If you want your New Year’s Resolutions to work, make them political
New year, new you, same old patriarchal, unequal, neoliberal society. We need more than New Year’s resolutions to make real change stick.
The beginning of January is a time where good intentions emerge from a regret-filled hungover fog brain. Stop drinking, lose weight, recycle more, spend more time with the people you love and stop being so stressed. Everything is on your to-do list, from saving the planet to transforming yourself. But after a few weeks (or days) you start realising that, in 2019 like in 2018 and 2017 and every year before that, your New Year’s resolutions just aren’t working.
It’s hard to go to the gym every morning when your job leaves you exhausted and in the evening you come home to more than your fair share of housework. You moved out to the suburbs where rent was cheaper so now you don’t feel like cycling for an hour to reach work sweaty and exhausted, even if it is better for the planet. You tried meditating for a while but couldn’t empty your brain which was riling from a day of sexist and racist BS. You’re depressed and it’s hard enough to get out of bed to get to work on time let alone get up at five for a miracle morning of smoothies and mindfulness. You know that material things don’t really matter, they’re not worth worrying over, but all you can think about when you light up some scented candles and try to relax is how those candles will seem a lot less hygge if your electricity gets cut off and they’re the only thing lighting up your home.
Gradually, your New Year’s Resolutions fade into January morosity, failing to stick just like those snowflakes you really hoped would coat the ground and make going to work impossible, alas. And you feel guilty because, yet again, you didn’t manage to change your life, even though you sense that you need change badly.
There are a lot of reasons your New Year’s Resolutions don’t work, and none of them are because you are weak.
When you feel guilty about failing your New Year’s resolutions, that’s just society trying to trick you. A bit like when you’re freezing cold and someone says “it’s all in your head”, or when you are in labour and a male partner, convinced he is being helpful, tells you “In some cultures, women don’t even feel pain in childbirth!” (implied: so why exactly are you making so much fuss about pushing a human being out of your vagina?)
This isn’t all in your head and it isn’t all on you. If your new year’s resolutions don’t work out, it isn’t because you’re not strong enough or good enough. Some of the reasons your life is not as you want it isn’t that through laziness or lack of discipline, but because of systemic socio-economic pressures which stand in the way, that give you less of what you need to be truly yourself, and make it harder for you to take it on your own. The reason Instagram well-being quotes are so vague is that they are unable to address the complex socio-economic factors that really need to be tackled before people can feel better, live better.
Patriarchy makes women feel guilty about their bodies at the same time as providing them with less leisure time to work out. Social inequalities create an imbalance as to who can do what to fight climate change. We’re stressed out not just because we’re not meditating enough but because of the lack of social safety net. A system of alienating, bullshit jobs contributes to a mental health epidemic which cannot be spelt away by a calligraphed quote and a matcha latte.
This isn’t all on you, that’s just what neoliberalism wants you to believe because it is safer to have you feeling guilty than fighting our messed up society.
The neoliberal system that currently dominates our countries isn’t the result of a natural evolution of ideology, as it is often presented. History isn’t that the Soviet Union fell, capitalism won, and barriers to private power were gradually removed until we ended up where we are today. Neoliberalism is the result of a conscious, decades-long ideological war, whose two main objectives were to remove all limits to corporate power and hem back collective action. Through decades of infiltrating the political and economic systems and the media, neoliberal ideology quashed any other form of thought, making sure that any other agenda was seen not just as unrealistic, but culturally unthinkable. Unions were quashed, and other forms of collective action were dissuaded by a value system that places hyper-individualism and self-interest above all else, fraying collective bonds. Protesting the system took second place to transforming oneself. Issues that were and are intrinsically political were depoliticised.
We are left with a system where means of collective action are greatly restrained, but we don’t even realise it because we are so focused on changing ourselves rather than changing the world.
When I make these arguments, I am often told that my way of thinking takes responsibility away from individuals, treating them like victims with no agency. I disagree, I think understanding the systemic oppression that defines your existence is empowering. It prevents individuals from turning their anger within and encourages them to organise and to take action. Self-hatred isn’t an effective vector for change nor happiness. And placing everything on the back of individual responsibility can even be counter-effective. An individual response to social issues can end up reinforcing the very problems it was trying to address.
Take the example of climate change. We are tackling a planetary issue linked to the entire way our societies and lives work by switching to reusable coffee cups. This isn’t just useless, it’s dangerous because it spreads the false narrative that incremental changes in consumer habits are enough. They’re not. If everyone in France adopted a low carbon lifestyle, it could reduce emissions by 583 million tons, 80% of the country’s emissions. That’s a lot. But not that much compared to the 6 billion tons of CO2 emitted by Total. While corporations lobby against any real shift in energy policy and pollute unquestioned, while the rich continue to consume hundreds of times more than the poor, while greener alternatives remain accessible only to the affluent few, individual steps will not be enough.
The huge imbalance between what we can do and what needs to be done — not shaving my legs to fight against the myth of a patriarchal and industrial beauty standard, peeing in the shower to save the planet — makes you dizzy. It can event dissuade you from doing anything at all — because it all feels so disproportionately small.
That being said, individual actions shouldn’t be rejected entirely. They can make you feel better in your everyday life. They can give you a feeling of agency, a way of taking action in an unfair world. It’s also incredibly important to start thinking of what will come when we have managed to bring down society as we know it — to start reinventing everyday life, economic systems, communities that make people and the planet happier. So make New Year’s Resolutions — as long as they uplift you and don’t turn into a guilt trap.
And if you can, if you have the time and the energy and the opportunity, get involved in collective action. Join a local activist group, go online and sign petitions, write about the oppression you yourself have faced to counter the dominant media narrative. Don’t let society tell you that the only power you have is through consuming. Don’t let it tell you that the only power you have is over yourself.