The unity of self and society

Twentieth-century society was conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labour, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people felt ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. Yet, we have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities who make a difference. That is why questions of identity are so central to politics today.

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control (the market). Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside (home). This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. Today it is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.

How else can we repair this rupture between self and society? Mohandas K. Gandhi’s critique of the modern identification of society with the state was devastating. He believed that it disabled citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when the purpose of a civilization should be to enhance its members’ sense of their own self-reliance. He proposed instead that every human being is a unique personality and participates with the rest of humanity in an encompassing whole. Between these extremes lie proliferating associations of great variety. He settled on the village as the vehicle for Indians’ aspirations for self-organization; and this made him in many respects a typical twentieth-century nationalist. But what is most relevant to us is his existentialist project.

If the world of society and nature is devoid of meaning, each of us is left feeling small, isolated and vulnerable. How do we bridge the gap between a puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between the two. Gandhi devoted a large part of his philosophy to building up the personal resources of individuals. Our task is to bring this project up to date.

Works of fiction -- novels, plays and movies -- allow us to span actual and possible worlds. They bring history down in scale to a familiar frame (the paperback, the screen) and audiences enter into that history subjectively on any terms their imagination permits. The sources of our alienation are commonplace. What interests me is resistance to alienation, whatever form it takes, religious or otherwise. How can we feel at home out there, in the restless turbulence of the modern world?

The digital revolution in is in part a response to this need. We feel at home in intimate, face-to-face relations; but we must engage in remote, often impersonal exchanges at distance. Improvements in telecommunications cannot stop until we replicate at distance the experience of face-to-face interaction. For the drive to overcome alienation is even more powerful than alienation itself. Social evolution has reached the point of establishing near-universal communications; now we must make world society in the image of our own humanity.

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Comment by John McCreery on April 12, 2010 at 2:55am
Again, great stuff, very challenging. But where, in your scheme, are the personal relationships that are, when push comes to shove, the real anchors of identity? Or am I just speaking for myself here?

As I look up from my computer and walk over to the kitchen to pour myself some more coffee, I glance around our apartment. A wall of books is an archeology of an education that stretches back to college. I glance to my right and see a hanging that was once a collection of fertility symbols made for a Taiwanese wedding bed and is now a reminder of the fieldwork in Taiwan where Ruth and I began our adventures together. I hear her behind me tapping on her own keyboard. I imagine her writing to our daughter, to inquire about the dates for her internship in D.C. and to ask when we should get to Cambridge to mind the grandkids. She types at a desk that once belonged to her grandmother. My laptop sits on a desk that belonged to my maternal grandfather. When I think beyond our immediate family, I think of the clients who support our business, the members of the chorus in which I sing, the members of our club whose sayonara party we will miss because we will already be off to Cambridge, the people with whom I interact on the Net. The list goes on and on. But it seems to me that it is these relationships and the stories they embody that anchor my sense of self, in which, of course, money and big ideas also have parts to play.

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