Does Name Make Rank or Rank Make Name? Research Time, 10/09/2013

A further idea for political philosophy that follows from the previously discussed set of ideas in the Critique of Dialectical Reason has to do with the relation of individuals to the groups of which they’re part. The perennial problem of this book is that of the collective, the ways in which humans should belong to groups and identify with those groups, or shy away and live as individuals. 

At heart, it’s a perennial question of political philosophy in general. Maybe even THE perennial such question. But I don’t want to get too grandiose in my statements. Mostly because I find grandiosity kind of irritating, the declaration that you’re the only one in the room that’s right. Nonetheless, I think I might be onto something. Consider the basic framework of questions by which Sartre works out the tensions within this idea of the politically active collective, in his example of the revolutionary riots. 

Philosophy tends to be such a serious discipline
that I enjoy juxtaposing its seriousness with
funny pictures of its greatest practitioners. It
makes us all seem more human.
Each individual in a community recognizes the same common threat. At the same time, these individuals perceive that all the other individuals similarly recognize the same threat that you do. Not only are people aware of a common threat, they’re aware of the awareness of their neighbours. So the politically active group, the neighbourhood watch that decides to overthrow the police, is defined by an incredibly deep self-consciousness. It’s very fragile because it’s very difficult to communicate well enough to continue this multi-levelled self-awareness. That fragility makes it very dynamic.

Meanwhile, once the group gets moving, action happens at too rapid a pace to maintain open and viable communication channels about every little thing. Individual actors within the group have to act, and hope that the appearance of solidarity behind him doesn’t waver beyond a particular threshold of believability. At one point, the unity of the people or the community becomes a background presumption for individual action, and the legitimacy of that action is maintained more by the sustained belief (sometimes against evidence, if you bother or want to look for it) in the unity of the community, than any actual unity the community might have.

In the heat of the moment, the high self-awareness of everyone in the politically active group at its origin makes every individual feel as though his action was the expression of the general will of the group. But that individual has no knowledge of whether it is, and probably doesn’t have the time to gain such knowledge. As well, an individual may not understand how his own actions can be determined by the pressure of the group. Because he joined the group as a self-aware constructive action, the weight of that action can count for more than it deserves because the origin stands brighter in his thinking than the current, possibly dissolute or corrupt, state of the group.

Throughout all this tension, I feel the subsumption of individuality haunting the analysis. There is always that danger in the collective that the individual will disappear, that group identity and conformity of the personality and identity to a few stereotypes will overpower the capacities of individuals to be peculiar and different. Such a conformist group has more power in the short term, but is also more violent. And it’s less adaptable in the long term because it allows no deviation, and deviation from a norm could invent an ability that would be remarkably useful if circumstances change. 

Deviation and strangeness is good for communities, and popular movements that allow no such deviation in the name of unity or solidarity of the collective are dangerous as the collective becomes a reason and a means for suppression. Yet action is really only powerful politically when it is group action, many individuals putting their idiosyncrasy aside to work for a common goal. A community consisting entirely of deviations is defenseless, because it can’t muster any unity when under threat.

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