Development of the Individual, and the individual in pre-modern society

Continuing Tom’s notes on the individual in communist thought…

“As a man is, so is his philosophy” – Fichte.

The characteristics of individuals are products of social relations. An individual’s character is a factor in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be.

Self Alienation in Traditional Society

People derived their feelings of personal identity from ascribed roles – assigned without reference to individual differences or abilities – predicted and trained for from the moment of birth. Charles 2nd was pointedly informed that Oliver sought people on the basis of merit and not status, a reflection of two very different world outlooks.

“The domination of the land as an alien power over men is already inherent in feudal landed property. The serf is an adjunct of the land. In the same way the lord of an entailed estate, the first born son, belongs to the land. It inherits him.” – Marx, ‘Rent of Land’ in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844.

Advantages: conducive to social stability and shields the undeveloped self from expectations (and disappointments) beyond its station.

Disadvantages: stifles energy and initiative of individuals slotted into ascribed roles.

Individually the scope for disappointment is narrow as expectations are limited to the role one is born into – an emotional security blanket and an emotional and intellectual straight jacket. Now the scope is much wider because there are no limits placed on expectations.

Rousseau lived at a time when feudal ascribed identities had reached unbearable limits for a large number of people. He understood the psychic costs and urged that feudal traditions in habits and manners, for example, be abandoned.

“Individual thought or feeling, insight or initiative, could only be destructive to these traditions and routines. Marshall Berman, ‘The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society’, p100 [Berman had spent the last couple of pages describing how the dead hand of the past weighted down on the aristocracy and the peasants – differently to be sure and advantageous to the aristocracy,- “it was easy to see why the upper classes were willing to make the sacrifice of self which their social roles demanded” he adds next page – but equally limiting in their own way] Hence it was essential for traditional society to keep individuality from developing, at the bottom as well as at the top.” (p101)

”Every man was reduced to a function of the rank which he acquired at birth – or, perhaps more accurately, to paraphrase Marx, the rank which acquired him.” It is perhaps more accurate to say “limited” as reduced implies a ‘from what’ which did not exist.

Marx’s Grundrisse

Pre-capitalist periods see the individual as an accessory to definite and limited human conglomerates. That is, limited, stunted, unable to develop.

The individual of our epoch is a historical result. The individual arises historically and is not posited by nature.

The individual of Smith and Ricardo – the result of the dissolution of feudalism on the one hand and the new forces of production developed since the 16th C on the other. This individual appears as an ideal whose existence they project into the past – not as the result of historical development, but posited by nature, the so-called “natural man”. This “natural man” was appropriate to their notion of human nature. It persists and remains a dominant view.

The more we go back “in history the more the individual is dependent, as belonging to a greater whole”. The epoch that produces this idea of the isolated individual is that which is most developed viz social relations. This is not a paradox as the human individual can only individuate in the midst of society – ie, the more complex the society the greater is the scope for individuation and complex individuals. This process is ongoing.

The Individual in Pre-Modern Society

Authenticity (and hence individualism) is not a problem or even on the radar in closed, static societies governed by fixed norms and traditions. Here, people are satisfied with the roles given, experiencing themselves as pegs, aspiring “only to fit the holes that fit them best.” A static equilibrium. (Berman p xxvii)

This aspect is foundational in Plato’s Republic and why Platonic idealism is reactionary (because so out of step).

Once a man is fitted into the niche he was born for, the loose ends in his nature fall away, “each part of his nature is exercising its proper function” and he takes on that perfect balance Plato calls justice. This niche fitting gives a person their identity (butcher, baker, tailor etc. That these and a host of other occupational descriptions survive today as surnames speak, historically, of prescribed generational roles…)

“Violent class struggles may go on: but they concern only the allocation of particular holes to particular pegs. The board itself, the closely knit but rigidly stratified system of the Greek polis, which defines men precisely by their functions, remains unquestioned and intact.”

And Kautsky thought of Plato as a prototype socialist?? The fact that he did and the fact that he was seen as the leading theoretician of the Second International indicates the depth of the problem for the left around the individual. This idea needs developing.

Pre capitalist societies (and less developed capitalist ones) fit individuals into Procrustean roles and acts as if human individuality didn’t exist – at least not for the masses.

The Stoics rebelled against the procrustean nature of the polis but did so mystically. They didn’t oppose particular orderings of the world, but the world itself. People were alienated from the world and self was to be found beyond the world, transcendentally. They therefore complied with Plato’s polis in their external relations, but not internally and cut their internal world off from an engagement with the external. And a fat lot of good that did!

“Thus the search for authenticity began with a negative interpretation of the world “ [with no positive attempt to change it] – thus was born disengaged conformity/internal ‘liberation’ which, Berman says, has since passed into mainstream western culture.