The Politics of Identity in Industrialized Society

20 July 2017

Thursday


Like the street battles between communists and Freikorps in the Weimar Republic, now we have street battles between Antifa and the Alt-Right.

It is fascinating to observe when the most extreme and polarized political movements within a single society have basic attitudes in common, and we see this today in the industrialized world in the opposition of the far right and the far left. In both Europe and North America (where industrialized society has reached its furthest point of development), the far left (primarily represented by social justice ideologues) and the far right (primarily represented by the Alt-Right and neoreaction) are both explicitly identitarian movements. That is to say, the most polarized elements of our polarized political system are not antithetical movements, but rather are different responses to the same perceived social and political crises. And even these different responses have important elements in common, namely, the mobilization of identity as a political force.

Political scientists have probably underestimated the power of identity as a force in society, and by this I mean identity in the abstract. Nationalism is a particular case of an identitarian movement, and nationalism has long been a powerful political force. But once we understand that nationalism is but one form of identity among many other possible forms of identity, we begin to see that other identity movements can be equally as powerful. Human society came of age on the basis of tribal identity, so that the mechanisms of identity are bred into our evolutionary psychology. How human beings form tribes within the diversity of industrialized society is one of the central problems to which both the far right and the far left are responding.

It is also significant that the contemporary far right and the far left are quite recent incarnations of perennial political orientations. Both are not only reactions against perceived social and political crises, but moreover reactions against mainstream representatives of these perennial political orientations. The institutionalized right and the institutionalized left are both wealthy, powerful, and moribund. They possess capital in abundance — financial capital, political capital, and social capital — but they are no longer in touch with the masses who were once the rank-and-file of the Republican and Democratic political parties in the US. Richard Spencer of the Alt-Right calls the institutionalized right “Conservatism Inc.” He is right to say this. The same could be said of “Liberalism Inc.” Each is an institutional mirror of the other, just as the far right and far left are non-institutionalized reactions against the complacency of Conservatism Inc. and Liberalism Inc.

Due to the split between institutionalized and reactionary ideologies, there is a great deal of confusion among those who do not understand who they are fighting. Because ideologically motivated individuals generally do not make an effort to understand the ideology to which they are opposed, the far right fails to understand the split between Liberalism Inc. and the the social justice ideologues, and the far left fails to understand the split between the Conservatism Inc. and the Alt-Right. There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but understanding The Other is rarely a priority when ideological factions are engaged in street battles. True believers in the institutions (in this case, party institutions, thus representatives of what I once called a third temperament) hope to co-opt the energy and enthusiasm of the recent reactionary ideologies, without fully understanding that these ideologies mean to replace them rather than to become a new generation of foot-soldiers.

In addition to being identitarian and reacting to institutional complacency, both far right and far left are what I will call “localist” movements. (I would say that both are “völkisch” movements, though that is a loaded term because of its association with Nazism.) What do I mean by “localism”? I mean a movement devoted to a focus on small local community groups and their activities. Both right and left come to their localist orientation by way of a long pedigree.

The localist left emerged from the “small is beautiful” idea of the early 1970s, which in turn had emerged from the Hippie movement and the largely unsuccessful movement to form communes as a social alternative to bourgeois life (few of these communes were viable, and most fell apart). The Hippie movement can, in turn, be traced to the Wandervogel, which is its common root with the localist right. While the localist left imagines small tightly-knit communities tending organic gardens and forgoing fossil fuels, the localist right also imagines small tightly-knit communities, but communities which derive their connection to a particular geographical region in virtue of history and ethnicity. Both far right and far left condemn globalization in the strongest terms, and this stems from the common interest in local community life.

How are identity, reaction against complacency, and localism — albeit interpreted in very different ways by right and left — indicative of the common perception of social and political crises of the contemporary world? The crises of the contemporary world are crises of transition as the ongoing industrial revolution forces social change upon societies that did not choose social change, but which had social change foisted upon them by their embrace of economic and technological change. As it happens, a society cannot fully embrace the economic growth and prosperity that follows from the cultivation of science, technology, and engineering without also experiencing collateral changes to their social fabric. Industrialization implies the emergence of an industrial society, that is to say, a society shaped by industrialization and which contributes to the continued growth of industrialization.

I have been writing about the social trends of industrialized society since the earliest days of this blog, beginning with Social Consensus in Industrialized Society. My emphasis upon the industrial revolution seems dated, but I don’t think that we can overemphasize the transformation the industrialization forces upon wider society. The anomie and lack of community in industrialized society has been discussed ad nauseam. It has become a commonplace, but it is commonplace for a good reason: it is true. When commonplace truths become tiresome there is sometimes a reaction against them, as those who study social trends would like to talk about something else, but changing the subject does not change the structure of society.

