Last summer, many of us held our breath watching the finale of Vince Gilligan’s ‘Breaking Bad’ – the gripping story of suburban chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin; or as the series producers described him, a character turning “from Mr. Chips into Scarface.”
This television show illustrates the neoliberal ideology of self-reliance – that it’s better to do for yourself, even if what you’re doing is morally problematic, than to take a handout from someone else.
Walter White, Breaking Bad’s anti-hero
When repressed, mild-mannered, under-appreciated high-school teacher Walter White receives a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer, he knows his medical bills and subsequent inevitable death will bring financial ruin to his stay-at-home wife, Skyler, and disabled son, Walter Jr.
After seeing his former student Jesse Pinkman escape a drug bust- and finding out from his DEA agent brother-in-law about the money one can make producing/trading metamphetamine, Walt contacts Jesse with an unusual proposal: to use his knowledge of chemistry for manufacturing a purer, stronger drug that Pinkman could then sell- saving his family from poverty.
Five seasons down the line, Walt has lied to his dearest-ones, manipulated innocents for his own benefit and murdered in cold blood.
“I have kind of lost sympathy for Walt along the way…I find it interesting, this sociological phenomenon, that people still root for Walt. Perhaps it says something about the nature of fiction, that viewers have to identify on some level with the protagonist of the show, or maybe he’s just interesting because he is good at what he does,” Gilligan told The Guardian of his complicated anti-hero.
Sociological Implications of Walter White’s Storyline
Sociologists have found Walter White’s story and the reasons why viewers relate so strongly to it- relevant in many ways: from the implications of a for-profit, privatised healthcare system to insightful analyses of contemporary hegemonic masculinity.
I would argue that the key to understanding a lot of the fascination around Walter White can be traced to the neo-liberal ideology of self-reliance:
‘Gray Matter,‘ the fifth episode of the first series of ‘Breaking Bad’ reveals a significant episode in Walt’s past: In his youth, he founded a company with college friend and ex-girlfriend, Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz (now married to each other), which achieved immense financial success after Walt abandoned it.
As Walt – who now considers refusing expensive life-saving treatment- meets Elliott for his birthday party, the latter offers him a job, assuring him that ‘the company has excellent health insurance’; and then, when Walt refuses, offers to simply cover his medical expenses. We then see Walt enrolling for treatment, telling his wife that his friends would cover the costs, telling his friends that insurance is covering them… and then seeking out Jesse Pinkman to start a meth business.
This episode defines the circumstances of Walter White: He is not forced to become a meth cook or die, leaving his family poor and despondent. Instead, he is a man who who would rather sell meth than accept charity; as the logical conclusion of an apparently sound and familiar moral system.
Neoliberalism and Neoliberal Values
Championed by economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as political leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, neoliberalism is an economic philosophy calling for free trade and reduction of government control or regulation of businesses.
In his 1999 “Profit over People,” Noam Chomsky advanced the idea that neoliberalism operates as a political and cultural, as well as economic, system. Its moral assumptions are shaping not just public policy and political platforms, but just as well the decisions and values of individuals like Walter White.
Neoliberals believe in the ‘invisible hand of the market’ as the best mechanism for allocating resources, and consequently in a government framework aimed primarily at protecting freedom, protecting private property and enforcing contracts, with only a residual welfare state, in order to promote the virtues of self-reliance, independence and personal responsibility.
In Margaret Thatcher’s words- “there is no such thing as society” and the impoverished classes who are “casting their problem on society” are wrong.
“It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour,” she says; but while giving help -under certain circumstances- may be virtuous, your main moral responsibility is to avoid becoming the neighbour that needs the help.
This attitude can be traced to a contemporary and secularised version of what Max Weber referred to as ‘the Protestant ethics of capitalism’: the rational pursuit of economic gain not for the pleasures or conveniences more money could buy, but as an end in itself. Weber traces its origins to the Reformation: namely the theological viewpoint that some people are predestined for salvation and some from damnation by God’s will alone; which meant, from the psychological viewpoint of the believer, that you had to believe in your own salvation- and dispel any doubt about it.
As the assurances of salvation from clerical authority were no longer compatible with Reformation theology, self-assurance- with worldly success as its measure- became the new mark of salvation; with the implication that those not dedicating their zeal to an economically profitable pursuit must not have received the Lord’s favour.
For the new-born austere Protestant sects, earning money is virtuous, while spending money on frivolities is sinful and charity is frowned upon as encouraging beggary and laziness; the only theologically sound remaining option would be reinvesting earned revenue to make even more money.
Weber remarks that, in time, the Protestant capitalist ethic becomes increasingly secularised: profit-maximising worldly asceticism and uncompassionate distrust of those who find themselves relying on others’ support for survival are practised for cultural, rather than theological reasons.
We could think of the neoliberal value of efficiency as an end in itself as its direct heir. Take, for instance, Milton Friedman’s conjecture that, as long as it does not break undertaken contracts, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business -to increase its profits.” Social or moral responsibility is equated with efficiency in the business’ main purpose; or, in the words of Gale Boetticher, Walter White’s self-professed libertarian lab assistant, “[we produce drugs because] consenting adults want what they want. At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.”
In neoliberal terms, a company using sweatshop labour is more efficient than one using a fairtrade scheme; a meth dealer who can pay for cancer treatment out of his own pocket is more efficient than a high school teacher who cannot.
A teacher’s usefulness and claim to a standard of living proportional to his contribution to society, versus those of a meth dealer, are left for the free market to sort out.
Walter White, the Self-made Neoliberal Man
Neoliberal emphasis on opposition to the welfare state in favour of a deregulated market depends on a high value placed on self-reliance and personal responsibility, obscuring systemic inequalities and uneven balances of power and privilege within society.
We could call this the myth of the self-made neoliberal man; the ultimate success narrative is one of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. The concept of personal responsibility underlying the self-made man myth, in this context, does not imply responsibility towards persons other than yourself whom your actions affect; towards your community or towards the environment; it merely means being efficient enough to achieve a degree of success without visible help or support from the society at large.
The final episode of the series finds Walter White, who by then had raised a drug empire, earned millions, murdered seven men with his own hands, poisoned a child and caused the death of his own brother-in-law, admitting to his wife that supporting his family had not been his first motivation: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”
Refusing charity and paying for his hospital bills/his family’s upkeep by dealing drugs instead, Walter chooses being good at what he does, in the most neoliberal sense of being efficient, over being good in the sense of being compassionate, ethical or responsible towards others.
Walter is self-reliant; his tragedy comes from wishing to be -and deluding himself that he is- master of his own destiny within the “self-made man” narrative.