Evolving to individualism
Posted by Sen on January 10, 2010
This posting briefly explains two different ways in which the Enlightenment and its fruits in Western societies can be viewed, in relation to the goal of building a Bahai society. It argues that our attitude to the political philosophy of individualism will influence the Bahai communities we build, and suggests that it is possible to see the individualisation of society, individualism and other aspects of the Enlightenment as positive elements of the new order, rather than as signs of the breakdown of the old order.
All of us have a “world-view.” That is, we do not get up every morning and decide afresh what we think of the world, how it should be, how society works, and what things are important. Rather, we view today’s world within a coherent framework derived from our own past, and inherited from those who have gone before us. Our world-view contains experience, values and norms, some of which we have consciously chosen, and also a good deal of inherited wisdom about life and society, along the lines of “early to bed and early to rise,” “the family is the foundation of society,” or “good fences make good neighbours.” Our religions are part of our world-views, and not vice-versa, because we interpret religious teachings within a framework of assumptions about what society is, the role of religion in society, and the relationship of the individual to both. A world-view is an overall view of human history, of where we have come from, where we are or should be going to, and why. It is not a socio-political agenda to be adopted or cast off at will, but a bundle of answers to our most existential questions.
The world, however, is continually changing, while our world-views by their nature reflect past experience. If change is rapid, we suffer disorientation because our world-view no longer helps us in viewing the world. A difference between norm and actuality need not in itself produce disorientation. On the contrary, if we have a norm which says ‘poverty is shameful and unnecessary’ and we observe poverty in our society, the contrast provides an orientation: we know what is wrong and perhaps what ought to be done about it.The situation that does produce disorientation is one in which a norm indicates that A should be ideal, while our experience in society tells us that A is impractical or wrong, and B would be ideal — but B has no place in our world-view, so we cannot explain its rightness to ourselves. A radical re-evaluation is then required.
For example, in organisational cultures there was for a long time a negative image of the wheeler-dealer, the fixer, the person who knew a man. He might get things done, but he was also benefiting himself and going outside the chain of command. There is no justice in the world, when the wheeler-dealer gets the promotion. However as organisational structures became more horizontal, a few people began to look at this largely unspoken truth of organisational culture again, and they saw that the fixer is a networker, and that networking behaviour is not a parasite on the organisational structure: networking is the wiring, and the hierarchical structures are the mechanical components, and both are needed to make a modern motor work.So it is perfectly natural that the networker gets the promotion: those skills have added value to the organisation. Those who see that, also change their own attitude to their place in the organisation, and their ideal of what an organisation can be.
One of the most far-reaching changes of the past two centuries has been the individualisation of society. The process is not complete, even in the Western countries whose cultures are among the most individualised, but it is relentless, global in scope and perhaps accelerating. Individualisation begets individualism, defined as the political philosophy that the value of the collective derives from the value of individuals, and not vice versa.Yet individualism has a rather ambiguous, if not negative, connotation in European cultures. Our behaviour, both individually and as political, economic and religious collectives, shows that we enjoy the benefits of individualisation and favour its continuation. But where do we find the cultural resources to explain this? We have noble individualistic heroes and heroines, and attractive individualistic anti-heroes, but these are exceptions to their societies. We do not have a picture of a _society of individualists, a society in which individualism is meaningful and desirable and a general principle of the social structure. The ideas we have inherited from two thousand years of thinking about what society is, tell us that individualism, and mass individualism in particular, is the antithesis of social order. However more recent experience shows that individualistic societies have prospered, and that the real threat to security and progress has come from social theories that would subordinate the individual to a collective identity. Fascism, [note 1] national socialism, and communism are striking examples of collectivist or communitarian political philosophies in the 20th century, but various local nationalisms and racisms also have subordinated the individual to the collective, or denied the individual the autonomy of acting outside imposed definitions. Collectivisms, not individualism, have been the devils presiding over the 20th century’s orgies of destruction.
