Moral Distinctions and Structural Inequality: Homeless Youth Salvaging the Self

This blog post by David Farrugia is an extended abstract for the paper Moral distinctions and structural inequality: homeless youth salvaging the self.

By David Farrugia

The distribution of moral worth is central to understanding the relationship between structural inequalities and subjectivities in contemporary capitalist societies. As the longstanding distinction between ‘respectable’ and ‘unruly’ working class subjects indicates, hierarchies of moral worth have long been an important aspect of the structural dynamics of capitalism. However, the moral hierarchies that operate in the production of contemporary subjectivities are not based on these kinds of collective distinctions, themselves reminiscent of a kind of elitist disdain for the ‘unwashed masses’. As collective explanations for any aspect of social life decline in cultural currency and political legitimacy, contemporary moral hierarchies are built around notions of the individualized accumulation of worth based on the capacity for and desirability of autonomous self-realisation. Beverley Skeggs has suggested that these neoliberal economies of moral worth operate as ‘vocabularies, which provide repertoires of trauma, stress, attitude, intelligence, self-esteem, fulfillment and self-realisation’ (2005, p 973). As ‘ethical scenarios with maxims and techniques for self-conduct’, the autonomous accumulation of moral worth is now the central means by which contemporary subjects resolve ‘the dilemmas of existence’ (ibid).

Researching the experiences and subjectivities of young people who have experienced homelessness, it became apparent that these hierarchies of moral worth operate as fundamental conditions for the construction of young people’s subjectivities both during and after an experience of homelessness. Narratives from young people in this paper demonstrate that youth homelessness is a powerful, unique and evocative instance of the operation of moral hierarchies in the construction of contemporary subjectivities. More than this, young people experiencing homelessness show the profound suffering and disempowerment that these hierarchies create, and underline the way that moral distinctions saturate experiences of, and talk about, contemporary poverty. Drawing on two research projects, one conducted in metropolitan Melbourne, Australia, and one conducted in regional Victoria (the area surrounding Melbourne), this paper explores how these processes operate in the lives of young people.

However, the paper also intervenes in a specific intellectual political climate. Too often, academic discussions of youth homelessness have contributed to the depoliticisation of poverty. As one of us has discussed elsewhere (Farrugia and Gerrard, 2015), the field of youth homelessness research has often participated in the tendency to approach structural inequalities, or relations of power and privilege, as technical malfunctions of an otherwise unproblematic social whole. Much homelessness research remains premised on the desire to intervene in the subjectivities of those who experience homelessness in order to encourage the development of personally responsible and reflexive subjects. In contrast, this paper is designed to show how young homeless subjectivities are produced through a unique inflection of the moral hierarchies structuring the youth period as a whole in late modernity, hierarchies which are themselves impossible to separate from the neoliberal economies of worth described in detail by Skeggs. Moreover, it shows that the moral distinctions at worth in the valorization of autonomous young subjects are in fact foundational to the subjectivities of young people experiencing homelessness, and indeed to young subjectivities as a whole.

The construction of the notion of ‘youth’ is a perfect crystallization of the significance of personal responsibility as a critical aspect of attributions of moral worth. Beginning in the colonial era (Lesko, 2001) and continuing as a fundamental assumption of developmental psychology, ‘youth’ is a process through which young people are expected to develop into increasingly individuated subjects with the capacity for autonomous self-realisation. The dominant narrative here is of a single, linear developmental pathway which culminates in the production of a self-responsible adult subject. Deviations from this normative pathway are by definition pathological, and the frequent moral panics about the behavior and ethical orientation of young people reflect the deeply politicized and morally saturated nature of the concept and experience of youth.

These moral distinctions are magnified in the case of homeless youth. In contemporary capitalist societies, to be ‘homeless’ is to be more than merely ‘poor’. Homelessness operates as a public signifier for contemporary poverty in the most extreme way. ‘The homeless’ are regularly depicted as obscene subjects, aligned with danger, decomposition, and chaos at the abject boundaries of the social world. Young homeless people may thus experience multiple forms of moral degradation, positioned at a unique point within the structural inequalities and moral hierarchies of contemporary capitalist societies. In recognition of this, the title of this paper cites the work of Snow and Anderson (1993) on the need for those who experience homelessness to ‘salvage a self’ amidst conditions of extreme material deprivation and moral denigration. The main focus of this paper is this process of salvaging a morally worthy self amidst conditions of profound moral degradation.

