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American Identity Crisis


Man, an abridgment of the universe, sums up and syncretizes in his person all the potentialities of being, all the sections of the absolute; he is the summit at which these potentialities, which exist only by their divergence, meet in a group, but without penetrating or becoming confounded with each other. Man, therefore, by this aggregation, is at once spirit and matter, spontaneity and reflection, mechanism and life, angel and brute. He is venomous like the viper, sanguinary like the tiger, gluttonous like the hog, obscene like the ape; and devoted like the dog, generous like the horse, industrious like the bee, monogamic like the dove, sociable like the beaver and sheep. And in addition he is man, — that is, reasonable and free, susceptible of education and improvement.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, System of Economical Contradictions –

If you tell most people that what you want is anarchy, they will think you’re a moron. The common understanding of the word “anarchy” is that it is a situation where people do what they want without any systems of Justice in place: to decide if what they do is right or wrong, to investigate claims of people breaking the rules, and to make sure everyone is held to the same standard rights and duties. In such a situation, people imagine an irrational growth of all that they think is natural to human beings …and if they are Christians, that is mostly a bad thing. It’s no wonder why those who came to call themselves anarchists in the 19th Century were skeptical about using the terms “anarchy,” “anarchism,” and “anarchist”. Zoe Baker documents this history in her new book, Means and Ends, which is the most recent account of anarchist theory and history that I know of:

The social movement that emerged within the First International came to adopt the labels “anarchist” and “anarchism” through a complex and contingent historical process. This, in turn, raises the question: why did they end up adopting these words? They could, after all, have invented a new term or continued to use other terms, such as federalist, collectivist, or revolutionary socialist. A clue to this puzzle can be found in the September 3, 1876, edition of the Bulletin of the Jura Federation. An article distinguished between “those whose ideal is a popular state” and “the fraction that is called anarchist,” rather than the fraction that calls itself anarchist. A month later, the editor of the paper, Guillaume, gave a speech at the October 1876 Berne Congress of the Saint-Imier International. In it, he claimed that they were usually called “anarchists or Bakuninists” by their political opponents.

Two of their main political opponents were Marx and Engels. Throughout their correspondence during the 1870s they usually referred to the collectivists as “Bakuninists.” This label was rejected by the collectivists because, as Malatesta explained in 1876, “we do not share all the practical and theoretical ideas of Bakunin” and “follow ideas, not men . . . we reject the habit of incarnating a principle in a man.” Bakunin himself agreed. He wrote in his 1873 resignation letter from the Jura Federation that “the ‘Bakuninist label’ . . . was thrown in your face” by “our enemies,” but “you always knew, perfectly well, that your tendencies, opinions and actions arose entirely consciously, in spontaneous independence.”

The other term Marx and Engels publicly used during the early 1870s was “anarchists.” To take a few examples: in their May 1872 pamphlet Fictitious Split in the International, they labeled the Jura Federation’s “Sonvilier Circular” as “the anarchist decree”; Engels described the Italian section of the Saint-Imier International as “anarchists” in his July 1873 article, “From the International”; they sarcastically referred to “Saint Michael Bakunin” as an “anarchist” and his ideas as “the anarchist gospel” in The Alliance of Socialist Democracy and the International Workingmen’s Association, which was published between August and September 1873.

It is important to note that Marx and Engels referred to the Jura Federation as “anarchists” in May 1872, which was prior to most collectivists referring to themselves with the term. A key reason why Marx and Engels referred to the self-described federalists, collectivists, or revolutionary socialists as “anarchists” was because they wrongly believed their views to be a simple rehashing of Proudhon. In November 1871, Marx wrote a letter to Friedrich Bolte in which he claimed that Bakunin’s views were “scraped together from Proudhon, St. Simon, etc.” and that Bakunin’s “main dogma” was “(Proudhonist) abstention from the political movement.” In January 1872, Engels described Bakunin’s ideas as “a potpourri of Proudhonism and communism” in a letter to Theodor Cuno.

