In darkness, light: Identity and its limits

“The greatest problem in coming from an oppressed group is the power the oppressor has over your group. The second greatest problem is the power your group has over you.” – Shelby Steele

“The man who works recognizes his own product in the world that has actually been transformed by his work. He recognizes himself in it, he sees his own human reality in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself” – Alexandre Kojeve
“Mystification does not only affect capitalist society but also affects the theory of capitalism. Marxist theory elevated to the rank of proletarian consciousness is a new form of consciousness: repressive consciousness. We will describe some of its characteristics, leaving aside the problem of determining whether or not all forms of consciousness throughout history are repressive.” – Jacques Cammette
“To say with Marx that ‘the petit bourgeois cannot transcend the limits of his mind’ (others would have said the limits of his understanding) is to say that his thought has the same limits as his condition, that his condition in a sense doubly limits him, by the material limits which it sets to his practice and the limits it sets to his thought and therefore his practice, and which make him accept, and even love, these limits.” – Pierre Bourdieu
“Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, e.g. the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field etc., but the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language”- Karl Marx

We start with five quotes from five very different men with very different politics, although I am sympathetic to all these men but the first. Still, a truth is a truth no matter its source. The human exists as an individual, in tension with both their social worlds and the changes of their environments, yet the limits of that perspective can be easily to fall into, easy to love as if the limit becomes the identity. Thinks of a tale of monkeys, three monkeys are in a cage, one monkey climbs to grab the banana above him, and another monkey beats him. The third monkey beats the climbing monkey as well. We take the first monkey who started the beating out, and put in a new monkey, and climbing monkey beats the new monkey who did the same thing.
This is an illustration of both the production of social tension and the way these reinforce. Between the monkeys there is not yet class society, but eventually if the scarcity of the bananas becomes frustrating it may become so. The issue becomes what forces drive the beating, and if the monkey who knows why he beat the first climbing monkey leaves, only he knows how the social inertia starts.

Society is a feedback loop such as this. The oppressed can become the oppressor from sheer inertia–and from feeling besieged whether real or imagined. Eventually this banana beating can become abstracted and ritualized, decontextualized, and maintained as a means of production of the social relationships between the engaged monkeys. So goes society: the enemy of an oppressed person IS the oppressor first. But then is also the oppressed which will justify all sorts of twists and turns sometimes to continue elements of the oppression itself because it has been writ into their identity. Yet, we know from both Hegel and Marx that it is the precise moment when they have nothing to lose but their identity that they can break free and overcome both.

This is why simple ideological or identity centered notions of “Inter-sectionality” do not go far enough: they do not recognize that while an individual IS a social being, they are shaped in both opposition to that alienation and also in conformity to it. One cannot see from the perspective of an other, but at some level the “other” is not just the ethnic-other or even the class other, it is anyone who does not acknowledge the limits we feel. Since who we are is always in tension with what we produce: we know, not just from our social class, but also from our discussions of “work” first, the status around professions, etc. What we create changes us, but this is social context. Always in dialectical tension and always in dialogue.

I admit to writing this from a dark place although I probably don’t sound. I have had a family tragedy, although as of yet not a fatal one, involving a brother back in the States. I will leave it at that, and in that moment I thought about my family and my organic community, and how the later changes by both where I live and what I do. My class relations are expressed in this as is my place within the totality of the global systems of capital, geo-politics, and even biologic human history. To transcendent that takes a requirement that our consciousness of it is a limit and if we learn to love that limit, instead of changing the world and social relations, we just reaffirm the status quo.

And this is why I never completely accept a totally communitarian or collectivist ideology–which I don’t think Marx is actually guilty of–but this is why I also think liberal and libertarian individualism is hopelessly naive about what it means to be a social being in the context of labor and production. This is also why “divisions” within a class are about consumption AND identity, but the division between classes is about production. Still if we ignore the martial conditions that produced our identities as they emerge too from social history and material reality, we will do almost nothing to change them. We learn to love our limits–as individuals and as a cultures and classes–we are them.

Another note on tragedy: This one not in the context of spheres of production. Discernment is knowing when your friend is challenging you to make you stronger or when your “friend” is attacking you make you weaker for their benefit. I suppose even though this is close to a reactionary sentiment, I understand the “help the bird learn to fly, and if it can’t, help it fall faster” (implication, so it doesn’t struggle and maybe drag others down). So knowing who is helping you learn to fly, or maybe even trying to help you not struggle unproductively is a very different thing from being betrayed. One of the sadness things I have seen in the depressed is that they often lose this discernment, and thus cannot help but be alienated. I have shed a tear or two about this a lot recently.
Which brings me to a question that I ask in earnest: Why is the “left” (gods, I wish I had a better term for these collection of ideologies and praxis) so bad at grasping with dealing with organic community? I don’t mean in a class collaboration sort of way. I mean in a real–let’s deal with our neighbors even of the same class sort of way. What is going on there? I even see this in myself. I am given to outbursts and immediately thinking–I must discipline my emotional response because this is not how you treat neighbors much less comrades and even less friends. Does this not relate to the hostility and infinite denouncements and splitting? I have always thought “left unity” was a silly idea–I still do–but it is because criticism of the “fly or help fall” variety is necessary and sometimes that requires distance. It does not require sabotage, self-abnegation, and other sorts of foolishness. Is that because these ideas have been divorced from organic community? Is it because leftists (and even left-liberals) are proportionally slightly more given to depression and loss of the above discernment?

I don’t know but the events of the last two years make wonder if there is something about this identity consciousness “as a leftist” which is corrosive as if it becomes divorced from the social and productive realities of immediate lives.

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