What makes our society function? What ties hold us together? These questions have assumed greater importance in a post-modern, morally relative era, an era in which everyone’s beliefs can seem wildly different. At the same time, we find ourselves witnessing the power of public opinion on a mass scale, indicating a greater level of agreement than before. As such, the search for the lowest common denominator within our national community is blurred. I want to suggest that advanced industrialised societies, such as Britain’s, rely on a particular conception of the Self as a purely Egotistical entity in order to thrive. This conception, which I will refer to as the Ego or Egotism, is not conducive to a healthy mind-and-body. Moreover, there is a cultural blindness in the West as to the importance of this Self, and most of us are unable to envision life without it. I want to focus on how and why advanced industrialised societies implement this understanding of the Self, and the consequences of this understanding.
Egotism on a societal level is the product of self-consciousness and individualism, both of which as broad cultural inclinations developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. But it is unlike both of them, exhibiting unique features of its own which are at one and the same time timelessly human and grotesquely modern, even dystopian. Egotism, as I understand it, correlates to one’s self-identity as an individual being, with a narrative of his or her own, a narrative which weaves ambitions, dreams, desires, fears and prejudices together. What I mean by Egotism is the construction, from an early age, of an idea of the Self, an idea which is created in relation to pride and a conception of oneself as a completely separate entity. It is safe to assume that all humans are born with this capacity, and that it is on many levels a natural response to individual consciousness. In advanced industrialised societies, however, this conception of the Self is manipulated for certain ends.
Before we explore how this manipulation occurs, it is important to distinguish between Egotism as it occurs naturally and Egotism as it is when manipulated. The Ego is also different from the Self, in that it is a particular conception of the Self. It can go against the mind-and-body of the individual. For instance, if my ego desires popularity, and perceives smoking cigarettes to aid its quest for social acceptance, then if I am sufficiently in the thrall of my Ego, I will take up smoking, at the expense of my mind-and-body, my actual self. So it is important to realise the difference between the Ego and the self as mind-and-body – the Ego is a constructed and ultimately false self-identity which drives the mind-and-body to achieve its ends.
The crucial thing to understand about the Ego is that it can never be sated. Whatever the Ego’s ends, it will revise them each time they are fulfilled to something harder to attain. Furthermore, many of the desires that the Ego holds are biological desires, such as sex, which are naturally unquenchable. Hence there is a double-bind – the sexual drive is relentless and the Ego continually heightens its desire without end. This means that the Ego cannot be satisfied. By this, I mean that lasting happiness through Egotism is impossible, insofar as the Ego believes on some level that fulfilling its wishes will make it happy. Egotism, I believe, is the core reason behind unhappiness. It creates unrealistic expectations and at its most extreme isolates individuals from those around them, teaching them to see fellow men and women as rivals and threats. This is what I believe has gradually transpired in the West over the past two centuries, although the reasons for this development stretch back to antiquity.
Now it is time to look at how and why advanced industrialised societies rely on the Egotistical conception of the Self. Eastern religions such as Buddhism tend to deplore the Egotistical Self, portraying it as an illusion that obscures the unity of all life forms. Those who are aware of this kind of critique tend to be those who want to emancipate themselves from the rule of the Egotistic Self, freeing themselves to simply be. If this is achieved, personal ambitions and desires will to fade away. Imagine such an individual for a moment. He is gradually disentangling what he believes to be his ‘true’ self from his Egotistical Self, and in the process he becomes someone new. This new individual is aware of the unimportance of human lives and civilizations in the face of the unity of the universe. The new individual has no personal motives or wishes, and does not necessarily need or want a social role. Rather than depending on whether goals are achieved or not, happiness is total. There is no need for anything beyond the bare necessities.
How would a materialistic, capitalistic economy survive if people attained self-mastery to the extent that they desired no substantial material possessions? Surely, it would simply collapse! There would be no market for the endless products churned out. This hypothesis gains credence when we dissect how goods are sold. The history of advertising offers the most illuminating insight into what motivates people to buy things. In the last few decades, advertisements have tended to sell a lifestyle rather than a product. In other words, the product or service offered attempts to represent a lifestyle, a modus Vivendi, which entices the viewer by aligning itself to his or her aspirations. For instance, a razor for shaving might be sold with an advert that features a clean-shaven man attracting the unbidden sexual attention of an attractive, glamorous lady. The message is simple – if you want to be more like this man, buy this product, and you will be one step closer to his lifestyle. This Egotism extends throughout all media. Music videos exhibit glamorous lifestyles and cool, exciting characters, essentially ‘living out’ the lyrics in some cases. Videogames feature increasingly ‘lifelike’ and ‘cool’ characters as protagonists. Hollywood blockbusters show us as we would want to be seen by others.
