A Fragmentary Digression on Individualism, Freedom, Necessity, and Utopia.
Individualism is a key part of reactionary dogma. It is relentlessly fetishized by the right, by libertarians, by conservatives, by the YouTube ‘rationals’ and ‘sceptics’, etc.
Murray Rothbard, Austrian School dogmatist and founder of right-libertarianism in America, gave “individual human beings act” as the foundation of his entire philosophical system. But, aside from the question of whether or not one can logically derive from it what Rothbard does, what does this mean? What can it possibly mean? Apart from anything else, what even is an individual? The concept, at least in the way that it is asserted by bourgeois ideology, is not supported by the evidence.
Not only is no man an island, but it appears that people are actually more like beaches.
A beach is a liminal zone. Liminality is its essence. It is defined by its lack of definition. It is sometimes long and sometimes short, depending on the time of day, and the time of year. Its very nature as a location is that it lies at the edge of the entire concept of location. It is undeniably a place, but a place at the outermost reach of two different ways of measuring, experiencing, conceptualising location. It is a place where one kind of human idea of place ends and another begins. It is a place where different kinds of mapping space begin and end. It is a place with huge, variant, but overlapping significance to both human and physical geography.
It is a place conceivable in different ways. Even within one language, it will take on very different connotations depending on whether we choose the words ‘beach’ or ‘coast’ or ‘shore’… Its quiddity lies in its lack of fixity. It will move, creeping inwards across the land, and yet never arriving anywhere because it always brings itself with it. A beach is a constantly moving interplay of sand and temperature; of gravity pulling and pushing on waves that crash and recede, which slowly grind rocks into sand, sand that is then shaped into dunes and flats by the waves. And the patterns change day by day, hour by hour. Sand is the result of a process of slow erosion; temperature is always fluctuating. Both have an independent essence which may be measured, but we inevitably bring subjectivity in measurements. As we know, the act of measuring something changes it.
At a different phenomenological level, a beach is a site of joy or melancholy, or even war, depending upon history, context, the given moment, the quality of the light, the culture that sees it. A beach means something very different to an island hunter-gatherer looking out from the forest and a European colonialist wading ashore.
There is, of course, such a thing as determinism acting on beaches. Some things are determined. The existence of the beach itself is determined by material realities which are accidents of history, natural or sometimes social, but no less real for that. But determinism is simply the vulgarisation of this fact – that some things do indeed cause some other things, sometimes ineluctably – into mechanical schema. Reductionism artificially turns a network of determinations into a straight and irresistible line; a web into a railway track. Even within determinations, properly understood, there are variations and multiplicity. In a sufficient number of possibilities there is freedom, no matter how deterministic each possibility. Denial or ignorance of this is what puts the vulgarity into vulgar determinism.
A beach is a deserted place that is nevertheless populated by an ever-shifting ecology of creatures, as well as the humans whose civilisation impacts on the water and the creatures in manifold ways. We leave two dimensional evidence of ourselves as we walk across the beach, soon washed away. But we have so much impact on the beach besides. We will hunt predators and thus allow the numbers of their prey on the beach to increase. As we now know, industrial civilisation has an enormous effect on the weather. The sea level will rise because of us. Plastic waste will wash ashore. El Niño, and tsunami, may come to the beach.
How many grains of sand there are on a beach? An old question. This refers to a physical actuality. We sense the answer, the number, must be ‘out there’ somewhere. But no. Not only is the number physically impossible to ascertain owing to the limits of human life and capability, but the number does not really exist anyway. It is a notional number. A purely conceptual number, existing only as a premise, used only as rhetoric. The concept exists to signify its own non-existence, and is thus entirely a metaphor for the impossibility of nailing down some types of material realities. Reality is simply not that stable. We take that for granted, but we shouldn’t. We should be more aware of the ramifications. So let’s explicate it for once.
