Indidividual Needs and Societal Necessities

This is a reply which I wrote on the english list of the Oekonux project on a mail by Stefan Merten with the subject »Balancing need and Selbstentfaltung by governance?« Since this question has a fundamental meaning, I wrote a more general and philosophical answer. I made a few typo corrections on the original post.

On 2009-11-04 20:22, Stefan Merten wrote:

Recently once again I thought about the problem of balancing need and Selbstentfaltung. I think this is the fundamental question which concepts like Christian are struggling for: How is the societal need balanced with Selbstentfaltung.

From my POV „balancing“ is the wrong term to raise the problem adequately. It implies that indidividual needs and societal necessities basically contradict each other, which is the reason that there have to be a „balance“ between the opposing sides. From a philosophical Hegelian POV this perspective of problem is given within the „logics of essence“ (german: „Wesenslogik“). In this way of thinking two opposite parts stand against each other and exclude each other. Binary either or. In some cases binary logics are useful, e.g. in computer science as far as the machines are concerned, but in other cases they are not. Like in the case we have here. I will try to show.

Indeed it is the pressing question for all transformative considerations.

The question of societal mediation — which from my POV is the right reformulation of the balancing-question — is one of all societies. To put it more simply it is the question about how a running society emerges from individual actions.

Currently we live in a society where societal need and Selbstentfaltung are not balanced.

Today we live in a society where we only can observe germ/seed forms of selbstentfaltung, because, as you know, selbstentfaltung is not a purely individual type of self-development (which may operate on costs of others), but it is at the same time part of a societal development: My selbstentfaltung is only possible, if others can do their selbstentfaltung in an unlimited fashion — and vice versa. Thinking this straight forward, we can understand, that this does not only include people we personally know, but all people, or, more philosophical: the „general other“. This implies, that there is a societal structure of mediation where selbstentfaltung for all is possible. Clearly, we don’t have this type of societal mediation today. Thus, currently selbstentfaltung in the full meaning of the word is not possible.

If you think longer about it this already is indeed a good question: Is everything which is produced / labored for now is really part of a societal need? Are tanks a societal need?

In a capitalist country tanks can clearly be a societal necessity, e.g. to fights against other countries or to suppress the own people. There are numerous examples in history.

You have to answer the question of societal necessity from the societies own premises, even if you dislike the outcome. Your rejection of tanks as being „not needed“ comes from a virtual standpoint outside. This only can lead to a moral critique („tanks are a bad thing…“), but not to an evidence, that tanks are not needed in a particular society. Thus the question is: How does a society functions which does not need tanks? This again is the question of societal mediation, but now more precisely: a societal mediation, where individual needs (no need for tanks) result in a societal outcome, where tanks are not necessary for that society. Or shorter: A societal mediation where individual needs and societal necessities are identical.

When we are heading for a society which is based on peer production, in the final state Selbstentfaltung and societal need are balanced, however. And I’m sure that mankind is smart enough to make this possible 😉 .

I am sure that a society is possible, where „balancing“ is no longer a topic, because the society is ruled by selbstentfaltung.

However, the question of what is a „real“ societal need and what not is a also a old and hard one and probably only solvable in practice. I leave this out here.

However, by thinking in terms of balancing you will always have this question on the table.

I think the fundamental problem is that societal needs may differ from volunteer needs.

And they may not differ. This is the other possibility.

If I analyze it that way then the fundamental answer is simple: If you want to satisfy societal needs then you need coercion.

Yes, this is the logical consequense based on your assumptions.

However, if we think of a society based on peer production the societal needs need to be satisfied: If people struggle for mere existence they can not Selbstentfalt at all. Selbstentfaltung needs a society where everybody is cared for.

Again, you are thinking in the mode of opposites: the society on the one hand, and the people („everybody“) on the other. As we will see later, this does not make sense if we think of selbstentfaltung in terms of „caring for me as a pre condition of caring for others — and vice versa“.

Of course coercion of any kind is a contradiction to Selbstentfaltung – that is probably why we don’t like it. I agree that it is a bit hard to accept but I think it is important to make that point explicit: If we can not do everything by volunteerism then we need coercion of some kind.

This, in my view, is the logical but wrong consequence.

The next question then is: How can a coercion system look like which does not damage Selbstentfaltung.

Each coercion system not only damages selbstentfaltung, but prevents selbstentfaltung.

The standard answer of capitalism or Christian’s model is to use abstract coercion by rewarding people with benefits they are only allowed to enjoy if they somehow contribute to the societal needs. I agree that this is one sort of coercion and we are all sooo used to it. However, obviously this sort of abstraction introduces all kinds of alienation and the problems accompanied by this alienation. In particular it is an automatic system which is beyond the control of mankind.

On the given fundament of society capitalism is the most rationale system to mediate opposites. And there are a lot of opposites: use value and exchange value, work and capital, production and consumption, economics and politics etc. Yes, its rationale produces alienation, but it also requires and produces (limited) freedom of the individual, which is a precondition for the emergence of free software and the like.

The alternative IMHO is to create an explicit governance scheme where people are coerced to execute societal necessary tasks as part of their normal lifes. The big advantage of such an explicit governance scheme is that it is subject to political decisions. Contrary to blind automatisms as just outlined political decisions are able to take into account different situations of people.