The decision by individuals within the movement to adopt the “anarchist” label was not inevitable and occurred to a significant extent by chance. They could have continued to call themselves the federalist, collectivist, or revolutionary socialist movement. Guillaume could have successfully persuaded a large number of people to not refer to themselves as anarchists. They could have called themselves Bakuninists or invented a whole new label. One of the main reasons they adopted the term “anarchist” was that they were borrowing language from Proudhon. But this was not the only reason. Other people within the First International, in particular Marx and Engels, chose to call them “anarchists” due to the belief that they had the same politics as Proudhon. This led to a situation where the federalists, collectivists, or revolutionary socialists had to decide if they were going to adopt the label as their own.

Means and Ends: The Revolutionary Practice of Anarchism in Europe and the United States, by Zoe Baker

Later in Means and Ends, Baker explains the values that are actually cherished by anarchists. One of them is the value of freedom. However, there are two types of freedom that anarchists have traditionally advocated for. Anarchists advocate for a form of negative freedom. This is the freedom from domination, oppression, subjugation, coercion, and other such limits to the exercise of one’s will. At the same time, anarchists also advocate for positive freedom. This is the freedom to that anarchists hope to achieve through equality of opportunity …”equality of opportunity” itself being another core value. This form of equality is an equality of freedom, freedom to the resources we need to exist. Even more than the means to one’s existence, as Kropotkin repeatedly says in The Conquest of Bread, anarchists advocate for the freedom to the resources we need for our well-being.

Zoe Baker’s section on “The Value System” explains with these statements, followed up with quotes from traditional anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Goldman, Berkman, Parsons, etc.

“Anarchism’s central ethical value is that individuals should lead free lives. Although anarchists focused on the freedom of the individual, they did not conceptualize this freedom in terms of an isolated, abstract entity who stands outside of society. For anarchists, an individual can, given the kind of animal that humans are, only be free if they belong to a community of equals bonded together through relations of solidarity…”

“All anarchists thought that one of the main reasons why freedom is valuable is that it is a prerequisite for full human development in the sense of people improving their internal abilities in multiple directions and, in so doing, truly realizing their potential…”

Means and Ends: The Revolutionary Practice of Anarchism in Europe and the United States, by Zoe Baker

We can see here that at the heart of anarchism, there is a claim about human development. More specifically, there are claims about human potential and what is required to reach that potential. Theories of human development must then be marshalled to support such claims. One way or another, such notions of human development must address human psychology.

This wasn’t a standard that could be met scientifically by anyone in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. As a science, psychology had barely begun in the times when Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta were writing. What is incredible is how much psychological research now supports many of the things that anarchists had been saying!

Today, it’s difficult to find many anarchists – or even many people on the Left – who take an interest in psychology AT ALL. When they do, it’s often some form of Freudian or post-Freudian theory, probably due to the New Left’s engagements with psychoanalysis in the past. I’m really not sure why this is. Perhaps it is because a lot of people think that psychology is mostly something that therapists and other social workers use to control people? I don’t know. But given that many of the central claims made by traditional anarchists are squarely within the domain of psychology, this is something that should really change if we want anarchism to benefit from decades of social science research.


All over the world and all throughout known history, human beings have been doing terrible things to each other and everything around them. So what is it about human beings that anarchists see so much potential in? To answer that question, we need some insight into how anarchists understand human beings in general; what some people would call “human nature”…

Human Nature

As an existentialist, the concept of human nature is problematic for me. However, what is problematic about it is that often enough, human nature is defined in such a way as to claim that we are all born with some prefabricated purpose to fulfil. This is the classic distinction that Sartre and others make between existence and essence. Usually, anarchist notions of human nature do not make a claim to any specific purpose or essence. Instead, anarchists tend to describe human nature in an existential way; noting the freedom inherent to human existence and the vast potential for development that is available to such free beings as ourselves.


I don’t know what I’m going to put here, but something should be said about biology. Afterall, development isn’t something that can be separated from our bodies.


Now, the universal consent of peoples bears witness — and we have shown it in the third and fourth chapters — that man, all his animal impulses set aside, is summed up in intelligence and liberty, — that is, first, a faculty of appreciation and choice, and, second, a power of action indifferently applicable to good and evil. We have shown further that these two faculties, which exercise a necessary influence over each other, are susceptible of indefinite development and improvement.

Social destiny, the solution of the human enigma, is found, then, in these words: EDUCATION, PROGRESS.

