The Inner Class Divide (Part 1)

Like many people I am fascinated by the political changes taking place across southern Europe. Syriza’s victory in Greece has taken us into unchartered political waters and it remains to be seen what the impact of this will be in Greece, Europe and beyond. In thinking about this I have found myself wondering what it is we are really witnessing here – does the Greek election signal a change in the political landscape and a long-term shift to the left or is this just a temporary backlash against corruption and austerity which may be swept away within a matter of months? Is this movement backed by a change in mindset of the electorate or are the people just voting for the most tangible change due to widespread desperation?

This train of thought motivated to write an article on the psychological issues around these emerging left-wing political movements. Although I have already submitted this for publication elsewhere I would like to share it here also, with any feedback being welcomed! Due to its length I’ve decided to post this in several sections over the next few days so today I start with the first two sections…

The Inner Class Divide


We live in a time of economic, political and social uncertainty. As the boon and integration offered by the EU project comes under increasing scrutiny in the aftermath of years of unsustainable financial practices, Europe now readies itself for a year of key elections across the continent. In many of the region’s most indebted countries, the electorate has embraced the change offered by the Left as an antidote to years of austerity and corruption. In some cases, left wing political groups have organised from the ground up, emerging from broad-based public activism. In others, the movement has been more ‘top down’, with factions of the radical left uniting to offer a consolidated political stand against the Troika of the IMF, EC and ECB.

In this political climate class divide and conflict are never from the debate. Whether it is outrage at the obscene wealth of ‘1%’ or the corruption exposed among the political elite, citizens have found a common voice with which to express their discontent. Across the south of Europe in particular a number of left-wing political movements have sprung to prominence, gaining considerable electoral support in the face of austerity and public sector cuts. What is not yet clear is whether these movements offer a platform for long-term, sustainable change or whether we are simply witnessing a reactionary backlash against market driven economic reform.  In order to consider this crucial issue, the central issues surrounding the dominant political movements in this current debate must be closely analysed. The peer reviewed literature and the popular press have both looked into this in detail, primarily from an economic or political standpoint. There is still a need however to add to the debate a more concrete definition of the ideological issues at stake. For political change to be sustainable it must win the battle for the minds of the electorate. If people throughout Europe are turning to socialism as the solution to the problems of governance in their societies it is crucial that this movement and its members identify and promote a common socialist ideology.

Under these terms, the social structure should then be defined before it can be modified. As a first step to reshaping our view of society we should attempt to define where the frontiers of the current class divides lie. If a truly sustainable change is to occur on the political landscape then analysis of the class divide must extend beyond politics and economics and consider our psychological relationship with these structures. Only then can we try to identify the impact of ideology in this context and to examine the  competing psychological factors at play in stimulating political change. Class divide is as much an issue of the mind as of the economy.

Capitalism relies on consumption and is thus fuelled by our own desires as consumers. It is we as citizens, from top to bottom of the economic spectrum, that are the system. It is our wants that supply the capitalist growth and the surplus value. If indeed we live in a free society and choose to support the capitalist order with our relentless desire to consume then are we not guilty of hypocrisy when we criticise the system in times of trouble? If our choices were the result of free and autonomous decision making then perhaps this would be true, but in a world of nonstop external stimuli we must pause to consider how our choices are made. In so doing, perhaps we can garner an understanding of whether we have a psychological predisposition to any particular political ideology and, if so, how this relates to the current debate.

A Capitalist Psyche

Through a combination of Internet, television, billboards and other means, we are subjected to a constant bombardment by advertising and media. Some of this is direct, in suggesting the pleasure that can be derived from certain purchases, while some is indirect by simply creating linkages between products and aspirational figures. Sponsorship and product placement carry powerful messages that are related to much more than commodities. The impact and implications of this carry far beyond the economic or the political and we must turn to psychology to consider the effects.

Freud understood well that the human psyche operates on multiple levels. In addition to our innate desires, which are often organised and articulated via the ‘ego’, there is the voice of our conscience, or ‘superego’, helping us to align our actions with those that may be expected of us by society or authority figures. Freud originally viewed this ‘super ego’ as representing an idealised version of ourselves to which we struggle to live up. He viewed it as representing the character of the father and manifesting its influence through the conscience or feelings of guilt. In this context it makes sense to expand on his original definition of the super ego to take into account influences from outside the immediate sphere of personal influence and to include those beyond the individual’s immediate social or familiar circle. This extends to aspirational figures, admired only from afar, and wider stereotypical images promoted by the media. Freud himself expanded on his notion of super ego in Civilisation and its Discontents(2) with the notion of the Cultural Superego, which asserts its influence over the development of society. Like the superego the cultural superego makes “stern ideal demands, and failure to meet these demands is punished by ‘fear of conscience’.” On a cultural, or societal level, this is a strong statement indeed and one that cannot be ignored in considering the cultural identity of capitalism. But it is Freud’s suggestion that the development of the individual superego is linked to the cultural superego that allows us to consider the power of cultural messages, through the medium of advertising, in shaping personal identity. In these terms, our psyche is subject to strong influence from external messages.

In terms of body image, status, wealth or success, there is something for everyone in terms of identifying role models in the wider world. These role models can come to represent an idealised version of ourselves to which we should aspire.  And each of these is often strongly associated through marketing and media signals with the products we must buy in order reach this ideal. Identity formation has moved beyond social conditioning within the family and into commerce and advertising. We are led to believe that our idealised self is there for the taking as long as we listen to the messages and follow the instructions. Our identities are there to be bought.

