When You Win, I Win- Towards A New Identity With the Global Whole

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“I got me some Seagrams gin, everybody got they cups, but they ain't chipped in. Now this types of shit, happens all the time, you got to get yours fool but I gotta get mine”. – Snoop Dogg, Gin and Juice

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Self-interest. Welcome to the modern world. For philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith, that humans were fundamentally, primarily, and understandably self-interested, was simply self-evident. People were selfish. What we cared about was first and foremost, ourselves. Life was one big rat race for scarce resources to be stuck in our self-centered maws by our piggly little hands. So they came up with models for society that reflected that view, and contract theory and liberal free-market democracies started to take shape in the modern mind and eventually in its societies and institutions.

We hold these truths to be self-evident- that all men have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of [their own personal] happiness.

This was more a reflection of the recent emergent individualism of the modern Western world than it was a “self-evident” representation of human history. I guess the more co-operative and sociocentric nature of hunter-gather and mythic-membership societies wasn’t as known at the time of this new self-conception. One can still go to the coop2Confucian based societies of a Korea or a Japan today and see quite a different social identity, one profoundly more oriented to the whole. Nevertheless, an altogether different river had begun flowing in the modern West.

I recently listened to a paper at the 2010 Integral Theory Conference that had studied consumer attitudes. Author Bruni Howind had used three different methodologies to study the psychological roots of consumption behavior in American citizens. One primary thing the raining moneystudy was trying to understand was what drives the extreme consumer society of the United States, which, as we know, is also a Western and increasingly global phenomenon.  A consumer society is a society in which people buy a whole ton of (often useless) shit, constantly. A society in which one of the predominant life activities is the continuous buying and consuming of stuff, as is well told in The Story of Stuff. Consumption in this society is a goal and an end in itself. It is the good life.

The author of the study came to one very interesting, and in my opinion very important, conclusion. That consumerist behaviour was an activity that helped reinforce and fortify the self-identity of a separate individual self-sense. To buy more new stuff for me makes me happy, I get a hit of self-congratulation, self-satisfaction, perhaps even self-love, from buying something for myself. I deserve it. I worked hard for it. It’s my right and I love it. All this behavior reinforces and strengthens an interior self-identity that seesiloveme itself as a unique and separate individual, with its ultimate goal in life to maximize its own happiness, quite apart from any consideration of the whole. And its immediate cultural surroundings- saturated with a bombardment of institutions and advertisements that say it’s true and good and beautiful to live in this way- only serves to strengthen and reinforce this interior self-understanding.

Karl Marx employed the provocative concept of “commodity fetishism” to describe certain conditions of this modern capitalist society (1). Marx chose his words carefully. A fetish was an old religious concept for a false idol, like the famous golden calf of the fetishduckOld Testament. For Marx, in an increasingly secular post-Death of God world, the commodity (ie. stuff) had come to be imbued with a religious power. The old religious power of God or the gods had been transferred onto the commodity, the shiny consumer goods now available everywhere in modern society. It’s a point worth thinking on.

It’s not hard to see how this whole scenario above creates the conditions for over car destroys earth adconsumption and a massive depletion of the earth’s resource. You have an inner identity and the self-centered consumer behaviors that emanate from that. You have a extensive socio-cultural framework- what Louis Althusser (following Marx) called the superstructure- that goads, entices and seduces us into the normality of this developmental location and voila- the production of a global sized collective Pac-man, chomp chomping its way to a very high score indeed, and one that just might crash the game altogether. 

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“Becoming everybody/everything is to world, to make a world”. –Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

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But despair not, because a new adaptive potentiality is moving its way across the human horizon, maybe yours too. Contemporary research in developmental psychology is discovering new emergent self-identities, with one key characteristic being increasing selflessness. As Allan Combs puts it, “Virtually all spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of selflessness and compassion as a central aspect of attainment, while modern research on the highest stages of ego development seems to point in the same direction” (2).

Now, this is not the selflessness characteristic of a totalitarian society, where individual selves are dissolved away in the interests of the whole. It’s a self-sense that’s expanding beyond the strictly separate/isolated self-sense described above, the one that’s chewing the ass end out of the planet. This new self-identity has transcended and included that important moment of individuation, and is now beginning to identify with the health of the whole, of which it recognizes itself to be a glorious and inextricable part.

In the same study of consumer behavior cited above, the author also wanted to understand the source of what she coined “post-consumer behaviors and attitudes”. These are found in individuals who’ve rejected the consumerist ethos, and who now make conscious and ethical purchasing and lifestyle decisions. Some of the shared psychological characteristics found in these individuals were- a genuine concern for others, for those affected by unjust labour or trade practices for instance; a sense of guilt, an inner sense that harming other beings through our lifestyle is no longer acceptable; and a seeing of the big picture, some sort of understanding of the irreducible interrelatedness of the global whole.

What I see here is the shift to a new global identity, where the success of the whole earth-vegetal-animal-human-system is where we locate our identity. Whether it’s the burmese_monk_protest_2struggles of the Iranians or the Burmese people to gain freedom, a peaceful vote in Kenya for a new constitution, real advancements toward a clean energy future, or the slim upholding of the moratorium against international whaling, when Life flourishes we somehow feel ourselves flourishing too. No longer is the Earth something for me exploit in the absurd angst of my meaningless life, but rather it’s a dazzling array of evolutionary unfolding that’s my home and of which I’m a wondrous and continuousearth-3d-space-tour-big part.

