The Individual and The Group

In trying to contemplate not only the possible collapse of a highly integrated human civilisation (the end of the Anthropocene!) but also how ecocentrics such as ourselves should respond to the prospect … the issue of groups and individuals needs to be understood.

In The Social Story of Values for Our Time1 it was argued that social animals including humans exist on the Creative Interface between collectivity and autonomy – and that these tensions run through all social and political debate.

Now the intended meaning of Communism or Communalism was to imply a society in which people lived for each other, for the whole, not just for their own advantage. Real experience of societies such as Bolshevik Russia has been taken as proof that “communism doesn’t work”. Properly examined these situations exhibited a combination of extreme individualism (the mighty ego of the leader) with social hierarchy among lieutenants with lack of involvement by the many. All this in a mass society context for which, as small group hunter-gatherers, our evolution had not prepared us.

On the other hand the assumption of Friedrich Engels2 that before hierarchic and exploitative societies our ancestors lived in a state of primitive communism has not stood up to examination. The structure of human groups was and is both variable and complex.

Taking the long view, groups, tribes, natios3 can and do have lifespans of many thousands of years4. In contrast their individual members (in the case of Homo sapiens) have nominal lifespans of ‘three score years and ten’. Not only is this so but as exampled in an appendix to A Journey into A Future5 this curtailment of individual life is programmed by nature for the intended benefit of the group.

Coming back to the social tension we can experience today between the needs/purposes of our group and our needs/purposes as passionate individuals (standing clear of modern liberal notions of rights) i want to argue for a complementary relationship that honours groups/tribes as cultural and biological realities yet notes that only the actions and behaviours of their members can determine their prospects.

The key notion is stewardship – a concept with which all co-operators will be familiar. The group as the greater and ongoing cause that we serve; each of us as individuals finding purpose and fulfilment in exercising our judgements in the service of that cause.

The modern phenomenon of cosmopolitan individualism acts like a corrosive acid to dissolve all traditional bonds and obligations – the fabric of civil society. This social fabric may be viewed as the remnant of once autonomous peoples under the yoke of central and centralised states. English local and regional bonds form one example.

The rise of individualism had complex roots6. It was certainly aided by the philosophers of the Enlightenment: for example John Locke. A major motivation, behind the fine words, was defence of the private ownership of property (including the ownership of slaves). Defenders of John Stuart Mill can claim that he aimed to humanise the liberal position (e.g. as compared to his mentor Bentham) but by his time the notion of a society of free individuals was eclipsing ideas of group bonding in public discourse (though not among the working classes).

Without entering the Brexit debate one can note that one factor with the ‘somewheres’ who voted against what they saw as a cosmopolitan establishment was a (semi-unconscious?) defence of their roots as a people.

This leads on to the use of language as a weapon. ‘Tribal’ and ‘tribalist’ have been turned into terms of abuse by cosmopolitans, rather than properly denoting belonging and obligation. Likewise freedom from all yokes has become a crusade banner for all forms of identity politics and for cosmopolitan ‘freedom’. This alleged freedom is in contrast with their lived reality for most people on the planet today, including the marginalised and struggling to cope in supposedly wealthy countries. As Janis Joplin sang it: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”7.

Now in mass societies that claim to be democracies, the state – in theory accountable to its citizens – has usurped the role of the group: reigning over both residual groupings and fragmented individuals.

This brings us back to our starting point. If and when state structures fall apart the two most likely formations among survivors will be modest bonded communities – tribes – and mafia style war lords. It behoves us to understand the structural dynamics of groups8 + 9.

Woody Wood    May 2019

Some references: –      (sources if needed via Duck Duck Go safe searches)

Values for Our Time  page 25.

2  F. Engels  The Origin of The Family, Private Property and The Sate.

3  Natio: a nation without a state. E.g. Catalonia; England.

4  The culture of indigenous Australians goes back at least 40,000 years.

5  See Appendix D to A Journey into A Future.

6  See for example The Origins of European Individualism by Aaron Gurevich.

7  In the ballad Me and Bobby Mcgee by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.

8  The Social Story of VfOT explores some features of group structure. See also The Social Contract by Robert Ardrey.

9  D.W. Harding  Social Psychology and Individual Values  Chapter 5: The Group’s Adequacy To Its Members.

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