Daniel Harvey gives a theoretical insight into the existential problem of relating to others as a revolutionary in a liberal society.
The old slogan of bourgeois entertainment, ‘But you must have seen this’, which just represented a swindle in the market place becomes a matter of deadly seriousness with the abolishment of amusements and the market alike. Formerly the supposed penalty was being unable to participate in what everyone else was talking about. Today, anyone who is unable to talk in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgments of mass culture as if they were his own is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual.
Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’
One of the most misleading delusions we hold about ourselves is that there is some insoluble distinction between our public and our private selves. This illusion gives us the flattering idea that we are only forced to wear social masks, that underneath this persona that capitalist society forces us to adopt, there is some redeemable ‘real me’, who would be able to express themselves if only they were allowed to. This distinction supposedly makes us unhappy and depressed, alienated even, and we feel it separates us from bonding with the people around us. ‘Express yourself’ is now probably the most common advertising principle, and it’s a true testament to advertisers professional skill that they have made doing this seemingly very simple task so expensive. Some sad cases in the 60s took this and turned it into an entire new ‘self discovery’ industry. The wealthy and bored go on long and expensive retreats to monasteries filled with Indian, so called, mystics, and then Louis Theroux made a documentary about it.
Hollywood hasn’t failed to take up this trope. Two of the best films to do this have been Apocalypse Now and American Beauty, both similar films in many respects. Taking the latter, the film’s explicit function is to take us on a journey of self discovery through a series of characters in suburban America. Ricky Fitts tells his girlfriend that he looks into the eyes of a destitute woman and sees God stare back at him. Famously, he films a plastic bag, “it was dancing with me… and that’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things…sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.” All of the characters go through a process of destruction and redemption. Carolyne Burnham adopts a persona to sell a house, her mantra “to succeed one must project an image of success”. Predictably it falls apart as she closes a door on a couple on a viewing, and she collapses in a hysterical sobbing pile. Lester Burnham loses his job, rediscovers his confidence, and finds happiness by reducing himself to working in a Burger King.
What’s wrong with this picture? The entire emancipatory content of this film is predicated on death, and is framed through the narration of a dead man. The light headed, flighty sense of freedom it gives is the feeling of a suicidal person when they have made the decision to destroy themselves. This is the honest centre of this film, because the reality is that the destruction of our social masks IS an act of self-annihilation. In Freudian theory, we are shaped by a wildly unrealistic impression of ourselves, our ego-ideal. This is the part of our minds which is supposed to constantly torment us with out own failings, we are never able to match up to this image of what we should be, but the effort to do so creates our character. We might characterise this as an internalised utopianism of the self, where the utopia is an ‘impossible fantasy’. But Trotsky, and actually many libertarians, in fact, said communists should have nothing to do with utopianism for the very reason that it turns them into naïve dreamers.
Within our society it is easier to imagine death than it is to imagine meaningful personal freedom, and the corollary of this is, as Zizek puts it, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Along with self discovery, Armageddon has to be the overriding obsession of the film industry. But nowadays, this obsession has taken on a new character. It’s no longer simply the threat of comets and aliens, but the crazed mob that acts as the collective nightmare. Its been written somewhere that there are more zombie films made each year than there are births, and even apocalyptic films without them, have them in some new form, as crazies. Zombies themselves have been transformed from supernatural creatures to the angry, rabies infected like animals of 28 Days Later. In other words, indistinguishable from the common conception of fundamentalist fanatics – think of the internet meme of “rage boy” after the September 11th attacks. The Road is just a wonderful example of this; in this post-capitalist society, the last liberals, a father and son, with the former trying to inculcate the child with the necessary elitist self-regard, ‘the fire’, are chased by the only communists imaginable, the bands of cannibals that want to eat them.
But this problem also blights Freudian-Marxism. Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century of the Self highlights this. Right at the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists, Freud included, had the idea that people at their root are fundamentally irrational creatures. They are slaves to a libidinal drive, which makes them unable to resist the impulses of sex and violence. Gustave Le Bon set out in The Crowd that no matter how rational people were as individuals, when they formed groups they became hostile, unmanageable and easily led by elites. This was just a classical Rousseaunian formulation, the idea of the untainted solitary man corrupted by society, updated with modern sounding psychological language. But the fear was real, and the fear was explicitly a fear of socialism, and he wrote a book dedicated to how to counter this terrible ideology a few years later. This has been the foundation of modern public relations, propaganda and advertising, with thinkers like Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays establishing ways for states and corporations to manage and control public opinion, by manipulating our libidinal desires – this is what Bernays called the ‘invisible government’ at the heart of democratic societies.
The Critical Theorists, influenced by Freud, despaired that people were unable to escape, because at root they share this view, modern culture tapped into people’s psychological weakness, the love of being led. Erich Fromm described this in his seminal The Fear of Freedom where he suggested that people were all too happy to destroy their own individuality in favour consumerism, because it relieved them of the angst of alienation and being separate. Theodore Adorno’s The Culture Industry lays out the same problem in much more detail. Adorno thought that capitalism does not simply manufacture cars and dishwashers, but manufactured human identity itself. Capitalism manufactures culture and the media, and creates characters and identities with exact looks and styles, which it is the duty of citizens to adopt as closely as possible, ‘as if they were his own’. This is of course true, capitalism does behave in this way, but at the same time the pessimism and melodrama of this must be off putting for us. The Culture Industry is probably one of the greatest problems that any real revolution is going to have to overcome, but at the same time, the existence of a radical left, and the author himself you would have thought, shows it is possible for people to tune it out.
