Collective as a Collection of Individuals, Composing, 17/03/2015

Here was an idea that I came across in Friedrich Hayek over the weekend. It helped me get a serious grip of how my next major book project in philosophy, Utopias, will deal with the most politically successful social ideology of the last 50 years: neoliberalism, the right-wing libertarian philosophy that justifies the place of the powerful.

I hit on the core idea in which I could genuinely say that all this talk of economic and political freedom misses an important element of a healthy human life. To be fair, the philosophy of new liberalism made great social progress when it was first developed, when Hayek published Road to Serfdom in 1944. 

Charlie Chaplin gets some work done
on the core code of his company
server's OS. Hoping to fix a bug or
The Cold War was kicking into gear, as the Western left had become obsessively focussed with building government bureaucracies to manage whole economies. The most deluded were the ones who believed that Stalin’s and Krushchev’s Soviet Union had achieved such collective justice through state control. But the error was the same. An inescapably bureaucratic life made us into cogs in machines, creatures whose only possible act is to obey.

Libertarian philosophy has a noble goal in this context. But the heritage of Hayek has been to grow paranoid and hostile to any organization that attempts a collective movement. 

Since first learning about Hayek’s political views, what mystified me was his hatred and fear of the trade union movement. Donald Gutstein described Hayek as irrationally angry at the mere existence of unions. I knew a core value of trade unionism is that a group of workers would join forces to bargain for a fair deal as a community with their employer. 

Not all of them lived up to the ideal. In my case, I encountered unions who justified creating a privileged class for their members over working for the overall prosperity of all the workers in their sector. It becomes a desperate move for survival in the face of a nearly-victorious political movement against unions, the last hypocritical jerks of a social movement in its death throes.

But a chapter of Road to Serfdom with the deliciously paranoid title, “The Totalitarians In Our Midst,” explained why Hayek, and so the libertarian social movement he inspired, despise unions so much. An international trade union or federation of such unions, he says, is an institution that organizes an industry monopolistically.

In the case of unions, they organize a monopoly of labour. In this sense, Hayek considers trade unions just as dangerous as groups of the richest men in a nation’s business world, who wish to run a cartel of state-backed monopoly corporations that controls an entire industry of the country. Dangerous in exactly the same way: monopoly organization.

Hayek, and so many libertarians who uncritically accept all of his analysis as truth,* don’t understand the importance of network organizing for political purposes. These are individuals who freely form associations with different purposes, based on contacting other individuals who believe similarly and wish to act on that belief. The physical infrastructure that we need the state to maintain must still exist; otherwise our physical means of global networked communication collapses.

I have some friends on strike at University of Toronto
right now, and I hope their collective (if frustrating)
organization finds a solid solution for its members.
But ultimately, the entire system has to change.
* And there are many more such people than we think. Just because the Austrian school of economics is not exactly in the mainstream of most university departments, universities themselves do not make the loudest philosophical voices influencing the governments and political organizations of our world. The Mt Pelerin Society, which Hayek formed with other Nobel prize winning economists of similar perspectives, educated the founders of private think tanks and government ministers of many political parties in many countries throughout the West.

The individuals never disappear in a collective of conformity. Each of us in such organizations remain active in our own lives. That’s why we shouldn’t expect permanence from these organizations, only flexibility. People organize for a particular purpose, and when the purpose is achieved, only friendship is left behind. That friendship, which can occur across a whole planet in real time in gigantic numbers for the first time in human history, is the foundation of international peace.

Sometimes, overcoming a set of ideas arises from a simple analysis. There are other people making similar insights all over the world, and trying to live it out in their own way. A community garden, a place on the internet where people can share personal stories, a neighbourhood association helping the less fortunate, a continent-wide indigenous social-environmentalist protest movement.

I’m writing that set of ideas in a book that I hope to publish sometime in the early 2020s (realistically speaking) and contribute to an intellectual climate that helps change a few minds. Heading into humanity’s ecological crisis, it’s the least I can do.

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