The Individual and Society

Hence we are driven from the individual back to the social structure. If there is a taint, it lies not in the ‘soul’ of the individual but rather in that of the environment.
— Frantz Fanon

From the standpoint of social development, the family cannot be considered the basis of the authoritarian state, only as one of the most important institutions which support it. It is, however, its central reactionary germ cell, the most important place of reproduction of the reactionary and conservative individual. Being itself caused by the authoritarian system, the family becomes the most important institution for its conservation.
— Wilhelm Reich

If we look at ideas of the individual and society, we can articulate differing theories, but they can usually be situated via two extremes. One extreme is centered on the individual which is a priori to their social existence/experience with structures in the world. Here individuals have complete autonomy and agency based on self-creation. On the other extreme, the individual subject is only a by-product of structures in the world. Social phenomena are completely autonomous and outside of individuals. Here the individual is a blank sheet to be written on or an empty container to be filled. Individuals are created by history, culture, language or genetics completely removing human agency and creativity. Both positions are problematic and I argue for a more dialectical relationship between the individual and society which takes into account both how the individual is created by the world and at the same time creates the worlds as well as themselves.     

The idea that the individual is completely a product of structures outside of themselves is central to the theories of evolutionary psychology/sociobiology (human behavior is primarily determined by biology/genetic), varieties of sociology and anthropology (human behavior is primarily determined by cultural), many Marxist tenets (human behavior is primarily historical and determined by the economic base), and varieties of critical theory coming out of structuralism (human behavior is primarily determined by language.) In each of these theories, the individual and their behavior/beliefs are solely constructed by these perspective outside forces removing all creativity and agency. As anarchist who are actively working to create a new world, these theories counter our ability to create a new world by alienating us from our active power [See Firebrand Dictionary entry on Power] and making all forms of change determined by biological evolution or external culture or an objective crisis of capital. In all of these cases, the only way for change to happen is through external forces; thus, the only role for anarchists are sitting around and waiting for the world to change around us or external conditions to be right for revolt. Our active and creative power to change the world through insurrection or individual and collective action is erased.

The idea of the autonomous self-creating individual is equally problematic because it removes the individual from the external power and forces of domination as if exploitative and oppressive relations have no foundational effect on the individual. This position minimizes structural and moral forces imposed on the individual producing and constructing their understandings, relations and desires. As anarchist Feral Faun wrote, “It implies that domination is mainly a matter of personal moral decisions rather than of social roles and relationships, that all of us are equally in a position to exercise domination and that we need to exercise self-discipline to prevent ourselves from doing so” [3]. Fanon address this issue of individual in relations to society in the settler-state context in his book Black Skin White Masks.

Fanon explains that in the production of subjects, the individual is usually understood as being produced in relation to “The Other.” But in the settler state (and this applies both the US and Canada), there is first off a reference point of “White” that the subject must be situated against. If a white body (the white body is seen as just a body) acts violently, that body is understood as an individual who is acting violently. If a black body acts violently, that body is seen as a violent black body which represents all black bodies. This relationship between the marked body and behavior has a long history which is produced through the sciences (by criminology, sociology, psychology, anthropology, biology etc.), through The State (by policing, social services, courts, public policy etc.), the media (by representations in news, movies, literature, tv shows, sports etc.) as well as through charities and philanthropy. Fanon argues that the individual internalizes these racist ideologies coming to believe and reproduce them in their own bodies and behavior.

Wilhelm Reich argued that specific political, religious and economic institutions deny women and adolescents, in particular, the full expression of their sexuality and produces hierarchical relations of gender and race that both structure society and the individual. He believed these institutions, in their relationship to the moral/normative family structure [See Firebrand Dictionary entry on The Family], enforces sexual/desire repression that then manifest in other forms of submission and obedience structured around race/gender articulations through morality. These forms of repression cause psychic injury that children carry into adulthood which Reich argues makes individuals extremely susceptible to authoritarian power and obedience [4]. In discussing Reich’s idea of “character” and its relationship to anarchist ideas, Jay Amrod and Lev Chernyi argue that most people don’t consciously condition children, but as result of a whole organization of forces (the economy, the parents of the parents, social mores, etc.) that continually reproduce alienated power relations [5]. These ways of seeing the connection between differing marked bodies and behavior are forms of “the cops in our heads” that structure how individuals relate to and understand each other and themselves. This is about structures and social roles, but it is also about how individual resist, react and build relations within and against the structures of society.

Both Fanon and Reich argue that the only way to break out of the force of these roles and structures is through revolt or insurrection. Individually and collectively people must take control of there lives, build new worlds, and create new social relations. Individuals are constructed by the world/structures they live and are raised in, but they are not determined by they. Individuals construct the world/structures they live in by how they react and engage/create the world/structures. Individuals are products of society and produce society simultaneously.

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept of "Population."

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: Power, The Family and The State

Posted on May 16, 2016 .