That we buy wholesale into this way of defining ourselves may be due in part to a Lacanian mirror stage identification. Influenced by Freud, Lacan highlighted the importance of the mirror, or external, image of the body in building a mental picture of self. This gives rise to the notion that there is an external stimuli or an ‘other’ that is central to the ego. In contemporary terms, what we experience through our interaction with advertising and ‘role models’ through the media is the feeling of aspiration and identification arising from this ‘other’. Our sense of self, our identity, becomes increasingly dependent on how we view ourselves through the lens of commerce. The desire for a new smartphone extends far beyond its functional or even aesthetic qualities and becomes central to our self-worth and notion of our place in society. When we see our favourite celebrities updating their Twitter feeds from an Ipad, it becomes difficult to use anything else without suffering a loss in self-esteem. There is of course nothing new in this commodity fetishism but it is how it influences our identities, and therefore our decisions and actions, that is fundamental.

It should not be assumed that all individuals are subject to the same pressures resulting from media and advertising but it seems beyond doubt that this identity influence is a consequence of a society driven by commerce and consumption. And it should not be thought that this is an unintended consequence. Thatcher made her intentions quite clear in 1981 when she declared that “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” Thatcher certainly shoulders some of the responsibility for unleashing the power of the market in such a way that it compromised many existing social and community structures. What must be remembered also, however, is that she was operating within a society and an ideological landscape that allowed her to do this. As Paul Verhaege has pointed out, the post-war civil rights movement and its associated cultural impact placed the demands of the individual above the group. A culture of entitlement arose during the 1970s with individual rights being increasingly taken for granted. With the individual being predominant above the collective, the idea arose that self pursuit would be good for all. Neoliberal ideology was in many ways therefore just the logical extension of a shift in cultural outlook. That this shift went hand in hand with a surge in advertising throughout the western world, and a corresponding growth in the identity of the consumer, simply serves to highlight the importance of psychological and cultural shifts in fuelling the capitalist system. At the centre of the growth in consumerism were the psychological developments in individuals which then laid the groundwork for political change. Changes in psychology paved the way for a new ideology to take hold.

The psychological changes provoked by late stage capitalism are particularly strengthened by the technological tools thrust at us from the market. Not only are we told to purchase the best equipment from the market for phones, tablets and PCs but once we have them, our reliance on these devices serves to further undermine our capacity to take control over our identities. As Piaget and others have suggested, language is closely linked with cognitive growth, and our ability to articulate our thoughts and needs is an essential component of development. As email supplanted the letter, so Twitter or Facebook start to render email obsolete as a form of written, social communication. Each evolution brings a reduction in the number of words required to communicate and, in the guise of convenience, minimises the amount of thought that goes into the written word.  In the relentless drive for ‘convenience’ it is only natural that we should allow external agents to articulate our needs for us rather than spend time on thought and reflection. We are therefore at the mercy of advertising to steer us towards our ‘wants’. The impact of the Internet age on language use and development is far beyond the scope of this discussion but it is entirely conceivable that this relationship is a component of any market influenced identity formation.

It is influence over psychological processes then that is the real key to capitalism. By ensuring that identity is related to product purchase and consumption, capitalism promotes a true ideology in an Althusserian sense. It was Althusser who suggested that “ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” and that the “‘ideas’ or ‘representations’, etc., which seem to make up ideology do not have an ideal or spiritual existence, but a material existence.” This is clearly seen in the relationship between people and their consumption. Capitalism relies on consumption and capitalist ideology relies on promoting the belief that markets take precedent over more natural human relations. This produces what Marx referred to as false consciousness where the true nature of our social and commercial relations are hidden beneath the pursuit of an idealised self. In struggling to meet the demands of the (cultural) superego we sacrifice our true individuality and our autonomous identities. But in so doing we are not consciously aware of the impact of capitalism in a wider social context. As Rousseau said, “Men always desire their own good, but do not always discern it; the people are never corrupted, though often deceived, and it is only then that they seem to will what is evil.” The pursuit of wealth in order to fuel consumption puts us in competition with others and engenders a solitary and self-centred outlook. Social relations are of secondary importance in a market driven society and our desire to consume and support this system, as a result of our conditioned psychological disposition to the capitalist ideology, shields us from its true nature.

This then is the true strength of capitalism – the fact that, despite its widespread criticism, the majority of people are not consciously dissatisfied with it. While there is certainly outrage at the behaviour of certain actors within the system, it is less clear that there is widespread public discontent with the system itself. The Marxian false consciousness fosters a belief that we need to consume and this need becomes the central pillar in upholding the power of the markets. While the failings of capitalism are now widely debated around the world, those who still can, continue to purchase and consume far beyond their immediate needs. In many countries solidarity with those who have lost jobs and income manifests itself in public demonstration. But the backdrop of these demonstrations is the record profits recorded by Apple in the last quarter of 2014, and the continuing success of many other global corporations. In spite of growing discontent aimed at politicians or the ‘1%’, capitalism’s hold over our minds acts as its first line of defence against its detractors. Our conditioned inner capitalist ensures that our desire for goods and luxuries outweighs our concern at inequality and injustice.

Interestingly, IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, has recently echoed Marx in pondering whether capitalism carries the seed of its own demise. Perhaps the more relevant observation would be to marvel at its ability to survive. It may yet be brought down by its own contradictions but its power to influence our thought and identity ensures that it likely carries the tools for its own continual regeneration. When Marx wrote (in Grundrisse), capital must “strive to tear down every spatial barrier to intercourse, i.e., to exchange, and conquer the whole earth for its market” he may equally have noted its desire to tear down every psychological barrier or objection to intercourse. But does it succeed in this latter objective? Does the hold of capitalism over the psyche remove all instinctive objections to commerce and consumption?


I’ll post the next section tomorrow: A Social Brain’


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