Surrounded by images of successful, glamorous, sexy, wealthy, cool individuals in every field, and witnessing the sheer coruscating vivacity of these fortunate souls every day through the abstraction of the television, the Egotistical Self is fed and nourished as never before in the history of man. When has there been such a wealth of celebrities to be worshipped and envied, or such a concerted effort to fulfil both of these functions? Looking at the entertainment our society offers, it is clear that most people, having had their Egotistical Selves encouraged unanimously from an early age, require a drip-feed of gossip, glamour and merciless disparagement to feel contented. The ‘lifestyle’ magazines for both men and women display this perfectly – for women, there is Heat, and Closer, and Glamour, and Cosmopolitan, and Elle, etc; all of which either fawn over beautiful, successful and sophisticated women and their whims, or ruthlessly mock and pity those famous women who are anything but perfect in body and soul. Either way, the Egotistical Self is replenished – the Self is given new information with which to pedestalize its icon, assimilation with which is often the Self’s ultimate fantasy, or it is given a kind of Sadomasochistic thrill at witnessing how pathetic the lives of other women are, and how good its own is in comparison. The magazines for men are fairly similar in their effect, if not their content.
I want to demonstrate the psychological and social harm that is risked when people are born into a society that can only conceive of individuals as Egotistical Selves. So, I will examine the ‘ideal type’ of the Egotistical Self, as she might typically appear in Britain, France, the United States, and so on. Firstly, the Ego tends to become the major or only source of self-esteem for her. If her Ego is built around her being sexier than her cohorts, then she will seek to extract valuable self-esteem through the ego boost her good looks offer her. Let’s imagine that our subject wants to be a lawyer for a top law firm; her Ego has fastened itself onto this aspiration for whatever reason, and for the entirety of her post-adolescent life she has endeavoured greatly, every single day, to reach that goal. Eventually, if this Egotism is her only source of self-esteem, what will happen is that she will be almost unable to feel pleasure in areas that do not concern her Egotistical aspirations. We see this in the rising trend of ‘career-focused’ men and women, who are willing to sacrifice a staggering amount of their time to reaching a particular level of their corporation, etc. Secondly, there is an innate disinclination at true self-reflection. Instead, a facade of self-reflection is usually forged; the Ego constructs ‘turning points’ in its existence, which are portrayed as major moments of self-understanding and mental clarity but are in fact illusory. The Egotistical Self is loath to being honest with itself because this might threaten its mission – after all, if you’ve been striving for a particular position for years and years, you have invested too much emotional energy and time to consider the possibility that it might be fake.
Thirdly, there is the mental construction of other Selves as threats. Our subject feels the need to put up emotional defences against those around her. She might do this by denigrating a ‘friend’ behind their back, to reassure herself of her own worth; she might subconsciously ‘put down’ friends and acquaintances she perceives as rivals; or she might outright lie to those around her about her taste, talent and achievements to ‘save face’. Most of the time, these actions are performed subconsciously, almost involuntarily, as if they are knee-jerk reactions. This behaviour is reciprocal – people tend to note it, and often mirror their behavioural patterns back at them. This, of course, reinforces the idea of other people as rivals. Language is twisted to reinforce this illusion. In our case, she can only conceive of others through the Self. In other words, she cannot see them as they really are, but only through the prism of her Egotism. She will project her own behaviour onto others, obscuring the true nature of those around her.
Fourthly, our subject is a poor receptacle for new ideas, since she is not accustomed to dealing with ideas and concepts alien to her Egotism. She is so used to performing mental acrobatics to justify her Egotistical goal (whatever it might be) and behaviour, that she simply does not truly open herself to new ideas. It is dealt with through the Egotistical Self, which selectively filters what it deems to be relevant, and what it finds threatening or incomprehensible. Naturally, most new ideas are never given the chance to be embraced. Truly alternative positions are seen in the same old light as everything else, meaning that our subject takes little pleasure in open academic speculation of almost any kind.
