One of the most twisted words in today’s political discourse is individualism.
When people talk about individualism, they tend to conflate two types of individualism and present them as inseparable. The first is ethical individualism which sees the individual as the most important ethical consideration. The second is methodological individualism which sees the individual as the site of agency and therefore the most relevant unit of study. In the minds of many leftists and liberals, the two are conflated. Implicit in this is the assumption that once your analytic process focuses on individuals and how they act you are inescapably drawn towards a narrow egoism or nationalism that advocates for sociopathic individuality or the defense of an arbitrary group at the exclusion of all others.
I think such a conflation is deeply wrong and is the source of much confusion between means and ends that is rampant across society.
To begin with, methodological individualism comes with no value claims and it does not ignore broader systemic impacts on how individuals act. It merely asks that we not paint with too broad a brush the various structural oppressions we identify in the world. The various oppressions that occur at a systemic scale do not occur in uniform ways. Rather they manifest in incredibly heterogeneous ways that evolve over time as the parties involved interface with each other and the broader world changes. Common points of reference between struggles can of course be found, but simplistic narratives about the inevitability of various dynamics lead to simplistic solutions, which encourages authoritarian solutions because the one place where authoritarian solutions work well is in simple environments.
Methodological individualism is therefore not a friend to various nationalisms because it breaks down surface-level group identities. The emphasis on an individual as the site of agency means a focus, not on the particular context the individual is emerged in, but rather their ability to process incoming information, send out useful information in turn, and filter those they interact with. Naive filters for ruling out ideas based on where they come from is a laughably simple approach and gives you absurdities like nationalist politicians calling for the ban of “arabic numerals.” There are also genuine benefits that a diversity in viewpoints, thinking styles, and life experiences bring to the solving of practical problems. Simplistic heuristics may have some cache in appealing to the masses, but in terms of getting stuff done they are far less effective.
Clearly then methodological individualism undermines the notion of static identities. If you value anything outside simply maintaining those identities, then it becomes clear that over any time scale you’ll probably drop your standards of purity to get what you really want done. One obvious example of this is with nationalists, who loudly talk about homogenous culture, embracing the economic benefits of migration when push comes to shove.
But what about those autocrats and would-be autocrats who happily adopt any flag if it promises power? Is methodological individualism just merely another tool for them?
Not exactly. Some leftists claim that methodological individualism is a tool for such ends because they believe that it encourages atomized, disconnected individuals. This is false. Methodological individualism concludes that the best way to get stuff done is not to isolate individuals, but to treat each individual as a unique node that can best serve themselves and the broader network they belong to when they have the freedom to find the most useful connections themselves.
Methodological individualism also cuts against the self-importance held by many who self-identify as unique individuals. Certainly, some people may have uncommon talents or experience to contribute but the point is not what any one individual can do, but rather what the network can achieve. In some cases, it may help to have talented individuals scouring the frontiers of knowledge. But if they can’t successfully integrate what they do or what they know with the rest of us then it’ll run into all the usual problems that come with centralization, no matter how talented the individual. No single individual can ever understand everything and so cooperation becomes a winning strategy in an uncertain world for a variety of reasons.
Methodological individualism doesn’t just undermine narrow self-interest, it also ultimately points towards disillusion of the barriers between the individual and the rest of the world. If the primary reason to care about individuals is that they are the most dynamic and responsive sites of agency and information processing that we know of, then it stands to reason that we would want to increase that agency and information processing. One obvious way for this to happen is to increase the types of feedback each individual can receive. Currently, we interface with many complex systems in incredibly rudimentary ways, seeing the larger picture only in the form of mathematical abstractions. Our ability to understand the world and our ability to understand each other is obviously limited by our senses. Technology that gives us a more intuitive understanding of reality would greatly improve our ability to understand dynamics that our baseline senses cannot touch. Creating such artificial synesthesia is a key part of science, after all, and expanding our capabilities in that regard can only be a positive. Similarly, technology that gives us a more intuitive understanding of what others know would allow for much faster communication between individuals, resulting in unprecedented capacity for coordination.
While all these developments would augment the individual as a site of information processing, they would also increasingly strip away a fixed sense of self. Maintaining the fiction of a coherent, unified self when you are able to expand or contract your senses at will or deeply feel what others feel will be a challenge when the feedback is so direct. Increase the number of connections between two networks and they will increasingly merge.
Now of course such technological tools would be ripe for abuse. Authoritarians who want to neatly cleave humanity into separate tribes will leap at the chance to directly wire the their particular group together. Those who fear insubordination will delight at the chance to monitor potential dissidents with unprecedented fidelity. And of course biotechnology unlocks unprecedented mechanisms to torture and break bodies. The possibilities do not come without severe risks.
But even in the face of authoritarian regimes looking to control us in unprecedented ways, there is still some hope. A humanity manipulated in the service of a sovereign is clearly unable to be as flexible as networked masses voluntarily coming together to pursue a common goal. Arbitrary lines drawn between populations clearly limit new connections that can be made between individuals. Sheer processing power is not enough to make up for shitty information inputs, crappy epistemic structuring, and the deliberate restriction of individual agency that will be necessary for-top-down control. And should the opposition have access to similar technology, they’ll have all the benefits of networked organization multiplied by at least an order of magnitude and can do a lot more with a lot less. Even in the face of an authoritarianism magnitudes more powerful than anything we’ve seen, there is still reason to be hopeful.
I’ll leave concerns over how we should approach the question of talking about agents in such a world to the philosophers, but it seems clear to me that a sufficiently radical methodological individualism points towards the destruction of, at the very least, the narrow egotistical self, concerned only with its own welfare, if not the very notion of the discrete individual.