To round things off after Part 2 yesterday, here is the third and final part of this essay looking at our internal class conflict and its implications for radical left-wing political alternatives in Europe and beyond…
The Inner Class Divide
That we as individuals are subject to various stimuli contributing to development is nothing new. Much has been written on child development and much of this can extend also into adult life in terms of continuous learning and development. Where things have changed in recent years is in the increased intensity and aggression of stimuli relating to late stage capitalism. On the one hand we possess a social brain, allowing us to feel empathy and make emotional connections, and a character forged through a myriad of social connections and interactions. Many of us experience a fundamental need to share our lives with friends, family and community. But on the other hand, we are bombarded with advertising signals and media messages telling us that consumption is the ultimate goal and that this must be driven by aggressive, competitive activity in the market place. Much of what we experience through advertising relates to consumption or the adoption of an idealised version of self to which we should aspire. We are told that that we can have everything as long as we consume. In a ‘post-religious’ world it is salvation through consumption. Our participation in society can be bought instead of fostered through genuine social interaction.
But we are the recipients of contradictory messages. Identity formation through the solitary pursuit of commodities in order to satisfy a conditioned super ego is at odds with our more basic needs as social animals. Capitalism relies on competition whereas our early development engenders the value of cooperation. The (cultural) super ego tells us that to succeed at life we need to compete in the market place, earn money as efficiently as possible, and construct our idealised identities. But our innate characteristics and our basic human needs show us the importance of people over the market. This is class warfare in every sense, with the mind being the battleground. Many individuals therefore experience a subconscious, inner class tension, with a consuming, competitive, aspirational self striving to keep up in the market, and a social self yearning for cooperation and interaction. This ideological battle is internalised and fought daily in a way that has far greater implications than the debate in the political arena.
On a daily basis, we bemoan the loss of our local community butcher while driving to our local Tesco. We mourn the loss of the local bookstore while searching for the best deal on Amazon. We recognise our social and community needs but we subjugate them to the messages from the market. But this is a market that recognises financial gain and is unable to put a value on factors beyond the point of transaction. Besides sales, local independent stores offer a forum for social interaction on a scale befitting each community. It is the loss of this that we often lament while taking our custom to the cheaper, but less personal, multinational corporations. Our desires for community and social cohesion are constantly undermined by the need to keep up in the sphere of retail. It is a race to the bottom that does not stop while there is access to credit. And when the credit dries up and recessions deepen, instead of taming the beast that brought our economies to their knees we are told that the markets and the system must be nursed back to health until there is sufficient capital and credit to restart the cycle once again. But all the while, capitalism’s powerful hold over the collective psyche influences our actions as consumers and continues to fuel the system. It has an innate self defence mechanism in the strong influence it exerts over our sense of self.
Seeking a platform for sustainable change
Perhaps counter-intuitively it is through the adoption of collective goals that we may be able to best recover an autonomous idea of self. Recognising the value of community, sharing and civic duty over finance or commodity driven pursuit frees us from the pressure of competition in society and allows us to develop an idea of ourselves alongside others, rather than in conflict with them. To do this in a long-term and sustainable way however may require a shift in the way we define ourselves and the way which we assimilate the multitude of advertising and media signals. In other words, the internal class battle must be tipped in favour of our social selves and away from our market conscious identities.
Herein lies the challenge. Capitalism has an entrenched hold over the psyche, which exerts considerable influence over identities and sense of self. The agents of this control are the products themselves, which are constantly refined and developed to encourage further consumption. The capitalist ‘ideology’ is delivered in the form of advertising and media related to consumption and to the individuals and entities that endorse it. On the left of the political spectrum, socialism lacks a corresponding set of weapons in an ideological war. Absent from socialist ideology is the materialism and commodity fetishism that has been so integral to engendering Marxian false consciousness. Instead, socially driven ideologies are grounded in everyday social bonds and interactions. To compete in the ideological battle therefore, these bonds must be strengthened in order to revert back to a more socially constructed identity.
The long-term success of inclusive, socially conscious governance is dependent on the way in which the citizens themselves buy into the project not as recipients of an ideology but as participants in the political process. The grip exerted by capitalism over the mind must be loosened before lasting social change can take hold. For change to have longevity it cannot be induced by force. And so the first step to changing the way our societies are organised and managed is through confronting the internal ideological, or class conflict. Within many societies mechanisms already exist which have the power to align individual interests with that of the community, and to combat capitalism’s influence over identity formation. Cooperatives spring immediately to mind as a tool in this regard. Putting workers and stakeholders at the heart of business and service management promotes democracy and advances a socially driven agenda.
Promoting collective, citizen participation in all aspects of governance is the key to strengthening an identity of the self as part of a wider social group and recognising that the individual self can prosper within an inclusive social fabric. When the momentum for this type of change is built up by individuals and communities coming together to present a collective vision, the result can powerful. In times of crisis or social transformation people often pull together in recognition that their common social needs outweigh their individual desires. We can currently witness the power of such a movement with the Podemos party in Spain channelling citizen outrage into a coordinated political movement. The real strength of this group lies in the fact that it is not seen to be led and orchestrated by seasoned professional politicians. The initial steps taken by the Indignados protest crystallised around a leadership structure made up of primarily of academics and citizens. An inclusive philosophy is adopted in which the Podemos ideology strives to merge with the popular collective psyche “to recover democracy and put politics at the service of people and human rights.” Podemos promotes itself as a party created by the people.
This movement is in contrast to the resurgent left wing in Greece. Although, the radical left consortium of Syriza has sent shockwaves across Europe by being elected on a populist anti-austerity platform, its success is the result of a coordinated and focused effort by professional politicians. Citizens across the Greek social spectrum have flocked to the Syriza banner in defiance of the Troika but they have done so out of desperation rather than ideology. If Syriza are successful in pursuing debt reduction and facing down the posturing of the Troika and the international financial markets then they will have scored a considerable success. But it is not yet clear if they have won or even fought an ideological battle. As long as the inner class conflict is unresolved it remains unseen as to whether Syriza is redefining the Greek political landscape or whether it will fade into the background if national financial conditions later allow a return to previous levels of consumption.
The underlying issue is one of sustainable political and sociological change. The ideological battle between left and right has raged in the public domain for centuries. But it is within the individual that the class tension is at its most acute. A single-minded pursuit of wealth is often at odds with community spirit. The evolution of capitalism has allowed it to reach into the mind and, as memorably stated by Thatcher, the soul. Unless the political left can mobilise to compete on this battleground it will never be able to truly institute a vision of socialism in which community interest is not outweighed by personal interest.
The coming months and years will be of great interest in pointing to the political future in Europe. But in many ways the true test of whether a resurgent left can redraw the modern political landscape in the face of neoliberalism will not be the success of Syriza. Perhaps the true test will be in how many individual citizens mobilise, and stay mobilised across the continent in search of political change. If, as in Spain, political movements are fundamentally popular movements driven by a common and positively expressed shared vision, then perhaps capitalism’s hold on the psyche can be weakened. If, however, political movements come to power merely as an expression of reactionary discontent then it is less clear whether the prevailing capitalist ideology is being defeated or merely suppressed until the next economic recovery. To quote Bertrand Russell, “Revolutionary action may be unnecessary, but revolutionary thought is indispensable, and, as the outcome of thought, a rational and constructive hope.”
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