Lost in the Collective, Research Time, 01/09/2013

One of the most dangerous elements of research that comes out of a Marxist tradition, like the Critique of Dialectical Reason, is that of the collective. This never really becomes a problem if you stay within a context of interpreting Marxist theory. But it definitely becomes a problem when you start following the Theses on Feuerbach,* and use your philosophy as a program to change the world. Because you can’t do politics that still respects people while treating them as units of a collective.

* I like to think of the Theses on Feuerbach as Karl Marx’s proto-twitter. Because it makes me laugh.

Sartre pegs the central problem of thinking about humans as a collective first, and as individuals second, which doesn’t appear as a problem to a disturbingly large number of Marxist figures, to the best of my current knowledge. In fact, he’s remarkably progressive on this point in comparison to a lot of left-wing theorists among his contemporaries (like the vastly overrated Frankfurt School). The Marxist tradition tends to believe that identifying the conformity of your interests with a group is a condition of liberation: when everyone realizes they’re equally suppressed by the current political order, they’ll band together to overthrow it.

But Sartre is right to see that this kind of politics of conformity to common interests can just as easily be perverted to destructive ends. Because when the members of a group or a class are treated the same solely because of that membership, that’s what we call racism, sexism, classism, and any other form of discrimination out there. Sartre specifically talks about anti-Semitism, because he’s an upper-middle class Frenchman in the mid-20th century who lived through the Second World War. But it’s true of any attitude that subsumes individual identity within a group identity. And it’s true whether someone does it to you, or whether you do it to yourself.

This is the principle that underlies my suspicion of Alain Badiou’s philosophy as well. I don’t have time to get into the (many, many, many) details of Badiou’s philosophy right now. But his idea that an individual only counts as existing insofar as that individual is counted as one of a collective is, for me, a very dangerous thought. There’s a lot of interesting and valuable ideas in Badiou’s thinking, but this principle makes me distrust him.

I think this is a peculiar insight to which strange people are prone. I’m a strange guy, and I’ve always resisted philosophies that understand humans as assimilating into a group identity. I’m sensitive to the fact that a human’s identity doesn’t fit into easily categorizable boxes. The modern marketing industry is getting better at that, but only because their frameworks of analysis have become far more finely detailed than they used to be. Buzzfeed does this insanely well with demo-listing, absurdly narrowly focussed articles which are targeted to very specific groups. 

But I’ve never fit in well to any group. I’ve always been a misfit, and I’m proud of it, because it’s part of what makes me remarkable. Conformity for the sake of conformity is never liberating. And conformity for the sake of solidarity is dangerous. Eventually, you want to be given the space to grow on your own, especially if you’re strange or unusual enough that you don’t want to assimilate your personality completely to a regime of appropriate behaviour or thinking. This mistake, I think, underlies all the repressive activity of communist regimes: social solidarity and conformity may be required for revolutionary activity, but a society will never be free after a radical political change until we can discard solidarity-at-all-costs for the freedom to think and experiment as individuals. 

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