To count grains of sand, we must decide what we mean by sand. What constitutes a grain? We must decide when something ceases to be rock or shale and becomes sand. How big or small must a particle be to qualify as sand? And define what it means for a grain of sand to be ‘on’ the beach. Is the sand still ‘on’ the beach when it sticks to the shoes of the person counting? The wind would whip sand back and forth across any arbitrary dividing line we drew on the land. The tide would wash sand back and forth over any arbitrary dividing line we imposed on the sea – as if such a thing were possible, the sea being defined by its eternal motion. The motion grinds the sand. Will not one grain be ground into two while we count? And this is without getting into the inner structure of matter.
And if we ask ‘how many grains of sand are there on a beach?’, the next question is ‘when?’ In a fixed instant, a notional NOW! that exists only in our heads? The tacit assumption – always deniable upon confrontation – that an instant can be fixed, isolated, dissected, analysed, etc, and that the resultant ‘snapshot’ of reality can tell us all or much of what we want to know, is the essence of reductionism, and bedevils reactionary thinking, which is in some fundamental ways based on exactly this kind of artificial atemporalism. But that kind of thinking cannot grasp beaches (as we use the term in our metaphor).
Considered even slightly, we see that there really is no such thing as ‘a beach’. There is a zone where various constantly shifting and hazily-defined phenomena intersect and interact in space and time. The zone is changed by our perceptions of it, which are themselves shaped by wider social and historical processes. The zone is a collation, grouped together under the temporary and provisional catch-all placehold sign ‘beach’ for our convenience – and yet always open to being conceived differently.
And the truth is, that’s true of almost everything. That’s just what reality is. Human consciousness groups these phenomena together using visual, verbal, conceptual grammar and syntax. And then we imagine that what we are doing is perceiving a ‘thing in itself’. But reality is not made of things; reality is made of processes. Processes which move constantly, driven by their inner contradictions and their relations and contradictions with other processes.
And we humans do not stand outside this looking in. We’re in it, looking around. Our perceptions are part of it. We are a process within a process, regarding the processes within an around us. The self is an island in a sense, as are all things: an island of relative coherence, sufficient to be conceptualised as a unit, but nevertheless still constantly changing, and connected to everything else, as an island is connected to the land beneath the ocean.
This doesn’t make the self any less real. I’m not arguing that we don’t exist. But the self is a great deal less stable, less discrete, more permeable, more shifting, more socially and naturally embedded, than we often think. Ironically, we developed consciousness which fools us into thinking this way. It was probably an evolutionary advantage. But we can look past it, much as we’ve come to realise that memory isn’t a set of recordings but a work of collaboration between sensation and imagination.
To quote the academic psychologist Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender:
…the active self is a dynamic chameleon, changing from moment to moment in response to its social environment…
…in all of us, a rather large portion of the Wardrobe of Self is taken up with the stereotypical costumes of the many social identities each person has (New Yorker, father, Hispanic American, vet, squash player, man). Who you are at a particular moment – which part of your self-concept is active – turns out to be very sensitive to context.
…We are not just influenced by the imperceptible, but also the intangible. The Australian writer Helen Garner noted that one can either ‘think of people as discrete bubbles floating past each other and sometimes colliding, or … see them overlap, seep into each other’s lives, penetrate the fabric of each other’. Research supports the latter view. The boundary of the self-concept is permeable to other people’s conceptions of you (or, somewhat more accurately, your perception of their perception of you). As William James put it, ‘a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognise him and carry an image of him in their mind.’ By way of scientific support for James’s idea, Princeton University psychologist Stacey Sinclair and her colleagues have shown in a string of experiments that people socially ‘tune’ their self-evaluations to blend with the opinion of the self held by others. With a particular person in mind, or in anticipation of interacting with them, self-conception adjusts to create a shared reality.
