Abandoning the myth of independence

We need a fundamental rethink of how we understand ourselves, our institutions, and our ideas of freedom.

Will Flagle
30 August 2020, 7.19pm Public Domain.

With the outbreak of Covid-19, our interdependence and vulnerability have been laid bare. A sneeze or a cough can mean life or death. The cessation of spending by some means the loss of income for others. Our fates are bound - directly and indirectly - in innumerable ways.

This much is obvious - or should be. However, to fully recognize our interdependence requires a fundamental rethinking of how we understand ourselves, our institutions, and our ideas of freedom.

The social self.

Much conventional wisdom holds that we are all self-investing “specks” of human capital. “There is no such thing as society,” as Margaret Thatcher put it, just individuals (and maybe families) seeking to maximize our return on investment.

By contrast, the idea of the social-self posits that our connections with others condition who we are or can become. Every day, we rely on language, socialization, ideas, inventions and inspiration from others. Our individual pursuits are only possible because innumerable others have raised us, taught us, and looked after us. There is little we achieve solely on our own.

Social relations allow for collective ends such as justice or community, but they also inform our individual purposes. Isolated in quarantine, for example, we cannot be our full selves, because the identities and commitments that imbue our lives with meaning - partner, parent or political participant - are only available in their full richness within a social framework.

We also rely on a world that’s not of our own making. Much of our social and economic infrastructure and the knowledge and technology that enables it has been inherited or plundered from previous generations. According to law professor Jedediah Purdy, each of us enjoys about 4000 tons of infrastructure like highways, housing and farmland. “For most of us,” he writes, “a collective technological exoskeleton, circulatory system, and network of nerves form the conditions of our existence. Apart from them, we would have no being that would last long.”

Intertwined with this physical foundation is the non-material legal and political scaffolding that supports us. Purdy argues that “[t]hese artificial realities change who we are to one another and what we are capable of doing: citizen of a democracy, person disenfranchised by a felony conviction, refugee with asylum rights, stateless person.” As contemporary mass migrations remind us, these systems can mean life or death.

Interdependence and freedom.

The idea of the social-self isn’t new, but recognizing our interdependence requires rethinking some fundamental notions including freedom. In much contemporary discourse, the idea of ‘negative liberty’ reigns, meaning freedom from coercion by others or the state. As long as we are left alone, we are free.

By contrast, egalitarians and socialists argue that negative liberty is insufficient. Effective freedom also requires conditions that give people the ability to direct their lives and flourish. For example, social relations are necessary for individuals to fully engage in self-creation in the first place.

As Marx wrote, “[o]nly in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.” Thus, without rich social relations our collective and individual freedom is greatly circumscribed.

In other words, recognizing the interdependent self means acknowledging that my freedom and flourishing are contingent on yours. If you lack paid sick leave and have to work when you’re ill, for example, my health and freedom are also at risk. “Nobody gets free alone.” That’s why abandoning “the myth of independence” also requires rethinking our institutions.

How do institutions shape us?

In his research on The Moral Economy, Samuel Bowles shows that people will become the self-serving subjects we assume them to be if we treat them like the apolitical and self-interested model of homo economicus. For example, “at six day care centers,” he writes, “a fine was imposed on parents who were late in picking up their children at the end of the day. It did not work. Parents responded to the fine by doubling the fraction of time they arrived late.” For parents, the fee dissolved any concern for inconveniencing the staff into a transactional calculation.

Bowles found that material incentives that aim to mobilize our supposedly ‘natural’ self-interest can displace or crowd out socially-beneficial preferences like altruism or reciprocity. More importantly, “the extensive use of [such] incentives may adversely affect the evolution of civic preferences in the long run,” so a political system that infantilizes citizens in this way “may cause the good to act as if they were wicked.”

Faced with crises like the Coronavirus pandemic or impending climate chaos, we need to consider how our actions impact others, yet the self-interested logic of neoliberal rationality has saturated our existence: our colleges and universities, political and juridical institutions, and our very self-understanding. For example, higher education is recommended, not as a venue to support efficacious democratic participants but as an investment with an expected financial return. Unfortunately, our social, economic and ideological infrastructure has conditioned us against a collective mindset exactly when it’s most needed.

That’s why democratizing our social and economic institutions is essential. Our institutions can warp our humanity as Bowles demonstrates in relation to stifling collective action, or they can facilitate our self-improvement and civic capacities. Take our jobs, which usually habituate us to hierarchical forms of decision-making without any democratic accountability. Yet the “experience of participating in and cooperating with others in common tasks serves as one of the conditions of individual self-development,” notes the philosopher Carol Gould. “In such contexts, individuals have the opportunity to exercise and develop their social, moral, and intellectual capacities.”

When workers are subject to “arbitrary and unaccountable power” within the workplace, they lack the freedom to control their activities and to develop capabilities that are more conducive to self-government. Indeed, research indicates that increased voice in the workplace spills over into increased political participation ‘off the clock.’ Since our participation in institutions shapes our capacities, preferences and opportunities, we need control over those institutions in order to be free. What does that mean in practice?

How should we shape our institutions?

In addition to democratizing our workplaces, trade unions, cultural institutions and schools, recognizing our social freedom should spur the de-commodification of basic necessities like child care, health care, social housing and education; divestment from the prison-industrial complex, the police and the military; investment in universal social insurance policies; economic development programs that anchor wealth, land, and control in local communities (including forms of community-ownership and multi-stakeholder cooperatives); and democratic planning and market regulations that promote economic stability and free up time for civic and community engagement.

When “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” as Marx and Engels put it, such reforms would ensure that the social relationships that undergird our freedom are strong, resilient and flourishing.

Furthermore, recognizing our interdependence with the natural world requires respecting the planetary boundaries that circumscribe sustainable economic activity. Understanding how our contemporary material well-being is built on stolen land, stolen labor, and ongoing institutionalized racism requires profound reparation. Seeing ourselves as ‘individuals-in-relations’ demands a revaluation of, compensation for, and more equal distribution of the care work that sustains our communities.

Finally, since the economy writ large structures social relations and relations of power, we should also seek to expand the democratic economy more broadly through things like participatory budgeting, public banking, and democratic public ownership that disperse control as broadly as possible throughout the population.

Our individual lives and well-being are profoundly intertwined with the well-being of others. Our shared history, contemporary society, and the natural world provide the conditions that enable us to become who we are, and ultimately allow us to transform ourselves. Our technological and economic inheritance and shared fate underscore how substantive liberty has both material and social preconditions.

Acknowledging the institutional relations that shape our preferences and abilities requires extending democratic control over those institutions. Understanding that ‘no one gets free alone’ means investing in and supporting the communities we all depend on.

Theorists of social freedom see people as fundamentally dynamic. We are always changing our beliefs and proclivities, always learning and being made anew. We are embedded, after all, within a web of social relations. Society is ever in flux, so reweaving the social fabric with intention, care, and the recognition of our profound interdependence is our constant responsibility.

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