The Politics of Individualism
Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism
Published in Social Anarchism #22, 1996
The nature of the individual and her/his relationship with other individuals is one of the most important questions in philosophy. Is the individual solitary, outside of society? Should the individual be submerged within the group mind? What is the relationship between individualism and freedom? Are we free to be "you and me", to be ourselves? What is the nature of the self? In our own philosophical time (and in philosophy, modern means since about the seventeenth century), it is to Locke and the whole liberal tradition to whom we owe our modern concept of individualism. In essence, this "modern" individualism is linked with two other important concepts -- property and freedom. Locke (and his liberal colleagues) were concerned especially with the individual vis a vis property. But in the nineteenth-century, Hegel took the whole idea of the individual in a new direction. In Hegel's thought we can find the beginnings of the distinctly "modern" self -- a self emphasizing the unique personality and the idea of individual freedom -- in particular the freedom to express and actualize the unique individual will. In the Phenomenology of Mind Hegel developed his logic of individual growth to increasing levels of self-awareness. While the ultimate goal in his philosophy was to link the individual with a collective community of like spirits, his self begins that search toward self-actualization through an individual subjective encounter with the material world. While Locke linked ownership to work and survival, Hegel situated ownership in the individual desire for freedom and self-actualization. But Hegel did not abandon Locke's ideas: property and ownership are critical to the articulation and fulfillment of this self -- for it is through the dialectical interaction between the act of possessing the material world and the inner will that the individual comes to be itself. There are echoes of Locke's "mixing" of work with natural resources in this definition of property, but Hegel's approach emphasizes even more the power of the individual personality in shaping the material through work, and conversely, the power of the object or thing to help actualize the self. In addition, the idea of ownership is linked with the idea of individual desire -- the desire for individual creative self-expression, the desire to impose one's will on the material world. Also closely linked with this modern individual personality is the idea of freedomspecifically the freedom of that individual to seek and achieve self-actualization. It is the desire for the freedom to be that fuels the individual's desires to own things. Property is never an end in itself, only the means to the real objective of freedom.
Hegel's self is also an individual in process, never quite complete, always moving to new levels of self-actualization, growing and changing, an approach especially sympathetic to the quixotic nature of our contemporary consumer reality. In all fairness to Hegel, his ethic, Sittlichkeit, suggests a community of caring people. Ultimately Hegel's system is built on the belief that the collective culture is what guides and shapes individual ethical actions. In his community people respect one another because each individual recognizes in the other his/her own connection to the whole. Admittedly, this final stage of consciousness, guided by this ethics of social responsibility, is the ideal. In reality, however, most individuals are at "lower", more subjective, more materialistic level of awareness.
Hegel's framework essentially endorses the limited, but perfect consumer personality -- creative, desiring, self-aware, self-indulgent -- and basically indifferent to others because it is still focused on the subjective self. It is from this tradition that Brown takes her central arguments.
L. Susan Brown has two primary agendas in her study :examining individualism as it is articulated in several political traditions (liberalism, anarchism and communism); and exploring the relationship between feminism and liberalism through the works of Betty Friedan and Emma Goldman -- all with an eye to sorting out what a true feminist individualism might look like. Brown begins her argument by establishing two constructs of individualism: existential individualism and instrumental individualism. She argues throughout the book for an existential feminist individualism. Existential individualism is based on the concepts of free will and the ability to make judgments (28), the idea of freedom as a end in itself (32), and a free community comprised of individuals who recognize the freedom of others. This individual has a "fluid and self-created nature," (8) and is characterized as self-determined, possessed of individual autonomy." (32) In short, the modern individual. But this individual is not C.B. Macpherson's version of Locke's liberal "possessive" individual (what Brown calls instrumental individualism). The basis for her distinction is an economic one: instrumental individualists participate in the market economy where they are forced to sell themselves. Inequalities of power and domination of weaker individuals results, denying "true" existential individualism.
Liberals of all stripes (including liberal feminists) take a fairly good, and well deserved, beating in Brown's arguments for their dependence on private property rights. She also rightly identifies libertarian anarchism as suffering from the same shortcomings. In their place she argues for adopting an existential feminist individualism, which she argues is more communistic in its economics.
