The issue of identity (III) – Civilization as a meta-identity, Consumeristic Individualism

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by Enrique Lescure

Introduction

In part I of this series of articles, I briefly mentioned Consumeristic Individualism, as I defined the dominant ethos of our era. To be able to define it, we must start to talk about a part of our collective identities that we all know about, yet few of us recognise – namely civilization. So, the issue at hand is: What is a civilization, and what is a civilizationary ethos? And how can these forms of definitions aid our undertaking?

What is a civilization?

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A civilization is arguably the largest form of meta-identity that forms around collectives of people. Such an identity is generally not awarely pursued by its participants, like for example religion (or to a lesser extent: culture). To a large extent however, civilization tends to go be affected by culture, ethnicity, religion and linguistics.

The shortest possible definition of a civilization would be that it is a cluster of identities that have formed and are influenced by the same world-view. Fully fledged, the civilization provides the framework under which people are assembling reference points for positioning;

  • Their roles in society.
  • The meaning of life.
  • Sources of authority, legitimacy and morality.
  • Family relationships.
  • Human interrelationships.
  • Relationships between social classes and hierarchies.
  • Social Justice.
  • Expected rights and duties.
  • Expectations on life and the future.

It can be argued that this web of position points superimposes a reality on society which determines how many options and alternatives people have to express themselves. There have existed many civilizations during recorded history, and we have seen a large diversity of cultures and worldviews transpire before our eyes. Here below is a small graph I’ve made on the evolution process of civilizations until today.

World Civ Tree

The cosmology of traditional civilizations

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You all already know this, but it is worth reiterating. Traditional civilizations – no matter whether they were Western, Eastern, Amerindian, Middle Eastern or South Asian – were built primarily on a worldview stressing collectivist survival values. These civilizations were bio-physically characterised by a dependence on producing food, of which over 95% was needed to sustain the producers of food – the farmers. The remaining twentieth of resources was utilised – either by trade or coercion – to support a small middle class and an even smaller aristocracy.

The values espoused by these civilizations tended to fall in the following patterns;

  • Humans were naturally unequal and of different value, depending on their status at birth.
  • Your meaning of life was to fulfill the expected ideal role of a member of your social position in life.
  • Idealisation of old age and experience.
  • Patriarchalism and paternalism, both in family life and in social relations.
  • Values excluding, repressing or rejecting groups who broke against societal norms.
  • High culture for the elites, folk culture for the rest.

If you think: “But hey, I recognise that“, that is probably correct, since many people are still living under conditions which are similar to these throughout the world (just like millions of people are still living as hunter-gatherers). A large segment of this planet’s population are subsistence farmers. Many are living in clan societies still ruled by iron-grip patriarchal traditions. Even in the most modern and cosmopolitan communities, remnants of these traditional values are still existing under the surface.

The foundations of the global civilization

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What we call “the global civilization” has grown with industrialisation, economic growth and capitalism. Originally, it was growing from the enlightenment values of the western civilization, built on the trinity of capitalism, science and representative democracy. However, these three are merely positioning points (though important pillars). I would argue that while these three institutions started to form during the 18th century, they originally formed within the context of a traditional society, characterised by an agricultural base for production.

The 19th century was characterised by a massive wave of urbanisation and industrialisation, which created both new social tensions and a sense of alienation and restlessness in society. Coupled with colonialism, imperialism and competition for power amongst the great powers of the era, this led to the period of the world wars.

While the 19th century had been characterised by a conflict between a nascent liberalism – the culmination of enlightenment era values – and reactionary forces wanting to preserve various forms of traditional (formal and non-capitalistic) hierarchies, the fast advance of society led to the prevailing social orders becoming increasingly anachronistic.

The dominant institutions of Europe were swept away by the First World War. The world economy was shattered by the destruction of the Gold Standard and the Great Depression of 1929-1939. Out of the ashes of this turbulent Time of Troubles arose two competing worldviews – marxism-leninism and fascism, and the Second World War was  fought over many issues, but on the civilizational level it was fought over what worldview should dominate the future industrial civilization.

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Consumeristic Individualism – what is it?

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While the ideological foundations of the modern western civilization (which has morphed into the current global civilization) were laid by scientists, entrepreneurs, economists and philosophers during the late 18th century, the core of our current civilization has far shallower roots than so, namely the inter-war period.

The Capitalism of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the Liberalism of that era, operated within the context of a traditional agrarian society characterised by protestant work ethics (popularised by Max Weber). These values stressed group cohesion, hard work, frugality and accumulation of wealth.

It can be argued that the rise of mass media technologies, as well as group psychology techniques, gave rise to the new ethos of the western world – which today is increasingly becoming the ethos of the entire world.

