The Subversiveness of Instrumentality
Becoming aware of how invisible ideology operates around and within us
Recently my therapist and I discussed a book I have been reading (Charles Taylor's "The Ethics of Authenticity") and some emergent themes on how we as humans relate to human/non-human animals and the biosphere at large.
Taylor’s basic argument is that the postmodern ideal of individual authenticity and self-expression is unworkable insofar as it atomizes us from the fundamentally dialogical, socially-formed nature of humanity while also paradoxically requiring recognition from other humans in order to justify and validate one’s own authentic self-expression.
At the root of Taylor’s excellent critique is the idea that our identity, our sense of self, and our frame of reference for what we even think of as self are fundamentally shaped by and indivisible from the social inputs and dialogues with which we are always inescapably engaged with everything around us - humans, non-human animals, the land, all human-produced goods, the entire biosphere. The problem with the modern ideal of authentic self-expression is that the individual views the self as a monological, sui generis creation - formed by the self and for the self, apart from all else. When one believes this, there are serious implications for how one relates to others and how one organizes society at-large.
The most serious implication is that all relationships (humans, non-human animals, air, land, sea, biosphere, etc.) become purely instrumental in service to (1) one’s own pursuit of authentic self-expression and (2) validation of that authentic self-expression. There is no “we” struggling together for a common good - there is only “I” plowing a lone furrow and utilizing all else as instrumental means to self-defined ends. This creates not only a narcissistic breakdown of mutual solidarity with everything around us but also contributes to a breakdown of basic societal norms, structures, and institutions.
Taylor kind of stops here, unfortunately. He looks at the ethic of authenticity and says “this is a bad idea and we should stop having this idea!” As a leftist/materialist my critique of Taylor’s critique is that he lacks a robust materialist understanding of where authenticity originates, why it is effective, and how it is causally related to the current organization of society (i.e. the capitalist mode of production). From my materialist perspective, authenticity does not create bad societal outcomes, rather, material changes to the structure of society and the mode of production have created the conditions for the paradoxical ideal of authenticity to thrive.
Here’s my quick materialist addendum to Taylor’s critique:
The capitalist mode of production creates atomized, isolated people who have been denuded of meaning-making relational structures, which have been deemed inefficient by capital. All relationships (humans, non-human animals, land, air, sea, biosphere, etc.) come to be defined by market efficiency. Thus, people become increasingly dependent on only themselves for survival and see everything around them as instruments for their own survival.
The capitalist mode of production does not allow for structures of communal/ecological solidarity or mutual aid to thrive - instead, it imposes an ideology of market-based self-interest that it claims will result in functional utility for all of society at scale. (i.e. Individuals acting in a greedy, selfish way benefit society when everyone is acting this way)
Thus, we are socialized into acting in greedy, self-interested ways to ensure our own survival in the market. Over time, this greedy, self-interested manner of behavior becomes deeply normative beyond our economic life and seeps into our conception of what it means to be human and to be in relationships with other humans, non-human animals, land, air, sea, and the entire biosphere.
We begin to understand our creation of self and our conception of what it means to be a moral being pursuing a good life through a lens of greedy self-interest - This logic says “I am me because of what I consume in the market, because of the thoughts I think that are unique to me, because of how I position myself aesthetically, and because of the validation I receive from others for this authentic self-expression, and I must instrumentally utilize everything around me toward the end of this authentic self-expression.”
We could call this a “performance of self” for others and it leads us to see others (humans, non-human animals, land, air, sea, biosphere, etc.) as instruments that exist for the purpose of fully realizing and validating our own authentic self-expression. In the words of one of my dear friends, we see all our actions and all our relationships through the central question “What am I getting out of this?” - this is a question of cold, brutal market efficiency. Everything outside of me is either a useful instrument in my own story of authentic self-expression or it is functionally useless or even a barrier that does not need to be considered on its own terms.
Thus, the capitalist mode of production is reframed as a hegemonic project of instrumentality. Everything is transformed into instruments for the purposes of capital, nothing is spared. Ends become means and are exhausted for the new, dramatically narrowed ends of capital. This thresher consumes humans and non-human animals and land and sea and air and biosphere and anything else that can be consumed. There is no limit except the technology and the very finiteness of the planet. And we are socialized to understand this as normal and natural and inevitable. And we are taught to do this ourselves, on the smallest of scales, to everything and everyone around us.
For many of us, including me, this transformation is reflected in how we engage with the world around us every day - everything is an instrument, a means to pursue and validate our own self-interested ends. I assess my relationships based on what they are doing for me. I assess my extracurricular activities based on how they fulfill me (authentic self-expression) and how they make me look to others (validation). I buy things not simply for utility or as an act of solidarity but rather as a performance of self - how will this make me look?, what will this say about me?, is this purchase a true expression of me? Nowhere to be found (or suppressed quickly, or far down the list of priorities) are questions such as: what is the broader impact of this purchase on other humans, animals, land, air, sea, the biosphere itself?, what am I complicit in by purchasing this?, does this action/choice increase mutual aid and solidarity between myself and those who are impacted by it?
My conversation with my therapist focused on how this subversive instrumentality has seeped into my closest relationships. Throughout my life, particularly in seasons of emotional un-health, I have engaged with my closest family members and friends in an instrumental way - not as fully formed ends unto themselves but rather as means for the realization of my own authentic self-expression. And when/if they proved unfit for this purpose I have been quick to discard or disregard them.
It occurred to me while talking to my therapist that self-awareness of this instrumentality can serve (instrumentally, ha) as a rough heuristic for how I’m doing at any given time. The question for myself becomes: To what extent am I engaging with my intimate friends, those I work with, strangers, animals, land, air, sea, the biosphere in instrumental ways wherein I need them to be/do 'X' for me so that I can achieve some end of authentic self-expression for myself? Growing in awareness of my own utilization of instrumentality can create opportunities to instead move in a different direction.
My dear friend suggested that this different direction is a shift from “What am I getting out of this?” instrumentality toward “What are we becoming together in this moment?” And that “we” is as expansive as possible - humans, non-human animals, land, sea, air, biosphere, etc. We are always always always dialogically becoming community with everything around us, which means that we must tread carefully, respect what they (and, by extension, we) need to live/thrive together, honor the presence of the other and recognize that me/them is a false divide, and internalize that there is no “I” independent of the “we”.
The materialist antidote to instrumentality is true, material solidarity rooted in shared meaning-making and mutual aid between ends that do not understand or relate to one another as means. Our destiny is always indivisibly shared and interdependent with everything around us - to be complicit in the destruction, disregard, or othering of humans, non-human animals, land, air, sea, or biosphere is to destroy, disregard, and “other” our very self and the conditions that allow our self to exist. While we pursue these alternative relational structures we must also recognize that the capitalist mode of production does not allow relationships of non-instrumentality to thrive - but we begin to build the world we want with each small, rebellious act of non-instrumental solidarity.
“Can (we) afford this exclusive rule of competition, this purely economic economy? The great fault of this approach to things is that it is so dramatically reductive; it does not permit us to live and work as human beings, as the best of our inheritance defines us. Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” (Wendell Berry, “Economy and Pleasure”)