Speaking Volumes: The Politics of Authenticity

March 20, 1998

Ian Forbes on Marshall Berman's The Politics of Authenticity

.I read The Politics of Authenticity during an undergraduate course on politics and human nature. It performed three fundamental transformations. It showed me which of the fields I was studying - psychology, economics and politics - I really wanted to follow. It validated my identity struggle as a mature student after stints as an electrician and in television. And it led me to accept that personal puzzles could be the proper subjects of study. Of course, it is only on re-reading this book I know these things. From that pages have leapt not just the themes and insights that underpin my work, but a defence of the problematisation of the individual in radical thought. In 1973, when I read Marshall Berman, the Althusserian version of Marxism was still rampant. Any focus on human nature and individuals was taken as evidence of a risible lack of intellectual and political credibility. It was not thought possible to seek wholesale political transformation and a political role for the individual.

Subliminally reflecting 'Marxism with soul', Berman demonstrated that the individual self was a crucial issue in contemporary society. He did this with a compelling cultural history of the sources of the modern self in the writings of, principally, Montesquieu and Rousseau. But it is Rousseau's thought that dominates the book - not the cool rationality of his Social Contract, but the passionate denunciations of society, mores, and the deformations of human potentialities in his Discourses, Confessions, Emile and even Reveries.

From Berman I learnt how to read and enjoy this deliberately paradoxical thinker, and embraced the concept of authenticity as a highly nuanced and reflexive theory of self-alienation. Not only do people come to "appear 'unlike themselves', but they 'are unlike themselves'". How can humans become themselves in such an alienating and alienated world? In the dark ages of the neo-liberal 1980s, such concerns were dismissed as the bleat of a hippie culture, a manifestation of the way social and political understanding had lost its way. In Hayek's minimised state, the real individual could gain all necessary and varied expression via full access to the unfettered market. What individual entrepreneurship could not secure, shopping and lunch at a good restaurant would.

Nearly 30 years on, Berman's account of inequality, political and cultural masks and market society draws on a structural critique of modernity that needs no revising. Authenticity is an identity issue and modern society, especially through the insidious agency of the market, defines the human self out of existence. Yet there is a strong element of justified optimism in the way humans struggle to find and assert their identity, in "the dialectic of authenticity" - the struggle "always to be at one with oneself".

Part of his solution - "community through individuality" - exerts a powerful attraction, as does the belief in a vast reserve of political power within the unprogrammable and inchoate search for authentic experience by so many ordinary people. It made individuality worth studying, arguing for, and perhaps even experiencing.

Authenticity remains an issue because the modernist "awakening of human imagination" not only allows the development of self but leads directly to the pain of a knowing existence.

Berman understands the danger in the freedom that is terror, and the ways states develop an authoritarian "care" for insecure selves and learn the art of deriving maximum benefit from minimal violence. Inauthenticity has its own politics, and is "an integral and indispensable part of the politics of authenticity". I can now see many intimations of reflexive critical theory and (quality) postmodernist critique, as well as presentiments of the boom in studies of "difference" and the return to the virtues of republican discourses.

Much else resonates in this book. Berman's last words sum up why I chose it and why it chose me: "Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you."

Ian Forbes is professor of politics, University of Nottingham.

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