The French philosopher Edgar Morin puts it this way- “Even up to 1950-1960, we were living on a misapprehended Earth, an abstract Earth. We were living on the Earth as object. By the end of this century, we discovered Earth as system, as Gaia, as biosphere, a cosmic speck- Homeland Earth. Each of us has a pedigree, a terrestrial identity card. We are from, in, and on the Earth. We belong to the Earth which belongs to us” (3).

And this new identity is so much better than that old location, where we had to compete and battle and be jealous and sad of others, of their whiter teeth, fancier cars and bigger pile of stuff. We’re now so many more people all at once, not just an island on the proverbial anthill slogging it out for keeps. If someone else does something to increase the good or beauty of the whole, then we win too and we celebrate their victory as ours!! We can open and relax out into feeling the miraculous shimmer of that light on the tree leaf, of that canoe as it saunters by, of the rich diversity of faces that stream past on the city street. When Life is truly living in abundant health, so do I.

To be selfless is to relish in the success of the whole, and to need no praise for what you might’ve done to contribute to that success, for the Health of the whole showers on you because you are it and it is you. We can release the pressure of the self-constriction, the self-contraction, the painful pressure of the billions wide competition as it morphs into the billions wide co-operation. We can understand that everything is always perpetually evolving, becoming, in motion, contingent and complex, a rhizomatic multiplicity of connections at movement and rest. Life is to be transformed, held, perpetuated and overcome, waltzed with and poked at, peeked into and revealed. It’s a glorious dance and Pachamama is asking for you to take the floor.

But there is one cautionary tale to relay in amongst all this elation, this elevation, this remuneration of the terrestrial nation. The same researcher discovered a gap between values and action in those with post-consumer attitudes and beliefs. The values are there but there’s still yet some hesitancy in actual behavior, a clinging on as though something might be lost in this identity transition. In this regard, I want to relay a personal story. I meat productionrecently stopped eating industrial meat. I’d read too much and I could no longer accept the ill health that these production methods were bringing to myself, to others, to the animals, and to the Earth, so I made a decision to just flat out stop eating it.

I thought this was going to be a particularly hard thing for me to do, as I’m a chef by trade and I work in kitchens surrounded by all sorts of free meat to nibble on. I was determined to do it, but I thought saying no to all that succulent meat dripping its medium rare blood onto my cutting board was going to torture me. I found the exact opposite. As I started to live into the reality of my values, as I started to live in heart copy grinchintegrity with my deepest passions, something new and unbelievable started to live in me. I felt alive, whole and upright like I’d never before. My heart, like the Grinch’s, grew a couple of sizes bigger. It felt like I was coming out of exile and into accord with deeper currents, and not eating that meat became no problem at all.

The Reverend Michael Dowd speaks of something he calls “evolutionary integrity”, one part of which is “living in service to the Whole”. Dowd says that, “When I’m engaged in creative work that will serve the larger and smaller holons of my existence, I dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven. And so does everyone else who follows this path, no matter what their religion or beliefs” (4). So to those who are still hesitant to cross that line, I can testify, its got riches no amount of stuff could ever equal. I still must struggle every day and in every decision to live in accord with these new global values, but the more in line I am with that evolutionary integrity, the easier it gets. 

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"There are two very different pathways to evolutionary success. One involves exploiting your neighbor and the other involves working with your neighbor to achieve jointly beneficial outcomes. The second pathway provides room in evolutionary theory for what we call goodness". - David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone

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calvin-on-citizenship

 

Endnotes

(1) Zizek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: On Schelling and Related Matter. London: Verso Books, 2007. p.3.

(2) Combs, Allan. Consciousness Explained Better. St. Paul: Paragon House, 2009. p.80,159.

(3) Morin, Edgar. Homeland Earth: A Manifesto For the New Millenium. New Jersey: Hampton Press, 199. p.143.

(4) Dowd, Michael. Thank God For Evolution. New York: Viking, 2007. p.60, 264.

Definition of holons- "I use the term holon to refer to the nested nature of the Universe. A holon is a whole that is also part of a larger whole and is itself composed of smaller wholes. Everything is part of something bigger and is made of smaller components nested within it. Each of those whole/parts, or holons, is creative. So the Universe is made of creative holons. We are holons, too. Within, we find organs, tissues, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles. Without, we form families, societies, planets, solar systems, galaxies". (Ibid, p.85.)

(*) Cf. the final section 'Retrieving Our Cooperative Past'. http://beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/991-neotribal-zeitgeist-%20-companion-guide

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3 comments

  • Comment Link Chris Bateman Wednesday, 11 August 2010 09:18 posted by Chris Bateman

    Re: your opening criticism in respect of the use of 'selfish' in philosophy, Mary Midgley has a wonderfully concise critique of Hobbes, Smith et al embedded in her 'Evolution as a Religion':

    "People in society were then [following Hobbes] held not to have any motive in their interactions other than self-interest. If this bizarre story had been true, the notion of selfishness could never have arisen. Had regard for others really been impossible, there could have been no word for failing to have it.

    "And it needs to be stressed that the word 'selfish' in its normal use is essentially a negative word. It means a shortage of this normal regard for others. Calling somebody selfish simply does not mean that they are prudent or successfully self-preserving. It merely says that they are exceptional – and faulty – in having too little care for anybody else."

    Best wishes!

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 13 August 2010 01:39 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Thanks Chris, that's a lovely insight she picks up on there. And thanks for turning me on to Mary Midgley, the name was vaguely familiar but her work seems like a great resource. Best to you as well!

  • Comment Link bruce sanguin Saturday, 14 August 2010 03:29 posted by bruce sanguin

    Thanks Trevor,

    I appreciate how you see the world clearly and yet find a way to hope.

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