A short critique of identity

I like to focus on the impact of capitalism on personal mental health. To be sure, it’s a massive, massive topic. The impact on capitalism (or the world you grew up in) on personal mental health is so incomprehensibly large you might as well ask what the impact on a nail would be if you hit it with a hammer the size of Texas. There isn’t even a definition of what capitalism is, aside from the business cycle itself. But there are cultural mainstays that if they do not cause capitalism, they have accompanied capitalism in developed countries. So if you are in the United States and are interested in capitalism’s impact on personal mental health, please keep on reading my critique of identity.

In capitalism, it often feels like you’re on your own. Being an individual seems to be the daily life of people living under capitalism. This insistence on being an individual, a self-made man, is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you are allowed to claim all of your achievements as a result of your own sense of self, but on the other hand all of your failures and shortcomings are yours as well. It’s within this context that the self-help and mental health industry positions itself: helping individuals fight their demons alone. Good mental health is living happily as an individual. Bad mental health is dissatisfaction from living as an individual. But this is how you help people, on the scale of individuals.

But we are not individuals, or if we are the term needs to surrender a lot of the power associated to it. We are people born into situations. Suburbanite parents on the hill say of young African-American boys “Well if I was born in the ghetto I would refuse to sell drugs.” No, you wouldn’t, because you wouldn’t be you then. The very act of saying “I” invokes your entire upbringing. Your very identity is constructed out of society. Society furnishes you with the raw materials out of which you make yourself. The proof of this is that we all identify with the word “I” but none of us invented it. We had to be taught it. At best, “I” refers to a mixture of your will and the larger environment, a compromise between the world you were born into and your desires for yourself that would have come true had it not been for the world. At worst, “I” is an amputation, a denial of the world that they exist in. This is where people like to play the same game as those suburbanite parents did: they like to imagine themselves as divorced from their circumstances, and able to jump into anyone’s life at anyone’s moment to cast judgment, like Agent Smith in the Matrix or something. This type of finger pointing has no bearing to actual reality: people aren’t moved by ethics, they’re moved by food. Matter of fact, food is people’s primary requirement. People need food. People don’t need ethics but they do need food.

Reworking what “I” means is a very important task to both revolutionary thought and personal sanity, and even here I didn’t go deep enough into how problematic the concept of “I” is. But for now, be assured that the world is not resting on YOUR shoulders. Take care of yourselves, lefties.

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5 thoughts on “A short critique of identity

  1. Isn’t it more of a balanced ideal to try and operate on the fine line where left and right meet? Revolutionary extremes create conflict or even acts of physical aggression as a means to assert a black and white ideology. Perhaps the challenge of existing within an equilibrium of both is a healthier, balanced solution. My mind is post-consumer but it’s not my right to impose my ideals on others, they can be discussed and ideas exchanged, with each independent spirit using the own, unhindered free will to guide them along their own path. Left and Right are magnetic pole opposites, but they can be finely balanced to achieve a clearly defined path for all collective I’s concerned. 😉

  2. Good posting! It works in tandem with one of the big problems I have with the otherwise brilliant book Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl asserts a heroic ability to transcend all possible circumstances and assert “I”-ness as if that “I” doesn’t itself depend, utterly, on the circumstances that produced it. I used to love the book. Now it concerns me greatly for precisely the reasons you mention above.

  3. I suggest reading the books “Anthem” and “Animal Farm”.
    Additionally, instead of using the fuzzy concepts that usually end with “ism” – its more useful to think in term of voluntary vs coercive. If two people voluntarily engage in an arrangement or transaction that doesn’t directly harm others, do you personally feel justified in interfering with force? Individual choice is the difference between rape and love making. They may look the same, but there is still a real identity there that you better be paying attention to.

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