Interests and Identity

29 January 2010


Today on the BBC website there is a story — Why do people often vote against their own interests? — that mines a familiar vein of political commentary. The article cites a couple of books by US authors — The Political Brain by Drew Westen and What’s The Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank — to the effect that large segments of the US electorate vote against their own interests. As much as I enjoy BBC news, the commentators often get the US wrong in a particularly British way. This article is an example of that.

The author of the article seems to make a genuine effort to understand the US political scene, but nevertheless fails to do so. Making an effort to understand is admirable, but it isn’t enough. One must make an effort that is approximately successful or all is for naught.

The argument made by the authors of the above-mentioned books, and assumed as valid by the writer of the BBC article — that large sections of the US electorate vote against their own interests, and more particularly that poor and disenfranchised Americans vote to make the rich richer and the poor poorer — not only assumes that others know the interests of the poor better than they do, but also that the interests of the poor are served by a particular set of policies that are advocated by those who presume to speak on behalf of the poor. Whether or not these two propositions are correct is one question; that both are politically false, and probably politically disastrous, are obvious.

In the instinctively individualistic political context of the US, no one acknowledges that another knows their best interest better than they do. There is nothing new in this. The BBC article discussed this, though primarily in the context of the resentment of the those who are told that something is for their own good. This is true in so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. However imperfectly, people in the US cultivate their individuality, and therefore it is an act both of defiance and self-affirmation to deny that another knows one’s interests.

The familiar political response to the claim that people vote their own interests is that people don’t vote for their interests, they vote for their identity. While this is closer to the truth, it is still inadequate and overly simplistic. People don’t vote for their actual identity, but for their imagined and idealized identity. People vote for an identity to which they aspire, and not an identity that would be ascribed to them by another. This can be interpreted unsympathetically as a delusion, but it can be interpreted sympathetically as the simple statement that people vote for their ideals, which is at it should be. We may disagree over ideals, we may even find a given ideal to be deluded, but we can’t meaningfully deny that it is an ideal to which others aspire.

Late in his life, two years before he died, Camus wrote, “I continue to be convinced that my work hasn’t even been begun.” (We note here that one of Camus’ most influential works is The Rebel.) In a similar vein, Merleau-Ponty quoted Cézanne writing a month before he died:

I was in such a state of mental agitation, in such great confusion that for a time I feared my weak reason would not survive… Now it seems I am better and that I see more clearly the direction my studies are taking. Will I ever arrive at the goal, so intensely sought and so long pursued? I am still learning from nature, and it seems to me I am making slow progress.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Non-Sense, Chapter 1, Cézanne’s Doubt

Both the public and the elites who despise the public and are in turn despised by the public, are willing to concede such things to men such as Camus and Cézanne. But we do so now, after their fame is established, and they have achieved the status of classic expressions of Western civilization. But these words were written when they were still alive, and their fame, while already emerging, was in no sense certain. We should keep this in mind when we dismiss statements of a similar kind by people alive today who have not established themselves as anything at all: the unfamous, the unknown, the unrespected, the unpublished, and the unacknowledged, are all deserving of a liberal measure of consideration in this respect.

Few alive today will establish a reputation of the stature of Camus or Cézanne, but it is the right of every individual to aspire, even near the end of life, to the kind of unattainable ideals to which Camus and Cézanne aspired. These two, despite the inadequacies they found in their established corpus, came closer than most to the realization of an ideal, but even those who do not come close to the realization of an ideal still aspire to that ideal.

I have previously quoted Sartre that, “Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” This is in the same spirit as the quotes above from Camus and Cézanne. These three Frenchman — Sartre, Camus, and Cézanne — have contributed to the theoretical formulation of individualism. America puts this theory into practice. Radical individualism in practice will inevitably involve some unlovely expressions, but it is, to my mind, to be preferred to its alternatives.

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