Existential Liberalism As Ideological Fog

by Rob Horning

27 January 2012


This, from “Reflections on the Call” by Leon de Mattis, in Communization and Its Discontents (pdf), is a good point:

It is certain that the division of society into classes would be infinitely more visible if inter-individual relations were the brute and unreserved translation of relations of production. The proletarian would doff his cap in passing to the capitalist with his top hat and cigar, and there would be nothing more to say. But unfortunately things are a little more complicated, and ‘existential liberalism’ is not the unique translation of the effect of relations of production in everyday life…

Class relations disguise themselves at the personal level, and dissolve into “existential liberalism.” Capitalists in general are bad, but each individual capitalist seems like a nice enough person, doing their philanthropy and what not, recycling like a good citizen, etc. The same is true of middle class/creative class types, whose personal congeniality and sympathy for proles at the personal level hides from them (read: me) their systemic role in oppression.

This is how ideological mystification at the level of everyday life proceeds; inequality is out there, we know, but for those above a certain level of impoverishment and disenfranchisement, it is not experienced as such as a personal problem. No one wants to be proletarianized in their own subjectivity, in their own concept of themselves. So they explain the ways inequality affects them in terms of personal failings or bad luck—not as: the system can and has declassed me despite my efforts to abide the rules of its game.

Part of our energy is thus spent reproducing in our everyday encounters the ideological fog in which we are all supposedly equal (the 99%). (Consumerist relations in “democratic” marketplaces where everybody’s dollar spends are a big part of this, but not all of it.) We actually have to work to reproduce the illusion that “existential liberalism” coheres, that the deviations we experience are anomalies. It’s shocking, then, when we experience something we can’t resolve through this kind of work — say, when you get subjected to “unfair” police violence or are insulted through some bald piece of snobbery. But it may be that we prefer the ongoing work of sustaining our class-based sense of dignity to refusing the work and living in the full, intolerable glare of the naked relations of power. Who wants to unmask those nice people who mean so well? Who wants to look in that kind of mirror?

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