24 March 2009

More on identity

As an introduction: if you're not watching Joss Whedon's Dollhouse yet, you should be. It will make a lot of the following post a lot clearer.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is missing a bottom rung. Because humankind is a social animal (in particular a troop animal, like the other great apes), self-actualisation, esteem, love, safety and even physiological integrity are based on fitting into a social order in some way - in other words, having a social identity. If you're an ape living up a tree, then if you don't have a place in a troop of other apes for mutual self-defence and food gathering, you will starve to death or get eaten by a lion. And with our big sexy walking-upright brains, our place in our "troops" is based on identities constructed through social discourse.

The need for a social identity is therefore absolutely fundamental to human nature - which is why some people would prefer to destroy themselves physically than have to give up their social identity. If people are prepared to kill themselves if they lose their partner or their job or even some kind of social status, you have to re-examine exactly what is important in human nature. This is why, especially in the states, they've started handing out cellphones to homeless people - having a number where you can be contacted is more important to being "part of the social order" than having a house to live in or a job to go to, and is in fact a prerequisite to either of the above.

Slotting back into a Marxist approach to political economy, a given politico-economic structure will interpellate (that term (c) a notorious French wife-killer) the identities it needs. The reason why pre-WW2 Marxism is increasingly inadequate is that, while "working class" as a socio-economic category still clearly exists, as a social identity it's been more or less wiped out. The mass consumption economy needs mass consumers - people whose identity is based on what they consume rather than what they do. "What they do" to get the $$$ to consume with is a dirty little secret that is actually consciously repressed.

The Media Priests as I call them (the middle-class intelligensia in charge of memetic engineering) are of course perfectly placed for this, since they produce nothing but memes and consumption is their main function in the real economy. Therefore, they create a memetic environment where consumption is the basis of all social identity. We are in an era where people will riot over shortages of their preferred brand, even if perfectly equivalent alternatives are freely available, because mess with their brand, you mess with their identity.

The existing left is useless because it itself is trapped in niche-market or subcultural ways of thinking. Changing the world is increasingly a platonic goal at best - the real goal is perpetuation of "the scene" and of one's own preferred monkey troop within that scene. Apart from the serious ground-level business of helping build workers' resistance to attacks on capital, for real radicals of the new millenium, our overriding strategy must be: DESTROY ALL IDENTITIES. Actually existing personal and social identities do nothing but ensure that you will stay in your box forever. And that includes the identity of "revolutionary" or "magus" or whatever.

I don't think we're in the business of trying to build new identities, because (a) that's just another trap, (b) that ends up in a kind of "social psychology / mind-control cult" trap, where people get to play "more enlightened than thou". We have to smash the doors on our own cages open, while helping others smash their own locks. Only a self-sustaining chain reaction and collective action can actually achieve any social-wide change.

Cognitive behavioural therapy states that exorcising demons, smashing mind-forg'd manacles, whatever you call it, is best done by challenging those bad things' right to exist, and by practical experience doing something different. That should be the goal of all political activity -

1. challenge the dominant paradigm with memetic flair backed up with logic;
2. encourage practical activity (which can actually be done by the vast majority in their lunchbreaks and weekends) which proves that it's only real if you believe in it.

Here's some examples of memes that need to be destroyed with great urgency if we want the planet to continue to support an advanced technological society:

- I am what I consume.
- Money is real.
- People different from me in race, gender, nationality or sexuality are my enemy.
- What I do is of no value and the boss pays me out of the kindness of their heart.
- The individual is the only reality - collectives are powerless and useless.
- The current social order is fixed and natural and can't be changed.

A word of warning: some very, very dodgy things come up when the repressed return. That's what a revolution is all about. A terrible danger is "radicals" still stuck in a middle-class-intellectual identity freaking out when the awakening masses come up with memes they don't like the look of, and decide that they'd prefer living under oppression to the rule of the uncouth, un-PC mob - as if enactment of a particular programme was the determining factor. Eg - mass strike breaks out in the UK, some leftists freak out because the workers are raising the wrong slogans (i.e. different from those that the wannabe memetic engineers in the leftist groups worked out in advance.)

But human liberation is the only determining factor, our only real goal. Programme is only a means to an end in that regard. We must be fanning all oppositional, anti-consumption, pro-production-for-use activity, while combatting any attempt to build up new identities, especially those around creating new niche identities, or more particularly in beating the crap out of people with a different identity.

A couple of other words of warning:
- A good way to make sure nothing ever changes is to require perfection. In the political sphere, this translates to "I don't get out of bed for anything less than full-blown revolution in the streets". If we set achievable goals for shifting society's memes one tiny step away from "money is real" and towards "production for people and planet, not profit", then we can be happy. Note that this is not the same thing as "recruit one more member to my ridiculous little fan club" - in fact, quite the opposite. We need to be spreading ideas wide, not creating a cult.
- A new sustainable world will of course create its own web of identities which will of course need to be overthrown in their turn, but let's burn that bridge when we come to it. Suffice to say that if your identity is based around changing the world, then when the world is changed you will suddenly be out of a job and might want to kill yourself, so you might even end up subconsciously preventing yourself from success.