The Sovereignty of the Individual

Ever since the peaking of world oil has come and gone (if it has) without the  sort of dramatic significance that many of us (me included) had at some level expected, I’ve tried to refrain from making predictions about the future.  I’m going to break that self-imposed rule here, but only with a philosophical prediction, which may be a bit safer as the range of possible actions and reactions are somewhat more limited there than in society as a whole.  By philosophical prediction, I’m referring to the future direction of philosophical thought, and to some extent that in the humanities and social sciences more generally, as well as the terms and concepts that trickle down from intellectual discourse into popular deliberation.  So here goes.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the sovereignty of the individual was declared.  Of course capitalism, the conquest of the Americas, and the global slave trade had already elevated individual possibilities to hitherto unexplored heights.  Despite the absolute nature of this declaration, as we all realize, its application was highly uneven.  A main strain of the history of Liberalism ever since this declaration, consequently, has been the hard-fought battle to include all the people excluded from this initial pronouncement.  I would be tempted to refer to Liberalism  (or Liberal social criticism) as a one-trick pony except for the serious nature of this task, still underway, of  putting into play the idea that all men and women were created equal and all the not so self-evident  practices that follow from this principle.

Those who still fight the good Liberal fight will emphasize how much more work there remains to be done here, but most would nevertheless also admit that the individual is more sovereign today than at any time in human history—at least in the ways that seem to count these days.[i]  Fewer people than ever are limited in doing what they want to do by tradition, religious authority, the demands of propriety, or deeply inscribed hierarchies than, at any previous time in history.   A main “move” in the project of making the individual more, and more uniformly, sovereign has been the successive deconstruction of all the inherited limits and laws used, mainly, to allow one group of individuals to maintain more sovereignty than, and over, others.  Thus have we seen the deconstruction of the alleged difference between dark skinned people and light skinned, between the empire and the colonized, between men and women, between people who have their primary amorous relationships with the opposite sex and those who have it with the same sex.   Similar to this, even if the stakes haven’t been so obviously high, has been the deconstruction of the difference between high art and popular art, between the voice of authority and that of the (or more) people—which of course began in the Protestant Reformation and continues today on Fox News and on Facebook, now the world’s most prominent distributor of news and political analysis.

The best description of this modern, capitalist, and Liberal deconstruction of differences, tradition, and authority is still Marx’s vivid picture of the bourgeois as playing “the most revolutionary part,” in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie, whenever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.  It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest. . . .  It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy waters of egotistical calculation. . . . The bourgeoisie has torn away from family its sentimental veil, and had reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.  . . . All fixed fast-frozen relations, with their chain of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, and new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.   All that is solid melts into air, all that his holy is profaned. . . .

But missing from Marx’s description is the degree to which this is an ongoing process, with years of life left in it after Marx’s portrayal.  Tradition, religion, and sentimental veils were more deeply woven into the fabric of bourgeois society than Marx perceived. Today, in post-modernity, vestiges of tradition are still maintained, even, to borrow more language from Marx, if mainly as farce.  The so-called cultural wars are largely a matter of conservatives (usually) attempting to resurrect an ancient and venerable prejudice, only to have liberals (or their children) easily reveal the naked emperor trying to maintain an eroding kingdom.  To put it more plainly, we live in an era where natural (not to mention supernatural) distinctions, as well as the laws or the order that distinctions safeguard, are little more than optional selections at an all you can eat buffet of Liberal self and value creation.  The existential reality of the modern individual can in large part be explained by its habitat in a world where everything solid has melted into air and we are left with little in the way of guidance beyond ourselves—thus the sovereignty.

The Kids are Not Alright

In the passage I took from Marx, I ellipsed sections where he concluded what would come next—his own sort of philosophical and of course social prediction.   He continues, where I left off above, that once all that is holy is profaned “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”  Modern society, he thought would shortly come up against a wall.  And, he seemed to believe, this wall would be covered with mirrors in which we would see our real conditions.  He envisioned, then, the end of illusions and of ideology.

Nothing of the sort has happened.  Liberalism, largely by way of capitalist marketing and advertisement, has responded to the deconstruction of foundations in ways Marx could not have entirely imagined, (while Keynesian intervention staved off the crises Marx predicted).  Even though the sovereign individual was left adrift, with few limits, laws, and traditions to guide him or her, there was still a long way to go before any sort of revolutionary reassessment would be required.

