Alternatives to Liberal Individualism and Authoritarian Collectivism

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Essay. The complexity of the social. Thinking interdependence in the twenty-first century. Jeremy Gilbert.

Jeremy Gilbert explores alternatives to the fundamentalisms of both liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism.


Jeremy Gilbert:

Liberalism, collectivism and democracy

The defining conflict of our times appears to some to be that between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. It hardly needs spelling out just what a misleading formulation this is: both crudely simplifying and mischievously divisive. Neither ‘the West’ nor ‘Islam’ are coherent entities, and the flashpoints between them are as much the symptoms of their respective internal conflicts as anything else. Bush’s aim, on one level, was always to beat the Democrats before anything else, just as Hamas’s struggle is often against Fatah as much as it is against Israel. But the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (the title of a notorious essay by neocon ideologist Samuel Huntington) is a problematic myth not only for these reasons, but also because it obscures a more fundamental conflict for which it is at times a metonym and at other times just a mask. A more fruitful way of understanding most of the antagonisms of contemporary global politics is to see them as manifestations of the conflict between two opposing principles - liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism - each of them manifest in various but increasingly extreme ways, and each of them, carried to its logical conclusion, inimical to the culture of democracy. In this article I look at some contemporary theoretical debates that are helpful in getting to grips with issues of politics and inter-connectedness, in order to try think towards alternatives beyond these two paradigms

Liberal individualism is, broadly, the most influential and widespread way of thinking about and relating to the world in western economies. It is easy to overlook this because it is opposition to it which is often most noisy. For example, the conservative opposition to gay marriage and adoption, in Europe and the US, claims many headlines, but it is, by definition, the reaction of a losing side: where once no gay people could marry or adopt, today it is increasingly only in conservative enclaves that they cannot. This is a phenomenon partly made possible by the popularisation and radicalisation of the assumptions of old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the most basic such assumption being that the claims of any group on any individual - including the right of that group to tell that individual who they can marry - are minimal, and should be kept so. The idea that we are all, fundamentally, individuals, with only contingent and relatively superficial ties to any other individuals, or to groups, traditions or institutions of any kind, is a very powerful one’ - and one which is liberating and coruscating in equal measure, depending who you are and exactly what you want to do. If you want to marry your same-sex partner, or choose your child’s school, or take cheap flights to exotic locations, or travel from job to job throughout the EU, and you have the material resources or the skills to enable you to do those things, then liberal individualism is wonderfully empowering. If you want to protect a way of life which depends upon the observance of ancient customs (repressive or otherwise), or to ensure that your local comprehensive contains a social mix rather than becoming either a ‘sink’ school or a bastion of privilege, or if you want to protect the environmental resources that we depend on collectively but consume privately, then liberal individualism is a rather more problematic paradigm.

Since denunciations of ‘bourgeois individualism’ have a long and honourable history on the left, it is worth bearing in mind just how much has been gained by the hegemony of this set of ideas. The extraordinary social gains made in much of the world by women and by sexual and ethnic minorities have largely been effected through the implementation of liberal ideals and assumptions. But, by the same token, those gains which such groups have not made despite decades of campaigning have been exactly those which demand a collective assumption of responsibility (decent publicly-funded childcare in the UK, for example). At the same time, we should remember that liberal individualism has not been spread throughout the world simply by dint of its inherent reasonableness. A long history of scholarship has demonstrated the intimate connection between this ideology and the social logic of capitalism, with its emphasis on the sanctity of property and freedom from social restrictions for capital and commerce. Wherever the IMF or WTO have demanded the privatisation of public services and the lowering of taxes (which is pretty much everywhere in the world), they have in effect enforced the implementation of liberal individualist values in at least some crucial areas of social life. Marketisation and privatisation have been imposed on more than one region by means of military force. As such, it’s not surprising that the reaction against these impositions should be frequently violent and extreme.

