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Individualism is Social

Friday, 23 Nov 2012

Does it matter whether we have choice or not? Should we be guided in our actions by a moral imperative? What does it mean to want choice anyway? Is it a desire for ‘personal space’ and time apart from economic slavery? If so, is not this desire simply a legacy of the past, a bourgeois ideal, a product of individualism? To merely explain away the desire for individual freedom as a universal and inalienable human right gets us nowhere. Such an explanation would be founded on idealism and be, at root, neo-theologistic. Let us move away from eternal truths and rights and, instead, treat the desire for freedom from economic slavery as a necessity – and see how far we get.

Itis labour which distinguishes man from the animals and freedom is an inherent part of labour. There is no freedom of will in the work of an animal. Indeed, an animal has no will whatsoever. Consider a spider constructing a web or a bee a hive. What distinguishes the very worst of architects from the very best of spiders and bees is that the architect first builds the building in his mind. Only later does he realise his purpose in materials. This is a purpose he is conscious of and, though the qualities of his materials determine the mode of his activity with the rigidity of an iron law, he must first know these qualities if his first idea is to be realised. There is conscious subordination of will to material laws, i.e. to necessity.

The practical positing of a goal, by the architect or anyone else, must mean that the knowledge of nature is at a sufficiently high level, i.e. the practical positing of new goals is subordinate to the acquisition of new knowledge. Until new knowledge is acquired, materials retain latent properties to be acted upon later, by men and women setting new goals, with the new understanding that will release these properties from the latent to the actual. Labour in this simple sense involves knowledge of material qualities, whether latent or not, that are fixed and unchanging. Will is subordinated to the unchanging material world, even though it is a conscious submission. There is a determination of will by material necessity.

When labour is considered in a social setting, we have a determination of will by a real and actual social reality. Unlike the material world, the determining social realities are subject to historical change. However,like the material world, there are qualities within the prevailing social reality that remain latent until men and women act upon them in full and conscious knowledge of them. The difference this time, from the material world, is that new, but latent, possibilities emerge as social realities change.

It is in labour that, whether acting upon the material or the social, we discover freedom. It is a freedom that is uniquely human and is the samefundamentally whatever its level of complexity. Freedom is located in the consciousness which decides which goals to posit and how to achieve realisation, i.e. in the concrete choice between different concrete possibilities. Even where the room for choice may be non-existent, e.g. in a chess game where only one move is possible, there is still room for an erroneous decision.


Freedom and necessity go together, represented as the freedom of will and the limitations posed by the material or social subject. From this we can see that the greater the abundance of knowledge, the greater the abundance of alternatives to posit. Yet how do you square this logic with a capitalist society in which, as we have said above, all time is economic time and where, for the individual worker, there are no choices? In our abstract capitalist model, there is no non-economic space in which to posit ideas. Men and women, therefore, lose the locus of freedom. As commodities in a homogenised and deskilled labour market,they become brutalised, like the brute beasts from which the unique features of human labour once distinguished them.

We have come up again against the capacity paradox. Freed from idiocies of all kinds, e.g. rural, trade, domestic and others, the advanced socialisation of labour and the application of technology extend the capacity for individual achievement, whilst, simultaneously, deskilling the individual. The capacity for achievement must remain latent within the real and actual society until men and women act upon society in fulland conscious knowledge of its workings, just as in other forms of labour, simple or social.

What prevents this full and conscious knowledge? Is it some sort of class conspiracy? The answer lies in the fact that the real and actual social reality that is pregnant with latent possibility, is itself concomitant with the atomisation inside capitalist society. We have noted above the disintegration of idiocies within the capitalist world. Individuals, freed from the limitations imposed upon them by community and gender roles, have the freedom to move between jobs in the sense that different types of work demand a homogenous set of skills. This gives rise to another paradox that where society is most purely atomised, economic relationships between people are most purely social. To put it another way, socialised production is the foundation of individualism. People can only have a self-perception of themselves as true individuals in a fully social society. Contrast this with a time when economic relationships were much less social, let alone far from globalised, and people felt part of a community, each having a fixed role in the village, tribe or family, and little else besides.

We have, therefore, a situation where people need full and conscious knowledge of the capacity for achievement that is latent within a real and actual social reality before they can posit that capacity and realise it as a goal. At the same time, a product of that same social reality is that the full and conscious knowledge required is in most short supply. We have a blockage.

John Dunn.







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