Now, however, things may be different (I know, I know, every modernist philosopher has said the same thing) and we may be in a place where we will be forced to face something with sober senses and  be required finally to reassess life (though there shall be no mirrors).  The way Liberalism has postponed any such reckoning, I should note, is a key part of our story.  Liberalism has allowed the drifting, unmoored, and unsupported individual– and a society organized around his whims and desires–to continue, by supplying this sovereign with nothing more complex yet unsustainable than the promise, simply, of more.  Le petit tyran was kept pleased with increasing possibilities, novelties, luxuries, even trinkets (consider, in this vein, the rise of those new fidget spinners that children use to ward off anxiety).  To put this another way, for a society to be successful, among many other criteria, its adolescents need to have dreams, and enough of these dreams need to be met to give the whole system an air of plausibility and thus coax into line another cohort of consenting dreamers, taming their more raucous desires and impulses so that they might work their life away to “get ahead,” or diligently pursue that house in Levittown (or a grand McMansion), a brand new Trans Am (or a new BMW), a spot on American Idle (or a weekend in wine country), or the latest stimulations promised by the newest X-Box (or that weekend in wine country).

Part of the main credo of Liberalism is that one should never judge the dreams of the sovereign individual, though many of us can’t resist that temptation.  Some of the dreams pursued during the reign of the individual have been legitimately noble, some are sweet, some are trite, and some are base and dirty.  But with the “constant revolutionizing of production” and consumption, and all its “uninterrupted disturbances,” not to mention the multi-billion dollar global advertising, marketing, and fantasy business, this process of creating new dreams and then meeting them (often enough) has created a certain kind of complacency and consent, and thus a stable, if gyrating, social order.

But for this process to keep going, it turns out, we would have to live on a planet with infinite resources, for the process of material and experiential dream- production is at one with economic growth and the leisure that a high-surplus society provides.   The larger picture, one within which I am operating today, is that the limits to growth have, quite simply, created a gap between the dreams that the Liberal order assembles for the young to choose from, and what they might actually end up with after they follow these dreams with due diligence.  This, at any rate is how I would describe a decent portion of my generation or the one that is following closely behind mine (and in great contrast to the baby-boomers).  Compared to the material and mobility promises we were given, and that are such an important basis for so many Liberal expectations, the future did not turn out like we were given to believe.  But many of us were well into our life path before we realized this.

Adolescents, today, are starting to catch on to the fact that this game doesn’t play out anymore, except for a quickly shrinking super-elite.  If I may be so bold to engage in armchair psychiatry, the current epidemic of teen depression, anxiety, and suicide, not to mention drug use and other self-harming behavior, is a symptom of the point in history I’m describing: the individual is sovereign, but without a kingdom which it might credibly pursue.  There are of course serious proximate causes to the problems I’m referring to, but I would still ask that we consider the historical moment in which all these causes and effects revolve and conclude that it has a lot to do with the end of growth.

Consider, for a moment, the messaging received day in and day out by the average 4 or 5 year old in the United States.  The constant message is, “you can be anything you want to be—all you have to do is dream big and follow your dreams.”  This is the moral of almost any Pixar or Dreamworks movie for kids, and PBS repeatedly says just this, almost in these exact words, during children programming periods.   I understand the value of this message.  It has probably saved the lives of gay or transgendered children, and plays a part in the rare instances of upward mobility that still may occur from time to time.  Within a certain context, it was the right message, and to some extent still is.  But it also puts a great deal of weight on the individual, and this weight becomes crushing for those who did dream big and follow those dreams, only to have them shrivel on the vine.  For the truth is that most people can’t be anything they want to be.  This is a dream fulfilled in elite circles where life still opens like an oyster.   For the youth of our country, and to an even greater extent the burgeoning youth of places like the Middle East, the circle of light offered by life is shining narrow and dim.  Our children may be suffering from a new kind of realism.   We’ve deconstructed all the limits that stand between the sovereign individual and his or her dreams.  No god nor propriety nor duty stands in the way.  But now the dreams are being deconstructed as well.

I need to emphasize that this is a symptom of the limits to growth in a society whose dreams are still bent on the infinite—a symptom of the waning of economic and social expansions in a world where something has gone wrong if each generation doesn’t “do better” than the previous.  On the lives of our children we might find the palimpsest revealing a great discrepancy and incongruity between the Liberal messages of unfettered self-creation that we maintain, and the world of shrinking material possibilities that actually exists.  Disappointment itself doesn’t have to be so devastating if accompanied by the right rituals, guidance, and explanations.   But we are witnessing it amongst those, us included, who are unmoored from any sense of moral limits or existential necessity.[ii]  The unmoored and unlimited individual (those for whom everything holy has been profaned and all idyllic relations have been torn asunder) can persist with at least some degree of functionality as long as the global economy and its marketing wing can keep churning out more novelties, new experiences, and fresh luxuries.  We are, however, entering a period of history where it cannot.  We may already have been lost in the galaxy all these years, but now we are not being pulled along by a prevailing wind of growth or progress.  So we flutter aimlessly and without direction.

