I.7 Won't Libertarian Socialism destroy individuality?

No. Libertarian socialism only suppresses individuality for those who are so shallow that they can't separate their identity from what they own. However, be that as it may, this is an important objection to any form of socialism and, given the example of "socialist" Russia, needs to be discussed more.

The basic assumption behind this question is that capitalism encourages individuality, but this assumption can be faulted on many levels. As Kropotkin noted, "individual freedom [has] remained, both in theory and in practice, more illusory than real" [Ethics, p. 27] and that "the want of development of the personality [leading to herd-psychology] and the lack of individual creative power and initiative are certainly one of the chief defects of our time." [Op. Cit., p. 28] In effect, modern capitalism has reduced individuality to a parody of what it could be (see section I.7.4). As Affie Kohn points out, "our miserable individuality is screwed to the back of our cars in the form of personalized license plates."

So we see a system which is apparently based on "egoism" and "individuality" but whose members are free to expand as standardized individuals, who hardly express their individuality at all. Far from increasing individuality, capitalism standardizes it and so restricts it - that it survives at all is more an expression of the strength of humanity than any benefits of the capitalist system. This impoverishment of individuality is hardly surprising in a society based on hierarchical institutions which are designed to assure obedience and subordination.

So, can we say that libertarian socialism will increase individuality or is this conformity and lack of "individualism" a constant feature of the human race? In order to make some sort of statement on this, we have to look at non-hierarchical societies and organisations. We will discuss "primitive" cultures as an example of non-hierarchical societies in section I.7.1. Here, however, we indicate how anarchist organisations will protect and increase an individual's sense of self.

Anarchist organisations and tactics are designed to promote individuality. They are decentralised, participatory organisations and so they give those involved the "social space" required to express themselves and develop their abilities and potential in ways restricted under capitalism. As Gaston Leval notes in his book on the anarchist collectives during the Spanish Revolution, "so far as collective life is concerned, the freedom of each is the right to participate spontaneously with one's thought, one's will, one's initiative to the full extent of one's capacities. A negative liberty is not liberty; it is nothingness." [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 346]

By being able to take part in and manage the decision making processes which directly affect you, your ability to think for yourself is increased and so you are constantly developing your abilities and personality. The spontaneous activity described by Leval has important psychological impacts. As Eric Fromm notes, "[i]n all spontaneous activity, the individual embraces the world. Not only does his [sic] individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified. For the self is as strong as it is active." [Escape from Freedom, p. 225]

Therefore, individuality does not atrophy within an anarchist organisation and becomes stronger as it participates and acts within the social organisation. In other words, individuality requires community. As Max Horkheimer once observed, "individuality is impaired when each man decides to fend for himself. . . . The absolutely isolated individual has always been an illusion. The most esteemed personal qualities, such as independence, will to freedom, sympathy, and the sense of justice, are social as well as individual virtues. The fully developed individual is the consummation of a fully developed society." [The Eclipse of Reason, p. 135]

The sovereign, self-sufficient individual is as much a product of a healthy community as it is from individual self-realization and the fulfillment of desire. Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, documented the tendency for community to enrich and develop individuality. As he proved, this tendency is seen throughout human history, which suggests that the abstract individualism of capitalism is more the exception than the rule in social life. In other words, history indicates that by working together with others as equals individuality is strengthen far more than in the so-called "individualism" associated with capitalism.

This communal support for individuality is hardly surprising as individuality is a product of the interaction between social forces and individual attributes. The more an individual cuts themselves off from social life, the more likely their individuality will suffer. This can be seen from the 1980's when neoliberal governments supporting the "radical" individualism associated with free market capitalism were elected in both Britain and the USA. The promotion of market forces lead to social atomisation, social disruption and a more centralised state. As "the law of the jungle" swept across society, the resulting disruption of social life ensured that many individuals became impoverished ethically and culturally as society became increasingly privatised.

