The ‘art of living’ in days of digital technologies and late capitalism: issues in identity politics in fragmented times

(I write this piece as form of self appraisal and understanding my state of emotional stasis. While at some levels it may sound self righteous, it actually is an exegesis of self and the times I live in. I'm fully implicated here and guilty of all attitudes and practices which have been spoken in tones of reprobation. Hopefully this and more such reflexive writing will form a part of a therapy for the pathology that has gripped me in these deeply disenchanting times. I have added my own images which compliments the narration) 
Blurring life and visions
Recall and consider these moments, seemingly trivial but having far reaching import - you were out holidaying and you wanted a picture of self or with friends, family, in the company you were with. You sought someone around at a Taj Mahal, Ellora or Meenakshi temple to help you take a snap. Then think of days, not too deep into your past, when the cable connection went on the blink and you along with your neighbours fired the local cable operators for poor service. Also remember the feuds you got in with the autowallah over fares…? Further the bargaining with the vegetable vendor over tomatoes, onions and carrots?

Most such tasks, encounters, issues are now very infrequent if not rare. Indeed they were seen as irritants and extremely annoying which have all been overcome by the might of technology particularly the internet and more specifically net enabled ‘smart’ phones. Thus today requirements as varied as getting cooked food or house painted, tutoring your kids for their homework and exams or even organising functions and events can all be managed by for-profit service startups and their user-friendly mobile apps. Several routine chores and its supposed accompanying stress, discomfort and nuisance are thus cleverly outsourced.

The rise and rise of the narcissistic self 
The emergence of gated communities, private transport, privatized medical care, private security, private schooling, private water supply, private housing etc in greater intensity and scale (private players were never absent in most of these domains) are basically undergirded by similar logic and extend matters further. They supposedly have taken much of the unpleasantness, hassles, annoyance of what I call more state backed communitarian living of the past out of our daily experience to bring to us the next level of comfort and efficiency. To be sure, we still have issues with our dish, with our fancy schools and fleecing private hospitals. However since comfort has been individualized or rendered more class specific (it is more former than latter as I contend) largely by private capital in realms like real estate, transport, health, education, communication and even entertainment our responses to its inefficiencies are also individualized. Legally when and how often do we hear of ‘class action’? The collective, the community often cutting beyond class and identities prior to 1991 no longer exists. The community is not just class specific anymore; it doesn't seem to exist beyond a more politically charged cultural makeup of arguably dubious construct and merit that nevertheless often manages to override class and community divides. Shorn off such communal accretions what mostly remains, rather who remains, is a more atomistic, discrete and fragmented individual. To put it in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, Eros - the pleasure principle - is more determinative of our socializing where desire is unlimited, celebrated and unrestricted. Id which as such includes both expression of delight and anger is now meant to seek and express solely pleasure which has to be overt and very demonstrative. The ego and the superego, thanks to the oversaturated context of consumerism that prevails, is further geared and manipulated for particularistic gratification.
Reflecting alone...

Narcissism is our zeitgeist. But then we all realise the cost of such living. There still are so many irritants and extreme discomfort, dissatisfaction, anxiety, loss, angst, unhappiness. They just don't go away. Nevertheless these can be dealt with by reaffirming your faith in the divine, seeking grace of the almighty and a more agnostic practice of ‘mindfulness’ So prostrate in a temple, mosque or church. Or frequent ‘ashrams’ or congregations where the discourses of a swamiji or an evangelist extolling qualities of inner engineering and ways for redemption will assuage matters. These helps in dealing not just with guilt, but alienation and solitariness that comes with such acute particularism. The growth of consumerism and increasing display of wealth and status in all its vulgarity is equally matched by increasing display of religiosity and spiritualism. This is not just a feature of contemporary Hinduism and India alone as the left-secular worthies of JNU variety, whose constant whipping of Hindutva would have us believe but across religious denominations within and outside India and I wager more so.Sure, less sacred, secular and collectives of professionals do exist. But again in these supposedly sacred and profane, the material and spiritual, the temporal and transcendent realms, the toss up throws only two possibilities. Either and mostly only the individual remains, in more disembodied sense and of late this individual has been transposed to a life of virtuality. Or the individual is networked both in virtual and physical space to ideas and practices of strong religio-cultural character that assuage identity anxieties in days of insatiable consumerism. Both I contend are deeply flawed even as they are emblematic of the times we live in.

