From the January 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
When discussing socialism with someone who has had little interest in politics we invariably find ourselves confronting their “identity”. This is because we all identify, sometimes unintentionally, with certain ideas and values. We may not be aware that we do until we attempt to articulate them in response to another idea asserted by someone else. At a basic emotional level we might take an ideological position because we feel that our status is being threatened by the other personality that confronts us.
The concept we have of our social status is one of the most emotionally-charged elements that constitutes our identity. It also aligns us politically with the values of a class or a subdivision of a class or cultural group. Other components such as gender, age, sexuality and “race” also play a part in defining identity but only through the lens of group ideology (ideas of masculinity and homosexuality are very different in “blue-collar” and “white-collar” communities).
Indeed the very concept of class itself is received differently as can be seen readily by its relative acceptance by those on a lower income (sometimes erroneously called working class) and its complete denial by those on a higher income (incorrectly called middle class). A friend of mine who resolutely denies that class has any effect on their tastes refuses to attend a “multi-plex” cinema to watch a film but is quite happy in the local art-house theatre. When pressed for the reasons why this is so he points to their respective atmospheres; he clearly prefers intellectual pretension to Hollywood popularism and the audiences they generate.
This choice can be interpreted in a class context because of the identification with certain tastes and values and a rejection of others; or to put it more bluntly, a liking for some “types” of people and a dislike for others. This kind of division exists in almost all areas of life and certainly inhibits the political cohesion of the working class being properly understood (since both communities have to sell their labour power to the capitalist class to make a living).
So it can be said that identity, in some important respect, is based on an association of the self with others in a social group and their value system. We may even go as far as to say that the nature of those values is dependent on their association with a group with whom we wish to identify and not essentially on the internal logical structure of the ideology in itself. The motivation for this social/ideological identification derives from our need for social status and the self-respect it supplies.
Paradoxically an example of our need for status to confirm our identity is when we appear to give it away to someone else in the form of exclusive love. During such an event between two people the individual identity seems to depend on the other and this would seem to contradict the cult of the self that so characterises our society.
There is a very revealing and desperate need to escape the prison of our identity in this search for such a liberating synthesis with another. Invariably such a relationship fails because it reveals itself to be yet another example of the attempt to confirm identity through conforming to a social convention to achieve status. The projection of our needs onto another can become so comprehensive because of the socially restrictive context imposed by a competitive culture that it leaves little space for the other to express their needs. The relationship crumbles under the pressure caused by the crowded desires needed for the mutual confirmation of identity between just two people. Sometimes we look to parental love as an example of an escape from status inspired identity but many times this too succumbs when children grow up to deny parental aspirations for the same reasons.
If we are to accept that to an important degree identity is generated by our need for social status must this always be a destructive element within human society? To answer this let’s return to our starting point, the political discussion. If we are honest about our desire for status and the respect it gives us from others we have to understand what it is and how we achieve it within contemporary society.
For most of us status is acquired through competition in a capitalist system except for those who inherit it. Those who are regarded as successful manifest their status in the accumulation of material wealth which in turn enhances their social influence. We may come to dislike these people through envy but who has not daydreamed of having wealth and power? There are those amongst us who have turned their backs on the rat-race and devote their lives to helping others such as nurses, carers, charity workers and even social revolutionaries. As a psychologist once said: “political ideology is a kind of love affair”, and there’s no denying that the identification with a political group is in part motivated by the desire for social status, albeit of alternative nature.
The difference is, of course, that this time it confronts the values of society because by acquiring membership status socialists undertake the formal denial of competition. This can be seen as a positive manifestation of the need for social status because this time it motivates the need for social liberation. It also serves to undermine our culture’s insistence that it is only through competition that the human spirit is creative and productive. There is also the possibility that competition is a perversion of human social instincts because, as the psychologist observed, identifying with an ideology shares the emotional liberation felt during the first stages of a relationship—but this time with a community and not just an individual. Once the needs of the individual are identified with the community and not in competition with its members then socialism becomes not only possible but necessary.
The litmus test for this perspective concerning identity can only be our emotional well-being. Even within the group of high wage earners it is difficult to deny that unhappiness has become something of a plague. For all the inherent frustration of working for socialism it does afford some emotional protection against the pain caused by the loss of a job or the breakdown of a relationship.
Those who believe in a socialist future do not make the same emotional investment in the capitalist present and so have another place to go to when the anxiety endemic in the sick culture in which we live threatens to overwhelm us. The capitalist class and its supporters of left and right hate socialists for their identification with hope and liberation but they can never destroy it because to do so they would have to kill part of their own humanity forever.