It is evident that individualism is essential to democracy, and vice versa: “autonomy in the realm of individual choice presupposes autonomy in the political realm, which in turn presupposes democracy.” [note 2] In the words of Jean Piaget: “it is … the essence of democracy to replace the unilateral respect of authority by the mutual respect of autonomous wills.” [note 3]
Piaget begins with Fauconnet’s Durkheimian theory that the sense of responsibility has become attentuated and subjectivized as society has become individualised, and turns that on its head:
Fauconnet’s ideas of responsibility, crime and punishment are shown to be an unintentional exposure of the strange implications of a Durkheimian social theory.
one cannot explain the passage from the forced conformity of ‘segmented’ societies to the organic solidarity of differentiated societies without invoking the diminished supervision of the group over the individual as a fundamental psychological factor … subjective responsibility is the normal outcome of objective responsibility, in so far, at least, as the constraint of conformity gives place to a cooperation based upon social differentiation and upon individualism. (ibid, 336-7).
Human rights, too, can have no foundation unless the individual is considered to be both the basis and the content of the good of society. And whereas in the 1930s there were many thinkers who predicted that liberal democratic societies with individual rights could not succeed in the face of ‘stronger’ forms of the state that subordinated the individual to the collective good, today there are very few who would claim that a society can be either good or successful without being open and democratic. De facto, if not in explicit theory, almost all of us embrace individualism. Our experience tells us that ‘B’ – in this case individualism as a social structure and political philosophy – is good and inevitable.
The importance of this can be seen in the debates preceding the war in Iraq, for the concept of human rights supposes that values derive from the individual, and thus that collective entitites, such as states, do not have rights as such, whereas the systems of international law and governance suppose that states have rights both vis-a-vis their citizens and as compared to other states. This means that there are as yet no mechanisms that can confer legitimacy on outside intervention to make human rights actual rights, for any intervention to secure human rights is a breach of the rights of the oppressor state. Our almost universally accepted concept of human rights rests on the individualist political philosophy, while the system of international institutions and law which almost everyone would like to uphold rests on a collectivist philosophy: it accords real enforceable rights to states and the (seldom enforceable) right of self-determination to vague collectives known as ‘peoples,’ but only notional rights to individual people.Compare this to Shoghi Effendi’s vision of a world commonwealth of nations:
… in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 203)
In Shoghi Effendi’s vision, both individual rights and state prerogatives feed into and are supported by the World Order.Conservative social groups such as traditional clergy and religiously-inspired political conservatism have consistently criticised individualism, but their agenda appears to be no more substantial than seeking a return to society as it once was (and in which their class did very well). This “ought to be” derived from previous centuries and nostalgia for the past no longer makes sense, and we grope for the cultural resources to make the world as it is today, meaningful.
This quandary affects Western Bahais as much as any others in European societies. The Bahai communities of the West began with a strongly Protestant, and to some extent millenarian, background, which involves an individualistic approach to religion. The first Bahais in the West were a remarkably individualistic group, and the “individual search for truth” one of their best-loved mottos. However being individualists in this sense is not the same thing as embracing individualism as a political philosophy. There does not seem to be a grand view of history, among Bahais, which has any role for individualism except as a symptom or even cause of social decay. So while our experience tells Bahai too that individualism is a progressive force and its reverse is regressive, we lack the words to say why, and feel in some way obliged even to criticise “the individualism of modern societies.” I want to show how individualisation and individualism can be meaningful for Bahais. Perhaps by reinterpreting the Bahai Faith so as to embrace individualism, the Bahais could provide the democratic societies of the future with a religious understanding that is consistent with actual political and social practice.
Individualism in Bahai literature
On the face of it, such a reinterpretation would appear to be difficult. Individualism has had a bad press in secondary Bahai literature. Holly Hanson characterises individualism as “deluded, destructive, [and] pernicious,” [note 4] and other Bahai writers have referred to individualism most frequently as a cult, sometimes as a dogma or fetish. The individuation of society which accelerated so sharply at the Enlightenment has been seen only as a dis-integrating movement. A search on the word “individualism” among the articles available at the Bahai Library Online found about 60 hits, excluding my own contributions, almost all of them uncomplimentary to the philosophy.