In other words, many of the characteristics which we associate with a developed individuality (namely ability to think, to act, to hold ones own opinions and standards and so forth) are (essentially) social skills and are encouraged by a well developed community. Remove that social background and these valued aspects of individuality are undermined by fear, lack of social interaction and atomisation. Taking the case of workplaces, for example, surely it is an obvious truism that a hierarchical working environment will marginalise the individual and ensure that they cannot express their opinions, exercise their thinking capacities to the full or manage their own activity. This will have in impact in all aspects of an individual's life.

Hierarchy in all its forms produces oppression and a crushing of individuality (see section B.1). In such a system, the "business" side of group activities would be "properly carried out" but at the expense of the individuals involved. Anarchists agree with John Stuart Mill when he asks, under such "benevolent dictatorship," "what sort of human beings can be formed under such a regimen? what development can either their thinking or their active faculties attain under it? . . .Their moral capacities are equally stunted. Wherever the sphere of action of human beings is artificially circumscribed, their sentiments are narrowed and dwarfed." [Representative Government, pp. 203-4] Like anarchists, Mill tended his critique of political associations into all forms of associations and stated that if "mankind is to continue to improve" then in the end one form of association will predominate, "not that that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and workpeople without a voice in the management, but the association of labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves." [Collected Works, book II, p. 205]

Hence, anarchism will protect and develop individuality by creating the means by which all individuals can participate in the decisions that affect them, in all aspects of their lives. Anarchism is build upon the central assertion that individuals and their institutions cannot be considered in isolation from one another. Authoritarian organisations will create a servile personality, one that feels savest conforming to authority and what is considered normal. A libertarian organisation, one that is based upon participation and self-management will encourage a strong personality, one that knows his or her own mind, thinks for itself and feels confident in his or her own powers.

A libertarian re-organisation of society will be based upon, and encourage, a self-empowerment and self-liberation of the individual and by participation within self-managed organisations, individuals will educate themselves for the responsibilities and joys of freedom. As Carole Pateman points out, "participation develops and fosters the very qualities necessary for it; the more individuals participate the better able they become to do so." [Participation and Democratic Theory, pp. 42-43]

Such a re-organisation (as we will see in section J) is based upon the tactic of direct action. This tactic also encourages individuality by encouraging the individual to fight directly, by their own self-activity, that which they consider to be wrong. As Voltairine de Cleyre puts it:

"Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist. . . Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action. . . [direct actions] are the spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppresses by a situation." [Direct Action]

Therefore, anarchist tactics base themselves upon self-assertion and this can only develop individuality. Self-activity can only occur when there is a independent, free-thinking self. As self-management is based upon the principle of direct action ("all co-operative experiments are essentially direct action") we can suggest that individuality will have little to fear from an anarchist society.

For anarchists, like Mill, real liberty requires social equality. For "[i]f individuals are to exercise the maximum amount of control over their own lives and environment then authority structures in these areas most be so organised that they can participate in decision making." [Pateman, Op. Cit., p. 43] Hence individuality will be protected, encouraged and developed in an anarchist society far more than in a class ridden, hierarchical society like capitalism. It is because wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than individuality that anarchists oppose capitalism in the name of socialism -- libertarian socialism, the free association of free individuals.

I.7.1 Do "Primitive" cultures indicate that communalism defends individuality?

Yes. In many so-called primitive cultures, we find a strong respect for individuals. As Paul Radin points out, "If I were to state... what are the outstanding features of aboriginal civilisation, I... would have no hesitation in answering that... respect for the individual, irrespective of age or sex" is the first one. [The World of Primitive Man, p. 11]

Murray Bookchin comments on Radin's statement as follows, "respect for the individual, which Radin lists first as an aboriginal attribute, deserves to be emphasized, today, in an era that rejects the collective as destructive of individuality on the one hand, and yet, in an orgy of pure egotism, has actually destroyed all the ego boundaries of free-floating, isolated, and atomised individuals on the other. A strong collectivity may be even more supportive of the individual as close studies of certain aboriginal societies reveal, than a 'free market' society with its emphasis on an egoistic, but impoverished, self" [Remaking Society, p. 48]

