The Self-Organisation of Society - Part III

3. Human Individuality in Society. 1

3.1. Particularities of Human Society. 1

3.2. Sociology as Science of the Subject 1

3. Human Individuality in Society

3.1. Particularities of Human Society

The reproduction of society – due to its systemic character – as a whole is independent from the contributions of single individuals. The system, society, is in need of enough active human actions, this mass of actions depends on the human being as such, but not on any particular individual. Its open for the single individual, if, how and to which extent s/he takes concretely part in the reproduction of society. The human individual is not an “element functioning in order to keep up the self-maintenance of the system”, the system can exist independently from the contribution of each special individual, but not independently from the contributions of a certain mass of human beings.  

We have to change our perspective here. Seen from the point of view of society, there must somehow be enough contribution from the human beings. From the point of view of the individual, it is not necessary to do specific things now and today. What is necessary for the system as a whole, is only a possibility of action for the individual. The individuals doesn’t have to “function” for the whole, s/he rather can consciously behave towards the possibilities.

This conscious behaviour towards something means that he can recognise that he is not just a powerless gear-wheel of a large gear unit, but that he can disassociate himself from the immediate at least in his thoughts. He can recognise that society as a whole must reproduce itself through the contributions of all humans, but that his own contribution is at his own discretion. That he can do that doesn’t man that each human being is doing or should do that all the time. Human beings have the capabilities and possibilities for doing so. And that is indeed very much. In each concrete society, certain options are suggested to the individual, such suggestions can more or less be connected with coercion. Nonetheless the human being has the possibility to dissociate from the given at least notionally.

Each human being is born into a historical situation and social structures which have their own laws. That s/he is human means that s/he doesn’t simply have to obey these conditions blindly, but that s/he can consciously relate to these conditions. Hence s/he is always one step ahead of all determinateness (see Holzkamp 1985: 355). Human freedom is not only characterised by the decline of conditionality, such a definition of freedom would be a pure negative one. “Conscious behaviour towards the world” unfolds its own justifications that can’t be explained by external conditions, but originate subjectively. Free action is not determined by external conditions – but is also not arbitrary. The reasons are only subjectively insightful and can never be observed “from the outside”.

3.2. Sociology as Science of the Subject

There are different approaches for analysing individuality in society. One of them is Critical Psychology that is a “Marxistically based science of the subject” (Holzkamp). Its scope includes

a.    Methodological foundations for an integration of the individual into social thinking, connectivity to Marxism

b.    Knowledge from the science of the individual 

Conscious action is in need of the analysis of given conditions and possibilities as well as the development of its own goals. Due to the fact that each individual and the whole human civilisation are embedded into an environment, one must take a closer look at the mutual relationships. Frequently the relationships are reduced to one level or one direction. One has always to take into account the plurality of mediations. “Because the dialectical totalisation must comprise the actions, passions, labour and needs, it must at the same time integrate the actor as well as the event into the historical context, define him in relationship to the direction of becoming and must exactly determine the meaning of the presence”[i] (Sartre 1999: 144).

Very problematically is the fact that human beings produce their conditions of life and at the same time exist under these conditions. This mutuality complicates all methods which aim at understanding and influencing human behaviour (ones own behaviour or the behaviour of others). Also Karl Marx deal with this dialectic. 

Marx has shown that the analysis of the individual must be one of the analysis of its historical and present conditions of life. So e.g. in the German Ideology and the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts which are important works for the Marxist concept of the individual, Marx speaks on the one hand generally about the individual (as a producing, societal being etc.), and on the other hand takes a look at the qualitative moments of society that at present influence the life of the individuals. In this analysis the concept of the alienation of the individual in modern society is important. So Marx on the one hand is interested in the general reproduction of society, on the other he describes the capitalist mode of reproduction as one that is based on alienation, exploitation, heteronomy and a lack of self-determination of the human being.

Marx points out that with the division of labour a contradiction between the interest of the separate individual and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another emerged. As long activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed would become an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him (Marx/Engels 1846: 33f). Heteronomy for Marx means that there are forces such as the state, labour relationships or the world market which are imposed on the individuals as an interest "alien" to them and are independent of them. This would result in an illusionary representations of “general“ interest as in the form of the state. Thus far during history, the individuals would have become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (ibid.: 37). Capitalism means the subsuming of the single individuals under the division of labour (ibid.: 54). Estranged labour would “turns man’s species-being [...]into a being alien to him and a means of his individual existence. It estranges man from his own body, from nature as it exists outside him, from his spiritual essence, his human existence“ (Marx 1844: 517). Man’s estrangement from the product of his labour, his life activity and his species-being, would result in the estrangement of man from man.

