The Right Wing V: There Is No Individual Without Society, Research Time, 23/09/2014

Continued from previous post . . . You see, in the history of philosophy, we’ve had a very difficult time trying to make precise sense out of aggregate bodies. We just aren’t accustomed to thinking about these kinds of bodies, and many intuitive ideas of the modern right wing are based on the inability to understand aggregate bodies. 

Here’s a very simple idea to illustrate what I mean. In international relations scholarship, it’s a common convention to use the name of a country as a proper noun. So I can talk, in this context, about Russia invading Ukraine the same way I can talk about Steve showing up unannounced on Rick’s doorstep with an extra-large pepperoni pizza and a bottle of whiskey when Rick had work the next morning and just wanted to stay home to read a pleasant book or catch up on Homeland

Rick and Steve have clearly defined self-conscious identities and desires that they come to understand through careful introspection. Rick’s individual interest is a quiet night in before having to get up early in the morning, while Steve’s individual interest is to get blind drunk and complain through a haze of breath reeking of burnt pepperoni and mozzarella about how his ex-girlfriend never got to know the real Steve.

If Margaret Thatcher haunts your dreams tonight, I'll consider
myself to have done my job right.
In just the same way, we humans have a habit of talking about a society as if it were an organic individual like Rick or Steve. Robert Nozick stands against this vision of society, as if it were an organism with specifically defined, self-conscious interests, whose existence subsumed the lives and desires of all the individual people who composed that society. It is this definition of society as an organism that Margaret Thatcher disabused the world of when she said, “There is no such thing as society!”

In Thatcher’s context, she was discussing the tendency of people to accept their lots in life sheepishly, blaming a disembodied entity of which they were part called society, or waiting for a government answer to their problems. Her point was that individuals had only themselves to blame for their poverty, and only themselves, their families, and their networks as individuals to rely upon for relief and uplift. 

Nozick thinks in a similar vein, but his targets are the moral-political philosophies that would take it to be good that some sacrifice for an overall gain throughout a society. He says, point blank, that there is no unified body called society that can benefit from an overall gain with the unwilling sacrifice of component individuals. There are, instead of this vision, only “different individuals with separate lives.” Each of these lives finds their meaning individually, as a seeker for meaning to one’s own life.* Moral worth lies with the individual alone, and society is the relation among all individuals.

* The more I saw this notion of own-ness in Nozick, the more I think it might be worth introducing the ideas of the 19th century proto-existentialist Max Stirner into the melange of philosophies that the Utopias book is turning into. I think there’ll be a Composing post later on how this composition will depart from some academia norms now that I’m decisively outside it.

The difference I have with Nozick is that the relations among all individuals don’t just constitute a collection of individuals interacting without creating anything new. I’m also not one of those theorists of a utilitarian brand of socialism, which is Nozick’s specific target in the early chapters of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, because utilitarian calculations improperly render a society as an organic whole whose parts are simple additives.

None of these other ways of understanding what society is have any conception of how non-linear causation works. There is such a thing as society, and it is the ridiculously complex network of individuals, their social links, their material interdependencies, and the institutions through which they live. All these different bodies relate actively, generating scale-free networks through which change proliferates in extremely complicated patterns. Society is not a collection of randomly related individuals. Society is not a super-organism. It’s an ecology.

Given the collapse of so much of the Conservative Party's
unity that used to back Stephen Harper unconditionally, I
can solidly say that I doubt his government will survive the
2015 elections. But I'm pretty sure the Trudeau-Mulcair
coalition that will replace him will spend their entire first
term trying to repair all the social and environmental damage
that his leadership did to Canada.
Modern state conservatism, which in its contemporary form has few better representatives than Canada’s own Stephen Harper, ignores this ecological view of society in favour of a vision of humanity as a collection of individuals with no clear connections to each other or their homes. 

It’s why the Harper government’s reforms to employment insurance encourage underemployed individuals in the depressed east to leave their home communities for the economically greener pastures of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Only individuals matter, not their communities; no one loses anything by moving from their historical homes to a place where they have no roots or connections. Now, I’m one of those people who left a home where his family had deep roots, and Canada is built from generations of people who made the same decision. But at least I know what I walked away from.

More specifically, Harper’s bugbear of sociology and his changes to Statistics Canada’s rules that gutted the institution’s power to study Canada’s population articulates clearly the vision of individualist conservatism. Without the mandatory long-form census, Statistics Canada has become incapable of gathering enough reliably comprehensive data (self-selecting survey response contaminates a sample from the beginning) to measure wide trends in Canadian society. 

We can no longer discover large-scale structural injustices or unfairnesses by empirical investigation. If we don’t discover them, we don’t have to accept their existence. All we have are isolated individuals whose riches or poverty is contingent and without cause other than the individuals’ histories. We can imagine a level playing field of pure individuality where all are morally equal and equally responsible for their lot. The imperative to help disappears when we are all separate and isolated individuals.

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