Authenticity and Ideology

Having just completed the draft of Part II of my book in progress, I will need to do some intensive re-reading before I get down to actually writing the final section.  Part of this will be revisiting the arguments of those who would oppose my position—particularly those whose arguments are not the usual cheap rhetoric and sophistry I usually encounter from the opposition.  

Among those opponents whose arguments I find most powerful and intelligent is Charles Taylor.  So I have recently read through his short book The Ethics of Authenticity, which is primarily about the dominant ideology structuring capitalist practices today (Taylor would not call this an ideology, because he uses that term in another sense than I do).  While I find Taylor’s arguments about the ideal of authenticity mostly convincing and compelling, I obviously cannot agree with his conclusion that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (this book was written in 1992) it should now be “evident” that “market mechanisms in some form are indispensable”; I wonder if, after a quarter century of global capitalism, Taylor would be as optimistic as he once was that we are now in an ideal position to ameliorate capitalism and bring an end to its worst effects. 

What I want to focus on is the problem of the power of ideology, as raised by Taylor in this book. He essentially argues that we are suffering from a debased form of the ideal of individualism or authenticity. The ideal, he suggests,  should be a positive ability to determine, in dialogue with others, the commitments we want to undertake in our lives.  We each then become responsible for the directions not only of our individual lives, but of the society of which we are part.  

Instead, he argues (I think convincingly) that we have adopted a kind of hedonistic narcissism, in which our own desires must not be denied, combined with a universal instrumental reason, which serves to maximize the success of our own personal projects.  This is supported by what he calls “soft relativism,” which denies that there are any truths about morality or desires, these things are intractably subjective; we cannot, that is, argue about what we ought to desire, because that would be to oppress someone’s unique individuality.

Now, I think Taylor does a good job of explaining the error here.  All of our supposedly unique individual desires are already socially constructed—we think we have them because of the unique individuals we are, and that “I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences”(27); however, in fact that supposedly individual decision is made in a social context, in dialogue with others, against a background of what can count as significant, all of which are in fact imposed upon me whether I know it or not.  To put it more bluntly than Taylor does, the deep desires I think I have discovered all on my own were produced by the social formation in which I was born and raised. I am mistaken if I think they express my “freedom.”  My “freedom” can only begin once I begin, in dialogue with others, to examine both the source and desirability of those supposedly freely chosen individual and “authentic” desires and concerns.  Real authenticity, on Taylor’s model, would require that I produce desires socially and take responsibility for them, not that I demand of others that they allow the fulfillment of the desires I already have, while refusing to examine the source or merit of those desires.

Okay, I mostly agree with this analysis. What I have trouble with, and what I think leads to Taylor’s defense of the inevitability of capitalism, is that he seems to think we have considerable power to do this kind of examination despite the tremendous power of what I would call our ideology.  Let me explain.

Taylor argues that in fact this debased version of individualism, with its narcissism and soft relativism and instrumental reasoning, is “greatly strengthened, because it is rooted in [our] everyday practice, in the way [we] make [our] living and the way [we] relate to others in political life”(58).  That is, he argues that it is the nature of a “society whose economy is largely shaped by market forces”(97) to produce in us an acceptance of the debased form of individualism and authenticity, depending on our ignorance of the social dimension of our supposedly unique desires, and leads us to embrace instrumental reason and consider all others as little more than impediments to our fulfillment our self-expression.  However, he is optimistic that “there are many points of resistance, and that these are constantly being generated”(99).  

The effect here is that Taylor remains convinced that although capitalism does inherently produce the worst kind of subjectivity in our “everyday practice” (which is what I mean by the term ideology), we can accept that effect because there is enough room, beyond these practices, in which to produce better forms of subjectivity.  We can go on, perhaps, to spend our leisure time discussing philosophy or caring for others or participating in environmental activism, and reduce the effects of capitalist ideology on the kinds of subjects we are.  Then we will be able to improve the conditions of capitalism by collective political action.  Of course, as the book ends, Taylor remains baffled as to why this seems to very difficult to do in the U.S., and why Canada, in the aftermath of the “collapse of communism,” seems to be moving quickly toward the political practices of the U.S.  

My position is that this possibility, that there are “points of resistance,” is the naive hope of someone who has lived a fairly privileged life.  As a university professor, particularly one working at the world’s most elite universities, it is fairly easy to assume that we all engage in many practices that are sufficiently removed from the demands of the marketplace.  However, I don’t believe this is true for most of the participants in the global capitalist economy (what Taylor calls “industrial-technological-bureaucratic society”); for most of us,  there are few if any “points of resistance.”  For workers living on ten or twelve dollars an hour, without free health care, often working three or even four part-time jobs will barely cover the rent and put food on the table. And this is the reality for the majority of Americans today.  In many other parts of the world, the conditions are worse.  

My suggestion is that it is not enough to say that we need to supplement capitalist ideology, our “everyday practices” of making a living, or trying to, with other practices able to fashion us into truly authentic individuals.  As long as we are living in a  capitalist world, for most of us the majority of our time is taken up with exactly those practices Taylor argues are producing the worst kind of subjects. We then just are those subjects.  The only solution, I will insist, is to eliminate the capitalist marketplace—its effects cannot be reduced or diminished, for most people.  Taylor is not terribly attentive to recent economic history in most of his work, or he would likely see that it is the nature of capitalism to command ever more of the lives of an ever increasing number of people.  His alternative, which amounts to accepting the evil necessity of capitalism for a small part of our day, while engaging in other ideological practices for the rest of our time, is unfortunately only available to a small privileged group of people.  