Also the productive forces would be a world for themselves, independent and divorced from the individuals because the individuals would exist in class opposition to each other and these forces would no longer be the forces of the individuals but of private property and of the individuals only insofar as they are owners of private property (Marx/Engels 1846: 67). The individuals robbed of these forces would only be abstract individuals. In capitalism the individual is not a real individual, but only a class individual (ibid.: 76) subsumed under exploitative and alienating forces.

A true appropriation of the forces of production would be the development of the individual capacities corresponding to the material instruments of production and the development of a totality of capacities in the individuals themselves (ibid.: 67f). This would mean the development of individuals into complete individuals and the transformation of labour into self-activity which corresponds to the transformation of the earlier limited intercourse into the intercourse of individuals as such (ibid.: 68). Individuals would have to subject the material powers to themselves and abolish the division of labour in order to be free individuals. This personal freedom would only be possible in the community, in capitalism the individual wouldn’t have been part of a real community, only of illusionary communities existing outside of them and enslaving them. “In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association“ (ibid.: 74). This real community would be the “reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement“, “the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man“ and “the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being“ (Marx 1844: 536).

Thus far we have not accomplished to transcend the current societal order that is built upon heteronomy, estrangement and exploitation in order to ascend towards the highest form of societal self-organisation that is based on self-determination, inclusion, co-operation and participation. As Marcuse pointed out, a society that allows true individuality to be established in a free manner can only be established by self-determined individuals: ”The individuals who shall live in the Great Society must be the ones who build it up – they must be free for it, before they can be free in it. No other power can impose or force their society upon them” (Marcuse 1966: 187). In a free society the individuals’ consciousness of their mutual relations will have completely changed.

A self-determined society would be one in which consists of structures which allow all individuals which are effected by a problem to have the same power to determine and design the occurrence, form, course and results of the constitution and differentiation of societal structures. A symmetric distribution of power in terms of resources and access to information, co-operation, inclusiveness, solidarity instead of competition and as well as a form of socialisation that enables individuals to establish a form of compatibility and satisfaction of their own interests and collective, societal ones would be necessary. Under radically changes societal conditions, collective societal intelligence (Fuchs/Stockinger 2002) could emerge. Compatibility of individual and collective interests means that each individual on the one side has a maximum of freedom that does not influence the freedom of others as well as collective societal interests negatively. Free development of everyone is a necessary condition for the free development of all as well as freedom of all is a necessary condition for freedom of the individual.

Individual and collective interests could be compatible without interfering negatively, egoism is not a "natural" pattern of behaviour that is given by birth or encoded in the genes, it rather comes into existence by processes of socialisation in a heteronomous system.

In a free type of society, there would be another type of individuality. This his been pointed out by Marx and Engels with their concept of the comprehensive and well-rounded individual (in German allseitiges Individuum) that is free and has enough free time in order to pursue different activities. They thought that in another society the free development of individual abilities will replace the submission of the individual to the division of labour. So individuals would be free to choose between different non-alienating activities they want to perform.

”People will no longer be, as they are today, subordinated to a single branch of production, bound to it, exploited by it; they will no longer develop one of their faculties at the expense of all others; they will no longer know only one branch, or one branch of a single branch, of production as a whole. [...] Industry controlled by society as a whole, and operated according to a plan, presupposes well-rounded human beings, their faculties developed in balanced fashion, able to see the system of production in its entirety. The form of the division of labour which makes one a peasant, another a cobbler, a third a factory worker, a fourth a stock-market operator, has already been underminded by machinery and will completely disappear. Education will enable young people quickly to familiarize themselves with the whole system of production and to pass from one branch of production to another in response to the needs of society or their own inclinations. It will, therefore, free them from the one-sided character which the present-day division of labor impresses upon every individual. Communist society will, in this way, make it possible for its members to put their comprehensively developed faculties to full use” (Engels 1847). In the German Ideology Marx mentions that “private property can be abolished only on condition of an all-round development of individuals, precisely because the existing form of intercourse and the existing productive forces are all-embracing and only individuals that are developing in an all-round fashion can appropriate them, i.e., can turn them into free manifestations of their lives“ (Marx/Engels 1846: 424).

A well-rounded individual no longer has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he can’t escape. In a free association “nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic“ (ibid.: 33).


[i] Translated from German.

This paper is published: Christian Fuchs, Annette Schlemm: The Self-Organization of Society. In: Zimmermann Rainer E.; Budanov, Vladimir G. (Eds)(2005): Towards Otherland. Languages of Science and Languages Beyond. INTAS Volume of Collected Essays 3. Kassel: kassel university press. p. 81-109.

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