This individualization associated with "primitive" cultures was also noted by Howard Zinn when he wrote that "Gary Nash describes Iroquois culture. No laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails - the apparatus of authority in European societies - were to be found in the northeast woodlands prior to European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behaviour were firmly set. Though priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong..." [Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress, 1492-1992]

In addition, Native American tribes also indicate that communal living and high standards of living can and do go together. The Cherokees, for example, in the 1870s, "land was held collectively and life was contented and prosperous" with the Department of the Interior recognising that it was "a miracle of progress, with successful production by people living in considerable comfort, a level of education 'equal to that furnished by an ordinary college in the States,' flourishing industry and commerce, an effective constitutional government, a high level of literacy, and a state of 'civilization and enlightenment' comparable to anything known: 'What required five hundred years for the Britons to accomplish in this direction they have accomplished in one hundred years,' the Department declared in wonder." [Noam Chomsky, Year 501, p. 231]

Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts visited "Indian Territory" in 1883 and described what he found in glowing terms: "There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not owe a dollar. It built its own capitol, in which we had this examination, and it built its schools and its hospitals." No family lacked a home. [Cited by Chomsky, Op. Cit., p. 231]

(It must be mentioned that Dawes recommended that the society must be destroyed because "[t]hey have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common. . .there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbors. There is no selfishness, which is the bottom of civilization. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress." The introduction of capitalism - as usual by state action - resulted in poverty and destitution, again showing the link between capitalism and high living standards is not clear cut, regardless of claims otherwise).

Undoubtedly, having access to the means of production ensured that members of such cultures did not have to place themselves in situations which could produce a servile character structure. As they did not have to follow the orders of a boss they did not have to learn to obey others and so could develop their own abilities to govern themselves. This self-government allowed the development of a custom in such tribes called "the principle of non-interference" in anthropology. This is the principle within of defending someone's right to express the opposing view and it is a pervasive principle in the "primitive" world, and it is so much so as to be safely called a "universal".

The principle of non-interference is a powerful principle that extends from the personal to the political, and into every facet of daily life. Most modern people are aghast when they realize the extent to which it is practiced, but it has proven itself to be an integral part of living anarchy (as many of these communities can be termed, although they would be considered imperfect anarchies in some ways). It means that people simply do not limit the activities of others, period. This in effect makes absolute tolerance a custom, or as the modern would say, a law. But the difference between law and custom is important to point out. Law is dead, and Custom lives (see section I.7.3).

As modern people we have so much baggage that relates to "interfering" with the lives of others that merely visualizing the situation that would eliminate this daily pastime for many is impossible. But think about it. First of all, in a society where people do not interfere with each other's behavior, people tend to feel trusted and empowered by this simple social fact. Their self-esteem is already higher because they are trusted with the responsibility for making learned and aware choices. This is not fiction, individual responsibility is a key aspect of social responsibility.

Therefore, given the strength of individuality documented in tribes with little or no hierarchical structures within them, can we not conclude that anarchism will defend individuality and even develop it in ways blocked by capitalism? At the very least we can say "possibly," and that is enough to allow us to question that dogma that capitalism is the only system based on respect for the individual.

I.7.2 Is this not worshipping the past or the "noble savage"?

No. However, this is a common attack on socialists by supporters of capitalism and on anarchists by Marxists. Both claim that anarchism is "backward looking", opposed to "progress" and desire a society based on inappropriate ideas of freedom. In particular, ideological capitalists maintain that all forms of socialism base themselves on the ideal of the "noble savage" and ignore the need for laws and other authoritarian social institutions to keep people "in check."

