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.

The Digital World

Right now, one of the major national discussions (in Sweden) is about hate speech on the Internet. It seems like Swedish mainstream media is interested in turning this into a “gun control debate”. Yesterday, there was a documentary on Uppdrag Granskning which pointed out the vile hatred and slander directed against young women on the Internet who are expressing opinions related to feminism or immigration. The hatred is directed from the usual suspects – far right trolodytes. It is not directly expressed in the documentary, but implicitly understood, that Uppdrag Granskning (and major liberal and socialist media outlets like Aftonbladet, Expressen and so on) would want to see increased monitoring of the Internet.

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To a large extent, the Internet has become a haven for anti-establishment misfits – of whom a large amount are “angry white males”. In Sweden, the largest discussion forum is Flashback, and it has come to be defined by a politically reactionary discourse marked by resistance against immigration, anti-feminism, racism, pro-prostitution and pro-drug legalisation opinions, largely reflecting a demographic which is overwhelmingly male, young and angry. Internationally, one of the largest political forums is /pol/ on 4chan, and it is too pock-marked by racism, sexism and anti-egalitarian views.

While I would say that more politeness and less political cheerleading (as opposed to political discussion) is needed in society overall, I do believe this focus on the Internet as something negative is expressing something else. In the 1990s, the Internet was overally viewed as a positive thing for Mainstream Media, because it was a part of the “end-of-the-cold-war”-discourse and because it created growth opportunities on a new market. Now, when alternative media is starting to outcompete traditional media outlets, Mainstream Media feels the old traditional urge to restrict and control the competition in order to keep their privileges. Because legally, the sites are responsible for the content according to Swedish law, not the individual posters.

The Internet knows no borders either. Flashback has been banned in Sweden since the 1990s, but is hosted on foreign servers. Thus, any new regulations would probably lead to counter-reactions.

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Ultimately, the political left should not ally with governments and major corporations in curbing the Internet. Firstly because the left too is (?) opposed to the establishment that is and is imagining an alternative world. Secondly, to give the government the authority to control the Internet will create even more resistance, and probably a merger between the xenophobic troglodytes and the Internet anarchists (Wikileaks, Anonymous), which can only retard the development of a progressive social discourse (but that would be beneficial to the powers that be).

The nation-state cannot any more hope to control the currents of information. Of course, hate speech, rabble-rousing, child pornography and other vile and damaging content needs to be removed from the Internet – because real human beings are hurt. That creates the need for a compromise. I believe that instead of fighting the hacker community, civil society would need to approach the hackers and arm them with the authority to act as a cleaning brigade on the Internet, targeting illegal content.

At the same time, I also believe that there has been too much web politics based around the idea that everything that people don’t like should be abolished. At the end, that would lead to a conflict where we try to remove things instead of debating them, and no one would be better off because of such censorship.

Apart from the governments and mega-corporations.

Enrique Lescure

/Sequence Director of Relations, the Earth Organisation for Sustainability

The Third Millennium Ideology – Life, Love and Light

The ancient Mayans did believe that the 13th Baktun would end today, when the Earth, the Moon and the Sun would stand in conjunction with the Milky Way Galaxy, forming a cross on the night sky. According to the ancient Meso-American civilization, we would enter a new era today.

Sadly, we will probably not see any change be imposed on us from above. The dominant ideological, social, economic-financial and political systems will still stand entrenched, despite more and more evidence for every passing day that the current system is leading us towards an ecological and social planetary meltdown. There is a profound need for humanity to answer this challenge. The fundamental flaw is to believe that we can keep the current values unevolved, keep the current growth-based system but take away all the “bad sides” without fundamentally altering our values and our global systems.

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The dominant ideology of our age, which has largely emerged victorious against its various rivals, is Liberalism. As the name is implying, Liberalism is about stressing personal liberty. That is achieved through the rule of law, constitutionalism, human rights, electoral democracy, personal integrity and property rights and freedom of speech and conscience. The fundamental idea of Liberalism is that the individual is completely free to make her own decisions affecting her own life. To a large extent, political science and economics are largely influenced by the outlook and values of liberalism.

I would argue that most aspects of Liberalism are positive and have brought very much to the progressive development of humanity. The secularization and separation between church and state, the end of feudal power relations, legalistic equality (in theory largely), electoral democracy, independent courts, a postive attitude to science, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the foundation for the greatest increase of material wealth and prosperity in the history of humanity.

Yet, Liberalism today is inherently unable to answer the new challenge, largely caused by the success of that world-view. Instead of feudal monarchies, we have seen the gradual establishment of a global corporate system with an increasingly unaccountable elite. We are still, despite that we produce more than enough food to sustain the entire world population, seeing poverty and famines spread across the planet. At the same time, the waste of food is staggering. Planned obsolence, an association of consumption with status, the spread of urban sprawls, overusage of water and arable soil, dependency on fossil fuels and an inability to stop the very behaviour we have entrenched ourselves in.

