Mountains, Molehills & Marxism

What the narcissism of small differences means for the left

T. Johnston

ACP Member

Humans are social creatures - we learn, grow, work and live in complex communities made up of individual people, each with their own views and experiences that make them who they are. Community, and the sense of belonging to a community, are crucial to human development - and yet, some of our most bitter feuds occur between groups that share the most similarities.

We can all think of examples - two rival sports teams, from the same country, playing the same game with the same goals, can have fans that will attack one another on sight. Our two largest political parties, the Liberal and Labor parties, agree on far more than they disagree, yet supporters of either party would rush to deny this. Closer to home, even minor misbehaviours of beloved family members - unwashed dishes in the sink, chewing with their mouths open - seem unbearable.

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This phenomenon is called the narcissism of small differences - the observation that communities with the most in common are more likely to engage in conflict because of hypersensitivity over small details of differentiation. This can be seen in behaviours ranging from good-natured mutual ridicule, such as between New Zealanders and Australians, to the brutal ethno-national conflict of the Yugoslav wars.

The narcissism of small differences comes from the desire to be seen as a unique individual, something common to all people. This desire can be expressed in many ways - defining oneself through hobbies, interests, or our personal aesthetics. Socially, we tend to mingle with others of our own social class - and we can see this tendency weaponised in intra-class hatred, where working class people are turned on each other by mainstream media and our political class. Politically, this narcissism can be seen in the major parties consensus on real issues - neoliberalism, environmental degradation, privatisation, bribery and corruption - and their focus on minor political point scoring and schoolyard taunting.

Outside of major politics, small groups that have identical goals can become paralysed by conflicts with their peers over points of differentiation.

What this means for the working class

It should be obvious to everybody that the political class in Australia is firmly on the side of capital. Banks are allowed to flout laws with impunity, business owners steal from their employees and face no serious punishment from the judicial system, our increasingly monopolised and toothless media fails to hold big business or our politicians to account for their failures. What our politicians and media excel at, however, is finding scapegoats for their failures, and leveraging our own worst instincts against us.

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The desperate situation created for the working class often results in intra-class resentments and conflicts. When you struggle working long hours at a low-paying job, the extravagant and luxurious lifestyle of a billionaire is so foreign to your daily situation that you often cannot conceive of it. Instead, it is far easier to feel aggrieved by someone who is much more like you except in some small way. Take the myth of the “dole bludger” as an example, think of how upset many working people get at “dole bludgers”..

If you are a working class person in the current economy, your prospects are not so great. Work hard to “get ahead”, either slowly destroying your body at blue collar work or sacrificing long hours in a white collar position. When the corporate media or the government, eager to stoke intra-class hatred, tells you about “dole bludgers” supposedly living the high life on a few hundred dollars a week, you may be upset - if you work hard, with so little to show, why should somebody else take “your” tax dollars? After all, haven’t you sacrificed a great deal for the small amount you receive?

It is of course, true that working people do work hard for their increasingly stagnant wages. Real wages have not grown, while productivity and corporate profits are higher than ever. Yet it does not follow that the jobseeker, forced to jump through hoops for a paltry sum, is the one who is advantaged by the worker’s poor lot. In fact, it is the wealthiest people in the country who reap the benefits of a demoralised working class, turning the worker against their compatriots while they pay a pittance to employees and reap the profits of other people’s labour. This tactic of pitting the working class against the unemployed is an old trick of the elites, made effective by the narcissism of small differences.

What this means for the Left

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If you have more than a passing interest in left wing politics, you will have observed that there is a huge diversity of political tendencies, organisations and ideologies within even Marxist thought, let alone anarchism, syndicalism, and so on. Groups conflict and split over different interpretations of historical events, readings of texts and opinions over controversial figures.

Consider the endless ink spilled over historical events such as the Spanish Civil War. With the economic struggle of the Australian working class, the stranglehold of capital over labour and the crushing of unions and other left wing organisations by state power, why is the first concern of some leftists to have arguments over events that occurred many years ago, in a country on the other side of the world, with completely alien material conditions to our current situation? Why are these historical events such flashpoints of passionate conflict?

The answer is the narcissism of small differences.

This is not to say that the study of history is unimportant and it is not a call for unprincipled left unity. It is a reminder to be mindful of this psychological phenomenon, and for all leftists to investigate and reflect on their behaviours. Is time spent arguing with other leftists over historical figures truly serving the interests of the working class? Are your arguments principled and done in the spirit of mutual education, or are they petty and denigrating to others? Could your time, knowledge and passion be better served by trying to bring material benefit to your community and taking the message of Marxism-Leninism to the people in a positive way?

Remember Lenin’s quote,

" … Every little difference may become a big one if it is insisted on, if it is put into the foreground, if people set about searching for all the roots and branches of the difference.”

and remember to keep perspective - in the battle of little differences, sometimes we let major differences pass by unchallenged. Search out real questions, identify contradictions, challenge serious issues that matter in the present day. Use your intellect, your principles, and your better judgement and we will all enjoy a better socialist movement for it.

Ray O'ShannassyComment