Many of those who write about society would prefer, it seems, to iterate the industrial revolution, attempting to establish periodizations of a second industrial revolution, a third industrial revolution, or even a fourth industrial revolution. I believe that this is short-sighted. The process of industrialization began less than 250 years ago. Macrohistorical changes on this scale take hundreds of years to play out. The most recent productions of our high technology industrial base should be seen as simply the latest evolution of the industrial revolution that began with steam engines in the late eighteenth century, and which will continue to evolve for another two or three hundred years.

We live not merely in a society in a state of transition, but in the midst of an entire civilization in transition. Industrialized civilization is new and unprecedented in history, and it is still taking shape. We do not yet know what its final form will be (if it has a final form — I have pointed out elsewhere that it may be preempted before it comes to maturity). These civilizational-scale changes drove the polarization of ideologies in the middle of the twentieth century, which resulted in a totalitarianism of the right and a totalitarianism of the left, and these same unresolved civilizational-scale changes are driving the polarization of contemporary ideologies, which seem to be headed toward an identitarianism of the right and an identitarianism of the left.

In my above-mentioned post, A Third Temperament, I made a distinction between social institutions that are biologically based and social institutions that are not biologically based. This framework could be employed to differentiate the identitarianism of the right and the left. Right identitarians ultimately defer to biologically based social institutions, especially the family and the ethno-state; left identitarians defer to non-biologically based social institutions, and so exemplify a voluntaristic conception of identity, and in exemplifying voluntaristic identity they also exemplify the idea of a “propositional nation” (cf. the work of Thomas Fleming) and the civic nationalism that would be associated with a propositional nation.

A more detailed analysis of human identity, its sources, and its significance, might help us to make sense of this identitarian conflict. At the present time, passions are running high, and it is difficult to be dispassionate and disengaged in this kind of social milieu. These passions, if not checked, may snowball as they did in the middle of the twentieth century, leading to conflict on a global scale, with its attendant death, destruction, and suffering on a global scale. I think that humanity would, as a species, be better off if we could avoid another such episode. For my part, I will continue to suggest lines of analysis and social compromises that might defuse the tension and allow the passions to cool off, even if only temporarily. If this can be done, there is a possibility that we can negotiate the outcome of this conflict without having the fight to determine the outcome. Neither of these options is optimal, but I think we are far beyond the point of an optimal solution to the social problems posed by the industrial revolution.

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6 Responses to “The Politics of Identity in Industrialized Society”

  1. James Groenewald said

    Thank you for your weekly blog. I always find it edifying enjoy the read.
    I am currently reading two books, “Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow” by Yuval Harari, and “Double lives” by Stephen Koch.

    Have you read either of them?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Groenewald,

      Thank you for your comment, and you’re welcome for the blog posts. I’m very pleased to have a reader.

      I’ve read part of Harari’s earlier book, Sapiens, but I’ve only read the reviews of Homo Deus. I haven’t even previously heard of Double Lives by Stephen Koch, so I will look that up now. Thanks for the references.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

      • James Groenewald said

        Sure thing.
        They are two pretty divergent topics.
        I fit them together in this way:
        Yuval Harari in Homo Deus posits mankind as occupying a “triple layered reality”, the first being the natural environment, the second being each individual’s subjective reality, largely governed by unconscious hormonal based sensations, and the third by the meaning we consciously create through the stories we tell ourselves about the things we imagine. Elliott Jaques also explored this topic in his book “The life and behaviour of living organisms.”
        Stephen Koch’s Double Lives speaks to the way in which the religious basis of meaning has been subverted since the 1930’s, which I see as a subversion of the West’s third reality.
        I’m convinced that this third aspect of our reality has become too far removed from the first and now threatens our very survival in that first reality.
        Just as there has to be chemically based autopoiesis for organisms to survive in nature, the first reality, mankind’s third reality also has to have a logical autopoiesis to survive on the planet. One cannot accept as logical in the third reality that which is absurd in the first reality and expect to survive.
        e.g. is it logical to assume in the third reality that all are born equal when this is clearly not so in the first reality?
        In the distant past, Homo Sapiens Sapiens thrived while Neanderthals went extinct; should the former have made an effort to prevent the latter’s extinction? In my view, the former’s third level autopoiesis was better adapted the latter’s, with the resultant consequences.

        A third book that I believe relates to your topic is Richard Currier’s book “Unbound: how eight technologies made us human, transformed society and brought our world to the brink.”
        If, as he says, mankind’s technologies altered its evolutionary process, then I would like to live forever to see the effect of our present day technologies.