The education of liberty, the taming of our instincts, the enfranchisement or redemption of our soul, — this, then, as Lessing has proved, is the meaning of the Christian mystery. This education will last throughout our life and that of humanity: the contradictions of political economy may be solved; the essential contradiction of our being never will be. That is why the great teachers of humanity, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Zoroaster, were all apostles of expiation, living symbols of repentance. Man is by nature a sinner, -that is, not essentially ill-doing, but rather ill-done, — and it is his destiny to perpetually re-create his ideal in himself. That is what the greatest of painters, Raphael, felt profoundly, when he said that art consists in rendering things, not as nature made them, but as it should have made them.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, System of Economical Contradictions –

Anarchists have produced many, many pages of text on education and its related topics. Just a brief look at the topic at can make one’s eyes glaze over…


It is important to emphasize that development isn’t something that only happens to us. While it is true that we are often the object of our environment, with its institutions and events, we do have the capacity to develop ourselves. Sometimes too much is made of this capacity. The self-help industry has filled our common discourse with all sorts of claims and the results aren’t always encouraging. However, the effectiveness of self-help would be greatly improved if more focus was given to praxis, or how changing one’s environment can also change oneself.

When it comes to anarchism, agency in one’s own development is fundamental. Anarchists have always argued that the social revolution is only possible through the spontaneity of the working class. By “spontaneity,” what is meant is that the workers themselves would directly create the organizations and forms of social life that would lead to revolution.

From Zoe Baker’s book again:

Although anarchists sometimes claimed that the social revolution should be “spontaneous,” the majority of anarchists did not expect it to appear suddenly without any planning and preparation. Nor did anarchists think that the social revolution would occur independently of anarchists influencing other workers through words and deeds. They instead meant that the social revolution should not be imposed on society by a revolutionary elite acting in the name of the people. For a revolution to be “spontaneous” in this sense of the term was for it to be voluntarily launched and self-determined by workers themselves. A worker acted spontaneously when they acted of their own volition, even if their actions were inspired by the actions of those around them.

Means and Ends: The Revolutionary Practice of Anarchism in Europe and the United States, by Zoe Baker

It is this agency itself that begins the process of transforming society from one that relegates most people to a passive role, to one where people create the lives they want themselves. Through the exercise of their agency, people would be educating themselves to become the new administrators of social life and all that makes social reproduction possible.


Some behavior is situational. In other words, sometimes the tendencies of individual personalities is less relevant to the behavior people exhibit in a given context. Much of the research that psychologists conduct is focused on situational behavior. It is important to note that situational behavior is not what personality psychology aims to understand. Instead, personality psychology is more interested in behavioral tendencies that endure throughout someone’s entire life.

It is inappropriate to generalize from specific situations when trying to understand someone’s personality. For example, in Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, the behaviors of the participants were shown to be dramatically encouraged by the roles to which they were each assigned. It wouldn’t make any sense to look at the results of this experiment and conclude that the students assigned to the prison guard role had become authoritarian in their person. Rather, what the experiment shows is that the role itself (the situation) had a much bigger impact on the behavioral outcomes of the participants than their personalities did.

We have to be careful with this, especially as anarchists. When we argue for an egalitarian society (or against an authoritarian one), we are talking about both situational behavior and personality development at the same time. With studies of situational behavior, we can show that various social structures cause specific behavioral outcomes. But what we are also concerned with is the way that specific social structures impact the development of one’s personality in the long-term. Changing the situations that people are in can have a big impact on their behavior, but we also need to explain the political difficulties involved with changing those situations; we need to explain why some people agree with those changes and why others do not. The latter suggests that it is a difference in personalities informing the politics.

Although personality doesn’t explain everything about politics – one’s beliefs also contributing to one’s political stances – it does help to explain why in the face of sound arguments to the contrary, some people would still find an opponent’s political views to be deeply troubling. This becomes all the more important when dealing with small group situations because the personalities of those involved will impact group decisions more than they would in large group situations. For example, someone with an authoritarian personality will have a big impact in a group of anarchists trying to decide what tactics to use to advance their goals.

For more about all this, see the Person-Situation Debate.


Note: the regularity of events in daily life is different for each of us, but should be considered when thinking about studies of situational behavior. The more regularity, the more opportunity there likely is to see the effects of personality come through the stronger, situational effects. Some of us focus more on experiencing novelty, but I assume that most people prioritize the quality of their regular, daily lives. This would suggest a significant role for personality that may be obscured by situational studies.