Neo-Freudian psychoanalysis and sociology of Frankfurt school among others have dealt with such issues in good measure. Taking such arguments further three related observations can be made that seamlessly dovetail into each.

Weakening social ties and psychology of technology
Firstly, technology bankrolled by global capital is weakening and fragmenting both middle class and working class consciousness. Such high individualization permeates both the proletariat and the middle classes which diffuses and reduces possibilities of not just class thinking but prospects of any form of collective and community from emerging. The working classes too interface through almost faceless agencies and contractors. Algorithms, AI and machine learning based applications found on everybody's phone become their masters. With AI's seeming objectivity and honesty, worker wages and returns are therefore regarded as optimum and best. Thus it's not as much the rates arrived at by negotiations between the buyer and seller directly but a third party interface using investments of corporate capital and use of latest technology that determines value for both buyer and seller. It is therefore ‘convenient’, ‘honest’ and saves both from ‘irritants’.
The glam-sham of modern techno-rationality...or a distorton?
This directly has a bearing on civil society and democracy. Life is seen as worthwhile and meaningful only when existing in a constant state of bliss, where friction is not just minimal but non existent and needs elimination. Such feel-good experience require maximizing and those conditions which engender such positive and joyful experience also needs maximization. Such joy of living, happiness defines the telos of the society we live in today. But let us remember that it's not just cooperation but even conflict that constitute and defines a community as anthropologists like Max Gluckman noted. Therefore not just joy and happiness but pathos, grief too are equally constitutive of our existence and the community we socialize in. To ensure that conflict, attrition and feuds which protrude in our quest for joy and happiness does not become sanguinary, democracy based on dialogue, communication and reflective action becomes useful.
Trudging alone in times of bountiful...
However today, influenced by anxieties of comfort, joy and happiness at all cost, every cost and all instances, we seem to be black-boxing democracy, along with civil society and science too, as if they were some magic wand, a magic pill that will ameliorate issues and problems we have in seamless and easy linearity. Hardly. It is slow, attritious, fractious and acrimonious. There are no shortcuts. Further a zero sum game framework informs our democratic practice, egged on by our ego. While such a ‘winner takes it all’ mindset cannot be entirely jettisoned in a democracy where different interests seek best, but we are unable to even begin imagining a more holistic approach and indeed its historical importance. On the other hand discourses of joy, happiness, comfort through mere practices of pranic breathing, meditation and mindful living, skirting questions of equality, opportunity, access and liberty, becomes one of power. That the social and economic divides exist and are temporal and material in nature which cannot be wished away either by some kind of transcendentalism or technological solutions, escapes the attention and understanding of most.
Inviting space but not necessarily congenial for dialogue...
Dialogue, deliberation and confabulation less prevalent in pre-modern era, defines democracy. Democracy which gives the impoverished and oppressed majority the much needed voice and space, is a step up where power, authority and domination embedded in structures of hierarchy and segregation like caste, class, race and gender are questioned and policies enacted to correct historical wrongs.

Domination and authoritarianism characterized by prejudice, contempt and hubris plays itself out in routines and everyday practices. But what happens when most interfaces are virtualized and action/response individualized? In our anxiety to maximize pleasure and comfort, technology has so stepped in, which is deeply weakening the notion of public sphere, community and democracy as we know it. We are avoiding people fearing conflict. Related here is the kind of perverse stoicness that prevails where one does not either exult in joy or fume in anger, ask questions or raise doubts in everyday situations where otherwise it may be considered only ‘natural’ to do so. This kind of zombiness is increasingly seen as a marker of ‘coolness’, ‘maturity’ and ‘professionalism’. Any doubt or response, positive or negative is to risk further interaction, opening matters to disagreeable possibilities. Risk, to borrow and expand the understanding of sociologist like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, is to be factored by planning and thus deferred or hedged. That's modernity and exactly what is unfolding today.
The emaciated self...
Companies thanks to AI are removing people as products become service proof. And while this is certainly a class issue such stasis goes deeper. We are avoiding our peers, colleagues, neighbours... family even. And indeed even if we do, the socialization with family and peers is firstly, mediated so much by technology and social media. And secondly it is so formal and demonstrative where such encounters either become one of power to brag, posture and assert at worse or of polite vacuous prattle and laboured humour at best. Incapacity to dialogue, listen and empathize probably leads to such farce even as it maintains a veneer of sociability. The 'social skills' discourse and those who often moans its loss are surely looking at it more as a shoehorning etiquette to slip comfortably into such farcical social practices and interfaces to ensure one's 'success' I bet!

