“People’s Lives”: Capitalism and Responsibilisation in Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live like This

The question of what the primary cause in the decline of Detroit from the manufacturing hub of almost three million in 1950 to its meagre six hundred thousand today is still one of fiery debate. With factors such as the collapse of the American auto industry, to poorly planned freeway construction to the fallout of riots in suburban areas; each answer demonstrates that Detroit was unluckily subject to the changing tides of large scale systemic, economic and political change. That is all to say that it would be wrong, in a sense, to “blame” Detroit for its decline because in truth luck played a large part in its fall from grace. However, if this consideration can be made for Detroit Benjamin Markovits’ novel You Don’t Have to Live Like This (YDHTLLT) seems to question why we can’t make the same consideration for the city’s residents. YDHTLLT is a novel of many lives where its protagonist, Marny, partly as a habit of discipline from his past life as an academic, partly as the result of his weekly newsletter, records and codifies the lives his new neighbours in the novel’s urban commune. Despite the wide variation in lived experience which brings each resident to Robert James’ new “Groupon model for gentrification” (17) a pervading theme throughout each account is the notion of responsibility and the unquestioned conclusion that failed ambitions and adversity lie squarely at the feet of the individual.

Abandoned houses in Detroit (Photo by Kevin Bauman)

Mark Fisher in his essay “Good for Nothing” writes that one of the constant truths in the logic of capitalism and “one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class” in reproducing and defending capitalism from its inherent tensions is “responsibilisation.” Through this process each member of society is encouraged into feeling that “their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone” with media and common wisdom teaching that had they done a better job of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps their lives would be different. Similarly, society’s “successful” individuals are lauded for their individual talents and mythologised as the type of people, it is argued, who deserve their vast wealth. Kurt, a member of the novel’s neighbourhood watch, embodies this mindset as he explains to Marny that Sean Penn is “famous for a reason”, he is “smarter”, “in better physical shape” and “he’s got more energy and intellectual curiosity about the world than anyone you’ve ever met.” (172)

Mark Fisher, theorist

Robert serves as a perfect example of this as he attempts to craft himself into the man he imagines would deserve his enormous inherited wealth. He asks Marny what the “deal” is with specific books, as if, Marny explains, he imagined large ideas were better summarised in a few pithy sentences to be consumed and then regurgitated when of use. He also imagines the only reason Beatrice could be attending the “kennedy school” is for “connections”, (45) again here Robert is assuming wealth is distributed directly down to who makes the most savvy decisions, an idealistic opportunism which perhaps explains his desire to recreate the environment of the “founding of the country.” It’s this inescapably American notion of the “pioneer’s existence”, as Robert himself describes it, wrapped up with his Detroit endeavour and the mythology of limitless self-improvement which really captures Robert’s attention in the first place for what is, as is revealed, really not a particularly profitable endeavour.

The guardian’s review of Markovitz’ novel writes that it troubles the positivistic assumptions of silicon valley’esqe personal betterment and this perhaps explains the similarity between the protagonist’s name “Marny” and the novel’s constant dialogue with modern philosopher Jaron Lanier. Lanier warns against the potential danger of a collectivist approach to dealing with technology in the modern age, instead advocating for the absolute dominance of the individual up to selling one’s browsing data to the companies that seek to profit from it. A parallel here in Markovits’ novel can be found in the neighbourhood’s system of e-change, an application where favours are digitalized and commodified. Users accept jobs such as moving furniture in exchange for money and ratings ranging from help to sociability. As indicated by Fisher the psychiatrist David Smail categorises this phenomena of treating the uncontrollable, such as the natural development of a community, as being under the power of specific individuals by what he calls “magical volunteerism” which he describes as “the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society.”

Given Robert’s general, if not specific, successes and the continued impoverishment of the commune’s poorest residents it might be argued that Markovits’ novel does nothing to challenge the paradigm of responsibilisation. However, the character of Nolan serves to problematise this reading, his constant attempts to “take matters into his own hands” and reshape the commune by his individual will, culminating in the kidnapping of Tony’s son, brings him nothing but failure. It seems in Markovitz’ novel individual agency and the ability to combat systemic pressure lies only with those who the system already favours.

2 thoughts on ““People’s Lives”: Capitalism and Responsibilisation in Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live like This

  1. It’s true that YDHTLLT delicately balances the question of wether or not it is Detroit’s fault of what is happening to it. I think Markovits did a very good job at showing the different facets that make up both arguments. From Nolan’s character that claims he will never sell the house; to Robert’s character that thinks he is saving the city; to our deeply apathetic protagonist that tries to be the bridge between the two camps.
    I don’t think that YDHTLLT is placing a quasi-Marxist agenda (like Mark Fisher) in the themes of his book. More so the book seems to be concerning itself with the question of demographic by means of geography; which does entail money, but is only a small aspect of the larger package. After all, I’m sure the Artist’s Commune in the book was made up of people with very little pocket change.
    When I had read the book, I thought that Marny’s profession as a history teacher was done to placate the age old problem of America: ‘Everybody Needs Elbow Room’ and ‘Not In My Backyard.’

  2. I believe your reading of ‘responsibilisation’ in the context of YDHTLLT is an interesting one, and not necessarily something I had thought of. I certainly think it is fitting for the novel’s well-off white characters – namely, Robert and Marny. However, I’m not sure I’m convinced that it can be applied to the novel’s poorer, black characters. You begin this post by quoting Fisher’s suggestion that “their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone”. I don’t think this is the case in YDHTLLT at all. Nolan serves as the novel’s representative poor, unemployed character in this Detroit project, but he does not blame himself in the slightest. He blames everyone but himself, in fact. He sees the whole gentrification project as a colonial enterprise, wherein he is the native victim subject to colonial rule. He confronts Marny with the brutally honest exclamation: “You people are the problem – G****** colonizers” (266). He is also well aware of the fact that the odds are stacked against him because of his skin colour, and blames his nation’s corrupt legal system and socio-political racism for the fact that he fared so badly in the trial. If Nolan believed that “[his] poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is [his] fault and [his] fault alone”, I imagine we’d be met with a defeatist, withdrawn character, perhaps one characterised by passivity or subjugation. But in YDHTLLT, Nolan is fiery. He complains constantly about the state of Detroit and how the careless capitalist actions of others have ruined his life. He may even be stereotyped as the stock ‘angry black man’. He petitions ruthlessly for Meacher in his legal drama, and is so passionate about getting his voice heard that he kidnaps (who he thinks is) Robert James’ son. These are not the actions of a defeatist character, who is plagued by self-blame and a sense of worthlessness. In the case of YDHTLLT, then, I would suggest that Fisher’s theory of “responsibilisation” only really applies to the novel’s rich characters. Nolan is surely an exception to the rule.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *