peace policy, a personal responsibility often dominates and oversimplifies. Spiritual persons argue: “Peace begins in you.” But peace in one’s heart has hardly anything to do with world peace. Peace must be brought from the outside to become social reality. The peace-psychologist Prof. Gert Sommer urges political engagement: “Being at peace with yourself is fine. But if 99% of the world population is at peace and 1% is not, that is enough for waging wars.”

On the example of fair trade products, the buyer can actually do something with restrictions. Firstly, ethically-right conduct is harder because of the price. The well-meaning pay a kind of ethics fine. Secondly, wholesalers consciously veil the unfair manufacturing conditions for most overseas products. At the same time consumers are constantly seduced to unscrupulousness through massive advertising campaigns. Much time and energy are needed to be informed and to eliminate wrong decisions. Thus the question is: why do not powerful multis (multinationals) sell fair products? Why doesn’t the state simply prohibit unfair trade?


Thus the end consumer should compensate for mistakes committed by large powerful organizations. A kind of crowd-sourcing of the sense of responsibility occurs. The good-intentioned consumer charges all the misery of the world to his conscience. “If I show correctly, there will be no more exploitation.” That is a fallacy. The real problems can only be solved through structural change and large-scale political decisions. For example, drastically reducing the profit margins of the Aldi-brothers (34 billion estimated assets) would be obvious. The money could be used to pay fairer prices to manufacturers. Profits shouldn’t be skimmed by shareholders.

Within the old system, we experience the old game again and again. Workers and end consumers should divide up the little piece of cake left by the fraudsters. The Austrian author Christian Felber sees a perfidious system in the background: “We are kept away from the real places of political events and driven to supermarkets where we should live out our democratic responsibility in an assigned reserve of elective freedom as a substitute for genuine democracy.” Felber hits the main problem: citizens are systematically excluded from important decisions, for example by being denied direct democracy (except in Switzerland) while decisions are shifted to the EU plane. At the same time we should feel more responsible.


With view to the campaigns launched by the state and the embedded media, personal responsibility is always admonished when someone forces us to accept deterioration of our living situation. Any resistance would be tantamount to regressing to an undeveloped stage of development. Personal responsibility is admonished by those who withdraw from responsibility although they are paid well to bear that. As an example, the 2008 “bank bailout” showed that banks committed fraud in the billions but did not see why they had to bear the losses themselves. The taxpayer was there to be saddled. “Personal responsibility” is the combative term today of the irresponsible.

Our responsibility stands and falls with our real influence on events. This is often less than we think. For that reason well-meaning appeals from the activist scene are often ineffective. So we read in the Web magazine “Sein” “That a change begins with every individual and every individual decision we make everyday cannot be generated through political resistance and force.” What a pity that the author disposes of resistance along with violence or force! The rulers can only be glad that such half-truths circulate in the populace. Then they only need to reduce our decision-making possibilities and make them harmless and innocuous.


The energy- and time-budget of people is limited. On the other hand, his or her area of responsibility is potentially unlimited. The sentence “whoever sits back and watches is complicit” is very problematic. Taken literally, it leads very quickly to a “competence burnout.”… Whoever feels responsible for the whole globe quickly reaches his or her limits. The neoliberal view of the person brings about a negative spiral. Since the collective increasingly refuses to take responsibility for us, we are constantly occupied with caring for ourselves. As a result, we no longer have the strength to assume responsibility for the collective.

Appeals to our sense of responsibility suggest that our sphere of responsibility can be expanded at pleasure. Our limited influence can grow as long as we pay the bill for ethical conduct (for example, Fair trade). It is harder when our action severely impacts the interests of the ruling class. Complementary- or regional currencies are an example. When they become dangerous to the system of control over finance, they can be prohibited overnight. This happened in the famous 1932 money experiment of Worgl. To prevent that, the centers of power must be occupied – or the power of the headquarters must be pushed back.


The question is raised how was it possible to shift responsibility so massively to the “simple citizen.” Firstly, the responsibility-transfer is obviously a mental self-immunization of the powerful. In his sketch “The Responsibility Taker,” Gerhard Polt mocks: “The minister cannot be charged because he merely allowed this.” Secondly, the financial disadvantages of responsible action should be shifted to us. But a third reason seems important to me: the dark sister of responsibility is guilt. People can be manipulated with guilt-feelings. Whoever accepts responsibility without having corresponding possibilities of influence will quickly feel like a failure. Guilt-feelings paralyze, make us small and lead us to believe we had not deserved an improvement of conditions. The American civil rights activist Noam Chomsky writes: “Humanity should think it is the only guilty party for its non-success on account of too little intelligence, competence or effort. Thus the “system” counteracts a rebellion of the population by suggesting to the citizen he is to blame for all evil diminishing his self-esteem.”

Why do many people willingly accept the responsibility passed to them? I presume an underlying desire to feel powerful. The king in the book “The Little Prince” orders the sun to rise every morning. In the evening, he orders the sun to set. And behold the sun obeys. In the New Age movement and esotericism, it is common to ascribe authorship in everything to the individual (“I am creator of my reality”). I see there a resistance of powerless feelings that are experienced as intolerable. The great fantasies sprout up as our actual creative possibilities are pushed back by the institutions.


Can I shirk responsibility? I try to relieve everyone from false self-accusations. But I must emphasize a responsibility that is usually not recognized as responsibility. This responsibility consists in attacking and bringing down the existing power structures, the forces that decided our tax funds flow into war equipment, that decide the people’s money is only debt money for private banks and those who constantly pump money from bottom to the top in a mad legal predatory attack.

We must act not because we are to blame that miserably paid workers on banana plantations suffocated in the sprays. We must act so a world arises in which this cannot happen any more. A great difference exists between “because” and “thereby.” Noam Chomsky explains: if we feel we are failures, that makes us depressed and weakens our drive. On the other hand, if we feel we are valuable persons whose dignity was violated by the power cartels, we will self-confidently demand our rights. Whoever takes responsibility for everything tends to navel-gazing instead of the upheaval of conditions.


This is not a call to abandon “little steps” to a more reasonable life. Refraining from unnecessary car driving and buying fair trade orange juice are important. But these things should happen on the side and gradually become second nature. The life of the politically awakened should be organized so some strength is still left for the great battles. This can mean taking to the streets, occupying plazas and encircling banks. This can mean standing outside in the rain and cold and marching through the ominous rows of heavily armed police. This can also mean testing disobedience and accepting negative consequences for that.

Have you ever asked why it is so popular to say: “I’d rather begin with small changes with myself”? It is simply easier to buy fair trade roses for 3 euro than to take to the street and start a fight with power. The former creates a pleasant feeling of standing on the right side. The later creates fear and is risky. It is often connected with self-doubt and implies a dogged struggle with comrades-in-arms over the right way. But this would be real personal responsibility without false guilt-feelings and great fantasies. Yes, responsibility begins with every individual. But it may not stop there. We have responsibility first to recognize where we are not responsible.

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