Anarchists are well aware of the limitations of the "primitive communist" societies they have used as example of anarchistic tendencies within history or society. They are also aware of the problems associated with using any historical period as an example of "anarchism in action." Take for example the "free cities" of Medieval Europe which was used by Kropotkin as an example of the potential of decentralised, confederated communes. He was sometimes accused of being a "Medievalist" (as was William Morris) while all he was doing was indicating that capitalism need not equal progress and that alternative social systems have existed which have encouraged freedom in ways capitalism restricts.

Again it is hardly surprising to find that many supporters of capitalism ignore the insights that can be gained by studying "primitive" cultures and the questions they raise about capitalism and freedom. Instead, they duck the issues raised by these insights and accuse socialists of idealising "the noble savage." As indicated, nothing could be further from the truth. What socialists point out from this analysis is that the atomised individual associated with capitalist society is not "natural" and that capitalist social relationships help to weaken individuality. All the many attacks on socialist analysis of past societies is a product of capitalists attempts to deny history and state that "Progress" reaches its final resting place in capitalism.

Moreover, as George Orwell points out, such attacks miss the point:

"In the first place he [the defender of modern life] will tell you that it is impossible to 'go back'. . .and will then accuse you of being a medievalist and begin to descant upon the horrors of the Middle Ages. . .As a matter of fact, most attacks upon the Middle Ages and the past generally by apologists of modernity are beside the point, because their essential trick is to protect a modern man, with his sqeamishness and his high standard of comfort, into an age when such things were unheard of. But notice that in any case this is not an answer. For dislike of the mechanized future does not imply the smallest reverence for any period of the past. . .When one pictures it merely as an objective; there is no need to pretend that it has ever existed in space and time." [The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 183]

We should also note that such attacks on anarchist investigations of past cultures assumes that these cultures have no good aspects at all and so indicates a sort of intellectual "all or nothing" approach to modern life. The idea that past (and current) civilisations may have got some things right and others wrong and should be investigated is rejected for a totally uncritical "love it or leave" approach to modern society. Of course, the well known "free market" capitalist love of 19th century capitalist life and values warrants no such claims of "past worship" by the supporters of the system.

Therefore attacks on anarchists as supporters of the "noble savage" ideal indicate more about the opponents of anarchism and their fear of looking at the implications of the system they support than about anarchist theory.

I.7.3 Is the law required to protect individual rights?

No, far from it. While it is obvious that, as Kropotkin put it, "[n]o society is possible without certain principles of morality generally recognised. If everyone grew accustomed to deceiving his fellow-men; if we never could rely on each other's promise and words; if everyone treated his fellow as an enemy, against whom every means of warfare is justified - no society could exist." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 73]

This does not mean that a legal system (with its resultant bureaucracy, vested interests and inhumanity) is the best way to protect individual rights within a society. What anarchists propose instead of the current legal system (or an alternative law system based on religious or "natural" laws) is custom - namely the development of living "rules of thumb" which express what a society considers as right at any given moment.

However, the question arises, if a fixed set of principles are used to determine the just outcome, in what way would this differ from laws?

The difference is that the "order of custom" would prevail rather than the "rule of law". Custom is a body of living institutions that enjoys the support of the body politic, whereas law is a codified (read dead) body of institutions that separates social control from moral force. This, as anyone observing modern Western society can testify, alienates everyone. A just outcome is the predictable, but not necessarily the inevitable outcome of interpersonal conflict because in a traditional anarchistic society people are trusted to do it themselves. Anarchists think people have to grow up in a social environment free from the confusions generated by a fundamental discrepancy between morality, and social control, to fully appreciate the implications. However, the essential ingredient is the investment of trust, by the community, in people to come up with functional solutions to interpersonal conflict. This stands in sharp contrast with the present situation of people being infantilized by the state through a constant bombardment of fixed social structures removing all possibility of people developing their own unique solutions.

