For the purposes of this post it is important to note that when I refer to “capitalism,” I am referring to Big C Capitalism. Also, it is worth noting that I am an idiot, that I am not an expert in any field, least any of the ones that might relate to the following piece, and that I failed Psych in college.
Capitalism loves homogeneity. It’s no mystery why… packages that are all the same size and shape are easier to stack, store, and ship. Financial predictions are easier to make based on things that are produced and sold all the same. Shipping is cheaper. Mechanized production is much easier, making the item in question even cheaper to manufacture. One look at the dizzying variety in our grocery stores shows that despite all the different packages, we’re really looking at six different kinds of kidney beans, four different kinds of canned tuna, and a few dozen different kinds of bread that more or less taste the same. Meanwhile the real variety is absent. Each aisle contains countless versions of the same handful of products. It turns out that it’s not all that difficult to acclimate consumers to this homogenized range of products, either… even our films have their formulas. Screenplays must hit certain spots within specified time frames in order to be considered for production in Hollywood. Almost any film is possible, as long as it follows the formula.
Capitalism values homogeneity in its people as well. Oh, sure, job descriptions will tell you that managers are looking for creative thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that creativity involves risk by nature, and to capitalism, which pursues profit, this risk is not an opportunity but a cost. When things are unpredictable, efficiency declines and costs go up. In fact, every large, successful company really only needs in between one and ten “innovators” and then an army of robots to carry out the wishes of those innovators. The fact is that for now, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to fill those roles. Even so, a firm hand is kept to ensure that these people, these biorobots, remain within their designated parameters. Capitalism also offers a reward for this conformity. We are told that if we follow the rules, and work hard, that we will be rewarded with prosperity. Since most people in the post industrial landscape lack the means to scrape their own living from the earth, this is a pretty good deal for most citizens, and honestly it does a better job of making sure everyone is taken care of than homesteading would.
Even our own brains reward conformity. Social conformity, in a primate with essentially no natural weapons, was a matter of survival for nascent man. Social conformity made the group work, and the group was the weapon. It is our social nature, after all, that turned us down the large-brain side of that particular fork in the evolutionary crossroads, and as far as I’m aware we’re the mammals with the most complex and highly developed social structure on earth. This is what the big brain made possible, and a part of that is the ability and the desire to conform to social norms. To feel as though one belongs to a group is a necessary feeling, rewarded with the impression of safety and warmth. In fact, experiencing the fear of death can inspire greater urges to conform in us.
This is seen not just on an individual basis, but also on a broader scale. Societies tend to fluctuate on a cultural spectrum, from collectivist to individualist, based on the level of prosperity being experienced. Individualism is preferred when times are good; with survival needs taken care of, attention can turn to individual choice and self expression. When times are lean, societies tend to pull together to ensure that the needs of the society are met.
In contrast to this urge for conformity that is encoded into our societies and indeed, into our very brains, we also experience a strong need for self-expression. This need is considered a part of the need for autonomy as enumerated in the three needs in Self-Determination Theory… autonomy incorporates both the need for agency in one’s life and outcomes as well as the need to act in accordance with one’s self. The nature and origin of the self have been discussed and studied by people far, far brighter than I, and I won’t have time to go through that in any depth at all, so I’m inclined to skip that conversation entirely and just say that for the purposes of this discussion, the self is a thing that we all have, and it is made up of all of the traits that make us who we are.
So we have a natural, intrinsically motivated desire to act in accordance with the self. This desire is so strong that it overwhelms the risks of such authentic actions, and at times the biological urge for conformity… all for an action with no tangible or external reward. It is an action which is its own reward; in fact the existence of an external reward can undermine the value of the act of self expression by preventing it from satisfying our need for autonomy.
This is not just a desire that we have for ourselves; we also seem to seek out authenticity in other people. We cast about in the world, desiring not just authentic action and authentic expression, but authentic experiences, authentic interaction, and the chance to witness authentic expressions of self from other people. We are moved by these interactions and expressions because they touch something inside of us, something that is terrifying and wonderful. Authenticity plucks a string inside of us, and we vibrate in sympathy.
The truth is, existence as a human being is often a horrible burden, and not just in terms of practical stressors, like money or food or emotional security, but due to the fact that we bear up under great personal responsibility, the kind of responsibility that only a thinking creature gifted with free will can know, and exist in a continual state of imperfect knowledge. We are creatures who conceive of the world, but who are incapable of conceiving a world without us, and still are cursed with an understanding of our own mortality. Is it any wonder that so often we retreat from authentic expression of the self into the comfort of the group, the safety of the homogeneous? We relinquish responsibility of doing and instead sit back and watch. We lunge for the carrot and in doing so accept the yoke. It’s so easy to do, especially in a world that wants, needs us to be consumers, and will offer us pretty much anything that we think might bring us even a moment’s comfort.
This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think that it leads to a deep and undefinable unhappiness… a sort of a sickness of the soul. This is not to say that conformity is bad, or even that capitalism is bad. These are just parts of being human. But it does emphasize the importance of creative work; work often judged as not having a real place within a capitalist society.
The artist serves a purpose, in that through their actions they take on the risk and the burden of authentic self-expression and reproduce that for others to view and experience, so that everyone can feel that ahh feeling without taking on those risks themselves. The artist reaches into what it is to be human, like a modern shaman reaching into a world of gods and devils (and indeed, I’m not convinced that art is possible without interaction with the Divine, but that’s for a different post) , and brings back meaning, and then reproduces it in a benign, non-threatening form for all to enjoy. The artist helps to keep people spiritually whole in a terrible world.
So how does that work, arguably valuable work, fit in with a society in which all labor must be boiled down to dollars? Especially if we grant, as above, that the urge to express the self and to create are intrinsic, but can be undermined by the offer of an external reward? How is that compartmentalization accomplished?