The culture of selfishness



What price must be paid for modernity?

Sergei Loniztsa's film, in the fog, which takes place during World War II in occupied Belarus, tells the story of a simple man who participates in an act of sabotage with three other workmates, but who, without explanation, is the only one who is not condemned to hang by the German occupiers. That is why he is accused by his own community of having been the informer, and thus, without the recognition of his own, life loses its meaning for him. Ultimately, the film suggests, each individual must find for himself the meaning of his life.

In another tuning fork, in the port, by Finnish director Aki Kaurimaki, the immigrant boy finds in the poor of Le Havre the solidarity that gives meaning to their lives. Thus, both the great cinema and literature offer clues to the search and realization of the meaning of life, but ultimately we must exercise our freedom and make our choices, knowing that if they do not take into account the other, if they are a mere expression of individualism exacerbated will get us nowhere.

This is the theme of a small and fascinating book that was published in France containing the debate that two notable philosophers of modernity, Christopher Lasch and Cornelius Castoriadis, had in 1986, intermediated by the philosopher and journalist Michael Ignatieff, on Channel 4 of English television. This debate had never been published. Although 35 years have passed, and both debaters are dead, this debate, published under the title La culture de l'egoïsme (Ed. Climat), remains current, given its high level of abstraction and the quality of the debaters. Christopher Lasch was primarily the author of The culture of narcissism (Zahar), an extraordinary critic of consumerist and individualist capitalism, and Cornelius Castoriadis, after very early on having made the pioneering critique of communist bureaucratism, together with Claude Lefort, became a psychoanalyst and a sharp critic of both Marxism and capitalism liberal.

The topic of debate was already then the crisis of modernity, the fact that the public space and the idea of ​​a common destiny were disappearing, and an overwhelming individualism took hold of people. Meanwhile, here in Brazil, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Joel Birman wrote a beautiful essay, The subject in contemporary times (Civilização Brasileira) which is not a political book, but shows us how the human psyche changed in that period, and, in its conclusion, points out that, as we move from modernity to contemporaneity, we become victims of the narcissism that Christopher Lasch already denounced: “in a narcissistic culture like ours, permeated by the morality of individualism taken to its exaggeration, each one deals only with his own life, and considers the other as the enemy and the rival, be it real or potential”.

The debate between Castoriadis and Lasch begins with Ignatieff asking what price modernity has had to pay. Our political traditions tell us that a sense of community is necessary, but public space has shrunk and we live increasingly private lives. And he asks: “Have we become more selfish and less capable of political engagement? How do you describe the change that has taken place in our public life?”

For Castoriadis, the change began to happen at the end of the 1950s, and two factors were decisive: the disintegration of the labor movement, and of the revolutionary project to which it was linked, and the capacity demonstrated by capitalism to improve people's standard of living. As a result, people turned their backs on common interests and plunged into their private world, even if it is necessary to put “private world” in quotation marks, because “nothing is ever completely private, the individual himself is a social construction”.

Lasch agrees and adds that this individualism is not the old-style individualism that emerges in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, but is a new individualism, of the “minimal self” or “narcissistic self” – an increasingly contentless self whose aim “is to pure and simple survival”. The alternative to mere survival is a moral life, it is a public life or a life dedicated to the public good, which, as Aristotle already pointed out, to be carried out with freedom, presupposes independence from material needs. What was already clear to Enlightenment philosophers – he adds. They distinguished selfishness or greed – or passions – from “well considered interests” that would constitute a more realistic and reasonable alternative to behavior dominated by exacerbated individualism and altruism.

What really characterizes contemporary society, for Castoriadis, is “the lack of project”. Each one thinks about his retirement, about his children's education, but “this is a private time; no one else is part of a public time horizon”. The borderline case is that of the crowd in a large traffic jam. She is “submerged in the ocean of the social thing”, but each driver is isolated, and everyone hates each other.

Are we then facing the “collapse of public space?” asks Ignatieff. We live in a very unstable world, replies Lasch. Before we were surrounded by solid and durable objects, now by images and more images, ghostly, provided by new media. Thus, the historical continuity that is a fundamental reference for each one disappears. But Ignatieff demands the answer about the relationship between the crisis of the public domain and the individual facing himself. But this relationship is not simple because the two elements mutually determine each other, replies Lasch. Changes in the individual are also changes in society. The problem is “in the disappearance of a real social and political conflict”. Because, completes Castoriadis, “people have the impression, rightly, that it is not worth fighting for the political ideas that are available on the market”.

