Thursday, April 17, 2014

individualism, independence, differentiation, and community

(This post is a thumbnail sketch of something I have been working on for some time now. I am aware that the arguments are not fully worked out and that the language is complicated.)

In the western world we live in the least individualized most interdependent society that has existed in human history.

In more primitive societies there is a high degree of individual self sufficiency. Subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, etc. societies are made up of self sufficient individuals that gather together for the marginal benefits of larger group interaction. However the group is not essential to their survival and well-being. Each member of the community could leave the community and do just fine on their own compared to the quality of life within the society. Leaving the group entails no substantive change in the life of the individual.

In more modern societies this becomes reversed. The the individual becomes highly interrelated within the community such that these interrelations become the primary identity of the individual. For the individual to leave the community they need to undergo significant and substantive change. Their being and identity becomes inextricably subsistent to the community. The gains of participation in the community shift from being marginal to being essential to the existence of the individual.

I am now going to make a distinction in my language. I will distinguish between community and homotype. A community is a group made up of independent individuals while the members of an homotype have lost their independence and individuality.

I posit that we as humans hunger for community. I believe further that as our social independence decreases our psychological hunger for individuality increases. This is because we want that sort of self sufficient relatedness but it has been superseded by the inextricability of our social interconnections. 

We sense this as a void, as a lack, as a pulling hunger. Greed and selfishness is a pathological response to this condition. I am not saying that this condition creates greed or selfishness but that we fall to those vices out of a desire to set ourselves apart so that it becomes possible for us to engage in community rather than be enmeshed in an homotype. Greed and selfishness are not a desire to have more but to have more than. They are specifically vices of distinction.

In some Christian circles that observe modern western society there is a strong criticism of "individualism." Part of this criticism is valid in that it is actually talking about the pathology of greed and selfishness used to individuate. This should be made distinct in the language of the criticism for the sake of coherent communication.

There is another part of the criticism that is more problematic. This part comes out of the inherent conservatism of religion. It comes out of a primitive need for cohesion. In primitive societies the marginal benefits of community were augmented by ideological hegemony. The individuals of the group had no essential structural need to remain in the community but the marginal benefits that accrued to the community were diminished if an individual defected. Ideological hegemony could mediate against this defection to the marginal benefit of the whole. This cohesion effect is one of the major historical social benefits of religion. It is because of this history that religion hungers for this hegemony and out of this hunger comes the illegitimate modern criticism of individuality. Religion continues to work to hold together a society that is already too tightly packed for human comfort. The "individualism" criticism has conflated the pathologies of greed and selfishness with the now extinct danger of social defection.

It is telling that the criticism of individualism is in the name of preserving community. A community that the forces of society have rendered non-existent by eroding the very independent freedom that individualism is the attempt to regain.  And that the criticism is of the most thoroughly interdependent society ever to exist in human history.

Though I believe that this drive for ideological hegemony is foundational to religion, however socially helpful it has historically been, I do not believe that it is at all essential to the actual movement of God in the world.

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