This discourse is not simply a recent phenomenon reflecting the critique of neo-liberalism in the 1990s. Horace Holley, who was influenced by “social gospel” theology, is one of the most collectivist of Bahai authors, and had a great influence in the formative period of the American Bahai community through his numerous essays and books, and as secretary of the National Assembly from 1924 to 1959. In Religion for Mankind he says that the individual should accept “guidance… for his doctrinal beliefs, for not otherwise can he contribute his share to the general unity.” … “In comparison to this divine creation, the traditional claims of individual conscience, of personal judgement, of private freedom, seem nothing more than empty assertions advanced in opposition to the divine will.” (1976 George Ronald ediiton p. 85) In this vision, the individual search for truth is regarded as undermining “the general unity,” and the collective is equated with the divine. Since Holley rejects the epistemological source of individualism, he naturally rejects individualism as a social philosophy as well. A major theme in his work is his criticism of competition, as an immoral and inefficient way of organising society. (Ibid., p. 142.) Like some other early American believers, he thought that the family provides a model on which a society can be based. This was a theme in the teaching of Kheirella, the first teacher of the Faith in America, who proposed a patrimonial world society functioning as an extension of the household of the Holy Family. [note 5] In the context of his time, with the Princeton school of theology emphasising the propositional and doctrinal dimension of religion, and social philosophy dominated by social darwinism and communism, Holley’s affinity with social gospel theology is understandable: compared to those schools of thought, the social gospel was fairly close to Bahai teachings. However we should not suppose that his understanding of the meaning of the Bahai message for his time is also its meaning today and in the future.
Moojan Momen writes that capitalism is “principally a combination of laissez-faire economics and a strident individualism and consumerism. Having this as the ideology of a society is a paradox in that this ideology is itself destructive of society.” In another essay he says “… free-market capitalism … is not really capable of forming an alternate social ideology since it is based on an individualistic philosophy that is the very antithesis of all concepts of society. The individualism that underlies free-market capitalism dictates that social restrictions should be removed in order to allow the free operation of market forces. This philosophy relies on the greed and ambition of the individual as its motivating power…. Naturally it is impossible to build any form of social cohesion on the basis of such a philosophy.”
If that were true, it would be remarkable that the societies afflicted with individualism have proved so successful. Indeed, I think that Jaspers is correct in the longer-term perspective, in locating the very beginning of individualization at the birth of the great world civilizations and the founding of the first large cities. [note 6] Individuation and individualism has been the essential dynamic of ever-advancing civilization, and not an incidental side effect.
John Huddleston, in The Search for a Just Society says that “as in the other great religions …[the family] is seen as a basic building-block of society.” (p. 421) His phrasing gives the impression that he is alluding to some well-known Bahai scripture, but as far as I know the family is not in fact called a basic building-block of society anywhere in the Bahai writings. Abdu’l-Baha is reported in one place to have said that “nations are but an aggregate of families,” but he is referring to relationships between nations and nations, and not to the relationship between the individual and the collective. Moreover the words do not appear in the Persian notes of this talk, which says on the contrary that “a family is composed of individuals, and a nation likewise is formed of individual persons.” [note 7] Perhaps reliance on this unauthentic text, along with Kheirella’s teachings mentioned above, has fostered in the Bahai community a patrimonial concept of society, which sees society as an expansion of family relationships. Michael McMullen, in his study of the Atlanta Bahais, also says that “Bahais see the family as the core unity of society,” and cites this report of `Abdu’l-Baha’s words. (The Baha’i p. 69). It is not clear whether this citation was identified by one or more of his respondents, or is a justification for this belief that McMullen himself is presenting (this is a general problem in reading McMullen’ book). Huddleston may be referring specifically to the unauthentic text in Promulgation of Universal Peace, or he may simply have assumed that the generally accepted truths of conservative religious discourse in his society will also be endorsed by the Bahai teachings. [note 8]
Two recent publications of the Bahai International Community’s Office of Public Information criticize the “cult of individualism”. The statement Who Is Writing The Future? (1999), claims that:
No aspect of contemporary civilization is more directly challenged by Baha’u’llah’s conception of the future than is the prevailing cult of individualism, … Nurtured by such cultural forces as political ideology, academic elitism, and a consumer economy, the “pursuit of happiness” has given rise to an aggressive and almost boundless sense of personal entitlement. The moral consequences have been corrosive for the individual and society alike … The task of freeing humanity from an error so fundamental and pervasive will call into question some of the twentieth century’s most deeply entrenched assumptions about right and wrong.
In another statement (The Prosperity of Humankind, 1995) the Bahai International Community refers to “the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life.”
