Be true to yourself. You can only trust yourself. There are only two genders. Tradition keeps us from chaos.
What do these sentiments have in common? Themes of the self and of realizing the self, of the loneliness of the world, of a hard limit in the external world and in the body, of dependency.
There is dependency on the self, a desire for pure independence as a means to live a happy, meaningful, “authentic” life for oneself. There is also a desire for some fixed ground outside of oneself, some firm thing to stand on. People as a whole have come to a desire for dependency, for structure, for escaping the emptiness of life and to escape the horrible void of unsure possibilities.
We are living in a world stricken by a crisis of meaning, one that was already identified by people like Friedrich Nietzsche in the late 19th century (the “Death of God”). It has become clearer as the myths of the “New World Order,” announced by George H.W. Bush in the wake of the Eastern Bloc’s collapse, themselves fall apart. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and the endless list of “unprecedented” events since 2019 and before, any notion of solid foundations seems hard to come by.
Everyday life for the majority of people is a cacophony. We live an endless barrage of confusion and anxiety, of pain and suffering, of insecurity and crises. Our “normal” state has become one of extreme tension.
And so, many people turn inward in a search for stability in an unstable world. They decide that their only path to security, meaning, and pleasure in a miserable world is by becoming one’s own rock. To them, the world is fundamentally evil, and the only part of life apart from the world is their internal, individual life. They search for the secure dependency in their own “independence” — they seek a dependency on some notion of a stable and well-defined self.
Others turn to some exterior stability, fearing the isolation of this internally-facing independence and seeking some form of community. Yet their communities are often alienated ones which they surrender themselves to in some search for oneness and escape from the tensions of everyday bustle. They want someone else to lay down what their role is in life, what its meaning is, to direct them like a Father with his child.
In both of these forms of dependency, there is a quest for primary experiences as a solid, dependable foundation to become identical with in the white water rapids of our variable and chaotic world. The internal and external forms of dependency coalesce significantly. Think of DNA tests, Myers-Briggs personality tests, gender and sexual identity, the notion of male vs female bodies and/or brains, the concept of family values, cults, cultic pyramid schemes, defining diagnoses, mothering and fathering, etc. All of these are various forms of surrendering to something external and fixed, even if it is a supposedly internal “authentic” or “foundational” self.
Although they coalesce, one can also detect a certain difference in tendencies for these two authenticity-drives.
In one form, there is the individualist search for an asocial, “authentic” self. This one asserts the monadic autonomy of the individual against society and takes up the slogan of “let people do what they want.” This is basically a liberal or radical liberal version of authenticity-drive.
The other form is that which tends towards reactionary politics. It seeks a fixed, despotic externality above and beyond individuals to arrange and order them paternalistically. This one decries the “moral breakdown” of modern society, directing its ire in particular against the individualist authenticity-drive. Against this, they assert, God, the Family, the Nation, the State, and other forms of external collectivities.
Both of these posit a strict separation of individual and society, taking one side or the other whether they admit it explicitly or not. Both assume there are fundamentals to existence beyond history and the development of society, whether it’s the notion of an “authentic self,” often seen to exist from birth, or the notion of some external objectivity which individual subjectivity cannot and should not do anything about — “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
And yet the pursuit of authenticity, of absolute, unshakeable fundamentals to lean on in dependency like a Big Strong Man of a Father ultimately fails. Either there must be some part of oneself entirely separate from the change and variability of everyday life which one can lean on (whether that’s DNA, a soul, or being “born this way) or there must be some external “tradition” or Thing which is entirely on sure ground and apart from the variability of subjectivity or the “decadent” parts of society.
Both of these, implicitly or explicitly, depend in their claim to truth on an absolute, dualistic separation of subject and object, individual and social, self and other, tradition and decadence, is and ought. They are mirror images of each other, both are moments of one dying society where its participants search desperately for strong supports in a rotten and collapsing house.
These are not our only options in confronting the impersonal powers which dominate us in modern, alienated life — those things which stand above and beyond us and toss us around like leaves in a wildfire. Rather than coping, we can turn to a dialectical approach which takes what is given and unravels it through practical critique, one which understands transformation as emanating from the social subject rather than positing any dualism.