Broadly speaking, we can understand the rise of various kinds of ‘fundamentalism’ around the world - evangelical Christianity, Zionism, Hindutva, Islamism, Serbian and comparable nationalisms - as responses to the disaggregating and disconcerting consequences of liberal individualism. It’s no accident that sexual conservatism is such a central and ubiquitous feature of these otherwise quite disparate tendencies, and no wonder that they so often manifest themselves in attempts by men to control women’s bodies, from their veiled faces to their sanctified, abortion-proof wombs: men’s control over women - and everything that that necessitates or makes possible - has been eroded by the rise of individualism like nothing else. In all of these cases, social conservatism is combined with a powerful collectivism which insists, implicitly or explicitly, on the homogeneity and purity of the community. The simplest way to oppose individualism and its consequences is to insist on the value of the collective and to diminish the value of individuality; and the simplest way to do that is by insisting on the homogeneity of a community which is assumed to determine the identities of all who are part of it, and to exclude from belonging all who cannot share a very specific and circumscribed identity.

The great dream of much of the left - its utopian hope - has always been to find another way, to oppose individualism without crushing individuality and to imagine a community which could be inclusive and tolerant of diversity. This has not, however, been a consistent guiding vision for its most powerful elements. Soviet totalitarianism was only one symptom of socialism’s historic inability to accommodate a diversity of desires and identities. Another was the inability of the British labour movement to mobilise a wide social coalition against Thatcherism. In today’s era of proliferating possibilities, when advanced capitalism makes a vast array of life choices available to the consumer-citizens of the western world, any political project which threatens to curtail these choices without offering, as fundamentalisms do, the comforts of absolute certainty, is pretty much impossible to sell to anyone. Secular collectivism seems to belong now to the era of welfare Keynesianism, Soviet Communism and the comprehensive school.

But there are perhaps reasons to believe that this is not the end of the story. For one thing, in South America, exactly that part of the world where neoliberalism was implemented first and has bitten deepest, we are currently witnessing a remarkable resurgence of socialist utopianism - democratic, egalitarian and pluralistic - manifest in both the militancy of Chavez and Morales in Venezuela and Bolivia, and the more cautious reformism of Lula and Kirchner in Brazil and Argentina. The social forum movement - a disappointment only to those naive enough to have expected world revolution to be sparked off by a conference of NGOs organised by a French monthly journal - is explicitly committed to this same combination of egalitarianism and libertarianism, like no global movement has ever been before. At the same time, at the purely conceptual level, the past thirty years of philosophical and theoretical innovation have produced a wealth of ideas with which to challenge the one key assumption on which both neoliberal individualism and postmodern fundamentalisms agree: that collectivity is inherently totalitarian in nature.

The rest of this essay focuses on contemporary theoretical debates and the light they can cast on thinking through these issues. Of course they are in themselves nothing new. The assertion that human capacities can only be fully exercised in collaboration with others, and that collectivity should thus be considered not the limit but the precondition of true liberty, stretches back to Marx’s earliest work and well beyond, into pre-modern notions of commonwealth and community. But if the history of the past century teaches us anything, it is just how difficult it is to reconcile a respect for the collective with the freedom of the individual and the minority.

The genius, and paradox, of liberal democracy has always been its ambition to reconcile its two eponymous principles, or at least to enable them to limit each other in a workable fashion. By guaranteeing certain basic rights to the individual, it empowers the demos to authorise most important decisions while protecting individuals and minorities from ‘the tyranny of the majority’. (It’s worth noting that in these terms the UK is not a liberal democracy at all, because there is no right or privilege accorded to any British citizen which a parliamentary majority cannot rescind.).