This is the concern for the final part of my book, then: is there some way to produce the kinds of “points of resistance” for the majority of people? Can we generate any ideological practices that will really work to fashion individuals into subjects who will turn out to be bad subjects of capitalism?  Can this work even while these non-capitalist practices must make up a very small part of our daily lives?

Because it is my position that these practices will need to be, not compensatory as Taylor’s solutions suggests, but oppositional, devoted not to ameliorating capitalism but to eliminating it.  

After all, it was possible to develop enough capitalist “everyday practices” to produce many bad subjects of feudalism, leading to the brutal and destructive, but ultimately triumphant, capitalist revolution that took place worldwide from about 1600 to 2000.  The longest, and deadliest, revolution ever, employing genocide and slavery, and killing people on enormous scales—but it has final succeeded, right? 

What kind of practices might we employ to begin what may be the centuries-long communist revolution?  Will they necessarily be as brutal and murderous as capitalist practices, or is that savage cruelty just a feature of capitalism itself?  

I have some suggestions here, in the final part of my book, but no answers.  All I’m hoping for is to open a debate, to suggest the possibility, that we can produce ideologies that are not capitalist, that pace Taylor and so many others the market is not a natural inevitability.  

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  1. David Watson

     /  September 24, 2019

    You wrote:

    After all, it was possible to develop enough capitalist “everyday practices” to produce many bad subjects of feudalism, leading to the brutal and destructive, but ultimately triumphant, capitalist revolution that took place worldwide from about 1600 to 2000.

    But this was not intentional, was it? Changes in the means of production, partly if not mostly driven by technological development, required everyday practices that eventually proved incompatible with feudal institutions. Advances in looms were not aimed at replacing household with factory production, villages with cities, and feudalism with capitalism, just at producing cloth more efficiently. Weren’t the ideologies of capitalism (Taylor in Modern Social Imaginaries begins with Grotius and Locke) more products than causes of these changes?

    When I was a young and terribly naïve union rep, we focused on “30 for 40,” a 30 hour work week at no loss in pay. Some of us thought of this as a transitional demand, one which capitalism logically ought to be capable of satisfying (why did reduction of the work week stagnate at 40 hours? and then regress through innovations like the gig economy, multiple part-time employment, and the two-income family?) but in fact is not. Demands like this would address the free time discrepancy you mention between Taylor’s daily routine and that of most of the rest of us. (I have not been able to make much progress with This Life, but Hagglund’s focus on time makes some sense in this context.)

    Marx, perhaps, saw the communist revolution as being driven (or at least guided?) by ideas in a way the bourgeois revolution was not. But the present “social imaginary” entrenches Thatcherite TINA while political practices slide toward fascism. It is a challenging environment in which to seek means of producing points of resistance.

  2. David:
    Just a couple of point.
    First, in the sense that Taylor means ideology, yes, they were products of the changes in material practices. But when I use the term, I mean the practices themselves—an ideology is a practice, not the description of the practice at the level of theory. So, Locke produces an account, in concepts, of the existing practices—and that is what ideology means in the sense Taylor uses the term. But in the sense I mean the term, the practice already IS the ideology.

    Second—it is problematic to say that technological development drives human practices. All technological change occurs as a result of human intention, and often as the end product of a long, quite intentional, effort to accomplish something. Intentions always precede inventions. Changes in the mode of production occur because of human plans to do something—don’t confuse “means of production” with “mode of production.” The power loom was only possible because there was already a capitalist mode of production to make use of it.

    And no, I wouldn’t say that in the fifteenth century anyone had the idea: let’s try to create an urban global capitalist economy, what do we do first. But they did have the intention to eke out a better living than they were afforded by the feudalist social formation in which they lived. So they did have an intention to engage in an ideology, a daily practice of producing the things they need and want, that was outside of, and eventually in opposition to, the ancien regime. Eventually, those participating in these practices, including the social practices necessary to reproduce these oppositional practices, would have to struggle with the ruling class for power. But by then, there was already a powerful ideology, in the sense of a set of daily practices in which people made things for profit and put their faith in money etc., in place—whether or not it was systematized in discourse is secondary, although it is an important question to consider how important such systematizing in language might be. I tend to think it is quite powerful—but that may be my bias as a former English teacher.

    Think about your attempt to bring about the “30 for 40.” Why was it doomed to fail? Why is it inherent in the nature of capitalism that such an advance would lead to total collapse? A marxist economist could explain this—it seems clear enough to me. But any conventional economist would have to say it remains a mystery, and fall back on accounts of human psychology.

    Remember that Marxism is a science of capitalism. It is in now way a “totalizing” discourse, like sociology or evolutionary psychology would pretend to be. It explains one thing: how capitalism works.

    For the alternative to capitalism, we’re on our own. Just as those inventing a resistance to feudalism were. We can only procure resistant practices, and hope they grow in size and power until they can take on capitalism—but just like the fifteenth-century proto-capitalist, we can’t begin with some clear idea of what the end product will look like. We can only say: this practice will give us a better life than capitalism would afford us.

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