        Take care.
        James.

      • geopolicraticus said

        Dear James,

        I agree that technology has altered the evolutionary process for human beings, sometimes in very direct ways. The prevalence of caesarean births, for example, seems to have resulted in increasing head sizes of infants. Sometimes the effect is much more subtle, but it is always there. Because evolution is pervasive (as per the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium) and technology is now pervasive in our lives (cf. Don Ihde on the “technological texture” of life), these two pervasive factors are going to interact, even if we cannot fully delineate the ways in which they interact. Lately I’ve been thinking about how animals are subject to the institutions of civilization even though they do not themselves build civilizations. An animal in a zoo is not domesticated and is not itself a progenitor of civilization, but it is pervasively subject to the institutions of civilization.

        The tripartite distinction you find in Harari sounds very similar to Karl Popper’s distinction between world1, world2, and world3, but the idea is simple enough that I imagine Harari formulated it on his own without knowing that he had been anticipated by Popper. (Also, the ideas do not perfectly coincide, so they aren’t identical.) Obviously, the layer of meanings is highly diverse so it probably wouldn’t be accurate to say that it has diverged too far from the other layers of the world, though in some groups and in some individuals it may depart significantly from the other layers. However, this ultimately results in a selection effect: those individuals and groups that remain attuned to the other layers of the world are more likely to survive and to reproduce, whereas those who depart from the other layers to the extent that they can no longer act effectively in the world will be more likely to die and more likely to not leave offspring. However, civilization, presiding over far more efficient energy flows than any non-civilized condition, does allow unrealistic views to run for a much longer time than they would be able to endure in a state of nature.

        On the “the religious basis of meaning [being] subverted,” the classic work on this is Karl Löwith’s Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History. If you don’t know this book you should look it up. Löwith argues that a lot of “modern” historical ideas are bastardized theological ideas. In order to defend the honor of modernity, Hans Blumenberg undertook his large work, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, as a defense against Löwith’s critique.

        Best wishes,

        Nick

  2. xcalibur said

    For awhile, I have seen history in terms of 5 revolutions:
    Agriculture
    Writing
    Printing press & movable type
    Industry
    Information technology

    Would you consider computers/internet to be a mere outgrowth of the industrial revolution? It seems to me that information technology, beginning with the transistor, is highly significant.

    In the current turbulent climate, many have found it difficult to classify the alt-right and social justice. In particular, many believe that the alt-right is synonymous with white supremacist ideology, which is false. The alt-right is a mutation of the right linked with populism, just as social justice is a mutation of the left. The leftist emphasis on ‘voluntary identity’ goes a long way in explaining the absurdity of non-binary genders. Likewise, the rightwing emphasis on heritage and the ethno-state helps explain the current wave of populism and the identitarian movement in particular.

    It is certainly true that the globalist status quo is facing a significant challenge. While globalization has brought many benefits, I think people are aware more than ever of its failings and downsides. While the populist revolt has had enough success to rattle the political establishment, I don’t think they fully understand their predicament. The EU is doomed to collapse under the pressures of economic dysfunction and the migrant crisis. To a lesser extent, the continuity of the Democrat and Republican parties is also at risk — we may see them split apart to form left and right wing populist parties.

    Regardless, there will be painful upheaval over this political turbulence. The best we can hope for is that it doesn’t erupt into all-out warfare and/or genocide, which has a long precedent.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I consider telecommunications, computers, and internet technology to be an outgrowth of the industrial revolution, but computation as something new. I will try to flesh out this (perhaps eccentric) view in a future post. Arguably, what was done with transistors was previously done by vacuum tubes, and what was done by vacuum tubes could have been done by Babbage’s analytical engine and difference engine (i.e., mechanically–maybe even powered by a steam engine, for full-on steampunk).

      It took us a few decades from our rudimentary computers to data processing, and, now, broadly distributed data processing. With each technological innovation–Babbage’s machines, vacuum tubes, transistors, integrated circuits–computation has become cheaper in terms of the energy flows required to obtain a given result. All of this can be done–more slowly, and presumably with greater energy expenditure and more mistakes–by paper and pencil.

      It is certainly my hope that a social negotiation can substitute for armed conflict, but I think it is really too early to say, just as it is too early to say whether Europe will experience a “full fash” backlash or whether they will be able to walk back some of their disastrous policies incrementally. Despite the Americas and western Europe both representing western civilization, their political evolution is now on separate tracks, and North America may well be able to negotiate a pluralistic solution even as Europe descends into chaos. Or vice versa, but more likely the former than the latter. I hope to write more about this.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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