Self and Emancipation

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, in many ways the most significant architect of neoliberal Australia, not long ago told a gathering of school students, from Melbourne Grammar no less, that “In the last 30 or 40 years, the quest for self has become central and that quest is both unrewarding and ultimately hollow,” he went on, “so there has to be a reawakening and that reawakening, I hope, will come in your generation.”

This is of course the same Paul Keating who stated to a New South Wales Labor Party conference, at the onset of the Gekko era, of the Australian left’s notions of cooperation and sustainability, “what it boils down to is wider nature strips, more trees and we’ll all make wicker baskets in Balmain. Then we’ll all live in renovated terraces in Balmain and we’ll have the arts and crafts shops and everything else is bad and evil.”
The self, of course, has posed some of the most fascinating philosophical conundrums since antiquity.

Is there such a thing as “the self,” a sense of “youness” as it were? If there is, how is the existence of the self to be squared with a materialist world view, and how is knowledge of the self, that is to say self-awareness, to be made consistent with the empiricist view that all knowledge derives from the senses?

The concept of the self, seemingly, strikes at the core of the modern age’s two most pervasive doctrines those being a physicalist or materialist account of existence and an empiricist position on knowledge.

One of the more interesting positions on the self is that due to David Hume, who argued that the self, the you in you, is merely a mirage which always must lie outside of our perceptions. Hume argued that, no matter how mighty we try to perceive the self, all we can capture are properties of ourselves rather than an essential core identity.

Steven Pinker, in his The Blank Slate, sees the cognitive revolution, or the reforging of a revolution previously lost by Chomsky’s terms, as tending to confirm this view. The self is an illusion fostered to make life that much easier for us. I have always felt this position to be an application of the Copernican principle; not only is there not a special place in the solar system, galaxy, universe, nor a special place for any species on the tree of life, there is no special sense of self or you. This is a happy conclusion for philosophical naturalists, although by no means are the philosophical conundrums of the self settled.

The self remains one of the canonical problems of philosophy.

Despite all that there is a sense, to follow Keating’s lead, in which we may speak of the socially constructed nature of the self, whether the concept of the self as such is intelligible at the philosophical level or no. Just as an individual requires a sense of self so does society require a sense of self, both of its own and of the individuals that constitute society.

Consider market society. It is hard to imagine a purely free market society constituted by altruists.

Market society is based upon the pursuit of individual gain, and the assumption of standard neoclassical economics is that we are rational profit seeking creatures. Our essential sense of being is built around “the propensity to truck, barter and exchange” as Adam Smith had it. Markets by their very nature require the headlong pursuit of competition.

So society comes to be built upon the actions of individualistic and acquisitive selves. The self exists prior to society, it is thereby a natural, not social, construct. But what if things are in reverse? That is, market society was first brought into being and then the acquisitive and individualistic self was crafted so as to enable the reproduction of capitalist society?

Certainly the workers of the industrial revolution saw it that way. They lamented the advent of “the new spirit of the age” which was, “gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” They most especially lamented the possibility that this new spirit would entrench itself into the public mind, that it would become what some of the most trenchant advocates of the selfish self call a “meme,” so that future generations would not know any different.

We don’t need to go so far back into history to see the social construction of this type of self at work. The crafting of an avaricious and materialistic sense of self has been critical to the neoliberal project, from the late 1970s onward, of destroying the social welfare state. Keating surely is right here.

This has been done through freeing the market, which in itself compels people to follow a certain competitive logic, but most crucially, from cradle to grave, through pervasive, well funded and expertly developed advertising, branding, signifying, what in a more honest age we would have called propaganda.

This is why, to a not inconsiderable degree, we have seen progressive attacks against social security and unions. Both are at odds with the neoliberal self. Social security is based on the idea that we should care for and look after the infirm, the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the unlucky and so on, because that is what any decent cooperative society made by “basket weavers” would do. To destroy the very idea of social justice requires the fashioning of a meaner spirited self.

By the same token unions are at variance with the neoliberal vision of a society where workers individually bargain with their corporate overlords, that is to say the vision of a society paved by a road to serfdom. The labour movement has always been about nurturing solidarity and a sense of comradeship through joint struggle. To develop an egoistic and individualistic sense of self is to strike a dagger at the very heart of unionism.

The attack on unionism is an attack on class consciousness. Class is not just an objective category, it is also a subjective category and as E.P. Thompson pointed out in a classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, the proletariat was not just made by capitalism it was also made through the culminated daily actions of workers themselves. This creation was not just the creation of a class of people, it was the creation of a certain sense of self one more communal, fraternal, autonomous. When the working class was rich with the consciousness of its being it had an equally enriched intellectual life.

To carry forth the neoliberal revolution at the behest of capital it was not necessary to merely attack, using the coercive machinery of the state and the vast ensemble of corporate propaganda, the form of the organised working class, the institutional basis of the labour movement, it was necessary to destroy the working class itself as a subjective category. The individualistic and acquisitive neoliberal self destroys, and was meant to destroy, working class consciousness without which the labour movement is nothing.

The sense of self that lies at the core of libertarian socialist, or anarchist thinking, is one that is at variance with the acquisitive self. The anarchist self is an autonomous, responsible, social, creative, ecological, self. It is, one may justly argue, the supposition that the self is of precisely such a nature that underpins the core philosophical anarchist position, held by all left libertarians of whatever stripe, for authority and hierarchy become fundamentally illegitimate, indeed grotesque, when the self is seen to be autonomous, social, inquisitive, creative.

A key purpose of anarchism, both as a system of ideas and as a movement, is to help bring such a sense of self into being through the fashioning of alternative social arrangements built around principles of mutual aid, self governance, self management, sustainability.

Karl Polanyi long argued in a classic work that utopian schemes to turn society into a self regulating market foster a “double movement” as society fights back against the erosion of social bonds. This suggests that the sense of self constructed by markets, the state through force, and neoliberal spin doctors with the billions at their disposal, cuts against the grain of the true self, which is more in accord with that which underpins the core of anarchist thought.

To combat the vulgarity of neoliberal society we need not just create a new society, we must, together, also fashion a new sense of self one based on autonomy, creative work and inquiry, solidarity, ethical living, and civic responsibility among others.

In this sense the famous dichotomy that Murray Bookchin drew between social and lifestyle anarchism can be overdrawn.

Anarchists have always stressed the importance of “performative revolution;” the means of creating the future post capitalist society should reflect the principles embodied in the end. If it is the case that socialism both requires the fashioning of a new cooperative self, and would contribute to its maturity, it follows that the culmination of our everyday actions, our lifestyles as it were, given the principle of performative revolution, should be ones based on mutual aid and right living.

The culmination of our daily life actions themselves can be viewed as revolutionary acts.

The stress upon the self also means that the building of class consciousness, through organisation, struggle, education, and cultural action is of vital significance. To no small degree the fashioning of class consciousness, given the centrality of globalisation as a socioeconomic process and the global nature of the ecological crisis, mandates that this consciousness, both class and ecological, be global.

If our forebears created the English working class, to use the example, our task today is to fashion a global working class conscious both of itself as a class and as a global category.

There is no hard and fast dichotomy between the social of socialism and the lifestyle of lifestylism.

The two should be seen as coexting in a symbiotic relationship, so to fashion a new world is to both fashion a new, revolutionary, society and a new, revolutionary, self.