Deluded Individualism

individualism It’s reassuring to discover, from time to time, that I am in good company. One of the central ideas in my analysis of unsustainability and in my structure for sustainability is that of interconnectedness. Interconnectedness goes hand in hand with the key model of Being as manifest through caring. When we can recognize that our being depends on the way we take care of everything to which we are connected, that is, everything that becomes present in our world, then and only then can we act authentically and subsequently flourish. It’s rare to find a conversation in the mainstream media that explicitly argues this point, but today in the Review section of the New York Time, I found a story right on point.

In the “Stone” column that periodically appears, offering a philosophical cut on worldly affairs, Firmin DeBrabander connected the ideas of Spinoza to President Obama. The title of this post is that appearing in the Times piece.

In this, Spinoza and President Obama seem to concur: we’re all in this together. We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled — messily, unpredictably. Our cultural demands of individualism are too extreme. They are constitutionally irrational, Spinoza and Freud tell us, and their potential consequences are disastrous. Thanks to our safety net, we live in a society that affirms the dependence and interdependence of all. To that extent, it affirms a basic truth of our nature. We forsake it at our own peril.

“This” in the first sentence refers to Spinoza’s thinking that no one is autonomous.

Spinoza also questioned the human pretense to autonomy. Men believe themselves free, he said, merely because they are conscious of their volitions and appetites, but they are wholly determined. In fact, Spinoza claimed — to the horror of his contemporaries —that we are all just modes of one substance, “God or Nature” he called it, which is really the same thing. Individual actions are no such thing at all; they are expressions of another entity altogether, which acts through us unwittingly. To be human, according to Spinoza, is to be party to a confounding existential illusion — that human individuals are independent agents — which exacts a heavy emotional and political toll on us. It is the source of anxiety, envy, anger — all the passions that torment our psyche — and the violence that ensues. If we should come to see our nature as it truly is, if we should see that no “individuals” properly speaking exist at all, Spinoza maintained, it would greatly benefit humankind.

I wrote about autonomous vs. interconnected a few days ago, as this pair of opposites is central to my critique of modernity and to the systemic requirements of sustainability-as-flourishing. DeBrabander was connecting his philosophical argument to the political rhetoric of the moment, pointing to the right’s stress on the individual and on the evils of any external rules or restrictions on the complete “freedom” on a person. This so-called negative freedom is illusory as so much of what anyone does with their life depends on connections to the world. As consumers, so important to negative freedom, we rely on workers, managers, retailers, teamsters, and many more people, even if we do not know any of them personally. Rather, the freedom to be an isolated self is completely dependent on being a part of a big system. DeBrabander says:

There is no such thing as a discrete individual, Spinoza points out. This is a fiction. The boundaries of ‘me’ are fluid and blurred. We are all profoundly linked in countless ways we can hardly perceive. My decisions, choices, actions are inspired and motivated by others to no small extent. The passions, Spinoza argued, derive from seeing people as autonomous individuals responsible for all the objectionable actions that issue from them. Understanding the interrelated nature of everyone and everything is the key to diminishing the passions and the havoc they wreak.

The alternative to negative freedom, positive freedom is defined as the capability to satisfy one’s aspirations. It should be obvious that it takes rules to do this. Private property rules are essential to any endeavors requiring material goods. Traffic lights are essential to permit traveling on crowded highways. Rules always and necessarily reflect some sort of authority that has the power to set and enforce rules. Self-generated rules do not work. The basic idea of democracy is that people choose the body designed to make the rules. Some institution is always essential if the arbitrary power of an individual or dogma is to be blunted. It is ironic that this basic tenet of governance was created by the Enlightenment, the era that spawned the conditions necessary for freedom of either type. No one from either side of the political spectrum, I think, would argue that our governance institutions are perfect and in no need of improvement. But the ideological stance that we should do away with government and its rules is doomed to make things worse.

(Cartoon credit to Get Milked)