Rejecting the existential futility of neoliberal life

  • November 2, 2021

Capitalism & Crisis

Maximizing utility has always been central to capitalism, but under neoliberalism futility has become the dominant experience.

This is an excerpt of Neil Vallely’s “Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness.” Out now from Goldsmiths Press.

Photo: Protester in Chile during the 2019 October uprising. abriendomundo /

For centuries, economists and philosophers have theorized the value of utility: how it shapes the division of labor, influences consumer choice, and contributes to conceptions of the good life or common good. Utilitarian philosophers, from Jeremy Bentham to John Stuart Mill, told us that maximizing utility — the usefulness of an object and its capacity to cause pleasure or reduce pain — was the magical ingredient to happiness. Economists, from classical to neoclassical to neoliberal, have conceived of individuals and consumers as rational “utility-maximizers,” and Karl Marx reminded us that “nothing can be a value without first being an object of utility.”

While these thinkers may differ on how utility should be maximized, and who reaps the rewards of this process, few have disagreed that the maximization of utility is in and of itself a good thing. After all, where would human society be without utility?

But utility is not something that naturally exists; it is not a neutral or objective concept. Utility is always an effect of social relationships, constructed politically, and deeply enmeshed in the power structures of a society. The question, then, is not so much “what is useful?” Rather, it is “how does something become defined as useful and who gets to judge it as such?”

Money and Utility

Utilitarianism provides a good example of the importance of this question. For utilitarians, the morality of an action rests on its potential to maximize usefulness, often understood as producing the most pleasure and least pain, for the greatest number of people. But in order to be maximized, utility must first be identified in certain materials and social practices, and this is where the question of who gets to judge utility becomes crucial. If capitalists hold power in a society, then it is easy to see how utilitarianism overlaps with discourses of productivity and accumulation, because processes like economic growth, trade and wealth generation will be politically constructed as the most useful courses of action for both individual and social happiness. But if utility were defined in other ways, such as strong social bonds, universal welfare, non-hierarchical political forms and environmental protection, then the maximization of utility would look very different.

For this reason, utility can never be conceived exclusively as an economic or philosophical concept. Instead, utility is always representative of a certain understanding of political economy, of the relationships between forms of production, labor and trade and the mechanisms of government, power and, ultimately, capitalism. This fact is most evident in the work of Jeremy Bentham, a late 18th- and early 19th-century philosopher and social reformer. Bentham was the founder of modern utilitarianism and he could find only one credible measure for utility: money. In an essay titled “The Philosophy of Economic Science,” he wrote: “The Thermometer is the instrument for measuring the heat of the weather, the Barometer the instrument for measuring the pressure of the Air…. Money is the instrument for measuring the quantity of pain and pleasure.”

Under such logic, the most moral society is the one in which individuals pursue the accumulation of money, under the ethical dictate that not only will this lead to individual happiness but also greater collective well-being. The perceived symbiosis between utility maximization and the accumulation of wealth has been a dominant mantra of capitalist societies, where political power routinely ensures that utility is defined as money, and where a utilitarian ethics is continually invoked as justification for the exploitations and inequalities involved in the accumulation of capital.

The utilitarian fantasy of a world of utility-maximizers, rationally pursuing the accumulation of money and contributing to a secure and healthy common good, has predictably not materialized. Instead, especially with the neoliberal mutation of capitalism, a society of atomistic individuals has emerged, who view utility maximization as a competitive endeavor, one that attempts to alleviate any responsibility towards the common good. The practice of utility maximization, far from pushing us towards a more egalitarian society, has ultimately trapped us in a destructive relationship with capital.

The Futilitarian Condition

Utilitarianism has flipped into “futilitarianism” — where utility maximization leads to the worsening of collective social and economic conditions. We get into debt in order to gain qualifications, only to discover that employment is increasingly sparse, casualized and precarious; we wash out our plastic jam pots for recycling as fossil fuel companies destroy our seas and corporations raid rain forests at unprecedented rates; and as a deadly virus brings the world to a standstill, we find that global efforts at utility maximization have not rewarded the majority of the world’s population with greater social and financial security. In fact, many of us maximize utility to ends that are useless to the greater well-being of society, often just to secure some semblance of individual survival. I call this entrapment the “futilitarian condition.”

The genesis of the futilitarian condition emerged precisely at the point where utility became sanctified under capitalism, because at that moment, the possibility of futilitarianism also came into existence. Under the conditions of capitalism, the greatest happiness principle cannot be realized, or, at least, only a perverted version of it can exist. The working class have always carried the burden of the labor of utility maximization — of producing the things that are useful and, ultimately, the money associated with utility.

