It is precisely the earthquake of emancipation that has upset, at the collective level, the private lives of us all: democratic modernity – and this is also its greatness – has progressively turned us into rudderless men. Little by little it has put us in the condition of having to judge by ourselves and having to come up with our own points of reference. We have become pure individuals, in the sense that there is no longer any moral law or any tradition to show us from the outside whom we have to be and how to conduct ourselves. From this point of view, the contrast between allowed and prohibited that governed individuality throughout the fifties and sixties has lost all effectiveness. The growing concern for a return to order and the urgent desire for new organising codes and new ‘insurmountable limits’ find their motivation here. The right to choose one’s own life and the pressing need people to become themselves place personalities in a condition of continual movement. And this induces us to frame the question of the normative limits of inner order in other terms: the contrast between the allowed and the prohibited has given way to an agonising conflict between the possible and the not-possible. As a result individualities have been substantially transformed.
In step with the relativisation of the notion of prohibition, the role of discipline in the forms of regulation of the relationship between individual and society has also been reduced: forms that today appeal more to personal decision and initiative than to compliance with discipline. […] The notions of planning, motivation and interrelation have become norms today. They have become part of our customs, a habit to which, from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy, everyone – both public and private actors – has learned to adapt more or less well. […]
It is only by incorporating in our reflection such transformations in the rules that we can grasp the extent of the changes in our relations with inequalities, with forms of power and with politics. The measure of the ideal individual is no longer provided by his docility, but by his initiative. And here lies one of the decisive changes in our ways of life, given that these new forms of regulation are not a private choice on the part of each of us but a common rule, valid for all, on pain of marginalisation. They pertain to the ‘general spirit’ of our society. They are the institutions of the self. […]
In the past social rules imposed conformity and, with it, automatism of behaviour; today they call for a spirit of initiative and mental independence. The individual is confronted more by a pathology of inadequacy than by a disease of guilt […].
Alain Ehrenberg, La Fatigue d’être soi. Dépression et société, Paris: Odile Jacob, 2000. The passage has been translated from the Italian edition, La fatica di essere se stessi: Depressione e società, Turin: Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi, 2010.