But it is a myth of liberal democracy that its two principles co-exist naturally: that liberalism and democracy somehow imply each other. It is a view reinforced by the common emphasis that both democratic and liberal theory tend to place on the importance of free speech, but it is important to understand that the liberal and democratic arguments for free speech are quite different. The liberal argument emphasises the importance of protecting the private right of the individual to express their opinions, while the democratic argument emphasises the value to the general polity of an open contest between different views and perspectives. Beyond this issue, history makes quite clear that democracy need not imply liberalism: Hitler, after all, was a democratically elected politician. And the current condition of ‘post-democracy’ in western capitalist economies could be characterised as one in which increasingly liberal societies are governed by an increasingly unaccountable technocracy. Contrast this with Iran’s Islamic republic, in which a largely illiberal political culture is upheld by the democratic consent of the majority, or indeed with the efforts of the evangelical Right in the US to impose its morality on the entire population. Contrary to Fukuyama’s notorious thesis (in The End of History and the Last Man, 1993) liberal democracy has not resolved itself as the solution to the riddle of history: the problem of how to reconcile aspirations towards pluralism, liberalism, collectivism and democracy remains as acute as ever. It may be an old aspiration, and an old problem, but there should never be any complacency in the search for new solutions to it, both practical and conceptual.

‘Community’, interdependence and totality

In mainstream political discourse today, these issues are most commonly addressed in terms of debates over the meaning and value of ‘community’. We can get a sense of the philosophical stakes in this discussion if we consider some of the ambiguities in the way this term gets used. ‘Community’ is often evoked as an abstract good, or as an experience rather than an identifiable object. Specific communities are referred to (‘the Muslim community’, ‘the gay community’, ‘the local community’) without any clarity as to what the boundaries of such entities might be or how it might be possible to imagine them acting or thinking as single units. In even more problematic terms, ‘the community’ is often referred to - rather like ‘Society’ - without any particular attention to this set of questions. It’s easy to see why philosophers such as Jacques Derrida have been so uncomfortable with the whole concept of ‘community’: (see Derrida Points, 1995) it is a term which tends to impose an imagined homogeneity on a potentially complex and diverse collection of groups and individuals, and is often used to authorise the right of someone to speak for that collective without their claim to that right having any clear legitimacy. On the other hand, ‘community’ in the abstract denotes a certain experience of sharing - sharing space, sharing concerns, sharing resources - which is clearly constitutive of important dimensions of human (and non-human) life. The sense of a ‘loss’ or ‘lack’ of community therefore often registers a real response to one of the consequences of liberal capitalism’s tendency to disaggregate collectivities and enforce mobility on individuals, families and commodities.

This emphasis on the shared is one reason why commentators on these consequences have recently tried to revive the notion of ‘the common’, sharing as it does the Latin root of ‘community’ (communis: in common, public, shared, etc). The mobilisation of the idea of ‘the commons’ as those resources - natural and institutional - which are currently publicly or socially owned but which are threatened by new forms of privatisation and commodification is a particularly nuanced rhetorical strategy, evoking the history of the enclosures of ‘common land’, which deprived the rural poor of land and thus of even nominal economic independence. At the same time, it deliberately evokes the original meaning of ‘communism’, as a general movement to assert the right of all people to a common heritage of material resources, rather than as a specific political system, strategy or party. Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea of ‘the common’ has connotations which have a clear resonance with contemporary environmental concerns, tying them into a very long history of communistic thinking: the seventeenth century English radical Gerard Winstanley claimed that the Earth was once (and should be again) ‘a common treasury for all’; and, at an even more fundamental level, ecological thinking demands a recognition of the extent to which this ‘common treasury’ is one shared not just by other people but by other organisms as well, in a complex system of interdependence.

How that interdependence is actually understood, theorised and imagined is one of the key questions implicit in contemporary debates. I want to suggest that there are two main paradigms and sets of emphases implicit in most such commentary. The first is that which stresses the interdependence of entities (people, animals, plants, even basic chemical elements), largely on the grounds of their common belonging to a single material continuum. We can perhaps get a sense of what is at stake in this mode of thinking by considering yet another term with the same etymology as ‘common’, ‘community’ and ‘communism’: ‘communion’. This word, in both theological and secular usage, tends to connote not just a sharing (of thoughts, food, etc) but a degree of intermingling whereby a common substance is produced from otherwise separate entities. Now, a certain strand of philosophical thought (several strands, actually, from different traditions) tends to stress that at a fundamental level, all phenomena are always already in some kind of communion to the extent that they all share a common substance. On certain interpretations, modern physics bears out this understanding by discovering that all substances are, at a sub-atomic level, composed of the same types of particle. In Western philosophy this is a view most commonly associated with the ideas of the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, whose monism (that is, his insistence that all phenomena are fundamentally composed of a single substance, rather than there being two or more distinct substances - e.g. ‘matter’ and ‘spirit’ - comprising the universe) has been understood by subsequent commentators as the basis for a radical materialism which insists that all phenomena are modalities of matter. Spinoza’s pantheism is still often understood as a refusal of any dualistic or transcendentalist claims about the nature of reality, and as founding the modern tradition of materialist thought, represented in the twentieth century by Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze.

