Notes on spirituality, sensation-seeking and the alienation of capitalism
For a huge portion of my life, from middle school through high school, I spent most of my free time playing games. I sat cooped up in my room and did nothing except that for thousands and thousands of hours. I actually really enjoyed it, for the most part, and it was the main way I spent time with my friends. My friend groups mostly revolved around this activity.
Throughout all this time I was seriously depressed and generally felt terrible about myself and my life. And though I liked playing games, there was always this itching feeling in the back of my head that said: “aside from what’s happening on this screen, I am literally sitting in my room facing a wall, barely moving, while a whole world and billions of people outside are moving through history at a breakneck speed, and I am choosing to ignore it.”
Looking back, what I think was going on with me is this: my hobby was a way to fill some of my needs that were being ignored by capitalism. As a kid growing up in public school I had no way to interact with the world in a meaningful way. I could not act out my curiosity on the world. I felt like I was stuck in a box. Essentially I felt trapped, and the only thing I was expected to do in school was absorb information that was absolutely irrelevant to me, that I didn’t care about and would never use. I memorized theory and never put it into practice. All I did was follow orders. I had trouble socializing, I constantly felt afraid of other people, I didn’t think anyone really cared about me. In the background, I was dealing with the fact that I was trans and didn’t know it. I found it difficult to interact with people and felt ashamed of myself.
Think of what Skyrim did for me: In this world I could be the right gender, I was physically capable, I had practical skills, I could defend myself, I was courageous, I could interact with the world in a meaningful way, and participate in a world that felt real enough to me to be more alluring than my “real life.” I was a person I was proud of instead of a person I was ashamed of. I did not feel the fear or stress that existed in my day to day life. I could ignore all the problems with my friends, relationships, family, etc. This fake world did not have any consequences and it did not inflict emotional trauma on me. If there was a problem I had full confidence that I could do something to solve it.
In short I preferred imaginary worlds to the real world because the real world was repulsive to me. I had no drive to take care of myself or really anyone else. I didn’t see a point to living in the world. I knew people growing up who were ambitious and committed to self-improvement, but something always bothered me about their ambition. More often than not it seemed like a way for them to “move up” in capitalist society—in other words, to join the exploiters. I had no desire to do something like that. Even before I was a Communist I hated CEOs and rich people, and these “ambitious types” often proved to be self-serving and arrogant. Consider the frat boy or the “young professional.” These were people I wanted nothing to do with even though they were ostensibly committed to a “self-improvement” that I now see as fundamentally self-destructive.
When I was being radicalized, I started to see video games in a different light. I was realizing that something was worth fighting for and that there was a reason to be alive. What I had forgotten is that I don’t exist in a vacuum, I am a social being who is part of society as a whole. I began to realize that I was not fundamentally different from other people, that we were made of the same matter, and we are part of the same whole: when one person suffers, I suffer with them, even if I try to ignore it or refuse to acknowledge it. I learned that there is a whole world, infinitely detailed, made of matter, that gives rise to consciousness. In humanity this consciousness has the ability to observe and reason about the world, and to change it in order to understand it. At the beginning of Capital, Marx wrote: “To discover the various uses of things is the work of history.” What the proletariat accomplishes every day is astounding: it can mold and manipulate matter to meet millions of incredibly specific ends. In a way I think that with consciousness, the universe produced its own god. And I was given the opportunity to serve this god.
When the bourgeoisie had its revolution and brought capitalist production into existence, it made all the tools and machinery we use to produce things social in nature. They have to be operated by many people working together. What the capitalists have done is create the potential for production to be planned socially, to consciously meet the needs of the broad masses of humanity, to produce innovations in technology that will allow us an even greater understanding of the world we live in, that allow us to truly understand the nature of our existence—but instead the capitalists, through ruthless violence, secure their control over a production process that serves a slim minority, that increases their wealth, that destroys the earth, that destroys humanity itself, that leaves people in precarious destitution, always a step from death.
The bourgeoisie lives in, promotes, values a world where greed is right, backstabbing is the norm, and narrow self-interest is the name of the game. They popularize these ideas, which reflect their relation to the world, onto the broad masses of working people. In capitalist society the ruling class controls the means of production and hence the means of information; greed and seeing-other-people-as-machines kind of thinking is hegemonic and penetrates every aspect of our lives. This kind of thinking acts as a corrosive on our lives. It torments us and the people we love. When we lash out at others, take other people down who don’t deserve it, see our friends as enemies, consider ourselves as different from others, this is the poison acting out. There is no reason we should ever want to keep it.
I wanted to truly live in the world, but I quickly learned that in class society I had to pick sides, and every action I took was in service to one or the other. Ultimately I could use my life to serve the fascists and exploiters or devote it to serving the people. What the bourgeoisie does is draw us away from serving the people by giving us little bullshit distractions in the form of video games, social media, television, drugs, parties and clubs. While we do not actively aid the exploiting classes when we spend our time seeking out things that will feel good, escaping our alienating lives, there are dozens of things we could be doing that serve the interests of the people, that in turn care for the deepest parts of ourselves, that make us feel more whole.
