Circulation of Identities/Disconnected Fatalism

By | July 29, 2014

In his Mammon’s Kingdom (Allen Lane, 2014, pp.150-1), David Marquand gives eloquent expression to the transmutation of choice into fate in the financial capitalism of the last generation. He is worth quoting at length:

‘We trust people we believe are like ourselves. In an egalitarian society we can safely assume that strangers will be sufficiently like us for us to trust them. But as society becomes more unequal, it fragments. Empathy withers. The social world begins to look like Hobbes’s terrible vision of the state of nature, where every man’s hand is raised against every other man. Distrust grows; and its growth erodes the ties that bind society together. Those at the bottom of the pile can gape at those at the top, but they can’t empathise with them. Those at the very top don’t gape at those at the bottom; they shudder with distaste or fear or both. The ‘squeezed middle’ look up with resentment, and down with trepidation.

Hence, one of the great mysteries of contemporary politics. In Britain, large majorities believe that the gap between rich and poor is too large. Yet support for redistributive policies, designed to narrow the gap, has declined. The figures are startling. For well over twenty years more than 70 per cent of the population have believed that the gap between high and low incomes is too large. But today only 32 per cent think the Government should redistribute income from the better-off to the worse-off. (In the mid-nineties the figure was 44 per cent.) Only one person in five thinks poverty is due to social injustice. One in three thinks it is inevitable, and just under one in three that it is due to laziness on the part of the poor.

The fetish of ‘Free Choice’ has brought us to a destination we did not wish to go to, and do not like now that we have arrived. Indeed … we didn’t choose ‘Free Choice’: it was chosen for us, by marketizing governments for which it was a self-validating mantra. Yet a pervasive inertia prevent us from escaping. We cannot escape as a multitude of separate individuals. To escape we would have to act collectively, but we can’t act collectively if we can’t trust each other. In a Hobbesian jungle, only mugs will devote time and energy to collective action. ‘Sauve qui peut’ will become the motto of the canny and the careful, and little by little it will become part of the common sense of the age. Besides, state intervention to redistribute income has been denigrated as a impediment to choice and freedom for more than thirty years; and that denigration pervades the air we breathe. The choices our governments have made for us have procured an outcome that few of us wanted, legitimized by a public doctrine that rules out any possibility of fundamental change. The great argument for fetishized choice was that it would free us from the constraints of fate. Instead, choice has itself become a kind of fate.’  

Rather than trespass on territories already covered in other blogs – like spelling out financial capitalism’s novel ‘class/command dynamic’ – I want here to introduce and comment on just two concepts. The first I shall refer to as the circulation of identities, the second as disconnected fatalism.


I have argued in print and in blogs that financial capitalism has been characterised by a postmodernised or relativised culture, that is, one in which multiple petit narratives have displaced far fewer and more far-reaching grand narratives. This has been functional for, and consolidated by, a governing oligarchy oriented to growth through consumption rather than production (although it would be foolish to suggest that they conspired to plan things this way). Identity-formation occurs via petit rather than grand narratives. This gives the illusion of greater choice even as it pulls the rug from beneath the feet of those aspiring to a rationally compelling alternative to financial capitalism’s ubiquitous neo-liberalist ideology. Neo-liberalism is the grand narrative at the end of grand narratives, one that dares to but need not speak its name. Our masters have pulled the ladder up behind them.

I want to draw attention to another consequence. Peoples’ identities have become dynamic and negotiable hybrids. This not only means that they are no longer rooted in grand narratives, but also that people are relaxed about contradictions in and between the petit narratives that variously comprise their identities; hence the concept of the circulation of identities. There is empirical evidence, as Marquand asserts, that people aver that they inhabit a class-divided society where the rich are over-rewarded and the poor neglected and oppose policies of redistribution. We are increasingly Janus-faced. We present differently by audience and context without experiencing personal angst. We can live with our own contradictions almost as easily as we can live with those of our peers and reference groups.


The notion of disconnected fatalism saw the light of day in a paper I published in Social Theory and Health. Marquand suggests that those being ‘left behind’ are experiencing what Durkheim called ‘anomie’ (or a sense of normlessness); but in my view neither Durkheim’s anomie nor Marx’s ‘alienation’ quite catch it. Drawing on Maggie Archer’s analysis of reflexivity, I maintained that those left behind – the ‘vulnerable fractured reflexives’ – constitute an absent presence in the postmodernised/relativised culture of financial capitalism. This is what I wrote:

‘Vulnerable fractured reflexives, found in all classes but, I conjecture, in inverse relation to SEC (socio-economic classification), only become visible when sought. They live their lives below the radar. To today’s oligarchs they ‘make up the numbers’. They are not floating voters in general elections: they may vote with tabloids like the ‘Daily Mail’ or, most likely, not at all. If they can be summed up in a phrase, then ‘disconnected fatalists’ might suffice. They are disconnected in an increasingly networked or connected world …’

In my paper I explored the salience of disconnected fatalism for health and longevity. More generally, I would link disconnected fatalism with passivity. Life slips by. Disadvantage due to what Archer calls ‘involuntary placement’ in society has a special significance for this group.

‘Might it be that fractured reflexivity in general, and vulnerable fractured reflexivity in particular, are becoming prevailing modes of thought and action for those falling or left behind in financial capitalism.’

But more than this, the vulnerable fractured reflexives are an ongoing accomplishment of the governing oligarchy (constituted by those I label ‘focused autonomous reflexives’).


NB For more, check my blogs on Maggie Archer and health inequalities under ‘critical realism’

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