Spinozan materialism has a good deal of resonance with much ecological thinking insofar as it stresses the fact that all material things are composed of a single substance and so belong to a single continuum of materiality. The assertion that human beings’ special capacities for language, tool-use or rational cognition do not somehow exempt them or their societies from the rules and economies governing all other parts of the material world is a crucial element of much ecological discourse, and an important counter to those traditions which insist on humanity’s unique capacity to transcend its material limitations (traditions which are today manifest in the US government’s insistence that as-yet non-existent technological solutions will be sufficient to ward off catastrophic climate change). However, for other thinkers, Spinozism is not at all a useful way to think about the nature of the interdependence between humans, or between humans the wider elements of the natural world. Derrida’s objections to the very idea of community would certainly apply to the Spinozan assertion that all things share a common substance, in so far as that was taken to have any political or ethical implications. In fact, Derrida’s thinking on these issues is explicitly indebted to the most resolutely anti-Spinozan philosopher of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, it is only possible to adopt an ethical relationship to the world by recognising the incommensurable difference between the self and ‘the Other’. Ethics for Levinas simply is the recognition of this difference and the refusal to try to obliterate it, and for him such a recognition precludes any understanding of self and Other as belonging to a single totality. To understand self and Other as elements of a single totality is to efface the fundamental difference between self and Other and hence to commit the most basic ethical violation. For Levinas, the properly ethical recognition of our infinite responsibility to the Other depends upon the observance of this difference, and all ethical violations in some sense spring from the will to efface it. From a Levinasian perspective, the holocaust is only a very extreme example of what happens when the will to destroy that difference which cannot be assimilated goes unchecked, and even the smallest unkindness might be understood as unethical to the extent that it springs from a failure to respect both the difference of the Other and my responsibility to him/her/it.

Now this is interesting in the context of the discussion thus far, because such thinking also resonates strongly with certain elements of contemporary ecology. In fact, it is hard to justify positions such as a belief in biodiversity as an inherent good, or the idea that we have a responsibility to future generations or to life on Earth in general, without recourse to something like a Levinasian ethics. From a purely Spinozan perspective it would be hard to see why we should not simply accept the consequences of climate change and our own role in them as effects of the very same natural processes which brought human beings into existence in the first place. Without some conception of our specific ethical responsibility to things/people/generations other than ourselves, why not just let nature take its course, wiping out human and all other mammalian life just as Lovelock predicted as a possibility some time ago? What is particularly interesting about this observation in this context is Levinas’s rejection of any notion of totality as rendering such an ethical perspective impossible. Put very crudely, for Levinas, if there is not something that separates us from each other, from the world, from the future, then it simply makes no sense to think in terms of our ‘responsibility’ for anything. We can only be responsible for something in a meaningful way if we have some choice as to the nature of our relationship to it. The idea of totality, for Levinas, would ultimately make nobody responsible for anything because every ‘decision’ and every outcome would have to be seen as ultimately just an inevitable moment in the unfolding of the totality.

Beyond ‘totality’

This is interesting because totality has clearly been such an important concept for left green thought. From Murray Bookchin’s classic Social Ecology through to Wendy Wheeler’s recent The Whole Creature, ‘totality’ is the name given to an entire complex of social and natural relations which make up a society, polity, culture or ecosystem. The fear which runs through the work of philosophers such as Levinas, Derrida and Lyotard, on the other hand, is that all such thinking of ‘totality’ is inherently totalitarian, ultimately reducing all the elements of any such system to components of a single entity and thereby precluding the possibility of a truly ethical relationship between any one such element (i.e. a human person, or perhaps a government representing them) and any other.