With this in mind, how can we simply declare that “individual human beings act” and leave it at that? It was always a vulgar and crude statement. Nowadays, it looks positively childish. The truth is that the individual is never outside the context of others, of society, of history, and always exists in a dialectical unity with these things. To think otherwise is to reject even the basic Aristotelian observation that man is the zoon politikon, let alone modern science.
To accept the social construction and contingency of the individual is not necessarily to fall into more determinism than is warranted by life. Still less is it a disavowal of the entire idea of individual freedom.
Engels once wrote: “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”. Christopher Caudwell quoted that line at the opening of his book Illusion and Reality. In another book, in an essay entitled ‘Liberty: A Bourgeois Illusion’, Caudwell defends freedom from confusion with the weak bourgeois conception of individual liberty. He makes the case that society is the realm in which humans can attain freedom, because it is society which enables people to do what they want – at least potentially. Without the opportunities opened by society, the defining feature of which is economic production (people collaboratively making the society every day), people are like men whose legs are in plaster casts. They can contemplate what they want, but can’t get up to get it. Society generates many constraints, yes, but these unpleasant things
are the very means by which freedom is obtained by men. Liberty is thus the social consciousness of necessity. Liberty is not just necessity, for all reality is united by necessity. Liberty is the consciousness of necessity – in outer reality, in myself, and in the social relations which mediate between outer reality and human selves. The beast is a victim of mere necessity, man is in society conscious and self-determined. Not of course absolutely so, but more so than the beast.
Thus freedom of action, freedom to do what we will, the vital part of liberty, is seen to be secured by the social consciousness of necessity, and to be generated in the process of economic production. The price of liberty is not eternal vigilance, but eternal work.
He means that we are freer the more we produce socially, because social production enables us to achieve what we want. Freedom lies in knowing the extent of constraint needed as a side-effect of the social effort – production – needed to enable it. If we know what something costs before we decide to buy it, we are consenting freely when we pay. This may be a tragic reality of human life, but it is liberatory to know and understand it. Because knowing it and understanding it we can break out of the bourgeois illusion of total individual freedom – which Caudwell shows to be largely cant anyway, given the realities of life in capitalism for most – and instead achieve real freedom. Real freedom is social, not just because it must be based on production of that which enables, but because it must apply to all or it isn’t really freedom. Caudwell, being a communist, demands that we move to a new stage of economic production, one that will socialise and democratize production, do away with exploitation, abolish class, and lead to abundance – thus minimising the contraints that must be accepted and known as a precondition of freedom.
Caudwell even dares to suggest that we might overcome the old objection of Schopenhauer’s and maybe become capable of not just doing what we will but also willing what we will. Just as liberating human freedom of action depends upon changing the economic system, so does liberating human freedom of desire. Every human is, as Caudwell presciently argues, a social product. Our desires are circumscribed by the circumstances under which our selves were socially constructed. He doesn’t deny ‘natural gifts’ but says that society shapes them. These days even the biological determinists admit as much, at least formally. Even the individual consciousness is thus an economic product. And a different economy, different selves will be shaped. In a society where production is collectively and consciously planned, the constraints are known. Thus, the prerequisite for freedom is known: the recognition of necessity. Why might we not become capable of doing something similar inside our own heads? Might a society that knows necessity so well that it can overcome it to a great extent not also produce people who can do the same?
I’m now riffing on Caudwell rather than relaying him. But in my opinion, to try to overcome necessity is the apparently natural human tendency, and it is bourgeois society which artificially retards it.
So, while recognition of determining factors does not abolish – but rather makes possible! – individual freedom, tellingly it probably does entail rejection of the classically liberal idea of freedom. This is because that idea is bound up with the assumption that freedom is based on the detached desires of a detached individual, atomised, separated from society by both their supposedly innate and fixed characteristics and also by the hierarchical relation in which they stand to the rest of society. To the extent that social relations enter into it, they take on the familiar prohibitive contours of bourgeois morality: restriction, duty, etc. The constraints which enable freedom for Caudwell – at least potentially – because they come from the social production which enables it, retard freedom for the liberal because they seem to be alien impositions which society foists on the individual almost maliciously.