Human development doesn’t happen in a vacuum, human beings develop in a society. All societies are more or less organized, but now that most of the world live in urban environments, most people are living in highly organized and complex societies. Society and its organizations are not only where development is happening, but it is also where politics happens. For the sake of this text, I’ll define politics as the social activities of people attempting to achieve their goals, usually within competitive organizations. This definition can thus apply to all sorts of organizations, be they as small as a family or as large as the global state system.

The less competitive the environment and corresponding activities, the less that social behavior seems political to us. However, even when social activity is less competitive – like when anarchists participate in a study group together – the element of competition isn’t entirely absent. This view of politics will come in handy later as we talk about identity politics, but even at this preliminary stage it is useful to keep in mind that political behaviors can be found well outside of governmental institutions.

What tends to change throughout the lifecycle is the amount of complexity of the organizations we become participants in. With this complexity comes the tendency to compete as part of a group against other groups, rather than competing as an individual like one does within a family or other small groups. Although many people would like to be treated as an individual within large, complex groups – especially if that treatment is meritocratic – it’s usually only according to standard notions of what an individual is that individuals are treated: not as the particular individual that they are. This way of conceptualizing people as groups will also be important later as we get into more details.


The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States – Fritz Machlup

Personality Development

Personality psychology is the bridge from a low-resolution, large-coverage map of human development to a high-resolution understanding of particular, individual people. One way to classify the various theories of personality development is to distinguish between stage theories, type theories, and trait theories.

Stage Theories

Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Jacques Lacan are the most well-known theorists of stages in the development of human personality. Of the four, Erik Erikson is probably the most relevant to this discussion since his theories are so much more oriented towards the socio-cultural factors involved in personality development than the other three.

Erik Erikson divides the human lifecycle into 8 stages, each with its own corresponding crisis or developmental problem that needs to be solved:

While Erikson calls these crises, they could also be thought of as vulnerabilities. I want to highlight this notion of vulnerability here because it is this quality of each crisis that lends itself to exploitation.

It is with Erik Erikson’s theory of personality development that we can pinpoint the nexus where politics and personality come together around issues of identity. The identity crisis, as described by Erikson, results from the collision of two formerly separate worlds: the world of the child in the family and the world of the adult in society. It is where so much of our adult lives take shape; our sexual orientations, our career choices, our social status, our religious faith, our historical interests derived from family legacies, national interests, ethnic and class conflicts. It is the abyss through which we all must travel as we age into adulthood. It is full of bad feelings and hard lessons, with no certainty as to when and where it will end.

For now, it is worth noting that Douglas Rushkoff has produced two excellent documentaries on this topic: Merchants of Cool and Generation Like. They each expose the efforts of corporations to target adolescents exactly according to their vulnerability on questions of identity. I believe that our understanding of ‘wokeness’ and other identity-based cultural phenomena is far from complete if we don’t consider the massive campaigns of exploitation lead by corporate America to be a large part of these developments.

Type Theories

Some version of type theories of personality have been articulated in many cultures throughout human history. One of the most familiar ones to us today is the astrological natal chart. The runner-up would probably have to be the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which was based on Carl Jung’s work on personality development.

“Effective personality typologies reveal and increase knowledge and understanding of individuals, as opposed to diminishing knowledge and understanding as occurs in the case of stereotyping.”

Probably worth mentioning Otto Gross and how his insights contributed to Jung’s personality theories.

Trait Theories

Trait theories of personality are the most widely accepted in the field of personality psychology. Theories like the Big-5 have tested well and their cross-cultural consistency makes them highly reliable. At the same time, there is a shallowness to many of them. However, the basic idea of traits versus types will be important to understand when we begin to critique common-sense notions of identity; which are often, for the most part, an idiot’s form of type theory.

Binary Oppositions

When one survey’s theories of personality development, there is something that is seen all over the place. That something is the notion of binary opposition, or pairs of opposed terms. Even outside of personality development, the theme of binary opposition is ubiquitous. In anarchist theory, Proudhon is probably the most reliant on conceptualizing things as pairs of opposed terms, what he called “antinomies” in reference to Immanuel Kant. In personality theory, Jung definitely stands out in this regard. Not to leave out phenomenology, Sartre is a frequent user of antinomies. And the king of them all, Hegel, built an entire system of philosophy out of binary opposition, sometimes called “thesis” and “antithesis”.