The question which emerges here is how far it might be possible to understand in some other way the complex relationships between elements which thinkers such as Bookchin and Wheeler want to capture with the name ‘totality’. What I would like to suggest, quite simply, is that it is not necessary to understand elements as belonging to a single ‘totality’ in order to understand them as fully interdependent. This is by no means a new observation. The understanding of the being and meaning of all phenomena as inherently relational - that is, wholly dependent upon the networks of relationships with other phenomena in which they are always already caught-up - is a theme which runs through the work of Derrida and thinkers partly inspired by him such as Ernesto Laclau and Jean-Luc Nancy. What distinguishes such work from the Hegelian tradition which produces the concept of totality is not, as is often assumed, an absolute scepticism as to the interrelatedness and interdependence of people, objects, etc, or as to the intelligibility of their relationships; it is, rather, a refusal of the assumption that the full sum of those relationships and their consequences could ever be wholly known. It is not, from this perspective, that ideas, people, objects, plants, animals, etc, are not wholly interdependent: rather the very complexity and innumerability of their interdependences means that their potential and actual relationships can never be wholly mapped out or their consequences fully predicted. This is not to say that is not necessary very often to make the best guess available to us about the probable outcome of a given action, and act (or not) accordingly: in fact what makes a decision to act (or not) ethical is partly the fact that we cannot know for sure that we are making the best possible decision, but are forced to take the risk of making the best decision that we can. It is only because we cannot be absolutely certain about the consequences of our decision to, for example, tax air travel more stringently or build another airport, that that decision becomes something like an ethical act rather than simply a passive reflex. Interestingly, this is a perspective wholly convergent with complexity theory (on which many current commentators, including Wheeler, draw), which tends, in different aspects, to emphasise both the inherent connectedness of phenomena and the unpredictability arising from the fact that the connections between them are too many and various ever to be fully enumerated and calculated.

So how does all this relate to the question of relationships between democracy and liberalism, individual and collective? To a certain extent, the most interesting contributions to the understanding of collectivity to have emerged in recent radical theory and philosophy can only be properly understood in the light of the foregoing debate. The most obvious contribution has been Hardt & Negri’s work, and in particular their mobilisation of the concept of ‘the Multitude’, a term they draw from seventeenth-century debates, and in particular the political writings of Spinoza. Hardt & Negri posit the ‘multitude’ as the counter to ‘Empire’, their name for the complex global network of institutions and agencies through which Capital now acts. The multitude is the complex and inherently creative network to which almost all humans - certainly all workers of any kind - now belong. Hardt & Negri explicitly deploy the term in order to convey something of the interconnectedness of all contemporary social and productive relations without subsuming any one element of that complexity - any individual, group, or institution - into a homogenising identity such as ‘the working class’ or ‘the people’. The value of this formulation is its simple recognition of the need to find some way to evoke a certain global collectivity without tying our understanding of that collectivity to any particular identity. Its weakness is that Hardt & Negri never convincingly refute the argument that simply to name this collectivity ‘the multitude’ (or ‘the’ anything), is already to attribute to it a degree of identity and intentionality which is not much different from that implied by a term such as ‘the international proletariat’ or simply, ‘humanity’. This is symptomatic of the extent to which Hardt & Negri remain quite firmly within the tradition of totality-thinking. Perhaps the most notorious manifestation of this aspect of their thought is their assertion that Empire has no outside and no centre, and that any attack on any element of it is equal in effectiveness and importance to any other. The problem with this formulation is that it implies that spraying graffiti on a bus shelter would be as important a political act as bringing down a major neoliberal government, thus promising to free the would-be political activist from making the kinds of difficult choices and decisions from which effective political strategies emerge. This illustrates one of the potential problems with a mode of thought that tends to understand all phenomena as belonging to a single plane; and it illustrates some of the affinities between such Spinozism and the tradition of totality-thinking. Ultimately, the danger of such thought is that it always seeks, at some level, to simplify complex relations in a politically dangerous way.

