Friday, July 22, 2011

Individualism and the State of Nature

I've started reading Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order.  So far, good book, and much like something I wanted to write eventually myself (I still have a ways to go on my reading list to be prepared for a topic like this, Fukuyama's got a few decades head start on me). 

I'll do a more complete book review later (this cuts close to my primary research interests so there may be a few in depth posts on this particular book), today I want to take up something in chapter two.  Chapter two discusses the state of nature, in particular mentioning Aristotle as well as later liberal theorists.  The key point here is that the starting point of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau is basically wrong and Aristotle close to being right when he states that man is naturally a political animal.*  Fukuyama brings a decent body of evidence to back this up from anthropology, sociology, and early history, I won't repeat that here.

What I will observe is that this is a critical component for developing political and economic theory, the natural unit for analyzing human behavior is not the individual but the small band.  This is my main disagreement with a lot of mainstream political/economic theory, they start with the individual with the natural unit as an a priori assumption, which I find indefensible.  We have enough evidence that making an assumption about this isn't necessary, we have evidence that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau simply didn't.  A theory is only as good as the evidence on which it is based, and is confirmed or denied based on further observations.  In this case, further evidence has denied the individual as a natural unit of analysis, why so many rely so heavily on earlier theory based on a thin factual basis rather than starting again with the new evidence baffles me.

This isn't to say that the development of individualism isn't a major advance, it is and it is what makes much of our current economic and political advances possible.  But it's a very late advance, barring some limited precocious exceptions** we don't really see individualism develop as a political idea until early modern Europe.  Something this late developing is pretty obviously not a natural state, instead it is something formed by socio/political/economic circumstances and thus dependent on these circumstances for its continuation (more on this later).  Using the individual as a basic assumption, except for analysis within the current socio/political/economic circumstances within which individualism is already seen to be a valid philosophy, is something I regard as fundamentally flawed.  Removing those circumstances from the picture and assuming individualism as a basis for social organization will necessarily lead to impossible ahistorical outcomes for this reason, the natural unit of analysis for human beings is the band, examining the individual necessitates specifying the conditions which make the individual the appropriate political and economic unit as well as having some understanding of how this can break down (when sufficient pressure or social breakdown occurs we see more advanced and individualistic forms of human identity break down into something like a band structure, we see this in the disintegration of the Chinese state in certain periods, or in the formation of gangs and other units when individuals no longer feel strong ties to their society) is essential to analyzing human behavior in a general sense (rather than in the specific circumstances of modern state and society, most economic analysis for instance assumes that current political institutions will persist, taking a deeper look at human behavior is only necessary when economic analysis starts advocating political and social change, in this case the assumption of rational individualism no longer stands and analysis needs to problematize man's natural tendencies rather than assuming that individual level assumptions will persist in the changed social-political circumstances).

*To share a personal aside, this is an observation that I always felt was fairly obvious, I remember being somewhat befuddled back in high school when the teacher gave us the classical Hobbes/Rousseau question of whether two primitive human beings meeting each other in the woods would fight or flee.  I was baffled, to me it was obvious that it was neither, they'd cooperate since human beings are a naturally social animal, like monkeys or wolves.  I'm not sure if it is because I moved a lot and observed that the first thing people do in a new place is start making friends, or at least contacts, or that I read a lot of Plato and Aristotle early on, but I always found it obvious that, barring the odd loner, people don't really want to be on their own and will work together.  Of course, this works only on a small scale, once people are in a group competition arises and we begin to see more complex interactions, but the first step is always to have a group for those interactions to occur.

** Just taking from Green, there are certainly some earlier philosophical stances that involve something like individualism (with some notable differences).  These stances tend to be confined to the very wealthy and to be basically parasitical in nature as regards the broader society, it's nice to believe that you're an individual actor and self-made man when you have the resources with which to boss people around.  For modern political and economic individualism however, it is necessary that these attitudes spread to encompass people not so privileged that don't get the natural satisfaction of giving orders and having them followed (often for a price).  This takes further political developments to occur.

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