We get a good sense of the contradictions of bourgeois morality from its founding father: Kant.
Kant’s categorical imperative is an expression of the bourgeois liberal ideas of the 18th century, expressed as morality. It is progressive in the sense that it attempts to derive morality from Reason. It is part of that much fetishized object of fable, the Enlightenment. It also expresses the new, universal promises of the bourgeois revolutions in that it universalises (i.e. “All men are created equal”). It is based on the principle of universality. What you do must apply to all people or it fails to be truly moral.
However, it is also based on a bourgeois notion of rights. The concept of ‘rights’ is a product of the rise of bourgeois property/trade relations. One brings one’s rights to the market place and, on that basis, one participates in the putatively level playing field. For Kant, one negotiates the conflicts between these rights on the basis of contractual clauses. If the Party of the First Part undertakes to do such and such, the Party of the Second part will be understood to be obliged to do so and so. It is this which finally inverts the universality of the notion into an entire bourgeois conception of individualism. Through this embedded notion of contractual obligations, the decision as to universal moral actions rests with the individual’s willingness to enter into a personal contract regarding his conduct, his willingness to be bound.
The sting in the tail lies in the fact that different people will always have different notions as to what is or isn’t universally desirable. One individual may consider it highly desirable that theft be considered universally immoral because they have a great personal interest in the institution of private property (i.e. because they own lots of it). (Though they will only discover the sacredness of property after they have acquired their own – which in the early days of capital accumulation often involved hefty amounts of theft.) Another (who perhaps owns little) may be prepared to risk universalising the permissability of theft if he thinks he can steal what he wants and then protect his stolen goods by force. Sometimes, as I say, these two cases will be one man at different points in his career. Alternatively, there may be those who feel that there are worse prospects for the future than the fall of private property. And, in practice, the guardians of morality will always be ready to claim the universality of laws that they themselves break, simply because they take a more pragmatic view of Reason.
The R/reasonable promises of bourgeois liberalism and Enlightenment will always have such loopholes in their social contracts and, as a result, will always find themselves in full or partial, official or unofficial abeyance. The Enlightenment declared that all men were created equal, but oversaw (and, indeed, was partially built upon) all black men (and women) being crated equally… for shipping. Why should a white man who profits from the slave trade care if ‘enslave black people’ became a universal moral maxim? He knows the colour of his own skin will exempt him from the chains, and the inequality of property and opportunity will protect him from universal business competition.
Kant was far from innocent here, even in narrow terms. He was one of the founders of ‘scientific racism’. Like Kant, Locke – seen by Rothbard as his philosophical grandsire – was another liberal moral theorist of the new bourgeois order. As such, his theory of property rights amounts to a justification of black chattel slavery and the theft of territory from native peoples. Remember the hunter-gatherer and the explorer looking at each other across that beach?
The observation that humans are all and always interrelated is actually eminently compatible with the idea of individual freedom. It is simply that, in the bourgeois epoch, the interrelations are based on savagery. But it is our very interrelatedness, our very social embeddedness, and thus our enmeshment within a vast and negotiable network of varying determinisms, that creates the conditions which make individual freedom possible, as well as – ironically – making hierarchical societies work. Even tyrannies run on cooperation, in a sense.
But outside of specifics, freedom simply has material limits. Is this idea simply too horrible for the heroic (i.e. juvenile) individualist to contemplate?
As Marx and Engels put it:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
To be honest, these days this is, or should be, a banality – much as scientists who would consciously reject Engels’ ‘dialectics of nature’ (flawed but containing much truth) are nonetheless forced to practice dialectical thinking in science as a matter of course, simply to keep track of the fluidity and contingency discovered in nature.