While Hardt & Negri remain useful - at times invaluable - contributors to these debates, a range of thinkers today offer a more complex approach to some of these issues. Following Derrida, Nancy, Laclau, Lyotard and Giorgio Agamben, we might argue that both globalisation and the environmental crisis demand an approach which recognises the infinite relationality of human and non-human organisms and other elements of the material world (‘natural’ and ‘artificial’): a relationality which is a condition of unpredictability and instability, rather than the precondition for any knowledge of totality . Following Hannah Arendt in her classic The Human Condition (1958), I would argue that it is important to recognise that this condition of infinitely complex unpredictability is the condition of all social action. An expanded concept of sociality as always constituted by this logic of infinite relationality, and including (following the ‘Actor-Network Theory’ of Bruno Latour: see for example Reassembling the Social ) non-human as well as human elements, might serve better here than any conception of either ‘community’ or ‘totality’.

This observation raises some problems, however. Let’s go back for a moment to the ‘debate’ between the Spinozan and Levinasian perspectives. One issue which we skated over was the question of whether it really was impossible to acknowledge a radical difference between self and Other while also acknowledging that all material reality inhabits a single continuum comprised of a single substance. One possible answer would be that one can acknowledge the ‘consubstantiality’ of all matter without it having any bearing upon ethical or political perspectives if one simply takes it to be a banal fact with no obvious political or ethical implications. The observation that, at some level, everything that exists is part of a single whole made up of the same substance might belong to the realms of theoretical physics and mystical revelation without having any direct bearing on ethical philosophy or political thought. This is a valid possibility, but it raises the question as to whether just the same observation might not be made with regard to the observation that phenomena are ‘infinitely relational’. Might not the relational interdependence of all phenomena be just a banal existential fact without any political implications? The answer is that it might be, were it not for the fact that a particular set of attitudes to this issue implicitly informs a range of policies typical of twenty-first century neoliberal governance.

The complexity of democracy

As I’ve suggested before in these pages, the ‘individualisation’ of contemporary societies is not something which simply happens; it is also something actively encouraged by governments persuaded that the market is the only mechanism by which collective decisions can and should be taken over the allocation of resources in a complex situation. In education policy, for example, the imposition of competitive, individualised market relations on institutions and individual students, teachers and parents requires considerable compulsion given the natural tendency to treat education as a complex, collaborative and open-ended process. Neoliberal governance looks at the complexity and unpredictable relationality of social life in the twenty-first century and sets out to simplify it by reducing every relationship to a contract and/or a commodity transaction. Where such an approach cannot be applied - as in questions of ‘anti-social’ behaviour - its approach is similarly simplistic and individualistic, subjecting unruly individuals to authoritarian regulation rather than making any attempt to empower collectivities to deliberate over their priorities and the forms of accountability appropriate to their implementation.

From the perspective recommended here, in fact, both liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism can be seen to share a common impulse: both set out to reduce the complexity and unpredictability of the social to some simpler situation. Liberal capitalism and neoliberal governments work to reduce every social situation to a contract or a competition between individuals in a market place: even, in the most extreme cases, treating corporations as legal individuals, legally and politically occluding both their inherently social character and the distorting effects of their concentration and monopolisation of power. Authoritarian collectivism, in contrast, seeks to reduce or eliminate difference in order to guarantee the homogeneity of the community. In either case, it is the inherent complexity of the social which is actively opposed. And at times the two tendencies come together, as in much of the current programme of the current UK government. There may be many forms which alternative democracies could take in the future, and it may ultimately be banal to observe that all human life, indeed all life, indeed all existence, is inherently, infinitely and unpredictably complex and relational in character. But if attempts to renew democracy are made without the recognition of this fact’s banality - which is as much to say its irreducibility - the consequences are always likely to be dire."


'Jeremy Gilbert teaches Cultural Studies at the University of East London. His books Anti-Capitalism and Culture (Berg) and Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism (Pluto) should both appear in 2008'