Moral worth, or its absence, saturated everything that the young people in these research projects said. As well as the struggle for basic material subsistence, it is no exaggeration to say that the experience of homelessness is, fundamentally, the struggle to maintain subjectivity in the course of an experience that defines young people as morally worthless and outside of the realms of legitimate selfhood. In the narratives in this paper, young people describe becoming a ‘homeless youth’ as sliding inexorably into a zone of chaos populated by irresponsible and morally worthless subjects. Young people positioned a lack of personal responsibility and active selfhood as the reason why they had become and remained homeless. The distribution and experience of moral worth was organized around the linear developmental temporality of the normative youth period. Young people felt that they had fallen off the ‘track’ towards the right kind of youth and the right kind of adulthood. Having fallen off this track through what they felt was their own moral failure, young people experienced feelings of degradation, shame, and an incapacity to interact with others. The notion of worth was critical here. Homelessness is the experience of being ‘less than’ others.

Once young people have existed homelessness (something which most young people eventually do), the task of salvaging the self is organized around two kinds of processes. The first we have captured with the theme of ‘order and self-governance / chaos and moral failure’. Here, young people described their movement out of homelessness as a process of accumulating moral worth through the capacity to govern themselves. This capacity and the moral worth that it allowed was signified by their engagement with the institutional markers of a normative youth and adulthood – primarily education and work. The crafting of these orderly subjects took place within welfare organisations designed to provide young people with accommodation and support services. Services which participants were positive about were those that had successfully crafted a community of young people who could perceive themselves and one another as personally responsible, respectful of others, and engaged in a process of self-actualisation. In the words of one participant, this is the process of ‘making themselves realize what they want to do.’ Self-discovery, personal authenticity and moral worth are all inextricably intertwined here in the journey out of the moral degradation of homelessness and into something new.

Of course, this process rearticulates the meaning of homelessness as a moral failure, and participants did this many times when emphasizing that they were no longer the failed subjects they had once been. Under the heading of ‘belonging and togetherness’ we explore other, less individualized ways in which moral worth was accumulated. Relationships with others were described as central to feelings of belonging and of being back on the ‘right track’, and membership of a community of other young people with shared experiences and goals was critical to this process. This did not always escape the neoliberal emphasis on self-governance however, as frequently participants described their relationships as resources for the construction and recognition of self-responsible subjectivities, allowing membership of a community that was distant from the abject subjectivities of homelessness. These allowed young people to be recognized, and to recognize themselves, as a ‘good person’. However, it is important to recognize that young people were also able to carve out intersubjective contexts in which to experience moral worth outside of the terms of the neoliberal economies of worth that dominate so much of their lives. In particular, intimate relationships operate as contexts in which people can experience feelings of comfort, worth and support that is unconditionally there. In the paper we emphasise the importance of recognizing the ongoing possibility of these intersubjective spaces and relational practices.

Overall, this paper sketches an economy of moral worth organized around the fundamental importance of personal sovereignty, self-governance and responsibility as moral attributes of late modern subjectivities. These economies create distinctions between order and chaos, self-governance and unruliness, morality and disgrace, which operate as fundamental conditions for who these young people can be. While homelessness is experienced as a moral disgrace, exiting homelessness allows young people to accumulate the material resources required to construct morally valorized subjectivities within these terms. Embedded within the normative divisions structuring the contemporary youth period as a whole, young homeless subjectivities therefore emerge as positions within the moral economies of contemporary capitalist societies.

David Farrugia is Lecturer in Youth Sociology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His work focuses on the relationship between youth subjectivities and contemporary inequalities. David has published work on youth homelessness, young people and social class, and theories of inequality in a context of social change. His book “Youth Homelessness in Late Modernity: Reflexive Identities and Moral Worth” will be published by Springer in September 2015.

Originally posted 28th November 2015.

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