Any view which ignores such things is fundamentally asocial and ahistorical, and merely tries to hide this by wearing the false moustache of objectivity. The reality under the synthetic whiskers and the spirit gum is rampant subjectivism. And it is, ironically enough, the close cousin of vulgar determinism.
Meanwhile, if the individual actions of every individual member of the human species for the last couple of hundred years have just happened to add up to the anthropocene, then a suspiciously high degree of coincidental convergence has occurred. Otherwise, we are forced to contemplate another theory: that our context for our actions is too unfree, and is too dominated by the traditions of the dead generations. The traditions in question just happen to be the traditions of burning fossil fuels, industrialised farming, and so on.
It is an historical irony that capitalism, which collectivises people as never before in human history (seriously, it is a dark joke that the devotees of the system that invented factories should rail against collectivism!), should also have been the greatest generator of the concept of individualism in history. Because there is no doubt that, as a progressive development of the productive forces, an advance on feudalism, capitalism did generate immense new levels and amounts of human freedom. The concept of individual freedom that we still live with is, in essence, a bourgeois invention, and would be near incomprehensible even to the Wat Tylers and John Balls of the pre-modern era. We looked at some of the ironies generated here in the essays touching the theories of Erich Fromm. And we’ve already mentioned Engels Dialectics of Nature… well, it’s in the preface to that book that he delineates some of the ways in which the Renaissance, itself a product of the rise of the new society, gave rise to the possibility of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare, who were themselves only the foremost expressers of the new ideas of selfhood.
But it was all based on that false universal that Kant theorised a morality to express. It was always based on exploitation. Shakespeare wrote – in his oblique ways – about the enclosures and the famines that ensued… and about many other aspects of ‘primitive accumulation’. Michaelangelo created pessimistic works in his old age, as the possibilities once opened by the new system began to seem more and more like dead ends.
It is a further irony that capitalism should dominate people to such an extent that it leads them to destroy their world, before its own ideology blames them all collectively – but as individuals collectively working out their fallen nature! But then, capitalism may be alien to humanity, but it isn’t actually alien in the sense of being something exterior to us. It is, ultimately, something we do. It is simply that, reality being so complex, it is perfectly possible for humanity to enslaves itself within a prison of its own making. It is something inhuman that humans do to humans, themselves included. Because its day to day functioning is comprised of people going about their day, obeying rules and conventions that we take for granted, we do not perceive ourselves as reproducing society. But we are. We must be. Any society which does not reproduce itself ceases to exist. The structure generated by human action becomes a limit to human action. The tradition of the dead generations… But that’s where Caudwell’s blistering observation comes in. Real freedom lies in consciousness of what is and isn’t necessary.
Within capitalist ideology, the Austrian School distinguishes itself from mainstream marginalism by supposedly having a more realistic appreciation of ‘what people are really like’. People are not the well-informed rational actors of mainstream models, walking around with preference scales in their pockets. True enough. But what they replace this with is simply a view of people as essentially fallen. The only way to tell the fallen from the saved is to see who succeeds on the market, which will naturally reward the ones who chose in accordance with its will. The Austrians and libertarians talk a good game when it comes to having a more nuanced view of humans and their agency than mainstream economics, but that’s all it is: talk. And there is a sense in which it is an example of them refusing to engage in the obfuscations that some sectors of bourgeois ideology place over their actual assumptions. Mainstream economics is a collective fantasy, and one of the most peculiar things about it is that it is a fantasy capitalism has about itself to cover its real but equally fantastical conceptions.
On the subject of talking, in a speech entitled ‘For a New Libertarian’, given to Mises University (the Mises Institute’s annual conference) not long after Charlottesville, the president of the Mises Institute, Jeff Deist (who had previously declared that libertarians should appeal to the masses’ attachment to “blood and soil”) proclaimed humans “fragile and fallible and hierarchical and irrational and suspicious and herd-like”.