Therefore, anarchist recognise that social custom changes with society. What was once considered "normal" or "natural" may become to be seen as oppressive and hateful. This is because the "conception of good or evil varies according to the degree of intelligence or of knowledge acquired. There is nothing unchangeable about it." [Op. Cit., p. 92] Only by removing the dead hand of the past can society's ethical base develop and grow with the individuals that make it up (see section A.2.19 for a discussion of anarchist ethics).

We should also like to point out here that laws (or "The Law") also restrict the development of an individual's sense of ethics or morality. This is because it relieves them of the responsibility of determining if something is right or wrong. All they need to know is whether it is legal. The morality of the action is irrelevant. This "nationalisation" of ethics is very handy for the would be capitalist, governor or other exploiter. In addition, capitalism also restricts the development of an individual's ethics because it creates the environment where these ethics can be bought. To quote Shakespeare's Richard III:

    "Second Murderer : . . .Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.
    First Murderer : Remember our reward, when the deed's done.
    Second Murderer : Zounds! He dies. I had forgot the reward.
    First Murderer : Where's thy conscience now?
    Second Murderer : O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse."

Therefore, as far as "The Law" defending individual rights, it creates the necessary conditions (such as the de-personalisation of ethics, the existence of wealth, and so on) for undermining individual ethical behaviour, and so respect for other individual's rights. Individual rights, for anarchists, are best protected in a social environment based on the self-respect and sympathy. Custom, because it is based on the outcome of numerous individual actions and thought does not have this problem and reflects (and encourages the development of) individual ethical standards and so a generalised respect for others.

Tolerance of other individuals depends far more on the attitudes of the society in question that on its system of laws. In other words, even if the law does respect individual rights, if others in society disapprove of an action then they can and will act to stop it (or restrict individual rights). All that the law can do is try to prevent this occurring. Needless to say, governments can (and have) been at the forefront of ignoring individual rights when its suits them.

In addition, the state perverts social customs for its own, and the economically powerful's interests. As Kropotkin argued, "The law has used Man's social feelings to get passed not only moral precepts which were acceptable to Man, but also orders which were useful only to the minority of exploiters against whom he would have rebelled" [quoted by Malatesta in Anarchy, pp. 21-22]

Therefore anarchists argue that state institutions are not only unneeded to create a ethical society (i.e. one based on respecting individuality) but activity undermines such a society. That the economically and politically powerful state that a state is a necessary condition for a free society and individual space is hardly surprising. As Malatesta put it:

"A government cannot maintain itself for long without hiding its true nature behind a pretense of general usefulness. . .it cannot impose acceptances of the privileges of the few if it does not pretend to be the guardian of the rights of all" [Anarchy, p. 21]

Therefore, its important to remember why the state exists and so whatever actions and rights it promotes for the individual it exists to protect the powerful against the powerless. Any human rights recognised by the state are a product of social struggle and exist because of pass victories in the class war and not due to the kindness of ruling elites. In addition, capitalism itself undermines the ethical foundations of any society by encouraging people to grow "accustomed to deceiving his fellow-men" and women and treating "his fellow as an [economic] enemy, against whom every means of warfare is justified." Hence capitalism undermines the basic social context within which individuals develop and need to become fully human and free. Little wonder that a strong state has always been required to introduce a free market - firstly, to protect wealth from the increasingly dispossessed and secondly, to try to hold society together as capitalism destroys the social fabric which makes a society worth living in.

I.7.4 Does capitalism protect individuality?

Given that many people claim that any form of socialism will destroy liberty (and so individuality) its worth while considering whether capitalism actually does protect individuality. As noted briefly above the answer must be no. Capitalism seems to help create a standardisation which helps to distort individuality and the fact that individuality does exist under capitalism says more about the human spirit than capitalist social relationships.

So, why does a system apparently based on the idea of individual profit result in such a deadening of the individual? There are four main reasons:

1) capitalism produces a hierarchical system which crushes self-government in many areas of life (see sections B.1 and B.4). This, naturally, represses individual initiative and the skills needed to express ones own mind;

2) there is the lack of community which does not provide the necessary supports for the encouragement of individuality (see section I.7 and I.7.1);

3) there is the psychological impact of "individual profit" when it becomes identified purely with monetary gain (as in capitalism);

4) the effects of competition in creating conformity and mindless obedience to authority.