But what about politics? “Politics has become more and more a matter of interest groups,” says Lasch. And give an example. The civil rights movement in the United States, which had Martin Luther King as one of its great leaders, was a universal civic movement against all forms of racism. In the 1970s this movement was redefined as a black movement against white racism. Lost universality; became a manifestation of those interested. As the right does the classic “victim blaming”, there is, on the other side, what Lasch calls “victim valuing”. Social movements only gain legitimacy when they point to victims of discrimination. Thus, the possibility of “a language that is understood by all and constitutes the basis of political life” disappears.

Which leads Castoriadis to agree strongly, also citing Aristotle. At polis Greek, when there were interested in a certain issue, they did not have the right to vote, because the policy was aimed at the public good, not at interest groups. For philosophy from the seventeenth century onwards, with the exception of Rousseau, politics exists to defend the individual from the State. "She does not accept that we can build a political community ourselves."

Does this mean that they criticize interest-based liberal democracy? Have not conceptions of the public good become unfeasible in today's very large and very divided societies? asks Ignatieff. The two interlocutors do not have a clear answer to the question. It is not clear from the debate that there are two types of political liberalism: the liberalism of the affirmation of civil rights or the rule of law, which is an achievement of humanity, and the political liberalism identified with the politics of interests rather than the politics of the public good. , which they strongly criticize.

Ignatieff returns to the critique of contemporary society. Wouldn't she be realizing that the logic of jouissance, of private consumption, is empty? Lasch vehemently agrees. “Consumption conceived as a culture and not as a simple abundance of goods seems to have the result of transforming people into passive toys for their ghosts…” Which “makes derisory” liberalism based on consumer sovereignty.

In fact, Castoriadis points out, the individual is only an individual within the framework of society; when that society provides him with a meaning for his life – a meaning he needs. “Each of us needs to be something substantial.” As a result, observes Ignatieff, the structuring of each individual's identity is a political issue. And, he continues, none of us can get rid of his past, his history, but is contemporary society so devoid of meaning? Doesn't the idea of ​​"character" still exist in her? Does it not tell us, "here are the kind of people we honor, that we respect"?

Yes, “what sustains the image of the self is also the fact that others recognize it”, answers Castoriadis. But what we call "respect" and Hegel called "recognition" has lost its meaning with the collapse of the public world. But, replies Ignatieff, “how far are you pushing us into pessimism?” Where is the freedom of the individual? A question that prompts Castoriadis to conclude in a solemn manner. True freedom, like democracy, are tragic concepts, because there are no external limits to it. We never know how far we can go in terms of freedom and democracy. “In Greek tragedy, the hero does not die because there would be a limit that he would have transgressed; that is Christian sin. The tragic hero dies of his hubris, he dies for trespassing in a field where there were no previously established boundaries.” Quoting Aristotle in turn, I cannot help but add that the practice of freedom does not conflict with interest, but is incompatible with selfishness, because it only takes place in the public space.

A little after this debate, the psychoanalyst and philosopher Maria Rita Kehl in The reason after the fall, saw the birth of post-modernity or contemporaneity, and already made his criticism: “We no longer dare to give wings to imagination, that is, to desire... post-modernity is the moment in which the bankruptcy of modern utopias is decreed... idea of ​​man as the subject of history is being abandoned”.

This is contemporaneity, this was the time of neoliberalism. It was not just a time of economic liberalism, it was also a time of profound crisis of the subject, it was a time when individualism turned into narcissism and solidarity exercised in the public space with a view to the future gave way to the loss of the idea of ​​time and of the future, which Joel Birman is now talking about. In his book he does not discuss the hollowing out of public space, but he is interested in a related problem. He focuses his attention on the malaise of contemporaneity – how this malaise is different from the malaise of modernity that Freud analyzed in The malaise of civilization (1930). Birman will, therefore, make a historical analysis of the subject, along the lines of Freud himself, who, as the author observes, never believed in rational and abstract human nature, and thought historically “despite the base drive condition” of the subject.

Joel Birman is interested in this subject, and to analyze his discomfort, he will oppose three dualities of concepts. What we see in the transition from modernity to the present is the passage from suffering to pain, from time to space, and from helplessness to dismay. The modern subject, the subject of the mid-twentieth century, faced an infinity of contradictions that Freud himself and great writers such as Arthur Schnitzler and Robert Musil, and philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin, analyzed, but he knew how to recognize his historical time instead of believing “that everything happens in the present time, in which the repetition of the same is so powerful that it does not announce any possibility of rupture or discontinuity”.