I would often think in my school daze, “what would happen if I completely stopped drinking, playing games, watching TV, fucking around on facebook, socializing only to have fun, and instead tried my best to live in the world as it is?” Almost all of my time as a liberal, if it wasn’t doing school stuff or working, was spent “sensation seeking.” I looked for sensations that would make me feel good superficially. I thought that if I could just be “happy” my whole life and die that would be enough. “Happy” to me meant “not feeling bad,” and I could fill this gap with all sorts of pleasures. But I always knew it was a lie, that the quick gratifying solutions I grasped for never filled the gap.
When I became a Communist in the real sense of the word I learned of a deeper way to live that nourishes the deepest parts of ourselves, that understands our place in human history and in the world. To serve the people is also to nourish the deepest, purest parts of ourselves, the seeds of the communist society to come. There is a world worth fighting for. Fighting for the next stage in history, the last stage in history, is worth it. Gonzalo wrote that “the masses are the very light of the world.” They are the makers of history. When we are among the people and struggling alongside them, sober and sharp, instead of cooped up in our rooms or dazzled out of our minds, we are alive in the fullest sense imaginable.
In truth it’s really hard to rid ourselves of all our vices and addictions. We may be aware that we’d be better off without “sensation-seeking” in our lives but still give in to the constant, nagging, consuming desire to use and indulge ourselves.
In April 2016, Red Guards Austin published a document called “On Contradictory Action: Addictive Behavior and the Bourgeois Self” which examines the dialectics of addiction and thought reform, giving us a rough framework for understanding how we can consciously struggle against narrow pleasure-seeking and bourgeois ideology in our minds and the minds of our comrades. I’m going to sum up the basic idea here so you can take some tools away from this article that will help you overcome any bad habits you’ve been trying to kick.
The principal contradiction that guides our behavior lies between our theory and practice—the revolutionary theory we’ve learned vs. the hegemonic bourgeois ideology that influences our actions. At each stage in the process of correcting a liberalism or forming a new habit, one aspect of the dialectic is principal.
At the beginning, we have not learned about the revolutionary way of doing things and we think indulging ourselves is correct. Whatever rationalizations we make about our action seem right to us, and we think we’re more or less doing the right thing. Only bourgeois ideology exists at this stage.
When we study revolutionary theory or have our liberalisms pointed out to us by our comrades through criticism and self-criticism, we start to question our own behavior. Eventually we may be won over to the idea that what we’re doing is wrong and more importantly that we believe we need to change. But we may still find ourselves giving into the addiction or compulsion despite our new way of looking at it. At this stage, we’re aware of the revolutionary perspective, but the bourgeois patterns of thinking are still dominant.
In order to struggle against the influence of bourgeois ideology in our actions, we have to starve our desires and act contrary to them. RGA calls this kind of behavior “contradictory action.” In terms of drug abuse, this might look like hanging around sober company instead of going to your usual hangouts where drug use is happening. If we give into the desire, we’re only strengthening it further. By repeatedly engaging in contradictory action, we can flip the dialectic to the point where we are making mostly good decisions and revolutionary theory becomes principal. A change in quality has been achieved—we go from a person who is a slave to their desires to a person who is in command of them and, for the most part, less and less frequently gives into them.
Of course, while we live in a class society, even the best among us can fall victim to slip ups. So we have to remain vigilant with ourselves and our comrades and pick each other up when we fall down.
I’ve felt this way about my indulgent practices for a long time, even when it was just an itch in the back of my head, but I always struggled to really do anything about it. I kept trying and failing to free myself from all my addictions, and despite doing very well at times, I always kept falling back into it, sometimes much harder than others. I don’t think I ever made much progress.
“On Contradictory Action” changed this for me because it gave me a materialist framework for understanding how people change, one that actually aligns with reality. It obliterated all my wrong ideas about what causes a person to grow. I thought maybe I needed to be kicked in the ass really hard, or have something catastrophic/inspiring happen to me. Many things have inspired me lately, and they definitely made me come to new conclusions or strengthened the ones I’d already come to, but they didn’t ever correct my behavior in a lasting way. Learning about the dialectics of thought reform has instilled a new sense of hope in me, and my experiences over the last few months have solidly proven its accuracy to me.
I have a reason, finally, to care about myself. I used to reject discipline as an exploiter practice that was enforced on me, now I crave it as a tool for liberation and feel frustrated when I realize how I spent most my life extremely undisciplined and apathetic. To affect the world in a meaningful way, to create a world where we are not rejected for who we are, where everyone is cared for and not neglected or exploited or imprisoned, to realize the full potential of consciousness, to grasp the workings of the universe—this is the only thing that can truly fill the needs I had that I thought Skyrim could fill. No other thing will nourish my soul than to actualize myself in the real world in the same way that I tried to through video games.
In other words, I have traded “sensation seeking” for “exaltation seeking.” In a narrow sense, it is a sacrifice to give up sensation seeking, but in a broader sense, when you look to care for your whole being, it is a trade-up for something much deeper. You have chosen to be in the world. You have chosen to be alive. When we accept revolution as our life’s work, we bring on a great deal of risk to ourselves: we risk being imprisoned, murdered, having the things we hold dear taken from us. But it is no sacrifice at all, and the things we fear threaten us already—as materialists we know that death will come some day. So we have chosen to live, and therefore we are ready to die.
I am so happy that I have been given this opportunity, to live and die for the masses, and I would not trade it for anything.