Individualism and the State

2007-12-27

I recently read Pyotr Kropotkin's book Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. It's quite fascinating. Kropotkin argues that Darwin's insight regarding "the survival of the fittest" does not answer a basic question: what do we mean by fitness? That, he says, is a topic for investigation. And his biological and anthropological researches indicated that animals who cooperate are in general more fit. Thus the survival of the fittest is not necessarily a matter of competition but in addition or primarily a matter of cooperation (as he puts it, we cooperate with each other to compete against nature).

The truth of his insights rings true to me especially for "primitive" peoples, in which everyone in a forager band or extended family needed to work together in order to survive. When humans settled down into village life around 11,000 years ago, the egalitarian cooperation of hunter-gatherer societies gave way to more stratification, relations of power, and the like, but cooperation was still extremely important. With the emergence of modern society, cooperative endeavors were fragmented still further, although there are remnants in cooperatives, labor unions, associations, and the like.

Coincident with the emergence of modern society we find the rise of the state and the rise of individualism. It is almost a truism that the great issue of modernity is the individual versus the state. But I wonder: are modern statism and modern individualism simply two sides of the same coin? (By "statism" I mean the very existence of the state, not the absolute state in the form of authoritarianism or totalitarianism.) Would modern individualism be possible in its current form if we could not depend on the administrative state to, for example, settle disputes (something that in tribal societies was handled through cooperative means)? Would a truly free society (which many political theorists argue is a society without the state) require greater cooperation and an especially strong civil society? Is such a fully voluntary society possible without certain kinds of collective action and agreement by all concerned (probably in much smaller groups than are at present viable in our tremendously scaled-up society)? Can one make the paradoxical argument that modern-day individualists have cause to treasure the state (even if only a minimal state), since in large measure the state makes individualism possible?

I don't have the answers yet, but I think it's important to ask the questions.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal