Clinging to our idiosyncrasy

by Rob Horning

15 July 2009


Chris Dillow makes a good point about the similarities between Marxian and neoclassical assumptions about human behavior:

The basic premise of neoclassical economics, that people respond to incentives, echoes the Marxian notion that individuals are bearers of social relations. Both stress that an individual’s behaviour arises from the position he finds himself in - which influences the costs and benefits he perceives - more than from his character. Of course, both views can be pushed too far. But both remind us not to see human action as rising from mere idiosyncratic disposition.

Of course, the idea that our own action stems from our own uniquely idiosyncratic disposition is something we probably all have a tendency to assume. That seems to me the core of capitalist ideology, that we as individuals are essentially responsible for not only our actions but also for the surrounding circumstances that determine the possible range of actions. Dillow points out how this converges with behavior economists’ findings:

there’s an important convergence between Marx and behavioural economics. Marxists believe that false consciousness can bamboozle workers into accepting capitalism. If we want to know how this happens, the cognitive biases and heuristics programme helps us. For example, the fundamental attribution error leads us over-estimate the extent to which the poor are to blame for their poverty, and to under-rate the importance of environmental or societal forces. The availability heuristic leads workers to blame immigrants for unemployment rather than less obvious forces. The just world phenomenon and system justification cause us to believe that capitalism must be fair. The status quo bias causes us to accept existing evils rather than risk new ones. And adaptive preferences cause the poor to resign themselves to their fates and want less, with the result that capitalist democracy sustains inequality.

If one’s condition can be read as a statement of what is deserved, our empathetic instincts can be tempered if not squelched altogether. With empathy out of the way, the exchange process becomes more unfettered, and can grow to become the basis for more and more of social life, governing more of our interpersonal interactions. Our emotional responsiveness starts to register in our consciousness as irrational miscalculations of our interest, as maladaptive tendencies. In the name of preserving our individuality—of hewing to the assumption that our idiosyncratic disposition determines our behavior—we end up even more alienated, with a far more mechanistic view of our own behavior. The stubborn belief in our own special uniqueness is harnessed to a view of human behavior that allows for virtually no spontaneity whatsoever, that presumes our best self always acts out of the calculation of costs and benefits and explains away sacrifice or altruism as covertly self-serving.

Anyway, I know I have a tendency to cling to my sense of my own idiosyncrasy and take a peculiar pleasure in what I think it might prove about me, about my nonconformity, about my ability to resist manipulation, about my ability to transcend social norms and expectations and realize some higher originality. I’m into obscure music; I have a taste for difficult books; I don’t watch popular TV shows. I won’t go see the Transformers sequel. But I think that my presumptions of uniqueness are probably what guarantee my overall insignificance—it keeps me motivated to remain deliberately apart, internally praising myself to the extent that other people don’t get me, thereby guaranteeing that I will only be happy with myself to the degree that I influence no one. I wonder if this attitude truly is personal idiosyncrasy or the product of late capitalist ideology. Isolating individuals in their presumed specialness is an effective way of rendering them vulnerable to marketing appeals, to consumerism generally.

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