I have decided to call this new ethos consumeristic individualism.

What characterises consumeristic individualism?

Formally, all humans are equal in rights. However, our worth is determined economically by our performance (or today increasingly, attractiveness) on the labour market, and socially by our popularity. This popularity is determined in increasingly large intensity by our social status, which is determined not only by financial wealth, but also by appearance, education, experiences and possession of trendy status items.

Unique-Designs-Painted-on-Nike-Shoes-by-Daniel-Reese-4These items are characterised not only by their appearance, but by what they tell about their owner’s supposed character, status and popularity.

Thus, humans are not consuming out of greed primarily, but out of their search for the expression of their individuality. This process, that the individuality can be commodified and acquired through the possession of objects, is a form of psychological magic thinking reinforced since childhood by mass media.

Mass media is under consumeristic individualism largely focused on reaching both the largest possible audience and finding target audiences. Due to commercial funding of the regular programmes, there is not only a large degree of marketing in most media avenues, but also a lot of hidden marketing inside the programmes themselves. This constant exposure to subliminal messaging instills a desire to belong, especially as the mass culture of the modern age, enjoyed in solitude before bright screens, also has created an age of mass loneliness.

Most human beings still crave togetherness and belonging, and most are acquiring it, but many human relationships are formed around the context of a culture of consumeristic individualism, and these relationships are reinforced by the frameworks established by fictional worlds and lifestyles designed to express a certain form of character or social position (no matter if you are a hiphopper or a hipster, you are actively participating in subcultures created to market certain values).

It can be said that most lifestyles are beginning as counter-cultures to revolt against the dominant culture, but that they eventually are appropriated by the market and turned into commodified lifestyles reproduced through media.

The problems with consumeristic individualism

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It can be said that worldviews help us find a purpose, but they can also limit our ability to view the world.

When it comes to consumeristic individualism and its attachment to western civilization, it is connected partially to the great mythos of our culture, namely the idea that we live in an era where history has ended. The apocalypse has been. The new world has been born after RagnarökDemocracy triumphed in World War Two and at the end of the Cold War.

Now, all there is for us is to realise ourselves by acquiring our identities and playing the increasingly diverse repertoire of roles available and mass produced for us.

Of course, we do know that what I above wrote is not true, but we are expected to act within that framework of thoughts. Thus, we are encouraged to resisting the injustices we see (to not speak of ecological issues like climate change) by changing our individual consumer patterns, and then refer to that as responsibility.

The really big problem with consumeristic individualism – however – is that as long as we act within that paradigm, we will perpetuate a system of thought based on the idea that the meaning of life is the acquisition of an identity by material means, the idea that a person is a certain thing by wearing specific clothes, associating with certain friends, listening to a specific type of music, eating specific kinds of food or having specific sets of sexual preferences, that this is-ness determines that person’s entire identity. The danger is not so much when people are forced into specific stereotypes, as when they start to voluntarily reduce themselves to one characteristic, thus limiting themselves. With this, I am not condoning any repression of subcultures, alternative lifestyles or other minorities.

Also, consumeristic individualism is driving the destruction of the planet’s biosphere.

Yes, they say, but you can change the system through consumeristic individualism too, by choosing to consume less, second hand, bicycle and recycle your garbage, can’t you not?

Firstly, this assumes that all human beings economically are offered the same choices. Besides, human opinions are heterogenous, and for each and every vegetarian recycler, there is someone who instead appropriates a lifestyle of big macs, big bikes and the lavious consumption of new items.

Secondly, everything within the context of consumeristic individualism is fleeting and temporary, and subjected to the laws of fashion. And the only law of fashion is that nothing should last more than ten years.

Thirdly, consumeristic individualism encourages flimsiness, forgetfulness, and a view of the world where we have no past and no future, only now forever.

Lastly and most damning, as I’ve already stated in my article Anti-capitalism vs Post-capitalism, this current system is not going to last (it can survive, but it requires fusion power, the advent of the Singularity, asteroid mining and planetary colonisation, and that too will kill it due to abundance, besides that it most likely won’t happen within enough fast a time-frame).

We cannot base whatever we’re going to build after the collapse on values dependent upon the kind of linear, exponential-growth-based system we have experienced for the last 200 years, and not on the consumeristic values that has fed this system for the last 60 years.

We need a new set of values, which give us the right to pursue ourselves fully as human beings and not as compartmentalised fragments, as well as stress that we all – collectively and individually – have a duty to our beautiful homeworld.

Read The Ideology of the Third Millennium to see a beginning of that discussion.

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1 Comment

  1. Chained King said,

    November 27, 2015 at 5:32 am

    *claps*


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