The bipolar separation of the individual and society means an affirmation of what is, whether one sides with the individual or with the society. If the world is unchangeable by individuals and is like a current which one cannot resist, then there is no reason to focus on anything except an atomistic self. If the self is a danger to be tamed, then one can only depend on a stable, cohesive, and despotic social world.
The choice is either two forms of carving a place into the world that exists or the risks and benefits of revolutionary transformation within and against society where new possibilities seem realizable. People make peace with a world that they despise and are desperately miserable in because they believe they have no other option. Where new possibilities appear immanent, they are willing to take risks in rebellion or even revolution. Contrast the summer 2020 uprisings, with its the opening of the floodgates in what can be considered realistic, to now, where the world-as-it-exists seems more solid than ever.
Marx’s concept of reification is addressed to this situation. Marx did not believe that merely knowing the truth of the socially-determined appearance of an eternal order of things would liberate one from it. He believed that this realization of contingency, of the world not having to be what it is, becomes revolutionary with a recognition of the possibilities that the world can be something else through mass action.
Knowing that appearance is not identical with essence, that it is everyday social relations that create the appearance of insurmountable, impersonal power in the form of capital is not enough. Through communal relations, through revolutionary organization and the emergence of the new out of the shell of the old, we come to realize that that which appears solid is a spell which can be broken.
To take a specific example which demonstrates the pitfalls of authenticity in either its “individualist” or “collectivist” forms, think of the body. In these authenticity-drives, there is an internal-external dialectic in their practices — pure internality reinforces pure externality and vice versa. Ultimately, they both signify the body as a periphery (within one’s skin is the Self, beyond one’s skin is the Other) and as a battleground (the conflicts over bodily self-expression, reproductive rights, sexuality etc). One assumes the body is the receptacle of the “true self” and should be defended as a space apart from society, the other assumes it is merely a social unit to be subject to despotic morality.
Marxism, however, considers the body as itself engaged in dialectic through labor — It is created by environment and also self-creating, it creates environment both in arranging it into categories through its engagement and it participates in specific kinds of relations with it. Marxists ought to emphasize such scientific discoveries as the plasticity of the brain against the notion of gene-coded individuals. The body is not separable from its activity, and its activity is not apart from the world. This goes all the way down to metabolism from before one is even born — what is available in nutrients is socially and historically determined, especially by class locally, nationally, and globally.
In short, Marxism ought to forward a concept of the body in this example as social but not purely a cog in a machine — the body is what a subject lives the world through, what a subject lives as an object through, but is itself something that both is molded by externality and by internality. The body lives.
We ought to oppose turning to either the despotic power of moralizing institutions (whether it be the Church or some podcaster who talks about how you should embody a naive bourgeois idea of success) or to calcified, dead “true self” (whether in the form of a label or a total turn inward). The revolutionary concept of the body should be of it as a body in community, a body which must be cared for but also care, one which is not a destiny imposed on the subject but a living potential for social freedom. In short, we should revive a critique of the mutual alienations of individual, particular, and universal.
All of these authenticity-drives, in the end, turn out to be death-worship. They worship necrotic institutions or a phantom-like version of the self. As Marxists, we are against domination of the living by the dead, whether it’s the deceased who exert their power through the despotic forms of tradition and institutions or by the dead dummy of an “authentic self” that one has to be true to. The dead don’t have to be terrible, alien things which dominate us, but can once again become living social relations. History, traditions, the image and memory of the deceased need not be things that exert a bondage on us, but neither should they be things we must render nonexistent.
They can become living in a new sense, by creating a life-affirming way of life. You are not basically determined to be anything, you have many potentials in life which can be realized — the issue is that modern life is one where these potentials are limited through their domination by the dead, impersonal power of capital.
To escape this impersonal power, we cannot simply bury our faces above or within. We must pursue an immanent transcendence in and through the everyday, in intersubjectivity and community with other living beings who experience this domination and drive to transcend it rather than burying ourselves in the graves of the dead. Revolution is for a society where the external is not like a barrier wall, and where the internal is not like an asylum.