I read an article about a week ago that made a part of my world view, and in effect identity, come crumbling down. I have spent the past few days letting it sit in my brain and it led to a bit of an examination of where I want my life to eventually end up. The article talked about the war in our own minds, and whether our own self development is individualized neoliberal self-optimization. The alternative to this neoliberal framework is personal transformation as a revolutionary step. I struggle with this a lot because I see a lot of similarities in both of those frameworks and, secondly, resetting myself to make personal transformation a revolutionary step seems almost impossible.
I struggle with the individualized vs personal dichotomy because I guess I don’t fully understand why the distinction is 1) so popular among far leftists and 2) what value it brings to the discussion. I understand the whole issue as an acknowledgement that there is no such thing as an “individual” because we exist in a society where relentless oppressive frameworks are thrust upon us from birth. This socialization makes it impossible to truly be free in the sense that being an individual would demand. This makes claims of individuality not only wrong, but a willful ignoring of the oppression that shapes our collective movements and actions. I do struggle to take the leap from individuality to individualization though. While I believe my experience as white is far from unique, I do believe the random and niche experiences I have gone through must lead to an individualized means of my own liberation. In short, everyone has their own random shit to work through. I believe generalization is useful for describing experiences and identities but I think it falls short of the time, steps, and means each of us uses to decolonize ourselves. And perhaps this is why the use of personal is essential, because it acknowledges the collective nature of the human condition while also pointing to the necessity we each have to singularly examine our own lives in relation to those around us and learn.
But, this is kind of all unnecessarily pedantic and ignores the real problem I see in this new framework. I do not know how to reconcile living the world we want to be, becoming the world we want to be, and changing the world to what we want it to be. This problem is exacerbated at the individual level in the article I read, but a group I am a part of is actively exploring these issues through discussion as we try to accomplish our goal of direct action. It has helped me realize what I believe is possible and necessary, but I still kinda have no idea. But since I believe the revolution must indeed start in our minds (!), I’ll bring it back to the personal level, although that, as previously mentioned, must also include an understanding of the group.
The three issues I laid out above (living the world we want to be, becoming the world we want to be, and changing the world to what we want it to be) I cannot seem to connect and also separate from a “self-optimization”. To start, I understand living the world we want to be as a personal embodiment of the values I wish to see reflected in the world around me. These values manifest for me in not investing in the stock market because it embodies and enables capitalism and also actively calling out and examining my own racism. But, then, we already run into a problem. I have invested in the stock market because I view it as an element of survival. After all, we have to survive to change the world. Yet I do not know where, for example, investing in the stock market crosses the line between necessary to survival and unnecessary, and therefore making me an active enabler of oppression. Those problems because larger because those lines exist almost everywhere.
Additionally, living the world we want to be is sometimes not compatible with changing the world to what we want it to be. This is the struggle I see evident in my group over and over again. We try our best to reflect what we see as the most equitable way forward: we spend a lot of time discussing our own colonized feelings, group norms, and how our potential actions may be problematic; we make sure every decision is completely democratic; and our group structure is entirely horizontal. It is truly amazing to be a part of a group that fully commits to these ideals without hesitation or irony, but it also means that stuff does not actually get done very efficiently or get done at all. I absolutely do not believe that embodying ideals and also effectively fighting for them are mutually exclusive, but acknowledging that it can be really hard to put the two together in the most effective way is important.
Becoming the world we want to be is what leads to living the world we want to be, and I never saw a conflict between the two of these until I read the article. While during the school year I am too busy to hyper actively seek out making myself better, breaks when I have more free time I always fall into what I would describe as a plan for self-optimization. Some examples over the course of this break have been practicing Arabic every day, reading (just finished Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?!) and working on some artistic type projects. I think self-optimization encompasses anything anyone wants it to be, it is simply a shell for personal progression. I think the reason self-optimization has a more negative connotation is because it seems to imply that perfection and de-humanization is possible. It also has more of “get better to get ahead” mentality that personal transformation rejects, although personal transformation could certainly include “bad” things.
Additionally, perhaps self-optimization is rejected because it seems to be unnaturally goal-oriented and inauthentic. I reject these ideas because I do not think personal transformation is inherently authentic. The world we live in means following along with the beliefs and biases we have internalized through socialization is, in effect, natural. Seeking to decolonize ourselves and beliefs is so hard, and mean actively going against the overwhelming tide of mainstream thoughts. Especially for me, a privileged human, learning, changing, and holding myself accountable requires diligence and work. Holding myself to a self-optimization “plan” gives me motivation and achievable goals as I work on my never-ending personal transformation.
Even if my actions and mindset over break has been self-optimization and not “authentic”, maybe it is necessary to get to a place where we can deconstruct the whole system. This leads me to some broader questions of life: to make a difference, do the means justify the ends? This question in turn forces me to ask if it is better to work within the establishment or outside it. Right now, I am leaning towards working within the system because I believe one of biggest things that needs to be changed is whiteness, and I have access to that world and credibility within it. I do think that this is a question and a line I will be toeing my entire life.
Despite the answer, we all have to engage with the system* to some degree. Yet again, my question shifts and grows to be how do I maintain a sense of revolution as I stay a part of society and perhaps move up in it? What can do when we find ourselves confined either by choice or not? This is a question I think I need to answer quickly, because the pressures to conform and jump into the rat race are so strong and so compelling. Because ideas truth and self are always oscillating and broadening, there is nothing to maintain other than a militant commitment to destroying the system, but knowing how I can manifest that in everyday life and actually commit to it is difficult. During a long discussion with the group I previously mentioned, we talked a lot about losing sight of our roots and growing less and less radical as we moved throughout life, hypothetically up in the social system due to money and opportunities afforded to us by Stanford. Once one accumulates degrees of more power, giving any of it up feels like a loss because power does not feel like power. Power feels like security. Going down or not going up when you can see the opportunity in front of you is incredibility difficult. I am already facing some of these dilemmas when I think about the groups I join, and the things I do because they will look good on a resume but not actually better the world. I think the first real test will come for me junior year when the allure of a consulting internship will be strong**. Hopefully I begin to answer some of these questions before then. Hopefully I figure out my ideas without rambling for almost 2,000 words lmao.
*I mean a lot of things when I say this but I generally mean channels of change that are mainstream and accepted by the white homophobic xenophobic classist patriarchy.
**However, I had a conversation with a friend yesterday and we talked about the many people who have advised us starting in the private sector makes it much easier to go up in the public sector. Perhaps then, taking a consulting internship would in the end allow me to do more good and effect more change in the world. Who knows??