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Personal identity in liberal society (snippet)

There is a conception of identity that grows up and takes hold in liberal society, if only because we can think about ourselves and our actions only by reference to what we are. As always, we define our identity by reference to the common goods the community recognizes. If I say I am American the claim is insignificant unless Americans are united by something they recognize collectively as good. In liberal society, however, the only thing recognized in common as a substantive good is the goal implicit in all individual desire, the ability to get what one wants. That ability is most readily recognized in the form of money, power and success, so liberalism turns society into an assortment of individuals related by such things. A liberal world is thus one in which the authoritative social reality, the thing by reference to which we are what we are, is a hierarchy of money, power and influence that excludes all substantive values and so is strictly quantitative. We are allowed public recognition only as employees and consumers, as nodes in a universal network of production and consumption, individuated and ranked by organizational charts, bank balances, and consumption choices. Under such conditions we lose substantive connection to others. Social and personal identity become purely hierarchical or quantitative, and self-realization becomes equivalent to pursuit of financial and hierarchical superiority and conspicuous consumption of one sort or another. Everything else becomes a personal idiosyncrasy of no public or objective importance.

Advanced liberal society is thus pervaded by a competitive obsession with money, power, position and enjoyment that it must disguise and deny, a spiritual force that is all the more fascinating because of its irrationality, emptiness and radical opposition to the society’s proclaimed egalitarian morality. That force is experienced as obsessively powerful as well as demonic and obscene. It returns us inwardly to a primitive state in which the sacred and the accursed are one, in which the fundamental spiritual problem is separating ourselves from the evil to which we are bound and by which we are fascinated, and the necessary response is denying it and transferring it to another so it can be neutralized and driven out in the person of the scapegoat—the man who rejects freedom and equality, the “bigot,” the “hater,” the “extremist,” the “fundamentalist.” That scapegoating creates an absolute and almost metaphysical inequality, that between those who think and feel correctly and are counted as part of the moral community and those who do not and are not so counted. The resulting hatred and contempt for those counted as bigots serves a necessary function in liberal society. It gives solidarity to a social order that lacks sustaining goods in common, and so needs enmity and hatred to define itself. Further, it provides an irrefutable justification for the rule of the class that defines correct thought. Since incorrect thoughts are quite common among the people at large, the actual people need be counted morally as part of the people, and their desires and views treated as legitimate, only to the extent they support the regime and its principles. The position of the ruling class thus becomes impregnable. To the extent the people oppose it they stop being the people and must be disregarded.

[From my book-in-progress.]



I don’t know who said it (Lasch or Himmelfarb)—an observation very similiar to your comments—that the modern person is a strange combo of a fragile self-absorbed narcissism with a proclaimed egalitarian public morality.

This combo mirrors the more general structure I referenced before: a private moral aestheticism combined with a rigidly enforced public moralism (political correctness).