He goes on:
Rothbard talks about just this in his section on libertarian strategy at the end of For a New Liberty. He reminds us that it’s progressive utopians who think man has no nature and is “infinitely malleable.” They think man can be perfected, made into the ideal servant of the New Order.
But libertarians believe in free will, he points out. People mold themselves. And therefore it’s folly to expect some drastic change to fit our preferred structure. We hope people will act morally, we believe liberty provides the right incentives for moral improvement. But we don’t rely on this to make liberty work. In fact only libertarianism accepts humans as they are, right here right now. It is in this sense that Rothbard sees liberty as “eminently realistic,” the “only theory that is really consistent with the nature of man and the world.”
So let’s understand — and sell — liberty as a deeply pragmatic approach to organizing society, one that solves problems and conflicts by muddling through with the best available private, voluntary solutions. Let’s reject the grand visions and utopias for what will always be a messy and imperfect world. Better, not perfect, ought to be our motto.
People have free will. But they are what they are, and they can’t change, and they can’t be changed. This is the incoherent and ahistorical view of people enshrined in mainstream bourgeois economics, but turned up to eleven.
As we’ve seen, Rothbard is being a hypocrite talking about libertarians believing that humans have free will. He clearly believes that we are the robotic enactors of our preset potentials – or at least that this is true of those he deems inferior owing to their inferior position in capitalist society. When these people talk about freedom, they mean your freedom to reach the inescapable limits that nature has programmed into you – which will be narrow – while they reach the heavens of achievement and reward that they never doubt they deserve.
The key phrase is “right here right now”. We’ve already talked about the reductionism and determinism of the snapshot, the NOW! by which every aspect of thing can supposedly be understood. How can people have potential when they are also to be understood to just ‘be’ what they are right here, right now? The “better, not perfect” is a lie. Not just because it dishonestly conflates egalitarianism with perfectionism, but because it dishonestly pretends to believe in a possible “better”. Are we not “fragile and fallible and hierarchical and irrational and suspicious and herd-like” to the point where libertarians need to seduce us by appeals to “blood and soil”?
In reality, the view of humans elaborated above boils down to little more than adolescent cynicism – which is why it meshes so well with the present day’s iteration of fascism. Yet the cynicism is mixed with an equally adolescent adulation of liberty. This is entirely characteristic.
It all seems like a contradiction until you remember they’re implicitly splitting humanity into two groups: the schlubs and the heroic entrepreneurs of Hayek’s sweaty dreams. Caudwell wouldn’t have been surprised by these guys.
The smug and patronising dismissal of utopias, the sneering at the perfectibility of man, is a way to talk down to socialists (by which they mean everyone who isn’t them) while also misrepresenting the socialist aim… but it is also an expression of a deeper assumption: humanity is divided into those who can wield liberty, and those who cannot. Moreover, that those who cannot are constantly fucking things up for those who can. And the only thing to do is accept this. Not in the sense of accepting it as inevitable. But rather in the sense of accepting it as the terrain on which the battle must be joined. Because the Austrians – and, by extension, their libertarian and paleolibertarian descendants – have their own utopian instincts. They don’t accept anybody as they are right here right now if that person wants to fight for socialism or egalitarianism, for racial or gender equality, for fair distribution of wealth, for an end to exploitation. Those people must be changed. Perfected.
They are, of course, nowhere near as original as they might believe. The idea that some people just need to be ruled – with laws or the whip, usually depending on skin colour – is baked into liberalism, at least the variety of liberalism that constructed the capitalist world with ideological help from Kant and Locke, etc.
And yet even here we have another contradiction… because what is this kind of worldview but a recipe for shrugging inaction? In practice, of course, that’s what libertarianism so often is: a rationale for doing nothing – at least about injustice. That is partly why it has been able to be so influential in the rise of today’s fascist coalitions: they are comprised to a huge extent of passive followers whose main creed is devotion to inaction. And those people are always in search of a justificatory logic.
They want to be islands, in the worst sense.