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Identity: Individual and Collective

Just occasionally the entertainment media gives us a glimpse of the social realities that it tries, so desperately, to obscure. One such unlikely instance of this was a show devised by the illusionist Derren Brown. In it he had a group of about a dozen people from three different cities (London, New York and Amsterdam – if I recall correctly) place their hand on a sheet of paper and draw around it adding their signatures in the centre of the outline. He then took the papers away and promised that on his return he would deliver to each person an in-depth account of their psychological characteristics. An hour or so later he returned and delivered his written analysis to each person of the group. Almost without exception the individuals of the group were astonished (and some rather embarrassed) by the insights into what they believed to be the most intimate elements of their character. The climax of the performance came as a result of Brown’s request that they exchange papers between themselves and the subsequent realization that what was written on them was identical.

What is surprising to socialists was the astonishment people exhibit when confronted with evidence of just how much we share in terms of our hopes and needs. It is what unites us, we maintain, rather than what divides us that defines humanity. I say we are surprised but perhaps this is rather disingenuous to the results of our analysis of capitalism and, in particular, the understanding of the ideology that sustains it. The cult of ‘individualism’ is, of course, one of the cornerstones of bourgeois ideology – but just how have they managed to convince us that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ but only individuals. It is an obvious political advantage to keep one’s opponents from acting collectively (which, ironically, the ruling class rarely fail to do) but even those who may well oppose the politics of the ruling elite demur from entering into any collective political identity. What exactly is it in our culture that makes the statement ‘society is made up of individuals’ acceptable but the equally logical contention that ‘individuals are made up by society’ an anathema?

Socially produced

Most of us would admit that the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the technology we use are all socially produced – why then is there a reluctance to acknowledge that the ideas we have and even the very language we use to express them are also social products? Indeed without this socialised aspect of our culture we could not verbally communicate and would have no ideas.

In what dialecticians call the theory of internal relations we learn, amongst many other lessons, that to understand the individual we have to conceive the whole and vice-versa. Without a concept of the wood (forest) we would only see a collection of trees and have no knowledge of how the ecosystem defines the individual tree. Our culture insists on a discrete analysis (the perspective of the one viewing ‘the other’) in almost all of its understanding of everything. To continue the forest metaphor we would be at a loss to explain the tiger’s behaviour and appearance without reference to its habitat. In the same way any concept of the human individual is dependent on the idea of ‘society’.

So we can be as bold as to say that all of our ideas (abstracts) are dependent on our cultural and historical context and that some of these are more politically obvious than others. The pressures and ideology of capitalism make the cult of the individual an obvious choice for most people trying to understand who and what they are. Although we produce everything socially the access to what we have created is only as an individual consumer. It is this alienating factor within commodity production that reinforces the prison cell of the egotistical self that is essential to the political construct of the ’individual’. A friend once stated that only an event that directly concerned him as an individual could give him a feeling of ‘reality’ in contrast to any political activity. In other words the factors that brought about the event were of little interest to him (the political context) because of the lack (until it became personal) of any egotistical content.

Many have said to me down the years that ‘they cannot wait for the revolution’, and said this in defence of innumerable reformist activities, but this again only indicates the self-indulgence of the ego. What has just been said does not indicate a rejection of ‘individuality’; it is a rejection of the liberal ideological concept of individualism which we conceive of as one of the most destructive political ideas masquerading as humanism. The great irony is that without a collective (class) identity the majority can never liberate themselves from their egotistical prisons and experience true individuality.

Collective political action

It may seem paradoxical that it is only through the collective political action of the majority that the true nature of the individual can be liberated. Socialists are often criticised as ‘obsessed with class’ but it is only through class consciousness that we can destroy what makes it so necessary; any denial of the importance of social class invariably indicates the desire to sustain its divisions. Only within a community defined by social justice and political equality can one truly acquire the love and respect of those whom we love and respect, not through what we have (consumerism) but by what we do (produce). The talents that a child may possess can only flourish if they are not handicapped by the class context into which they’re born. It is truly heartbreaking to know that so much human potential will wither and die because of the poverty (both material and cultural) that defines their lives.

The talents involved in producing something of value for your community is where the true expression of one’s individuality resides and this, of course, is the antithesis of everything capitalism is or ever can be. It might be argued that ‘creative work’ does exist within the present system but the few who do enjoy this luxury inevitably suffer the alienation inherent in the commodification of their product in terms of repeating the initial commercial success (musicians and other artists who have enjoyed this kind of success often have difficulty in maintaining it because of the corrosive effect sales pressure has on creativity). The only reason to ‘produce for profit’ is to sustain the lives of luxury of the parasite class who own everything but contribute nothing. If you really wish to discover your potential as an individual then first you will have to help us destroy the class system that makes the fulfilment of such a need impossible at the moment. Merely expressing yourself as a consumer impoverishes the individual spirit and condemns liberal sensibilities to political impotence. Authentic individuality is meaningless without a concept of the social and it can only fulfil its meaning through a revolutionary change in society because in its present incarnation it is merely egotism.  

WEZ