Indeed the millennial generation is so seduced by the rhetoric of information technology and ‘gadgetization’ of work and interaction. AI has taken over not just work but socialization itself. Even in matters like learning and pedagogy, any talk not referenced by technology appears to be ‘anti-common sense’. Only instrumentalist, functionalist and operational knowledge is found ‘relevant’ which is standardized, modularised and parcelized (MCQs, objective questions) lending itself for a kind of technology mediated learning and education where the knowledge is posited in binaries, specificities and precision. Here a YouTube video and some learning - coaching app rather - can therefore ‘effectively’ substitute face-to-face learning and interactions which is more likely to be seamier, messy and subject to variations by teachers of dubious and inconsistent ‘quality’. Under conditions of technological dominance and paradigm of efficiency and productivity, contemporary modernity has fragmented knowledge too.

John Dewey in his work on education and pedagogy underscored the point that functioning and meaningful democracy is congruent on an education that prepares its students for one. Dialogue, subjective experience and individual socialization has to be factored in pedagogies where knowledge is relational and historical. Schools embracing such constructivist pedagogies can build resilient democratic societies and equips us to be participative. But when knowledge is objectified the way it is done today and as a consequence it forecloses dialogue, personal interfaces, experiment and subjective experience, what hopes for democracy then? The current political, social and economic crisis that we are saddled with is a logical comeuppance.
...and the cadaverous society
Technology and the rise of conservative politics
The second observation one would make here is in the context of the political climate obtained not just in India but much across countries developed and developing. The arguments above and some alluded to earlier themselves explain it. The religious right is on the ascendant everywhere. While on the one hand class and community consciousness - based on habitation, interaction, use of public space - are desiccating, a more supra-meta identity based on institutionalised religion and religiously defined nationhood comes in to fill the void. Technology based modernity obtained in India today is grafted on to this milieu. Thus in such a context, a more embracing and seemingly inclusivist and fraternizing ideology that fills in is one based on cultural identities which is also imbued with possibilities of political action. This new collective based on dominant faith and beliefs is also countered by socio-cultural doctrine coming from the marginalized. It pivots on select reading of history as contestation of power in the discourse of cultural nationalism i.e Dalit assertions against Hindutva. History is invoked by both groups differently and their ends again are centrifugal in a larger sense notwithstanding their contrary claims. However both help in dealing with the insecurities that consumerist economy, current knowledge systems and its resultant (and warped) notions of professionalism, competition and self worth wreaks. To many, their oppression and emasculation is better explained when referred to in terms of identities of caste, religion and gender than class or non-denominational notion of society and communities that embed it. And it is in this arena of identity assertions that all the anger, frustrations, rancour and more such, never given full expressions in any other public or professional sphere gets sedimented to be vociferously championed and proclaimed. And then social media to vent, pose and posture ( almost literally), which further dilutes more collective possibilities that is also democratic and secular. The ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ of Facebook and Twitter does not build social capital of any inclusive worth but keeps us in an echo chamber, aggrandizing the self. Importantly the right to faith and cultural practices in the Indian constitution which otherwise embeds theoretical possibilities of such democratic, secular communitarian collectives has undermined this very prospect from unraveling. The current political debates too focus on the former than latter.
Seeking God and looking for the divine...(even if none exists) possibly the most meaningful response in times of loss...
A pathological society is then created where not just uncertainty and anxiety of survival, employment and performance consumes us but anxieties precipitated by tenuous social relationship and lack of emotional support. For the language of cultural politics also encloses echoes of redemption, salvation, atonement, intrinsic to faiths. However we should remember that most of these faiths and beliefs have ancient and mediaeval origins. Notwithstanding broad humanitarian and universal values defining them they also have exclusionary properties and are supercilious about the worthiness, correctness and righteousness of their doctrines and practices. Therefore vis a vis members of different faith, confrontation becomes inevitable. This quality is possibly more pronounced in Abrahamic faiths. That's what the crusades and jihads were about. Paradoxically in an supposed era of more information, knowledge, technology, industry and democracy, today the Hindu right has successfully created a similar Abrahamic and institutionalised Hinduism which no longer brooks doubts and questions regarding its exclusive doctrinal and redemptive supremacy and therefore a corollary desire to dominate. More complications are brought forth when a perceived sense and indeed instances of persecution from history at the hands of rulers from Islam in particular are brought forward to bear today in people's socialization and interface. Such indeed is the case of castes too, particularly the Dalits.
...and certainly more meaningful than this more modern, 'secular' response...
Therefore what is now appearing from such identity politics with its varying refrains of victimhood are weakening of public reason and emergence of a discrete culture or an identity based collective in context of a hyper-consumeristic, performative and professional political economy. Cultural identities and causes mostly inherited from Eurocentric and colonial readings of the past, thus become worth fighting and often dying for. Information technology and the social media paradoxically enough is barely broadening our horizons or expanding public sphere. Instead it is renders us more chauvinistic, insecure, anxious and ghettoised.
...apart, lost & set to disappear.
Challenges and a possibility or two
The third point, a brief one, which probably has been referenced to all along is that this intensive, technologically grounded modernity causing such disparity and despair, even as it promises comfort and joy through availability of choice, freedom of choice and nurturance of individuality are propelled by global capital. While on the one hand both the proletariat and even middle classes are getting emaciated, the super rich are becoming richer and also fewer. Most of the wealthiest are from IT industry whose gizmos, software and applications that embeds itself both in the most mundane daily existence and in professional domains have had such enslaving and hypnotic effect on the masses. This is what late capitalism is and has ‘achieved’.