To a very large extent, an apathetic and lost citizenry is turning towards a leadership unable to address the current crisis, because they have an ideological and economic blind spot making them unable to connect the various problems we are experiencing.

What I very strongly have come to believe, is that we – the human race – is in need for a new ideology to address the global social and ecological issues of the 3d Millennium. It needs to protect the gains that Liberalism have made since the 18th century and to move farther than Liberalism in the issues of human rights, human dignity and human liberty. Yet, it also has to address the responsibility we human beings have – as a species – towards ourselves and our surroundings. Liberalism, which is mostly an individualistic ideology, is ill-suited to take a look at the wholity of the human existence.

In short, we need a holistic ideology.

Liberalism is an ideology largely connected to the idea of separation, of compartmentalising reality into various different areas. Nobody denies that everything is interconnected, but everything is divided. The labour market is treated as something independent from the financial system, which is treated as something independent from politics which is treated as something independent from ecology. What we would get from such a world-view is ultimately a situation where we can treat two mutually exclusive things as theoretically achievable (the chief example being exponential growth and ecological sustainability).

A holistic ideology would see everything as a part of a greater whole.

That does not imply that the specific, the local and the regional would be subservient to the global goal. Rather, it implies that everything is embedded in a greater context.

A single cell in your body can be studied as an entity in its own right. Yet, it is connected to your organs, which together are making up your body. You are ultimately a member of a society, which is a part of a civilization which is existing on this blue oasis in the Arm of Orion in the Milky Way Galaxy. You and everyone you love and care for are dependent – no matter what you strive for in your own lives – of the health of the larger system you are a part of.

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That brings the context.

It is time to discuss the values.

All values are ultimately subjective. Science is not an example of a value system, because it does not imply what is desirable. What is desirable for society to achieve is ultimately dependent on the culture and values of said society. And those values are a creation of the human mind and culture. I am not a relativist and I would claim that having for example an independent judiciary is superior to building a civilization based on human sacrifice to the Angry Volcano God. Nevertheless, values are something which we have to approach with an open discussion.

What has made Liberalism into an ideology which has survived is that it has universal values, which can be applied independent from variations in culture, religion and local/regional norms, thus transcending cultural, ethnic and religious borders. To some extent, it fails, for example in relation to tribal collectivist social systems. Yet, it has been successful because rather than discussing the long-term specific goals for the culture, it provides frames that the culture might not transcend.

The new ideology must also be broad enough to be able to transcend cultural and regional variations.

Thus, I would argue that the values of the new ideology – the Ideology of the Third Millennium – should be based around our role as the dominant species of this planet, and the responsibilities entailed in that role.

In short, the foundational value of what we should be doing should be Life.

Life is not a negation of liberty. Not a repudiation of equality. Not an attack on order.

Life is both a condition and a continuous flow of experiences.

What our future civilization should aim to achieve, is to protect, honour and uphold life on planet Earth. That should be the primary objective. From that follows two goals – to prevent the destruction of the Biosphere and to give all human beings such a high quality of life as possible. These two goals need to be balanced. As many of the liberal freedoms as possible need to be preserved within the new value system. Both positive and negative rights need to be upheld. No human being should go hungry to bed, be homeless, without access to education, healthcare or recreation. No human being should be the subject of political or religious persecution. All human beings should be given access to the means where they can thrive.

What would need to change would be our relationship to possessions, our patterns of production and our acquisition of resources. We need a new system to moderate these relationships, and that system would need to work in a circular rather than linear way, giving back what we take gradually, thus upholding a dynamic equilibrium.

The next value foundational for the new ideology, should be regulating our civilization’s way of dealing with Life, from the individual human life to the Biosphere. Ultimately, we should view life as the most valuable existence in the Universe. Life allows us to create meanings, to experience a variety of emotions and to learn and discover. Everything that is alive wants to live, that’s the foundation of life. Our civilization should love life, and treat it with reverence, respect, care and creativity. Even when we have to make hard decisions, we need to reflect the fact that we are a product of 1,5 billion years of evolution, that life is rare and that life can flourish where the conditions are the right.

Thus, Love should be our next foundational value.

The third and last value should regulate the way we access knowledge and base our decisions regarding our future civilization. It would entail the manner in which we pursue knowledge and solutions. That manner is by the scientific method, which provides information through peer review verificiation, experimentation and a non-dogmatic, open and transparent process to find available policies. New discoveries should be encouraged and science and research should flourish, but be directed towards the upholding of the values. Enlightenment.

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A short summary of the Ideology of the Third Millennium:

Everything is a part of a whole

Life is a gift

We should form our civilization

So life can thrive

Discover new paths

In diversity

In liberty

In equality

We are all

A part of the web of life

Whatever you believe

We are all co-dependent

We are all interconnected

We are all fractals

Life

Love

Light

All are one

Happy new era!

Enrique Lescure

Director of the Sequence of Relations

/The Earth Organisation for Sustainability