We have thus sketched our subject thoroughly enough to imagine what her life might be like. She is perpetually stressed out, taking little visible pleasure in everyday tasks. She is focused to the point of fetishism, constantly judging herself and those around her by the standards of her Egotism. With those she is close to, she will discuss her ambitions with rigour but without colour. If you were to ask her why she wanted to be a lawyer, or a pop star, she would fail to give a satisfactory answer, instead relying on tautology before moving on swiftly. She lacks vivacity or true passion, and embraces new movements only cosmetically. Her life is one of constant toil and repression; every now and then, she will experience a kind of emotional breakdown, complete with tears of frustration; but, since she fails to perceive the underlying problem, her only remedy is to redouble her efforts.
We have seen how society encourages this perception of the Self; now it is time to examine how it discourages other non-Egotistical understandings of the Self. At an individual level, those who do not take part in society are often seen as parasites, wastes of space. Is this perhaps because ‘ordinary’, societal people cannot profit from them? Take a homeless person, for instance, or a traveller. The double-glazing salesman cannot sell him double-glazing, for he has no permanent abode. The insurance salesman cannot sell him insurance, because he has nothing worth insuring. Retail outlets reject him because he has no money. Politicians avoid him for fear of being associated with his disrespectable kind. They are disinherited, and I have a feeling that the same fate would befall anyone trying to escape the Egotism of this society. Of course, this reaction comes partly from fear; everyone plays by the rules of the game, understandably taking the elaborate pageantry of civic relations very seriously. When someone comes along who refuses to play along with the game, or who obviously flouts the rules, people are indignant, and clamour for some kind of punishment. Why? Simply because the outsider’s way of life jeopardises the integrity of the game that others have sacrificed their lives to. It is no wonder that people are so touchy.
Societies that are made up of a vast majority of Egotistical Selves (from the bottom to the top), then, have a collective desire to protect their conception of the world, due to their innate insecurity. Since it would be counter-productive to try and destroy an alternative position (it would risk discrediting the mainstream position), it is sterilised. This is achieved in two ways. The first way is reliant on the society being Egotistical in sufficient numbers to lack a truly critical faculty. The second way is to caricature the new position until it has become drab, predictable and – crucially – essentially the same as the Egotistical position. This is effective because it neutralises the very reason someone might want to consider a new conception of themselves and others. Let’s examine one of these caricatures further – the Student-Activist. The Student-Activists are young, naive and self-righteous; they squawk ready-made catchphrases about how evil capitalism is, they resort to petty violence to achieve their aims, and they tend to come from comparatively wealthy backgrounds. They have little idea of what the real world is like, and their idealism leads to snobbery. In this description, the Student-Activist is made to seem out for himself. He is only protesting because it gives him an identity – because his Ego desires it. He is just another Egotist, like you or me, so there’s no reason to take him seriously, or to join him in his crusade. So the Student Activist becomes an easy stereotype, and their views are robbed of their potency because they are portrayed simply as sectarian Egotists. Of course, this might actually be the case! But, when these individuals become stereotypes used to represent and discredit the alternative position per se, they weaken the plausibility of the very idea of public protest. Disillusionment is the inevitable outcome.
So the Egotistical Self is trapped in a colourless, cynical world of blind submission and pernicious envy in which there is little hope of escape. Once the Ego has settled in, it takes a great deal of dislodging, because the cognitive faculties of the mind become enmeshed with it. It has a canny ability to squirm its way into our every move, our every decision. Meanwhile, since virtually all social positions of privilege are filled with Egotists, from journalism to sports to politics to commerce, society exhibits an underlying, ferocious desire to uphold the Ego and its perception of the world and the human beings who live within it. For these privileged there is often a double gain to defending Egotistic Society – a psychological one and a financial one. After all, only those entrapped by the Ego could feel anything other than disgust when confronted by rampant consumerism (this is not to say that those on the Left are by axiom not egotists; more often than not, they use their political position to form an identity of ‘otherness’ which provides a basis for their activities and ambitions). It is a cycle that inevitably reproduces itself. If we accept this picture of society, the question then shifts to – is it possible to build a society where egotism is discouraged and minimised, or is there something innate in the birth of civilization that makes us yield to the Egotistical force?