Sometimes this is thought of as a metaphysical feature of the Universe, like in astrology. However, we can stay well within the bounds of a materialist universe and still recognize some basic antinomies, like the pair self-other, the pair self-world, or the pair particular-universal. This notion of binary opposition will feature in later discussions, but for now I just want to call it out.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Sartre’s ideas about development don’t fit into any of the above theories of personality. For Sartre, consciousness chooses a fundamental way of being in the world. In his first major work, Being and Nothingness, he describes this fundamental project of being and what its consequences are if that project is one of becoming God: a Being that is its own foundation, or what Sartre called the “in-itself-for-itself”. This project is doomed to failure because it is impossible. According to Sartre, consciousness is by definition the negation of the in-itself resulting in the spontaneous upsurge of being for-itself. Any attempt at changing this basic structure leads to bad faith.

Many commentators on Sartre’s philosophy didn’t understand or didn’t know about Sartre’s later articulation of conversion. His work in Being and Nothingness only described modes of being-in-the-world that were bad faith. That work was far from the whole story of consciousness. By the time Sartre wrote Critique of Dialectical Reason, he had already been working out a philosophy of consciousness lived authentically. For this authentic mode of being-in-the-world, consciousness needs to update its fundamental project and accept both its facticity and its freedom. From that point forward, practices of totalization he calls “praxis” become the focus of his philosophy.

There are no stages or types in Sartre’s philosophy of development, there are only choices of being and the actions that reinforce those choices. That isn’t to say that Sartre’s philosophy is incompatible with stage theories or type theories, but those theories aren’t ultimately explanatory. To get at the heart of the matter requires existential psychoanalysis to uncover what someone’s choices of being are and how the consequences of those choices cause further developments of one’s personality.

Abraham Maslow

Alfred Adler

Colin Ward

The Child in the City

The Child in the Country

Paul Goodman


In the introduction to this text, I pointed out the major concern of anarchists for human potential and how that potential can be realized. Against the realization of this potential, anarchist have demonstrated how capitalism, the State, the Church, and other authoritarian institutions stand opposed to it. There have also been anarchists who have shown how other things can be obstacles to realizing human potential, often inspired by Max Stirner’s work The Unique and It’s Property. Anarchists inspired by Stirner have critiqued identity and identity politics accordingly, leading to the many tropes about spooks and the Unique that are familiar to those on the Left.

That said, I do not think the Stirnerite anarchists have contributed much beyond those critiques to our understanding of human development and the realization of human potential. One of the weaknesses of their approach is that the fixed ideas and spooks they point out are treated superficially, becoming almost interchangeable instances of the same basic phenomenon. This tends to encourage dismissiveness, which is often pointed out by so called social anarchists.

Instead of dismissing every fixed idea and spook on the basis of its use by powerful institutions towards their goals, we should take a closer look at them to understand what they reveal about our situation and where their power comes from. It isn’t just any idea that becomes fixed and it isn’t just any representation that mediates our social lives. The type of idea or the form of the representation indicate specific vulnerabilities. These ideas and representations function by substituting themselves for big questions and difficult decisions. They are used to stitch a patch over tears in the social fabric. If we are to look beneath them, we can see openings for our own projects and soft spots for our own revolts.

Identification as ‘Bad Faith’

No one can know with certainty who an infant will eventually become. That isn’t only because of environmental impact, epigenetic responses, historical accidents, or any other unpredictable variables from the time of one’s birth. It is also because the person that an infant becomes will be a result of their choices throughout their life. We don’t really know who someone became until some time after their death. So long as there is life left to live and choices left to be made, the jury is still out.

What makes identity so complicated is that it is based on a relationship between two ontologically different sorts of entity. People are goal-setting, choice-making, free and dynamic entities, but what they identify with – or become identified with – are definitionally fixed concepts that come into existence through attempts by society to understand itself. Two people in isolation could never develop the concepts that identities are based on. Such concepts require comparisons of numerous people so that their commonalities can be isolated and used to represent meaningful features.