Some of old-fashioned high-culture stooges may have a leg-up on seeing these consumerist dreams as paltry simulacrum, but the truth is these dreams worked pretty well for a while; and this sort of conservativism didn’t have any viable alternatives anyways, only self-satisfied grousing.   Few of these bow tie conservatives have come to grips with the fact that the natural world is re-imposing its own set of limits, through resource constraints, overleveraging debt, and ecological destruction and its mounting clean-up costs, just as few progressives have.  Most progressives are still wedded to the task of routing out remaining inconsistencies in the uneven distribution of individual sovereignty (and who can blame them?).  But like coal mining, that’s a job without much of a future.[iii]

The Next Philosophical Revolution

Now for the prediction.  I think that this revolution will in part come from the fact that we love our children and will reach a point where we can no longer consent to the reproduction of false dreams.  Of course this response is likely to be reactive and incoherent (which is a reason for thinking about it now).  Although, as I mentioned, the big story is the appearance and effects of ecological limits, a sub-story  soon to develop may be the realization (or revision) that the sovereign individual was never that happy after all.  Clinical work on the burden of choice certainly backs this view up.[iv]  This whole idea of living life without limits, in the absence of the holy, the idyllic, even the hierarchical, philosophers will start suggesting, was not the ultimate triumph of humanity after all.

So I predict a new philosophy of limits, which will be accompanied, perhaps even preceded, by all sorts of new social practices, especially ones having to do with parenting, with disciplining and punishing, with the rewards we offer, and the messages we repeat.  We may see virtues like duty and forbearance on the rise.  The ideal of sacrifice may find itself in ascendancy.  Life’s necessities, rather than its endless possibilities, may be part of our revamped messaging.  Discomfort and suffering may achieve a new aspect.  As an anecdote that I just can’t help but include, one of our local child-oriented dental offices offers “chocolate chip cookie dough” as one of the flavors of toothpaste offered for the in-clinic tooth cleaning.  This current idea that life should never be hard or uncomfortable, even at the dentist, even if “uncomfortable” means putting up with mint flavor—this is all going to be swept into the dustbin of “what were they possibly thinking!”  This is an extreme example, but does shed light on the earnest and caring, but wholly ineffective, attempt to raise our children in a time when the sovereign individual certainly has no clothes, even as it is surrounded with a proliferation of stuff and far too many choices.

By suggesting that the next philosophical revolution will involve the re-introduction of limits, I am, no doubt, being fairly broad.  It may be a safe prediction.  The deconstruction of limits that philosophy has put so much energy into just doesn’t really have anywhere to go.  A course reversal seems almost inevitable.  But it is one worth thinking about, because the reintroduction of limits, and the dethroning of the individual, will be a terribly contested thing, with all sorts of the most nefarious options vying for dominance.  As I have elsewhere argued, the rise of Trump represents the decline of individual sovereignty and not only in ways decried by Liberals as stupid, mean, or ill-founded.  Rather it is responding to real conditions that these same Liberals are yet to apprehend, even as Trumpism represents one of the nefarious sorts of responses I have in mind.  It is, in other words, a legitimate, if nauseating, response to the Liberal disappointment mentioned above.  Even as I still (sort of) self-identify as a Liberal, I must admit that at some amigdillian level Trumpism understands the present better than any prominent Liberal or legitimately Liberal philosophy, which for its part still seeks only to alleviate the disappointment, with chocolate chip cookie-dough and all.[v]

But call me Liberal if you will, but I for one hope for a philosophy of limits that emphasizes empathy and kindness, and maintains a unitarian-like universalism, even as it trains the young for real difficulties for which they must be prepared.  Life, we might begin suggesting, has more necessities that possibilities.




[i] I am not, in other words, going to make a stab at the probably unsolveable problem of authentic freedom and sovereignty vs. inauthentic.  Nor am I going to attempt to trace the line between “real” wants and desires and manufactured ones.  Let me only say that sovereignty of the self, in this case, refers to the self getting to do whatever he or she wants, whatever that is, while noting as an aside, that a lot of these wants and desires give me, as one priggish commentator, a fair bit of nausea.  Until we find a more solid and secure post-Liberal foothold, it’s probably best to say little more.

[ii] There is a good reason why the concept of necessity was so important to those, like Hegel, who sought to put the brakes on modern erosion, even if he participated in it.

[iii] A point, here, upon which I am almost categorically misunderstood by enthusiastic Liberals.  I am not in the least suggesting that we live in a world where there is equality, nor am I denying in the least the overwhelming racism and sexism that still persist.  I am only suggesting that deconstructing limits isn’t going to do much good.   Limits, at least not ideological ones, are not the problem.  I would also not underestimate the degree of difficulty in backing off from the principle of unfettered individual sovereignty just as it is finally in view for a new cadre of aspirants.  I, for one, don’t want to be responsible for explaining to the bourgeoning Chinese middle class that their traditional peasant farming methods represent one of the few large-scale slave-free sustainable farming systems, and that having a new car and traveling the world was never all that we made it out to be.

[iv] See, for instance, the work of Barry Schwartz.

[v] As David Brooks has said, Trump is the wrong answer to the right question, which isn’t to suggest that Brooks has the right answer either.


Teaser photo credit: The Chocolate Cult website.