Many more examples could be found in the Baha’i literature, but this is sufficient to confirm what my own experience since becoming a Baha’i in the 1970s has shown: the Baha’i social teachings are usually interpreted within the framework of a world-view in which social unity is supposed to be achieved in opposition to individualism. The family is supposed to be the basic unit of society, and religious and political institutions have a patrimonial relationship to individuals (whereas in an individualist political philosophy, the state relates to individuals as active agents who are engaged in creating the state). Individualism is frequently equated with selfishness, [note 9] although it is clear that individualists can be selfish or altruistic, just as collectivist societies that are unified by a religion or ideology can be either selfish or altruistic – but humanity has more to fear from the collectivist societies.
Individualism is blamed by Bahai writers for a decline in social morality, a complaint that is as old as writing. Momen’s impressive list of the ills due to individualism includes “drug abuse, alcoholism, vandalism, violence, sexual promiscuity, … lack of respect for the rights and dignity of others, … crime … depression, suicide and drug dependence … and corruption.” In “Towards the Millenium,” he adds gang warfare to the list, although youth cultures, gangs and exclusivist cults appear to serve rather as refuges from the individualism of society, since these small groups function as miniature forms of the society envisioned by communitarian social philosophy. In Who is writing the future? (Baha’i International Community, 1999) the individualist philosophy is even blamed for disease.
Such claims are clearly non-rational, reflecting deep emotional attachments to a world that is passing, but they are also partly due to an elementary error in logic, and this at least can easily be disposed of. Philosophical individualism, which is to say, individualism as a political philosophy, means that the individual is prior to society. Society and its constructs are made by individuals to serve individuals, not vice versa. In religious terms, the individual is created by God in the image of God, societies and nations are made by men and women to reflect their own virtues and vices. There’s no comparison in station: the individual is a whole level of existence more exalted than a society, a nation, a business, a religious community or any of the other collectives we periodically build up and break down.
Every human individual has this exalted station: therefore individualism correctly understood requires the utmost respect for others, and very often it means subordinating one’s own priorities and desires to the more urgent needs of other individuals. Given our own exalted station as individuals, it would be quite wrong to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of a nation, which is a mere imagined identity. But it would be quite right to sacrifice ourselves for another, or several others, or all other individuals who happen to be in a community or nation (or happen not to be in it – their value does not depend on their memberships). Individualism calls us logically to a higher altruistic ethic than any of the collectivisms, which are all limited unities, based on what we can build ourselves in our various corners, rather than on what God has made all of us: human individuals in God’s image.
The link between social ills and the individualist philosophy of society, is that the gap between our actual desired society and the model of the good society contained in our world-view leaves many people unable to orient themselves. They suffer dislocation because their world view points to the past, but they do not in fact want to live in the past. The solution is not to attack the philosophy of individualism, but to root out the outdated communitarian suppositions in our world-views.
Individualism is also frequently associated by Bahai writers with the “old world order” or sometimes with Western society, while the new world order is associated with a harmonious collectivism based on common values (Horace Holley being the most explicit spokesman for this view). See for example Phyllis Peterson, “Essay on Detachment” which contrasts “unity, a Baha’i theological concept” with “individualism, a western philosophy.”
None of the Bahai authors I have found base their various condemnations of individualism on an interpretation of the Bahai writings, in fact I don’t think I’ve seen a single scriptural reference in all this literature. Yet there are countless passages in Baha’i texts that exalt the station of the individual as “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value”, “the supreme Talisman,” and “made in the image of God” – none of which is said about any collective body – and othere passages that require social institutions to respect the individual’s personal entitlements, for instance to just treatment, freedom of religion and security. [note 10] At one point Abdu’l-Baha says that the social institutions exist to serve the individual, rather than vice versa, in words almost identical to my own definition of invididualism as a political philosophy. He says:
“… the basic objective [of the] institutions dealing with every aspect of civilization, is human happiness; and human happiness consists …. in securing the peace and well-being of every individual … ” (The Secret of Divine Civilization, 60)
In a letter written by a secretary on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, he rejects the position of “extreme pacifists:”
Extreme pacifists are thus very close to the anarchists, in the sense that both these groups lay an undue emphasis on the rights and merits of the individual. The Baha’i conception of social life is essentially based on the principle of the subordination of the individual will to that of society. It neither suppresses the individual nor does it exalt him to the point of making him an anti-social creature, a menace to society. As in everything it follows the ‘golden mean.’ The only way that society can function is for the minority to follow the will of the majority”
This has been cited by Danesh and Dicks, in response to my own earlier work on this topic. However, if this was a critique of the individualist social philosophy I have explained, that fact that it can be found in the Baha’i writings only in a single passage, and one that is not in the Guardian’s own words, should be seen as strengthening, rather than refuting, the suspicion that the Bahai teachings cannot simply be equated with anti-individualism, as so many Bahai authors have supposed. But individualism does not, as Densh and Dicks supposed, entail a claim that the individual conscience and will should always prevail over society, but rather a claim that society does not exist as a thing: it is a collective term for the activities of individuals. The question then is when the conscience and will of one individual will prevail against the will of other individuals, when they are acting within the rules of political activities, of religious activities, in employment relationships and so forth. The will of the majority prevails in some of these spheres of activity. In a liberal democracy it prevails when electing representatives, but not when deciding what may be written in newspapers. Large sectors of activities, such as the judicial system and areas covered by human rights, are protected from the tyranny of the majority, and rightly so, because the democratic form of government rests on the premise of the primary value of the individual. For that reason, democratic societies are willing to accede to individuals’ claims to act as their consciences and religious traditions dictate, where this causes no disproportionate harm to other individuals.
One Baha’i author, whose work I encountered only after an earlier version of this research was published, stands out. Whereas other Bahai authors have taken an anti-individualist stance simply as a natural assumption, Jean-Marc LePain has taken individualism and liberty as a topic of research. LePain says that Bahai belief, and the “world” religions in general (he excepts tribal religions) are based on and favour an individualist philosophy. After all, individual spirituality and salvation without individualism would be absurd. It is not for nothing that we pray that we may be enabled “to dispense with all save Thee, and be made independent of any one except Thyself.”
LePain shows that progressive individuation is the motor of civilization. The Baha’i faith is therefore understood as the next progressive step towards greater individuation, the step that marks maturity. Social structures exist to promote the growth and well-being of individuals, and individuals may not be reduced to instruments serving any collective goal. LePain also deals with the relationship between individuation and personal freedom, as well as with rationality, education, spirituality, ‘service’ (altruism) and organicism. His work demonstrates that individualism is a natural fit with many other aspects of Baha’i theology. He concludes:
Thus we can see that the Baha’i Faith unreservedly endorses the values which belong to what we will term “universal individualism.” These values are social autonomy, psychological self-sufficiency, an awareness of one’s own high station, the capacity for self-determination, freedom of conscience, and reflexivity. A more detailed study of the Bahai texts will likewise demonstrate that reason is treated as a foundational element underlying the process of individuation, and as such, the process of spiritualisation also. (L’individu, la liberté, la rationalité, my translation)
The fact that the anti-individualist or collectivist Baha’i authors do not refer to Baha’i scriptures (and when put to the test, have been able to find only a single letter written on the Guardian’s behalf ) shows again that our religious views are part of our world-views, and not vice versa. These authors were already shaped by a world-view in which individualism has negative connotations, as something simply self-evident. Therefore the issue will not be determined by my citing lists of verses from Baha’u’llah or arguing the interpretation of particular verses, but rather by encouraging an act of imagination, a ‘new paradigm’ with a new interpretation of the world and its history, and the nature of society. Once the possibility of a different view of human history and society has been imagined, the detailed debate about Bahai scriptures will begin.
In the overall view of history that I once shared, but now argue against, individuation is seen as the regrettable side effect of the epistemological freedom of the Enlightenment, a side-effect for which remedies are sought. Medieval society, and pre-modern societies in general, are seen as integrated wholes. The people and the land, the workers and their produce, the classes of society, the church and the community, were bound in coherent (i.e., meaningful) relationships. Durkheim’s sociological theory (which describes the role of religion in pre-modern and especially primal societies) is taken as a norm for “how societies work”: “Religion … was the cohesive force within the society and it was religion that provided the society with its morality and its vision.” (Momen, ‘Towards the Millenium’) These relationships have now been radically disrupted, and we are in search of a new basis on which the integrated society can be re-established. This approach amounts to taking a pre-modern model of society, and inserting the Bahai religious organisation into the empty socket left by the attenuation of organised religion. The idealising nostalgia of this view is epitomised by the rustic scene on the dust-jacket of Huddleston’s The Search for a Just Society, in which society has been reduced to a pastoral idyll. In this view, materialism is seen as the replacement of the principle of position that characterised feudal society by the principle of property, which no longer gives everyone a distinct place, however lowly. Individualism is regarded as a disintegrative philosophy on which nothing can be built, as we have seen above in Momen’s essays.
According to this view, the integrated but technologically inferior societies of the world are being swamped and destroyed by the virus of individualism that accompanies the spread of Western society. The relativizing effect of multi-cultural environments frees and requires individuals to create their own identities, and they often discover that they do not know how, leading to anomie.
This view of contemporary society is placed within a cyclic view of history. Western society is said to be progressively disintegrating as its religion loses force, and excessive individualism is one of the causes – with materialism, the characteristic ill of Western society. This disintegrative process represents the negative phase of a cyclic evolution whose overall thrust is towards ever-larger circles of integration, from the family group to the clan, from clan to city-state to nation and ultimately to world integration. Where other religions have offered individual salvation, the Bahai Faith offers social salvation. (See for example, McMullen, The Baha’i, p. 8.)
Perhaps I have set up something of a straw man. The nostalgic nature of this view of pre-Enlightenment, pre-capitalist society ought to immediately awake our suspicion, as should its close alliance with Marxist views of social dynamics. There are logical difficulties in saying that Western society is based on an individualistic ethos which is basically a-social or even anti-social, a contradiction of what it is to be a society, while also saysing that Western Society (with conscious or unconscious capital letters) is flourishing to such an extent that it is threatening to swamp all others.
Given the success of the modern individualistic society, we have to conclude either that is not based on individualism, or that individualism is not so much at odds with the foundations of social existence as we had thought. Which of these is true is a question of definitions: if we define individualism in terms of selfishness and anarchism, we will find that it is not basic or even common, in modern societies which are called individualistic. If we define individualism correctly, as the recognition that fundamental values are individual, that the collective gains its life from its members and not vice-versa, then we will find that it is powerful and constructive, not destructive.
Before I turn this all on its head to see whether the picture makes more sense the other way up, it might be worth considering what is at stake from the Bahai point of view. It is partly a question of getting our bearings: we know that everything is changing, and that there are integrative and disintegrative forces at work in history. What we need to know is which is which, and what direction we are heading in. But the question has implications that go further than our intellectual orientation.
In every particular place the Bahai Faith must relate to the culture and environment of that place – Islamic or Chinese, new country or old world, wealth or poverty. But an influence, at the least, from Enlightenment values is the almost universal common factor. So what is at stake is our stance towards the philosophical underpinnings of our social environment. Our attitude as Bahais to our physical environment – to the good things of the world and the enjoyment of the senses – is very positive. We can expect that this will, in the long term, shape the Bahai community into forms very different to those taken by religious communities that have a fundamental distrust of material creation and bodily enjoyments. Our relation to our social environment can be expected to have a similar effect on the development of the Bahai community. If we begin with the concept that the Enlightenment was a wrong turn in history, unleashing forces of liberalism, relativism, individualism and rationalism which must lead to social disintegration, then the Bahai community’s relation to its human surroundings will develop into an analogy of those extreme Calvinist villages which still survive in the North of Holland, within but virtually separated from the fallen society around them.
If, on the other hand, we can conceive of medieval society as the declining phase of the cycle, and the Enlightenment and its spreading consequences as the spiritual springtime, then our attitude to the world around us will be different. We will see that the Enlightenment gave birth to the infant form of a society for the age of Baha’u’llah, which has gradually extended itself in many directions, frequently falling down as it learns to walk but gradually learning the lessons demanded of it by the new age. Naturally this will affect not only the character-formation of the Bahai community, but also its contribution to the world and involvement with non-Bahais and with social institutions. So how we read history, matters.
On a more abstract level, it is a question of the degree of continuity that we can expect between historical developments over the past two centuries and the new world order. Is a catastrophic break and destruction required before real building can begin, or is the new world order already substantially here? The Bahai community is intended to be “in the vanguard of the constructive forces at work on the planet.” [note 11] We must then identify these forces. We must distinguish, first those characteristics of Western society that have led to its great strength, and then – among the many problems of Western society – which are merely frictional problems relating to the lag between moral means (freedoms) and the moral maturity to use them, and which are structural failures.
In addition to our “character formation” and our stance in relation to the world, there are several internal questions that will be affected by the view we take of modern society. Discussions within the Bahai community of freedom of the press, the equality of men and women, modesty and morality issues, and others, have been muddied by accusations that Baha’í progressives are simply suffering under the influence by Western cultural values. If we ask whether “Western” (modern) cultural values might be good values – i.e. anonymous Bahai values – some of these debates may move from name-calling to substantial issues.
Finally, the change in human consciousness which we call the Enlightenment is the most decisive force shaping our present society. In particular it has affected the relationship of the individual and society. Working out how we feel about that has to be of interest to us all personally, as individuals.
Let us say then that the question is worth asking. I have sketched above a grand view of history which sees its evolutionary thrust as moving towards increasing socialisation and integration, and sees those trends which we associate with the Enlightenment, Liberalism, Western society, etc., as a turning-aside from this great plan. Now I would like to see how history would look if we took the opposite position, and treated individualisation as the purpose of social evolution.
Increasing individuation, increasing unity
We can begin with the earliest stages of physical evolution. Suppose that evolution is marked not by increasing integration, but by increasing individuation, and that unity is a by-product of this. Grains of sand exist individually, but they are only individuated in numerical terms. Similarly, amoebas are more or less identical to one another. Sand and amoebas cannot be said to have any degree of unity – only degrees of sameness. However a complex and developed ecosystem consists of many individuated species, and the more complex and abler species each consist of individuated members: wild dogs and baboons, for instance, form societies in which some members, even to an outsider, clearly have individual characteristics. Because they are much more strongly individuated they can also have a kind of unity, and can work collectively. Equally, they can have disunity and conflict, can dominate or be excluded from the group. Amoebas do not form societies. Thus there is an evolutionary trend towards individuation, and individuation and social cohesion do not conflict. They are not even balancing forces: social structures arise from individuation, and are dependent on individuation. Where the Greek philosophical tradition has regarded the particularities of individual members of a genus as accidents, of no great importance or even as marking a degeneration from the form which should ideally be common to all members of the genus, in this view the individuality of a thing is precisely the mark of God upon it:
When, however, thou dost contemplate the innermost essence of all things, and the individuality of each, thou wilt behold the signs of thy Lord’s mercy… (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 41)
The process of individuation reaches the moral level in the human being, who, as an adult, has the potential for individual moral responsibility. In addition to maturity, the individual requires certain means to exercise moral responsibility: personal autonomy (individual freedoms), material means (e.g. the right of property) and intellectual means (e.g. access to information). In the development of the child, and of the species, we see that the means and the responsibility, like individuation and unity, spiral upwards. The sphere of individual responsibility has successively widened, as the extent of the unity sought has increased. A modern society is a society which relies on and ensures the individual autonomy and responsibility of its members in the spheres first of economic activity (capitalism), then of religion (secularism) and of politics (democracy). This individual responsibility is a tremendous source of personal growth and motivation, and thus of energy for the civilization.
We can see that, in history, the development is towards greater specialisation, greater individuation, greater recognition of the autonomy and value of the individual. Individuation is the trend and telos of history. The principle of property is the expression of this, for property is not theft but responsibility. Property rights are human rights, involving choice and therefore moral autonomy, and moral autonomy is the characteristic (adult) human quality. In the development of any one individual, the same process is repeated. A newborn baby has marginal individuality. The Liberation theologians would appear to be partly right in saying that the individual per se does not exist absolutely, but is formed by social relations. But observe the growing child: is not maturity the crystallization of a progressively formed individuality? To fail to achieve autonomous individuality is to remain in a child-like relationship to one’s family or society. Individuation is accompanied by moral freedom, in a boot-strap process: moral responsibility (based on choice and thus on freedom) leads to maturity (it individuates the person), which extends the epistemological freedom (the ability to see with your own eyes), which makes the individual morally responsible to respond to what can now be seen.