For these reasons, identities are mostly ephemeral: they change with the historical context, or even during one’s life. This is something that can be managed effectively if understood. Unfortunately, we are living through a period where many people don’t understand this. Instead, identities are mistaken for personalities. People are reduced to fixed concepts. Commonality replaces uniqueness. Facticity overshadows freedom and choice.

When identity dominates our lives, we live in a manner of self-deception; what Sartre has called “bad faith”. In bad faith, the story that we tell about ourselves leaves no room for our own agency. Who we are is described as merely the result of numerous, intersecting stereotypes that perhaps give the appearance of individuality, but are at bottom the combination of features inherited from common sources. We see ourselves then as representations instead of seeing our own freedom and the responsibility that comes with it.

The alternative to bad faith is to take responsibility for our identities and decide for ourselves what their meaning should be. That is the pursuit that this project is dedicated to.

Identification with Facticity

This would be those forms of identification where one identifies with the constitutive features of themselves. Those constitutive features could be genetic, sociological, historic, ancestral, familial, etc. The point being that while the defining aspect of our existence is that we are beings who transcend the past and its constitutive features, some people still come to identify with the past and its constitutive features. This form of identification wagers that one’s future self will be the same as one’s past. Furthermore, this form of identification usually looks at the past and its constitutive features in a deterministic manner. When that happens, it is a form of bad faith in that it is a way to escape from the freedom one has to choose their way of being-in-the-world.

Identification with Facticity is based on our vulnerable relationship with Being, on our feelings of emptiness and estrangement from the world.

Identification through Possession

Identification through possession is a form of identification based on a sort of extended self. The possessions that one identifies with might be one’s legal property – a car, a house, a family estate – but, it can also be less materialistic, like a people, nation, or deity. Sometimes this is expressed in spiritual language, but it can also be much more mundane. If you ask someone who clearly identifies with their motorcycle if they really think the motorcycle is a part of them, they will usually admit that the motorcycle is an object in the world that is distinct from themselves. But deep down we all know that they feel like they have some kind of spiritual connection with the machine.

Some philosophers debate whether or not identifying with one’s own body is something like identification through possession. On the other hand, some philosophers take it for granted that their body is experienced as something they posses and isn’t quite the same as the sense of existence that they actually experience as themselves. Dreams can be useful in describing how the body can be distinguished from this sense of existence, since in some dreams we possess an entirely different body than the body of our waking life …or we even dream without an experience of a body at all.

This form of identification is based on our vulnerabilities surrounding issues of lack.

Identification through Association

This is a form of identity formation that relies on association of oneself and cultural symbols. Identification through Association can be seen clearly on social media profiles, where conspicuous fandom functions to express one’s identity. The vulnerabilities that this depends on are related to affirmation in some way: the things that someone “likes” or doesn’t like. Through associating oneself with cultural symbols, identifications are formed with more culturally significant phenomena than oneself. If I like the thing that so many others also like, I can perhaps derive the others affirmation through association with that thing.

Identification with an Ideal

Almost the opposite of identification with facticity is identification with an ideal. Also unlike identification through possession, identification with an ideal is about a cause or a goal that one understands to be an expression of themselves. Many anarchists have identified with their ideals …”the beautiful idea” as some have put it. This can also take the form of identification with an ideal version of oneself, or Ideal Self. A lot of suffering can result from that version of identification, especially if the ideal self is impossible to achieve.

The types of vulnerability that lead to Identification with an Ideal are related to the human condition ..the facts of organic life in a world of scarcity: ultimately, our mortality.

Identification through Creation and Destruction

We also tend to identify with the products of our own creation and the objects that we destroy. This form of identification is all about power and control. It can be applied to oneself as much as it can be applied to other things. It is similar to identification through possession in way that it functions as a sort of extended self, but the vulnerabilities it relates to are different. Uncertainty seems like a good candidate vulnerability, since one of the surest methods of controlling an outcome is to create it or destroy it directly.

Interest > Investment > Identification

This short formula is just here to help me map how identification becomes social and institutional.

The Look of the Other

A lot has been written about the Look of the Other. The concept comes from Hegel (I think), but the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir deal with it extensively. It holds an important place in philosophy as one of the few attempts to solve the problem of other minds. Within the domain of development, the Look of the Other is the first event during which someone considers themselves as an object. For Sartre, this consideration is the beginning of being for-others. It is through the Look of the Other that we experience the limits of ourselves and our freedom. It is also how we come to experience shame and pride.