Brown bases her feminist analysis primarily on Emma Goldman's work. Unfortunately, however, Emma Goldman never developed a specific "feminist" political analysis or theory. There is nothing in her theory of individualism that one could identify as categorically linked to gender to biological determinism, or to an analysis of a patriarchy. Goldman does talk about the oppression of women as a group through the lens of her communist/anarchist theories, and in some essays, uses the category of "woman" to critique liberalism, but the core of her argument is not gender. Like other anarchists, E.G.'s argument is based on an analysis of power and its central role in shaping political life. Her analysis explores the relations of power in society both economically and socially, and through the latter, she explores the economic and political relationship between genders. Her analysis of the dynamics of domination/submission are central in her argument for women's freedom, but she locates the source the imbalance of power in a Marxist analysis of private property, not in gender.
This book is heavy going for two reasons: first, because you have to wade through the already very murky conceptual labyrinths invoked by such basic ideas as "freedom," "the individual," "anarchism," and "existentialism." The major problem with this book, however, is existentialism itself. Her argument ultimately founders on the inherent weaknesses of existentialism individualism -- the position she so valiantly promotes and defends. Those weaknesses include the lack of a clear understanding of social context which results in a poorly defined concept of "community" in which existential individuals live, a weak analysis of how an individual would counter organized power (since the primary motivator of existential individualism appears to be self-interest), and a vague definition of freedom.
Weakness 1: By definition, the existential self is separate from a social context. It exists independently of others, its own desires shape its social reality. It does not look to others, only its own "freedom". Brown's book has one serious flaw in its argument: her critiques of some contemporary feminist theorists rest on dubious and inaccurate references to social context in the Structuralist arguments as merely another form of social determinism -- a totally wrong-headed analysis, I believe. In defense of the existential individual, however, Brown goes to extremes to isolate the individual from context, which further weakens her later argument for a "community" of existential individuals. She falls into the same conceptual trap that Max Stirner did.
The idea of self-serving individualism was taken to its extreme by Max Stirner. Stirner is generally relegated a minor position in the constellation of Hegel's philosophical prodigies, "Die Freien" (the Free Ones), but nevertheless, many of his insights were shared in varying degrees by his contemporaries. Stirner's radical possessive individualism is marked by a distinctive preoccupation with personal self-expression, and the universal rejection of any communal or collective context. Stirner was interested in developing an argument against any limits or controls on individual behavior--in particular institutional and ideological controls manifested through traditional social, religious and political institutions. In his only extant work, The Ego and Its Own, Stirner makes the Hegelian case for individual property and ownership as the means to the end ofindividual freedom. Stirner further based his radical individualism on each individual's right -- and might -- to appropriate: "I secure my freedom with regard to the world inthe degree that I make the world my own, 'gain it and take possession of it' for myself, by whatever might, by that of persuasion, of petition, of categorical demand, yes, even by hypocrisy, cheating, etc.; for the means that I use for it are determined by what I am. Property," he notes bluntly, "is what is mine." For Stirner, property cannot be accumulated, and indeed, is more often than not characterized by an ephemeral, temporary quality based on the ability of individuals to retain power over the objects in their possession. Stirner's argument against theexistence of the state (an argument Brown also makes) was a simple extension of this radical individualism: the state has no right to exist because it infringes on the individual's right to lay claims to property. By a similar argument, he is also critical of collective ownershipsbecause it denies individual ownership.
Weakness 2: Existential individualism is, unfortunately, a rather poorly defined term -- in part because we never get a clear picture of just what this individual does or how she operates vis a vis other individuals. The rights of the individual are often characterized by colorful Hegelian rhetoric about self-actualization and empowerment. But to do this alone would be difficult, especially when we understand that politics is not an individual but a collective act. However the individual might wish to be empowered, for example, another, larger and stronger individual could deny that "right" and freedom. The existential individual lives within her own self-centered world, and fulfills her personal desires, largely outside of a social, and therefore also, a political context. Her "rights" are not guaranteed except by some weak association of existential individuals "voluntarily" united. I am left wondering whether changing social roles and responsibilities might also fall prey to individual whim, such as our modern consumer mentality. This may be my bias, but it is a weakness of every existential argument, no matter what the topic is.