But precisely because of the exploitative social relations of capitalism, it is only the capitalist class who can truly experience the pleasure associated with utility. The rise of a large middle class in the mid-20th century, backed up by a social democratic turn, created the illusion that the greatest happiness principle could be realized under capitalism, that the vast majority of people could live free and well, if only in the Global North.

But neoliberalism has put an end to that illusion. By dismantling the social state and valorizing competition between individuals, neoliberalism separates utility maximization from social well-being. In doing so, it makes futilitarianism the new moral philosophy of capitalism, by demanding utility maximization from individuals while simultaneously and repeatedly demolishing the social structures and institutions that could secure any sense of collective well-being. Futility flourishes under these conditions.

Yet futility has rarely featured in any comprehensive way in the study of capitalism. Perhaps this is because futility appears to be a side-effect of capitalist production and its social relations, something that is not intrinsic to the functionality of capitalism. I argue, on the contrary, that the concept of futility deserves more attention in critical examinations of capitalism, especially because futility is central to the development, implementation and longevity of neoliberal capitalism in the early 21st century.

The example of the contemporary university can help contextualize the concept of the futilitarian condition. The university is now dependent on a vast army of casual and adjunct teaching staff, mostly postgraduate students or post-PhD gig workers, without whom the university would collapse. Yet these staff are routinely treated with contempt by university hierarchies, and exploited on short-term contracts that rarely cover the entirety of the hours they actually work.

But in order to get a full-time academic job — which are increasingly rare in some disciplines, especially the humanities — these workers are required not only to gain as much teaching experience as possible, but also to relentlessly publish their research, which is of course done in their own time — and often without access to university libraries. In other words, they are forced to maximize their utility as much as possible, with the faint hope that this might lead to a secure job in the future. For a very select few, this full-time job becomes a reality. But for the vast majority, attempts to make themselves useful traps them in a cycle of short-term contracts that pay very little and ultimately lead nowhere.

The university knows that this intellectual precariat has little choice but to maximize utility, so it can exploit their acts by paying less and less for the labor of teaching, while still maintaining the influx of students and fees. It is clear, therefore, that the practice of utility maximization on the part of this intellectual precariat might on a few occasions lead to individual well-being in the form of a permanent position, but it also entrenches the conditions that make the well-being of the vast majority of the precariat impossible.

Neoliberalism Needs Futility

The university is not the only example of the logic of the futilitarian condition. In fact, neoliberal capitalism seems to work better when many of our actions are rendered futile, not only because we are incapable of challenging its hegemony, but also because in our desperation to maximize utility to improve our individual social and economic conditions, we simultaneously internalize the rationalities of self-sufficiency, personal responsibility and competition that dismantle social solidarities.

Increasingly, use value is unrelated to our conscious attempts at utility maximization. For many corporations, we are at our most useful in our leisure time, when we are shopping online, posting on social media, scrolling through the news on our phones, wearing Fitbits, or simply turning on Alexa as we wander around the house. When we do so, we generate information for a vast technological infrastructure that generates capital through sharing this information with other corporations and advertisers.

This is not to mention the existential futility of neoliberal life, where we are confronted by such vast social, political and environmental inequalities and catastrophes, that it is almost impossible not to feel that confronting these issues is futile. The complexity of these issues and their amorphous, decentralized nature also mean that most of us do not understand, for example, how the financial system works, how data is collected, stored and used, or the microbiology of viruses. Therefore, we do not know who or what exactly is responsible for financial crises, privacy breaches or pandemics. It is much easier to blame immigrants, elites or even postmodernism.

Neoliberal capitalism feeds on our futility, and at the same time, as a normative governing reason — in the Foucauldian sense of “the conduct of conduct” — neoliberalism pushes us to behave as if our individual acts of utility maximization will secure our well-being, and even at times affect substantive social change. By always translating the social through the lens of the individual, neoliberalism reduces questions of social justice and transformation to little more than forms of marketization and consumer choice. Neoliberal reason manifests itself in a series of futile social and political endeavors, from self-marketing to ethical consumerism, which often see themselves as radical alternatives to the status quo but in practice only reinforce it.

Futilitarianism is not Nihilism

Crucially, however, futilitarianism is not the same as nihilism. Certainly, nihilism is a prominent feature of neoliberalism. Mark Fisher even went as far as to describe it as “nihiliberalism.” Wendy Brown also argues that “nihilism intersects neoliberalism” creating a strange confluence of “ethical destitution” and “religious righteousness or conservative melancholy for a phantasmatic past.” This confluence of nihilism and neoliberalism, sewn together by governments on the right and left in the last four decades, has given rise to a reactionary politics that revels in simultaneously not caring about the welfare of the most destitute — exemplified by Melania Trump’s “I really don’t care do U” jacket, worn on the way to meet immigrant children imprisoned at the US-Mexico border — but also exclaims that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of the loss of traditional conservative values.

Neil Vallely’s “Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness,” is out now from Goldsmiths Press.

While nihilism is certainly present in neoliberalism, the concept of futilitarianism makes room for another dimension in the meaninglessness of neoliberal life. In this dimension, meaninglessness is neither something that is passively instituted nor actively embraced, but something that emerges in people’s lives without their consent or even knowledge, whether this be in their job, education, social circumstances, economic situation or legal status. Where nihilism entails taking up a certain outlook on the world, futilitarianism is much more insidious and internalized. After all, many of us might believe we are contributing to society in a meaningful way — ask any PR consultant.

Futilitarianism is instead a form of entrapment in the pursuit of meaningfulness, where we are forced to repeat a series of daily behaviors that ensnare us deeper into the pure logic of competition and individualism that negates any development of common bonds and collective welfare.

By focusing on futility rather than nihilism, the theory of futilitarianism extrapolates not only the experience of meaninglessness that comes with neoliberalism, but the construction of that meaninglessness in contemporary social and political practices. Futilitarianism brings the futility of everyday life in the neoliberal period to the fore, with the hope of generating ideas of how to counter meaninglessness that do not end up in nihilism. Nihilism is an end-in-itself; an increased awareness and understanding of futility can be the starting point of something meaningful.

It is certainly true, however, that many people do not care about whether utilitarianism has flipped into futilitarianism, or whether their acts of utility maximization are exploited by neoliberalism to dismantle common bonds and mutual interest. In fact, in the Global North, lots of people are relatively secure and settled, especially if they are white, middle-aged to elderly, and have citizenship, a house — or several — a regular income or pension and access to decent — increasingly private — health care. They might not care that the income gap between the Global North and the Global South has nearly quadrupled since the 1960s, or that economic and social inequalities have sharply risen since the 1980s, because everyone on their street seems to be doing fine. And even some of those who are not secure are rarely directly angry with capitalism, but rather with urban elites, immigrants, or benefit-cheats.

Countering Futilitarianism

What we are witnessing is an important inter-generational divide between the old and the young, the baby-boomers and the millennials. The nay-sayers, dissenters and anti-capitalists across the globe are increasingly emerging from the younger generations, the very ones who were born into neoliberalism and have known nothing else.

Millennials often get a bad rap as the narcissistic, lazy, technology-dependent, avocado-smash generation who would not know a day’s work if it hit them in the face. What is willfully overlooked in these criticisms is the fact that this generation has been thrown into a world where education is extortionately expensive, debt is unavoidable, work is scarce and precarious, wages are depressed, social services are diminished, the planet is on fire and the future is seemingly non-existent. For many of them, the lived experience of neoliberalism — or whatever term they choose to use — is grim. From the US and the UK to Hong Kong and Chile, we are witnessing large pockets of anti-capitalist resistance led by these so-called “lazy millennials.” These are the desperate shouts of a generation rejecting the futility of neoliberal life.

Futility masked as utility is the essence of neoliberalism’s transformation of everyday life. At every turn, we are encouraged as individuals to take on greater personal responsibility, to invest in ourselves wisely and to wring every last drip of utility from any opportunity. At the same time, the social and economic structures that can facilitate such individual acts of utility maximization are repeatedly dismantled and denigrated. As a result, the futilitarian condition has become the dominant human condition in the early 21st century, where individual pursuits of utility maximization are used as examples to convince us all that we do not need strong social infrastructure or better economic safeguards.

The recognition of our shared futility, I argue, can become the basis of a new collective political subject — the futilitariat — through which we can begin to wrestle utility back from the destructive forces of neoliberalism.

Neil Vallelly

Neil Vallelly is a political and social theorist and author of Futilitarianism: Neoliberalism and the Production of Uselessness (2021). In 2022, he will take up a two-year Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand, working on a history of neoliberalism and migrant detention.

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