Chapter 2

The individual and society

But it was not only the traders who were making money. Workers had banded together into guilds, where they could take advantage of specialization in making their products; and this division of labor made them more efficient, allowing them to do more than make a bare living off their products. The fact that there was much more money helped in their increasing prosperity. The guilds also freed the workers from dependence on their former lords, because they had a wider market for their products because of their association; and since they controlled the production, they could also demand higher prices. The guilds also were, of course, independent of each other. Eventually, they and the traders began to be so powerful that they were recognized as a "third estate" in society; and so they had an increasing say in government.

Civil societies were, because of the Reformation, not any longer held into a unit by the allegiance of all of them to the Catholic Church; and so various notions of society began to be formulated, from Thomas More's diatribe against absentee ownership of property by way of proposing an ideal society of "Nowhere" (Utopia) in the New World where people lived in communistic harmony, to Macchiavelli's ruthless pragmatism detailing how to get political power and hold on to it.

But what was needed was some non-religious way to account for the authority of each king over his own subjects; and this was supplied by Thomas Hobbes, who was the forerunner of the modern view of human nature: that everyone in a "state of nature" was independent of everyone else, and at war for survival against everyone else; and so, in order to stay alive, people gave up all their rights to their sovereign, so that he could keep order. This gave the king power even over the religion of his subjects; and it apparently rested on scientific grounds, not religious ones, and so was not open to dispute. One of Hobbes's goals, in fact, seems to have been to undermine religion and replace it with science.

In spite of the fact that his theory made people in effect the complete slaves of the king, its premise was that each person "in the beginning" was a kind of king in his own right; and that society was the result of an agreement among these originally autonomous individuals. This was different from the source of the medieval notion of the agreement between the farmers and the protecting knights; there, there was not a notion of a sovereign individual, at war with every other sovereign individual for the economic necessities of life; it was an arrangement of protection of the community from the barbarians. Hobbes's point was that since nothing in "nature" was assigned to any individual in the "natural state," then each person had as much right to everything as everyone else, and hence was at war with everyone else simply to survive. So they agreed to a truce, and gave up their rights to the king.

This notion of the "naturally" autonomous individual, as if the "real" individual was the independent adult, completely ignoring the dependence of that same person as a child on others' service, was what Locke developed into what is basically our view of what it is to be human and how society follows from the notion of humanity: that each person was, in the "state of nature," independent of every other person, and possessed of the rights of life, liberty, and property (the fruits of his labor); and that, not to ensure survival (since Locke didn't see that this initial state was a war), but to secure these rights, people freely agreed to be ruled by a sovereign, but kept the basic power in their own hands, and therefore the right to depose anyone who did not rule according to the initial agreement (i.e. who violated their rights).

Needless to say, once one takes into account that no one can get into this autonomous state without being anything but autonomous, then one realizes that the whole foundation of the modern view of man is a fantasy, and any notion that there ever was or could be an "initial agreement" vanishes into never-never land.

But there was, of course, the core of truth that it is the individual person who makes the choice of what his life is, within the limits of his real possibilities (and even outside those limits, where he becomes immoral), and who therefore defines the goals of his life and therefore what goodness means in his case. So the individual in fact is sovereign in one sense, but not autonomous; there are laws the individual is subject to: the laws of his nature, which include his social nature, and they are not of his own making, and he can do nothing about them. The modern world ignores this.

In any case, instead of having the economic relationship of rights and compensation flow from the social relationship of cooperation (which was the "true" one), as was found in medieval civilization, this view made the economic relationship the basic one, and reduced the social relationship of cooperation to a practical move whose purpose was basically the guarantee of independence.

Politically, this was the basis of a revival of the democratic form of government, beginning in that society which put into practice Locke's principle of repudiating the ruler who violated his subjects' rights to property. The spirit of the people seemed to be amenable to this; but in France a few years later, it was shown how dreadful its consequences could be with a different attitude among the populace. Nevertheless, Europe and now the whole world has been developing toward some form of popular sovereignty based on the rights of the individual.

Economically, Locke's view of human nature, with its solution to the problem of property, led to the labor theory of value and modern economic theory in general (though work had begun on this earlier, with the Spanish Jesuits); and the Industrial Revolution, with its sudden increase in products at low prices, seemed to promise a future of unlimited wealth for nations.

The development of this took an interesting turn, however. The kind of thing proposed by Adam Smith justified the entrepreneur in seeking to maximize his own gain at the expense of his workers (though Smith did not intend this), with the idea that the "invisible hand" would bring everything right, just as it evidently did in the world of nature. Unfortunately, once we leave the world of nature and get into the world of free choice, God is not going to make our selfishness over into cooperation in spite of itself; and the factories became torture chambers.

Marx saw this, and showed the inherent contradictions in the working out of the labor theory of value. He interpreted the new view of humanity as meaning that human beings were the result solely of economics, and their development was essentially economic, toward final, true independence and self-possession. Interestingly, the road to the independent, totally self-possessed individual led through a "temporary" stage of absolute totalitarianism, where the government took control of all of the forces of production, and directed everyone like slaves until all societies all over the world became communistic, at which point "the state would wither away."

What he didn't notice was that the state held power because it controlled the forces of destruction; and once it controlled both the forces of production and the forces of destruction, the rulers used these for their own advantage, and only paid lip service to the advance of the people toward material prosperity, and the prospect of "freedom" was a mockery and a perversion. Everything, in the name of independence, was reduced to slavish cooperation, with threats the only motivation; and the result was misery even surpassing the sweatshops that had inspired Marx.

But unbridled capitalism that ignores the humanity of others has internal contradictions, some of which Marx saw accurately; and so this, as it developed, led to corrections being made by government to protect the people who were being exploited. But that led to further and further government interference in business; but since government had no clear idea of what it was doing (not having any notion of the difference between values and necessities), government in the developed capitalist countries has been resembling communism more and more, and people cannot turn around without running into government regulations and government management of things--in spite of the evidence of the disaster this has brought on people in communist societies. Thus, an essentially individualistic outlook, coupled with "compassion" has been turning itself inside out into collectivism.