Existentialism develops this kind of alienation by introducing the new concept of ‘authenticity’ into the equation. Sartre wrote that people internalise identities which are required of them by the powerful institutions in society, that is to say, they adopt identities, national, religious, gendered, sexual, as if they were their own, but that this produces a sense of alienation where the individual feels disconnected from their own lives, or into robotically ‘going through the motions’. ‘Being for others’ this was called, where the gaze of the outside agency or consciousness, forces us to see ourselves through other people’s eyes, and measure ourselves in relation to their expectations – effectively becoming actors in someone else’s play. Fundamentally, the realisation of nihilism, that there is no meaning or purpose to existence other than the ones we make for ourselves is the mechanism of freeing the self from this kind of mental prison. So the thought process and the intentionality behind them is what is important here, whether you sense you’re doing something because you’re going through the motions or because it is something you have genuinely chosen for yourself. Obviously, under capitalism, most people are going through the motions, and the choices are very limited, you either live in-authentically, internalising the values of society, you kill yourself, or you rebel and become a revolutionary (not a practical option for most). But empirical observation shows that it is generally impossible for people to retain a value system that is in conflict with their daily practice for long, it is too much for the brain to cope with, which reiterates the existentialist position that being precedes essence, or, what we are determines who we are – there is never a permanent internal conflict in this respect.
But in purely Marxist terms, alienation is the process by which our labour is transformed into a diffuse authority which rules over and imprisons us. We know the name of this diffuse authority, it’s ‘The Economy’ that the politicians remind us about constantly. Within that structure, liberalism naturally incubates massive amounts of cynicism which has the effect of neutralising internal opposition; on the one hand, elites adopt the view that fundamental change is impossible, that ‘there is no alternative’ to themselves, but on the other hand, liberalism teaches people to be cynical towards the leadership, to blame them for their own failings, and to project onto them all their own insecurities. When the average citizen looks at Ed Miliband doling out his drivel to the crowds in Hyde Park, their natural response is to see him as a nerd acting very unconvincingly, but his perceived weakness is a reflection of their own weakness. In this sense, alienation is part of the liberal political system and what perpetuates its existence. But because revolutionary movements are always a reflection of their social context, this system is taken and reconstituted in the radical left; we have Trotskyist sects run by committees that don’t change from one decade to the next, and then anarchists whose primary motivation is complaining about them whilst failing to produce a more effective form of organisation. Structurally, cynicism is built into the revolutionary left as much as in mainstream society.
Yet there is a further gap. It is not enough simply to blame failure on cynicism in some diffuse sense. It is not simply that we feel that it would be better to retreat within ourselves to escape from the inevitable failure of our attempts to change the world around us. Selling a paper has this terrible personal quality to it doesn’t it? It’s really just symptomatic of something about our own profound timidity. What I think I’ve found after not long in the revolutionary movement, such as it is, is a timidity in our relations with one another, as if relationships between those even engaged within the same struggle find they cannot allow themselves to interact in a way that reveals their own insecurities. The revolutionary counterpart to ‘being for others’ is the result of a drive towards that fantasy ideal of what our relations and revolution will be. We are pulled toward it, and are unable to resist being pulled through the reactions with those around us. We are forced to, by necessity, relate to others, even though we find it impossible to ever truly achieve that aim. In this sense being pulled into this is like something being pulled into a black hole, if you know your physics, things always look as though they are falling in, but they never actually, finally, do.
This article is obviously meant to be about far more than selling papers, as has already been said, if it was it would be a pretty massive over-intellectualisation of the problem. But anyway, why? The answer to this has to go beyond the simple explanation that, you know, it’s kind of embarrassing to bother people we don’t know. This just reformulates the opening question again. In Freudian language, when our ego (sense of self) becomes connected and submerged into a wider collective ego, it becomes impossible to separate attitudes toward it, and toward ourselves. In a society predicated on cynicism, this is a problem. When I push a paper in front of someone I don’t know, it is impossible for me to practice cynical detachment whilst the recipient still can, and most likely will. In effect, my personal sense of self-worth is determined by that person’s attitude to my political affiliation, at its mercy. Who I am in this situation is what I am, and in this society that makes me an idiotic Trot student who should grow up. This anxiety about what ‘the other’ is thinking of us is in fact the result of an internalised feeling of inferiority. It is not just that we are frightened of being seen as inferior, but that we actually feel ourselves, ‘know’ ourselves, to be inferior. This is how alienation still works on us, even when our labour is ostensibly being directed toward what we think of as an emancipatory task. But, nonetheless, we are pulled through these awkward interactions by something greater, an idea about emancipation that transcends our own human pettiness. Let’s just cling to that for dear life.