Political decisions are at some point decisions of the majority against a minority. Its logic is completely contrary to the consensus principle you favor: consensus is reached if no one needs to object. In a coercion framework you need majority decisions, because you want people to do things they don’t want to do from their own. Forcing people to do things they don’t want to do is coercion. In a freedom framework, people are free to do what they want and what they mean is usefull and necessary.

Capitalism can imaginate itself as a realm of „freedom“, because the coercion is exported to the alienated logic of the commodity and money system: This system applies the coercion to you in a very effective way, and you are „free“ to fulfill the demands in any way: Do what you want, but do fulfill alien demands!

Historically the unpersonal domination was a step forward away from the former system of personal domination. Political majority decisons you propose, made in order to apply coercion seem to be a step backward in this sense.

If you think of combining the consensus principle in order to apply coercion, then I think this would immediately fail. People would massively object, so that you are forced to turn consensus into majority decisions. Consensus can only work in a framework of non-coercion.

Ok, if I reject your proposal to have a political or democratic system of coercion in order to map individual needs and societal requirements — how would I solve this problem?

I want to start from the observation that the individual and the society are not in all cases opposites. If they would, they would fall into two completely separated realms, which is obviously not the case. Actually we are creating society. Thus in some sense we as individuals are identical with society, in another sense we are not. This ambiguity can not be grasped by an either-or logics. For this case Hegelian philosophy proposes „logics of notion“ (german: „Begriffslogik“). The logics of essence are not wrong, but they are not always adequate. So the logics itself should not be thought in an either-or fashion, too.

The notion („Begriff“) is the way to overlap („übergeifen“) the opposing parts, which both constitute the field you try to grasp by that notion. So the notion is on one hand a „synthesis“ bringing the opposites together to really something new. On the other hand it does not eliminate „thesis“ and „antithesis“ (the opposites), but they are preserved in form of moments of the overlapping notion. So this process of sublation („Aufhebung“) is threefold: abolish (the opposites exclusing each other), preserve (the opposites as moments requiring each other), and advance (the power of the new totality).

Maybe the following example makes this more clear. On one hand the individual and the society are clearly opposites, and will ever be: I am not the society, and the society is not me. On the other hand, I am a societal individual potentially able to realize all opportunities society offers. Society is not a separated entity, but is constituted by us. In this sense, I am identical with society, and society with me. This is the reason why societal human being and human society are one notion, where the individual and the society are moments of that notion.

If you want to analyze, how the relationship between the individual and the society is about, then for capitalism you discover fetishism as being a self-organizing mode of „moving things“ (i.e. the commodities), which result in alien demands coming from „the society“. In this case the „opposing moment“ of individual vs. society is converted into an absolute principle. It appears, that individual and society are opposites by nature. But be sure, anyhow the alienation is about, the other moment of potentially being identical with society is always there. Otherwise selbstentfaltung (and society in general) would not be possible.

Selbstentfaltung is a notion in the Hegelian sense, too. The two moments are the individual needs on the one hand and the societal necessities on the other. I used the stronger word „necessity“ for the society, because it is more than a „need“, but this not so important.

Although both moments remain opposites — individual needs and societal necessities are not identical — at the same time, they are identical. The first is obvious. Individual life and thus needs are only related to some clipping („Ausschnitt“) of the whole society, because the whole society requires much more functions than being relevant for the individual. The sesond is not so obvious. The given clipping of society, which is relevant for me, does include the functionality of the whole society. If the individual needs are fully covered by the societal part being relevant for me, then my needs and the whole societal nessities are identical, because they are in conjunction.

There are two reasons why each societal clipping contains the whole society. First, the core functionality is the type of mediation between all members and functional parts (institutions etc.) of the society. Only in transition periods you may have different types of mediation concurrently, but in stable periods one type is clearly dominant (e.g. mediation via work, value, money in capitalism). Thus the type of mediation which constitutes each clipping of society does also constitute the whole society and vice versa.

Second, selbstentfaltung of one individual requires the selbstentfaltung of the others in a general sense. This results from the network type of these logics: The „other“ of me requires the selbstentfaltung of his/her „others“ as each of them require the selbstentfaltung of their „others“ and so on. According to the „small world assumption“ this network of reflexive selbstentfaltung only has a maximum „distance“ of seven people. So if all of my farest neighbors can realize their selbstentfaltung, then all people do it and then the whole society offers all conditions necessary to do so.

Can then there be a „rest“ of society which is not covered by those completely different people of the world? I don’t think so, where should it come from? Such a society bases on differences and developments, which constitute the unity of the society. In such a society, I am not identical with that society, but it is „me“, which is reflected by that society and not an alien principle.

For all of you being sceptical about Hegel and prefering Marx: Marx entirely used Hegelian logics for his work. One difference is the claim of Marx, that Hegel does not ground his philosophy in material existence, but only in ideas. This exactly was my prejudice before I read Hegel. From my experience Marx assumption is not true. And if you need another authority: Lenin said, that you are not able to understand Marx if you did not completely understand Hegelian logics.

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