These last two points are worth discussing more thoroughly, and we will do so here.

Taking the third point first, when this kind of "greed" becomes the guiding aspect of an individual's life (and the society they live in) they usually end up sacrificing their own ego's to it. Instead of the individual dominating their "greed," "greed" dominates them and so they end up being possessed by one aspect of themselves. This "selfishness" hides the poverty of ego who practices it.

As Eric Fromm argues:

"Selfishness if not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction. . . this type of person is basically not fond of himself, but deeply dislikes himself

"The puzzle in this seeming contradiction is easy to solve. Selfishness is rooted in this very lack of fondness for oneself. . .He does not have the inner security which can exist only on the basis of genuine fondness and affirmation." [The Fear of Freedom, pp. 99-100]

In other words, the "selfish" person allows their greed to dominate their egos and they sacrifice their personality to feeding this new "God." This was clearly seen by Max Stirner who denounced this as a "one-sided, unopened, narrow egoism" which leads the ego being "ruled by a passion to which he brings the rest as sacrifices" (see section G.6). Like all "spooks," capitalism results in the self-negation of the individual and so the impoverishment of individuality. Little wonder, then, that a system apparently based upon "egoism" and "individualism" ends up weakening individuality.

The effects of competition on individuality are equally as destructive.

Indeed, a "culture dedicated to creating standardized, specialized, predictable human components could find no better way of grinding them out than by making every possible aspect of life a matter of competition. 'Winning out' in this respect does not make rugged individualists. It shapes conformist robots." [George Leonard, "Winning Isn't Everything. It's Nothing", p. 46, Intellectual Digest, October, 1975, pp. 45-47]

Why is this?

Competition is based upon outdoing others and this can only occur if you are doing the same thing they are. However, individuality is the most unique thing there is and "unique characteristics by definition cannot be ranked and participating in the process of ranking demands essential conformity." [Aflie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, p. 130] According to Kohn in his extensive research into the effects of competition, the evidence suggests that it in fact "encourages rank conformity" as well as undermining the "substantial and authentic kind of individualism" associated by such free thinkers as Thoreau. [Op. Cit., p. 130, p. 129]

As well as impoverishing individuality by encouraging conformity, competition also makes us less free thinking and rebellious:

"Attitude towards authorities and general conduct do count in the kinds of competitions that take place in the office or classroom. If I want to get the highest grades in class, I will not be likely to challenge the teacher's version of whatever topic is being covered. After a while, I may cease to think critically altogether. . . If people tend to 'go along to get along,' there is even more incentive to go along when the goal is to be number one. In the office or factory where co-workers are rivals, beating out the next person for a promotion means pleasing the boss. Competition acts to extinguish the Promethean fire of rebellion." [Op. Cit., p. 130]

In section I.4.11 (If libertarian socialism eliminates the profit motive, won't creativity and performance suffer?) we noted that when an artistic task is turned into a contest, children's work reveal significantly less spontaneity and creativity. In other words, competition reduces creativity and so individuality because creativity is "anti-conformist at its core: it is nothing if not a process of idiosyncratic thinking and risk-taking. Competition inhibits this process." [Op. Cit., p. 130]

Competition, therefore, will result in a narrowing of our lives, a failing to experience new challenges in favour of trying to win and be "successful." It turns "life into a series of contests [and] turns us into cautious, obedient people. We do not sparkle as individuals or embrace collective action when we are in a race." [Op. Cit., p. 131]

So, far from defending individuality, capitalism places a lot of barriers (both physical and mental) in the path of individuals who are trying to express their freedom. Anarchism exists precisely because capitalism has not created the free society it supporters claimed it would during the struggle against the absolutist state.