While people recourse to Karl Marx and Max Weber to make sense of the increasing alienation and disenchantment in the world, let us not forget their contemporary Emile Durkheim, who considered collective restoration as a cause that needs pursuing, the absence of which results in anomie in times of industrial modernity. The community collective, must be seen as an sacrosanct ideal to work towards even as we factor in history, hierarchies, class and cultural markers to resolve issues of breaking down of social and emotional networks not to speak of those of survival and livelihoods. We are in midst of such destructive, vicious spiral of retribution and perverse identity assertions today which one dare say is engineered on seemingly irresolvable differences. Anger, hurt, humiliation and hubris make the wefts and warps of the identity fabric that we have so tightly wrapped ourselves with. As one will note, language of compassion, love, forgiveness and reconciliation is glaringly absent in contemporary politics which otherwise speaks so much of liberty, justice and equality and posits them as irreconcilable with the former. To repeat, a zero sum game ethic ( if we can even call it one) drives our socialization. The emancipatory possibilities of enlightenment and post enlightenment thought or even those of seers and prophets, Hindu, Buddhist or Judaic from mediaeval and ancient times, all of which are supposed to come into dialectical play in modernity has barely transpired. The increasingly identity based archetypes clothed in the language of rights, justice and liberty to paradoxically counter the incongruent and debilitating consequences of rabid capitalism and cultural-social majoritarianism itself is becoming a pathology. Thus both restrict modernity from inducing possibilities for the true emergence of an individual.
Melancholy sets in...
The challenge is that such complexities and factors that imperil a community, robust civil society and responsible for the prevailing sense of loss and disenchantment are not recognised. In my view a strong school curriculum, particularly a social science one is a sine qua non to help start looking at this problem in some criticality to begin with. Yet here too the intractable challenges of poor teachers and teaching, poor textbooks and teaching for test, subverts possibilities. What then? Let us explore. But let us acknowledge the problems first for what it is. Recognising and understanding the world as it plays out today in certain careful, less ideological infused fashion itself will be part of both exploration and action too.