My recent book Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness, which is published as part of the Political Economy Research Centre (PERC) Series with Goldsmiths Press, is an attempt to articulate a particular form of existential entrapment within contemporary capitalism. I call this entrapment “the futilitarian condition,” which emerges when individuals are forced to maximise utility—which, under neoliberalism, effectively requires enhancing the myriad conditions to accumulate human capital—but in doing so, this leads to the worsening of our collective social and economic conditions. Through developing the concept “futilitarianism,” I aim to lay the theoretical foundations to both understand this entrapment and to imagine ways of thinking and organising that can help us overcome the futilitarian condition.
To develop the theory of futilitarianism, and its relationship to neoliberalism, I use the first part of the book to situate neoliberalism within the intellectual history of utilitarianism. I examine Jeremy Bentham’s writings on political economy, and, in particular, his association of money with the principle of utility. In an essay from the 1770s, “The Philosophy of Economic Science,” Bentham wrote that “the thermometer is the instrument for measuring the heat of weather, the Barometer the instrument for measuring the pressure of the Air… Money is the instrument for measuring the quantity of pleasure and pain.” This association of money with utility runs throughout Benthamite utilitarianism, leading Will Davies to conclude in his book The Happiness Industry (2015), that “by putting out there the idea that money might have some privileged relationship to our inner experience, Bentham set the stage for the entangling of psychological research and capitalism that would shape the business practices of the twentieth century.”
I go on to elaborate how Bentham’s ideas shaped the development of classical and neoclassical economic science, where the principle of utility was increasingly abstracted from social life and eventually, with help of Henry Sidgwick’s utilitarianism and neoclassical economists, into a kind of mathematical formula for organising economic life. The Wall Street Crash, however, demanded a re-evaluation of the relationship between economic science and utilitarianism, engendering two anti-utilitarian lines of economic thought, encapsulated in the contrasting writings of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Both Keynes and Hayek were belligerent critics of Bentham, albeit for different reasons. In his essay “My Early Beliefs” (1938), Keynes described Benthamite utilitarianism as “the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilisation and is responsible for its present moral decay.” Keynes criticised Bentham for his “over-valuation of the economic criterion,” which reduced of value decisions to monetary consequences. Hayek, unsurprisingly, criticised the social dimension of Bentham’s writing, arguing that his theories arose from “the erroneous conception that there can be first a society which then gives itself laws.”
The Hayekian anti-Benthamite vision won the long game in the twentieth century. I argue in the book that neoliberal economists and philosophers, and subsequent neoliberal politicians, were able to imagine and then construct a society which maintained utility maximisation on an individual level as a socially-accepted goal, but completely detached this activity from ideas of the common good or the greatest happiness principle. And thus, futilitarianism was born, where the practice of utility maximisation actively dismantles the common good.
The usual stories of privatisation, deregulation, attacks on organised labour, the valorisation and extension of competition, and so on, are of course part of this transition from utilitarianism to futilitarianism. But perhaps most prominent is the centrality of human capital theory to conceptions of social life in the neoliberal decades, which transforms all forms of utility maximisation into forms of investment, speculative or otherwise, in an individual’s stock of human capital. This, by necessity, turns individuals away from relational—or what Michel Foucault put more bluntly in his early analysis of neoliberalism as “exchange”—towards competitive social relations.
The rest of the book explores how the logic of futilitarianism and the futilitarian condition manifest themselves in everyday life in the twenty-first century by focusing on several examples of the ways individuals are encouraged, or even forced, to maximise utility. Chapters examine the relationship between human capital theory and the rise of self-branding as a form of utility maximisation; the rhetoric of personal responsibility and the escalation of both precarity and, to quote the late David Graeber, “bullshit jobs”; the relationship between social media, language production, and anxiety; the depoliticising effects of futilitarianism, especially for the Left; and, finally, the crisis of utilitarian thinking in the grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, where cost-benefit calculations had to contend directly with quantifying acceptable numbers of deaths.
The book concludes with a chapter titled “The Becoming-Common of the Futilitariat.” The goal here is imagine political organisation around the idea of futility, much in the same way that precarity has been used to organise seemingly disparate labour experiences of in the neoliberal decades. I argue that the term futility can reach even further than precarity, because even those who exist in more secure economic, social, and political situations can still be trapped in the futilitarian condition. What needs to occur, I suggest is a process of “becoming-common”—an understanding of which I adapt form the German political theorist Isabell Lorey—which, in short, entails a process of mutual recognition of the shared experience of futility. These experiences are of course not equivalent—some people experience much more extreme and violent forms of futility—but they do attest to a social relationality that can form the basis of political organisation.
The point, ultimately, with the concepts of futilitarianism and the futilitarian condition is to give a name to the sense of futility that permeates so much of contemporary life in the neoliberal decades. Furthermore, the concepts show that the feelings associated with this futility are not a reflection of our individual characters, as we are often encouraged to believe by governments and employers, but are in fact a logical consequence of the neoliberal mutation of capitalism and its demands of utility maximisation without the greatest happiness principle.