Weakness 3: Brown notes that the existential individual is "free from dependence on the will of others in voluntary association where such freedom must be assured for everyone." (32) How this freedom of others is to be assured is never clearly outlined. Freedom from dependence sounds good, but it also begs the question of how any kind of society can exist without some kind of "dependence"--even interdependence. Are we ever really "free" of one another? Ultimately, the existential angst creates an individual not so much free, as isolated and lonelyand also preoccupied with self. For Brown,"self-determination and individual autonomy are desirable for themselves, and need no other justification." (32) It is here that the existential argument collapses -- it is a philosophy based on a unit of one. Nowhere do we get a sense of how individuals communicate to one another, how they organize their economy, how they make decisions. Nowhere, in other words, in Brown's argument is there a commitment to what I would call individual-in-group, other than her vague admonition that individuals should "respect" one another's autonomy. Curiously, although Brown lauds Goldman and draws extensively on her anarchist communist arguments, she apparently rejects them in favor of "existentialism."
Part of the problem in Brown's argument is the vagueness of our uniquely modern, and slippery, meaning of "freedom." In both contemporary liberal and anarchist thought, freedom is closely linked to Lacanian desire. The dominant symbolic order in contemporary consumer society is build on a Stirner-like foundation of personal wants and desires -- a consumption-driven object-oriented radical individualism. Desire is expressed in a variety of ways and ownership takes many forms -- all of which are individually grounded and determined. The individual desire is paramount and supersedes any claims by other individuals or society as a whole. These personal desires can include such desires as status and power over others, self-expression and self-fulfillment, freedom, sexual closure, or a desire for permanence and stability. The term desire as used here is a complex matrix of images, symbols, psychological states, and economic objectives which I call the Matrix of Desire. Freedom has taken on modern psychological encrustations of "free will" and "self" and "personal" that have blurred the more political (collective) articulations of freedom. One by one, individual consumers are deluded into believing they are exercising individual "free will" and "choice. This individual freedom, in turn, is articulated narrowly as choice, a particular kind of non-political consumer choice that is limited to the control of objects. Consumer choice is also carefully packaged in ideas of self-expression and the freedom to be "me."
This peculiarly modern definition of freedom as personal license, as isolated and separated from society, is the core problem of liberalism and instrumental individualism, because it avoids the political question of whether I have responsibilities to others and the nature of those responsibilities. For example, freedom from government interference means one thing for the anarchist desiring self-expression, another for the capitalist who wants environmental regulations (collectively imposed by the state) lifted. Freedom to do my thing, might mean that you couldn't do your thing. The corporation "freedom" to pollute as an individual act, denies my individual freedom to have clean water to drink. We are reduced to a politic of "might makes right." I would argue, however, that sorting out which kind of freedom(s) we have, and want, ultimately rests on how freedom is exercised in community, and our relationships with one another, not by individuals acting on their own impulses in disregard of others. Consumer desire is also fueled by ideas appealing to personal individual freedoms my "rights." Rights are no longer defined within community, but in the individual against community.
I confess to a certain amount of frustration with this book -- partly because the topic is so important, and partly because the book could have been better edited -- primarily by tightening up the arguments, and partly by giving us a brief overview of the philosophical context in which her argument falls. Particularly in the beginning of the book, there is a lot of confusion over the definition of terms, and occasionally the reader must stumble along for a while without clear direction in the argumentation. Sometimes Brown's arguments are annoyingly simplistic and grossly inaccurate. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to thoughtful readers, because it addresses those very basic philosophical issues that must be struggled over and sorted out if we are to create new forms of political thought. We all need to enter into this debate over the meaning of individualism, of freedom, of political and personal agency. Getting into the book is tortuous, and whether you agree or not, the business of philosophical discourse is to be first of all engaged.
The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism and Anarchism by L. Susan Brown. 198 pp. Montreal/New York/London: Black Rose Press, 1993. $19.99 Paper. Hardcover available.
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