For Joel Birman, the malaise of contemporaneity lies primarily in the subject's inability to live with time and the change that comes with it. When he dreams and remembers the dream, he lives a narrative, but today, instead of the dream, the nightmare and panic predominate, which is traumatic, and paralyzes the subject in a space without time. But for him “contemporary malaise is characterized mainly as pain, not suffering”. Pain is physical, it is a private sensory materialization, it does not involve the alterity that is present in suffering – a psychic feeling. If the pain remains just as pain, it is ours alone, and perhaps it can be resolved by analgesics or psychiatric medication; if we manage to transform it into suffering, this means that we are part of a social whole, and that we can count on the help and understanding of the other and on psychoanalysis.

But men and women have lost this ability in contemporary times. Faced with pain, with nightmares and trauma, he is paralyzed by not being able to place it in time and transform it into shared suffering. He faces the excesses, the irruptions of his emotions, but since they cannot express themselves in explosions because society does not accept them, he has no alternative but to implode, “calling into question the order of life, because the interstices and crevices of the somatic would be the only lines of escape available for the materialization of the implosion.” And so, in addition to the pain, we see the subject plunge into hyperactivity, we see the dismissal of thought and the acceleration of behavior, action becoming a categorical imperative.

The artistic expression of the contemporary subject appears in an exemplary way in Stanley Kubrick's film, eyes wide shut, in which “the whole narrative is built between the possibility and impossibility of the experience of dreaming”. Suddenly, faced with the woman who tells him an erotic dream about a sailor, the husband, the expression of the successful and well-behaved contemporary who has lost the ability to dream and imagine, who only recognizes the appearance of the objects around him, is deconstructed and live a nightmare. Now, observes Birman, as Freud taught, desire is the engine of life, but “for the subject to desire, he must also be able to fantasize”, he must know how to use his imagination freely – something that the husband does not have.

This is not a political book, but in this world seen by the subject as continuity and repetition, in this world in which the subject has lost the perspective of time and the ability to imagine and communicate with others, Birman cannot fail to refer to the end of the story of Francis Fukuyama and the neoliberal character of this vision. Because, after all, I add, this contemporaneity to which he refers was the time of neoliberalism, it was the 30 neoliberal years of capitalism that collapsed with the global financial crisis of 2008.

For Birman, in contemporary times, “the terror of losing oneself takes hold of the self… the “dispossession of oneself” thus announces itself as a crucial problem of contemporary malaise”. The subject feels dominated by the feeling of emptiness. Why? Is there a general reason for this human and moral tragedy? Birman does not give a direct answer to this question. But he quotes Lasch, who criticized "the constitution of the culture of narcissism today". And, after all, what is this culture, if not the culture of extreme individualism or selfishness, which prevents the subject from sharing values ​​and objectives and giving meaning to his own life? As Birman ends, confirming the previous analysis by Lasch, Castoriadis and Ignatieff, “solidarity, as a value that still amalgamates social ties in modernity, has entirely disappeared from the contemporary scenario”.

Its result, however, I note, was not just tragic for the subject; it was also for society that today is experiencing a profound crisis, a crisis that is not only economic but also cultural, which is not only revealed in economic stagnation in rich countries and the reduction of growth in developing countries, but also in the loss of values ​​and an idea of ​​a common destiny. Technological change continues to accelerate, but given the exacerbated individualism that neoliberalism preached and the neoclassical economic theory legitimized as “scientific” from the reduction of the subject to the homo economicus who always maximizes his interests, the contemporary subject has become disoriented and unhappy. However, this view of the world and things was only fully hegemonic in the 1990s. Since the early 2000s it has started to be contested, and today it is once again clear that a society presided over by utilitarianism and narcissism is incompatible with social life and human achievement. That democracy, which was a conquest of modernity, cannot be reduced to an eventual balance of conflicting interests, or to the culture of selfishness, because it only takes place when it is the result of a shared and participatory social construction in which the subject seeks make his own interests compatible with his republican spirit, which fights for a public interest that he recognizes as existing and legitimate.

* Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira He is Professor Emeritus at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV-SP). Author, among other books, of In search of lost development: a new-developmentalist project for Brazil (FGV).


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