The mark of industrial society is the mass produced commodity. The abiding motif of the factory is the assembly line, the heartless whirring machine that works relentlessly to produce thousands, if not hundreds of thousands or even millions of the same product with dependable regularity. Regularity both in manufacturing a certain quantity in a given time as well as in the quality of the product – its attributes.
One pair of shoes will be identical to the thousand others of the same model, one piece of paper will be of the exact same texture, size and colour as the million others, one spoon will be the exact replica of all others from the same factory. One bar of chocolate will be identical to the million others in colour and taste, a McDonald’s burger claims uniformity of taste in all its global outlets, while the authentic Coke (Coca Cola) aspires to the same tang anywhere in the world.
The mass factory-produced commodity aspires to authenticity precisely because it is identified by its uniformity. In fact, such an authentic commodity is one which is absolutely the same as the other commodities. A product is not considered authentic if it loses out this uniformity even by the slightest bit. The authentic commodity promises not to surprise its consumer with a new, untested, unknown quality, but merely guarantees an exact replica, a true copy. Used in this sense, the authentic is merely a synonym for something known and reliable, if monotonous. This sense of authentic is not merely confined to inanimate objects, but has spread to cultural products of our society. In as much as culture has been commodified, it has also been regularised, made uniform and pliable to mass production and consumption, like any inanimate object.
As an aside it is interesting to note that cultural forms which are easily liable to replication and repetitive performance – films, songs, novels – have become hugely popular and globally pervasive. Other forms – paintings, theatre, poetry – remain poor cousins, both literally and metaphorically. Our contemporary global culture, predicated and produced as it is by the material base of mass commodity driven capitalism, cannot seem to escape this relentless drive of replicability and uniformity.
If the claim of authenticity was merely that it is a guarantor of quality and dependability of our commodities, we could dismiss it as merely an unhappy use of the term. But the authentic also makes a higher, moral, claim on us. It claims to be a moral virtue that everyone should aspire for, human or commodity. The dictionary defines authentic as: “Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief.” It is defined as the opposite of counterfeit or fake. An authentic, genuine commodity is one that is not a counterfeit product and an authentic human being is one who is not fake, not a hypocrite.
This column argued last week in defence of hypocrisy. In a world driven by capitalism, self-centredness has to be the basis of human life as each person is driven to maximise his or her gains and profit. In such a context, hypocrisy is not an evil as it acknowledges the fact that there are other virtues – justice, liberty, equality, fraternity – which provide a better foundation for humanity than self-centredness. This column further argued that hypocrisy is the inescapable fate of the petit-bourgeois, the middle class, who are wracked by the contradiction of being within touching distance of capital while bound to labour for their survival. More importantly, the petit-bourgeois is aware of this predicament, he is acutely conscious of the pervasive hypocrisy of his existence.
This pervasive hypocrisy can be ended by eliminating self-centredness and by extending political rights based on the ideals of justice, equality and freedom. This means attacking the deepest ideological foundation of capitalism and destroying the material basis on which this ideology of self-centredness sustains. In short, it implies the destruction of capitalism. This is an impossible task for the petit-bourgeoisie, the middle class, as it would destroy private property.
Therefore, invariably, the ideological twin of hypocrisy in our societies has been authenticity. To be authentic is to be true, to be the opposite of the hypocrite, the fake who pretends what he is not. If hypocrisy is the vice the middle class loves to hate, authenticity is the virtue they love to have, whether in a human being or a commodity. Authenticity does not make political demands that undermine the rule of capital nor does it weaken private property.
But how does that make authenticity a vice? By denying the material, class basis of hypocrisy in our society and positing an other-worldly ideal of truth and genuineness, it provides the ideological space for all mass-based right wing politics. The symptom of hypocrisy, which is caused by material conditions of class exploitation and oppression, is seen as the cause of poverty and discrimination and the answer to this is a return to the authentic state from which humans supposedly have fallen. This can take the form of religious fundamentalism (politicised religion), which promotes a return to what it calls the authentic, original, unblemished religion and its moral code as an answer to the current problems. It can take the form of national chauvinism that exhorts the actualisation of the authentic “nation” in each citizen. The ultimate political expression of this search for authenticity is fascism. It can take seemingly less violent and threatening forms in the aspiration to return to what is considered the original state of affairs, whether environmental or moral, and it is not surprising that often these “less threatening” forms of the search for authenticity provide the starting point for later violent movements.
Not only does this aspiration for authenticity undermine the struggle for equality, justice and freedom that lead to real transformations in material living conditions, it reinforces the hold of capital and private property by switching the cause (the self-centredness of capital and private property) with the symptom (hypocrisy, contradiction in life). It sets up the symptom as the cause and thus confuses the human agent into unfruitful action. This pre-eminence given to authenticity also helps to cement the dominance of commodities as was discussed earlier.
Before I end, it may be necessary to clarify the use of the words ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘authenticity’. As a personal vice, hypocrisy cannot be defended. It refers to a deliberate attempt to play a confidence trick on another person acting contrary to stated principles and thus gain some form of unfair advantage. My use of hypocrisy in this and the previous column has been to identify that trait among most of us where we champion the virtues of liberty, justice, equality and fraternity but cannot live up to these when they come into conflict with our self-interest. Similarly, the positing of authenticity as a counter to this hypocrisy transforms it from a personal virtue to a political ideal, which is what I am attacking.
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This article was published in The Post on 1 August, 2007.