One could object that this is a true view of secular history as we experience it in the modern age, but it leaves out religion. Perhaps there are two opposing tendencies in history: a natural law leading towards individuation and a religious counter-force working towards the subordination of the individual to the collective. But I suggest that individuation is also the goal of religious evolution. In the beginning was the tribe, whose members shared one spiritual destiny, mediated by the shaman. If the spirits were pleased, if the totem was well, the tribe prospered. This collectivism is repeated in early Hebrew religion. The great step forward made by the Pharisees (and borrowed by the Christians and Muslims) was to individualize spiritual destiny and spiritual responsibility. However, although salvation was now a property of the individual, it was still a mass-produced salvation. Different religions and different theologians might have differing ideas about what salvation was and how it was obtained, but they all thought that salvation was one thing, obtained in one way. The Bahai Faith goes one step further towards individualising religion, by replacing the concept of salvation with that of spiritual growth through many worlds. This growth is individual, progressive, and relative to the challenges that an individual faces and his or her personal destiny:
Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. (Proclamation of Baha’ullah, 116)
The good deeds of the righteous are the sins of the Near Ones. (Some Answered Questions, 126)
An individuated salvation therefore now accompanies individual epistemology.
The Enlightenment has greatly extended epistemological freedom and freedom of action: as a result we are more troubled and more morally responsible than our ancestors. As the unitary society of the Middle Ages has progressively given way to a pluralist, specialised, voluntarist society, each step has been accompanied more or less by disasters. Many of these disasters resulted from turning away from the evolutionary movement to greater individuation, in favour of nationalist, racist, fascist, or communist theories which make the collective the source of the value of the individual, instead of vice-versa. Other disasters have been caused by the process of individuation itself, imperfectly worked out: the capitalist society which Marx criticised, for instance, with its impoverished labour-suppliers and wealthy capital-owners. This particular disaster has been overcome, not by turning against the current of individuation, but by the process itself: labour became specialised, an individuated and marketable commodity, instead of being a common good whose supply was limited only by the food available. The capitalists lost their superior bargaining position and the working class no longer had coherent class interests. Capitalist society did not collapse, it developed – and as it has become more specialised, more pluralist, more differentiated in functions and institutions, it has also become more durable, more flexible, more organically united. It would be a brave person now who predicted its imminent collapse, having seen how it has overcome the challenges posed by its own cleverness.
Although a simple condemnation of individualism is not tenable, whether one is looking at the evidence of history or the Bahai teachings, it is also true that we exercise our individual autonomy in relation to others, and that many issues can be dealt with only by collective action. For instance, although salvation has become individual, in the sense that we must all fight our own spiritual battles and achieve, or fail to achieve, our own spiritual destinies, it is also true that if some people play with atomic crackers we all glow in the dark. The autonomy of the individual does not make it possible or desirable for one individual to disregard other individuals in all matters. In issues requiring collective decisions, it implies only the right and responsibility to engage with others, as an autonomous person, in the decision-making process.
What I am working towards here is a reinterpretation of history, specifically of modern Western history, which will read some trends in world thought which came to the fore in Europe in the Enlightenment as positive movements, precursors of the Bahai era, rather than as symptoms of degeneracy. Such a view of history is a necessary part of a fundamental change in our attitude to the individual and to society, and it will in some respects affect our understanding of the Bahai Faith itself. It will certainly alter our picture of the society that we are building.
I have restricted my focus here to our concepts of the overall dynamic of history, which encapsulates most but not all of our world-view, and to the place of individualism in these views of history. Individualism as a political philosophy follows from increasing individuation, which is only one of the dynamics of modernity and post-modernity. I have argued in another paper (‘Bahai meets Globalisation’) that individuation itself is dependent on the functional differentiation of society and is related to feminisation and global integration. Such interrelationships are not addressed here. Individualism as a political philosophy is also related to some ethical issues, such as the nature and limits of liberty, the philosophy of education and child-raising, the contradictory foundations of inter-national law and human rights law, and whether conscience has the same claim in religious and in civil affairs. I have also not addressed the duty of participation in political life, implicit in the individualist philosophy, and how this relates to Bahai teachings on politics. My apologies, in short, for all that has not been said. Because the priority of the individual, or of the collective, is such a basic issue, individualist and collectivist social philosophies differ in almost every respect on all other issues. This leaves the writer with a choice between a sharp limitation of subject matter and producing a theory of almost everything.
This entry was posted on January 10, 2010 at 22:23 and is filed under Community, History, Political science. Tagged: collectivism, communitarianism, democracy, Durkhiem, Enlightenment, Fauconnet, Horace Holley, Ibrahim Kheiralla, Individualism, individuation, Jean-Marc Lepain, John Huddlestone, Moojan Momen, Piaget, political theology, social differentiation, Who is Writing the Future?, world views, بهائی. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.