Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Individualism and collective society, Ur-Socialism

I would say that individualism always exists within the context of collective society, no matter how individualistic a person is. If you talk to other people, you're part of collective society. If you live in a neighborhood, you're in collective society. If you don't grow all your own food, trap your meat, make your clothes, and provide for everything else, you're in collective society. Even if you are very independent in relation to both self sufficiency and need for interaction, if you come down from the mountain every now and again to buy some supplies, guess what: you're in collective society. I don't separate out the social from the economic, in that I think that they run concurrently together, and are always found together, with complex interactions on both sides, but that's for later. In any case, being interdependent with other people is the default and almost unavoidable mode of existence. But within that interdependence there can be more or less room for individual variation.

Recognition that we're all enmeshed within collective bonds doesn't mean that individualism is over. Different societies allow for different levels and kinds of individual variation within them, some preferring tight social controls over behavior, others letting it all hang out. But in the organization of society, the idea that any of us is truly completely self made is just not the case.

What makes a person a self-made man in the United States is different than what makes a person a self made success story in East Africa. It's all about the social context that you do your self making in.


Lorraine said...

Individualism vs. collectivism is definitely a false dichotomy, and a lot of irresponsible things are said based on the assumption of such a dichotomy. I refer to individualism in itself (rather than individualism as opposed to collectivism) as thick individualism.

I look forward to your future post in which you demonstrate that the social and economic spheres are inextricably linked.

John Madziarczyk said...

I'll have to take a look at that more closely, and the post that Rad Greek wrote about "Thick Libertarianism". It looks interesting.

Social and economic spheres.....I think that people have gone wrong by emphasizing the material aspect of production. Sure, it's pretty easy to look at the actual stuff that's made and modified by work, but to me it seems that the purpose is always defined by society and the social sphere as a whole. Not consciously defined, like someone started out to plan it, but contextualized by goals that transcend just building and exchanging stuff for no particular end. The question, or a question, would be just how this general social purpose is organized: is it done through the accumulation of personal wants or needs solely, on the labor market and consumer market, or are social features existing between people also present and shaping it?

There was an interesting economist named Pierro Sraffa who made a pretty compelling argument that what Marx was doing with his version of the labor theory of value was describing a self fulfilling economy that did not require any purpose beyond profit and growth in order to exist. To me, that appears both accurate and also highlights a key weakness in Marx's approach.