Imagine, for a moment, you are on a first date. You are at a café with another student from your university, the one who has been sitting next to you quite frequently in classes. After you wait in line to buy both of your coffees, all while making awkward idle chatter, you are finally able to sit down and engage in insightful, yet flirtatious, conversation. Now your date asks you, in order to break the ice, to introduce yourself as a person. How do you proceed?
I can deduce of three of the categories of answers you may have selected to describe yourself.
The (1) first could be your occupation, your capacity in producing wealth. In relation to Marx’s dialectical materialism, this would mean that your concept of self-identity is primarily based on your position within the means of production – where you fit within the economic hierarchy.
The (2) second option of answers could have been related to what you own, therefore simultaneously communicated physically as well as verbally. This would include attributes such as what kind of clothes you wear, your choice in toothpaste, what type of vehicle(s) you drive, where you have travelled. These concepts would represent your self-identity’s strong reliance on material private property.
The (3) final category would have involved the opposite: immaterial private property, which would include such attributes as your taste in art, cooking, friends, politics. This option tends to be the most common.
“That which I am unable to do as a man, and of which therefore all my individual essential powers are incapable, I am able to do by means of money.” From Marx & Engels, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
Within a society that encourages individualism, people tend to express their identity through their consumption patterns. Little do they know that their choices have been fashioned in order to ensure profitability and predictability: the illusion of customization. Consumers may select the colour of the car they drive, which bands they support, or which brands of clothing they purchase in order to express their unique human tastes. I believe these choices have been predetermined by dominant market forces.
Through exposure to commercial and social media, we often develop romantic, fantastical notions of life that we then attempt to replicate in our own realities. In this sense, we may yearn to escape personal struggles through living the vicarious experiences of fictional characters and lifestyles. The result is the fabrication of unrealistic expectations of material life; pseudo-bourgeois consumption patterns which we adopt in order to develop our social identity. We don’t like the product itself, we like the idea it represents.
Instead of determining our own choices, we buy into a widely-shared behaviour of consumption. The socially constructed concept of self-identity becomes an intended result of the capitalist system in order to feed on the prescribed tastes of the proletariat.
So, how does one construct their identity, free from capitalist forces? Who really knows? Commercial influence is omnipresent; to be unaffected by it is an impossible task. That being said, start asking yourself this question before any purchases: “Do I need this, or do I want this?” To strive for true individuality means to strive for innovation, not uniformity.