The Look of the Other inaugurates us into a form of the Master-Slave Dialectic. One of the important features of consciousness is the instrumental meanings it organizes experiences into. Since consciousness is intentional – since it is goal-oriented – all meanings become ordered in relation to such goals. In the Look of the Other, we find ourselves as objects for another consciousness. This situation binds our freedom and causes a conflict between our goals and the goals that the Look of the Other attempts to direct us towards. A contest of goals ensues and we become ensnared by interpersonal power dynamics in its wake.

This all has an impact on our development…

Ideal Types


I want to begin with ability because I think that ability is the king of prejudice. In all of the other prejudices – at least those we are concerned with here – some sort of ableism is at the foundation of it. The Woman, the Homosexual Man, and the Jewish Man are considered effeminate, lustful, perverse: their ability to live the Apollonian or Christ-like Ideal, the Warrior, or the Bread-Winner Roles are therefor stunted. Black and Brown people are considered too savage, aggressive, animalistic: their ability to live the life of Reason and Civilization is supposedly denied to them. Everyone who doesn’t or is thought unable to contribute to Western Civilization, all are reduced to so many forms of parasite, leeching the blood from what would otherwise be a paradise. In socialist thought, the Worker (both of brain and brawn) is vampirized by the (characteristically effeminate) Bourgois. Everything that doesn’t contribute is a cost. Every type is degraded in comparison with the privileged status of the Renaissance Man. Industry, production, skill, strength, integrity, conviction, just wrath, strategic business, chivalry, lawfulness, thick skin, an iron stomach, an iron jaw: ability is at the center of today’s authoritarian values.

Part of the tragedy with this is that it sacrifices the training and strengthening of most – individually and collectively- to the supremacy of some. Why spend our efforts on the slow and careful development of the majority when our problems can be solved swiftly by a great king, or a powerful dictator, or a charismatic president? What good is it to relax, take things at a steady pace, collaborate, and care for one another. Joy of life? There is immortality to achieve! The immortality of the single man or of the superior people, race, or nation. Thus, we have no time to waste on the most mortal among us. We must achieve immortality or else we will die!

Such nonsense. Ability itself is mostly meaningless. After all, we are what we do, not what we can do. Each one of us is a project in a world, one that is defined less by success than by failures, less by independence than by transcendence towards the Other. Ability is merely a beginning and it isn’t even a consistent one.

The Ability of One and the Ability of Many

One consequence of the political and economic systems that structure our lives is that we tend to think in terms of what Ludwig Binswanger called the singular mode. When it comes to ability, the abilities of a single individual aren’t the whole story. No one can do everything. This is a fact that even seems to have shaped the way our we remember things: our collective memories. What a lot of psychological research indicates is that our individual abilities make more sense when they are combined in groups, each benefiting from each others’ strengths and spreading the risks of each others’ weaknesses.

This puts into question the justification for meritocratic systems. Why should anyone be rewarded more for their ability, especially when their abilities are only useful in combination with others? Anarchists have commented on this fact in numerous ways.

Proudhon wrote about how our production together in groups results in a greater amount of product than would be possible if each person had attempted the production process independently. He called this phenomenon “collective force,” and demonstrated how wage-labor takes advantage of such benefits while paying the workers as if they were independent producers. Consequently, the surplus of such an arrangement is pocketed by the capitalist as a profit.

Peter Kropotkin wrote extensively on the topic of mutual aid and the impossibility of measuring individual contribution to collective endeavors. He questioned the maxim “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” and argued that instead, we should be working towards the well-being of all. This was not only a comment on needs, but a comment on ability. Kropotkin understood that even if abilities aren’t equal for everyone, ability itself is so contingent upon the contributions of others that it can’t be understood as a fact attributable to individual effort alone.

Many other anarchists have written on the topic of ability, some of which can be read online:

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I will be diving deeper into all of these topics later. However, should you want to familiarize yourself with some of the best material on personality development (an important component in human development overall), the late Dr. C. George Boeree has left us with some excellent introductory texts. I highly recommend visiting this website and reading something that interests you there:

For an good text on anarchism and psychology, I also recommend reading Dennis Fox’s work beginning with the following: