- Resilience is futileThe cultivation of resilience is not an answer to austerity and poverty
Lately resilience has become the answer to everything. The ability to withstand and adapt to stress, once a subject chiefly of interest to health professionals, is now a catch-all call to arms for an age of uncertainty. This is a trend I first noticed when the vocabulary of my work as a youth researcher began to overlap with that of the environmentalist networks I was involved with through ethnographic PhD research.1 Others have noted the propagation of resilience across diverse policy fields such as urban planning, national security and poverty reduction. The psychological specificity of the term has been diffused into a pop-psych DIY ethos that is starting to sound a lot like a national pep talk on endurance.
I used to associate the idea of resilience with grassroots groups like Transition Towns and later Climate Camp, who rallied against ‘There Is No Alternative’ neoliberalism with small spectacles of self-determination. Then, as I spent more time working with young voluntary sector campaigners (in a climate change lobbying group and a school-based citizenship programme) and was confronted by alternative usages, this romantic notion of resilience became difficult to sustain. In environmental policy, resilience was proffered as a climate change adaptation strategy, a policy-makers’ panacea for everything from flooding to famine. After the 2011 riots, a ‘Resilience Consortium’ was established, positing community and personal resilience in young people as a safeguard against public disorder. Building resilience is the aim of social services for ‘Troubled Families’; and it is also seen as a means of taming the troublesome more widely. In March 2014 it was the buzzword of Chancellor Osborne’s budget. Far from being a sign of defiance, resilience has become the preferred means of maintaining business as usual. [End Page 44]
The bounce-back-ability bandwagon has an incongruous alliance of advocates, in government, in the private and voluntary sectors and at the grassroots, together forging political consensus around the politics of self-help. Though I understand the attraction of this idea, my argument is that resilience is no basis for contentious politics, and its circulation as a dominant idea may do more harm than good.
This article considers resilience as an aspirational goal of good citizenship, and looks at where its proponents are coming from and what its dangers are. In particular I discuss how resilience is deployed as an inducement to putting up with precarity and inequality and accepting the deferral of demands for change, and as a means of relocating responsibility.
Keep calm and carry on
The mainstreaming of resilience in policy and politics coincided with the onset of – and long process of recovery from – the worst recession to hit the UK since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It also coincided with a sustained austerity drive from government; the first domestic manifestations of the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and a seemingly irreparable standard of living crisis. A generation came of age and abruptly learned to lower its expectations. Resilient communities, resilient sectors and resilient people are required to suffer these troubled times. In this context, resilience resonates more as a statement of survival than of aspiration - and one that entreats people to consider man-made crises as mysterious tests of character.
The campaigners I worked with feared for their present and future in a world they experienced as unbalanced. The climate change lobby group, comprised of young people in school, at university, in work and in unemployment, offered a dismal list of the issues and feelings affecting them and their peers:
Unemployment; disengaged from society; disillusioned about politics; media misrepresentation; apathy; financial dependency and debt; overqualified in things that can’t get us jobs; no middle ground for young people any more – you either get on the high road for employment or the low road; increasingly individualised; underestimated.
Beneath these immediate concerns lurked a deeper, dreadful disquiet about [End Page 45] what climate change could mean within their lifetimes. Yet these young people were relatively fortunate compared with many of their contemporaries, including international colleagues in Africa and the Asia-Pacific, who...