Taking Collectivity Apart

There is an expression in Afrikaans, om die dam onder die eend uit te ruk. Translated literally, it means “to pluck the pond out from under the duck,” to take a thing so far that it begins to miss its own point. The expression springs to mind because an obsession with groups of people literally turning into things at some point begins to obscure the nature of the systems of relationality which exist between them. At the very best it is a red herring; it is an energy leak, a needless programmatic burden. The idea that people are or ought to be gradually turning into each other, melding together into some kind of crowd-golem is not only scary but also quite superfluous to the aim of justice which motivates socialism and anarchism alike. Yet, how often is collectivity not implicitly either a precondition or an actual aim in programmes of theory? One mark of the tankie is the attitude that people going off by themselves or in small groups and doing stuff is literally capitalism, and ought not to be allowed. Why this insistence on everyone-together? Why not rest at some-in-relation, and call it good?

I am not sure where the thing came from. I am not even sure if it existed in Hegel as such, or whether it is merely very easy to read into the sort of language he uses. It really does seem to have popped out of nowhere in the early 19th century. By the time our foundational theorists come along, collectivity seems to have become a universal preoccupation.

One does not have to be an atomistic individualist of the rugged type to suspect Marx of gratuitous, “hard” collectivism. It seems implicit in his Hegelian language, when he is at his most Hegelian. I cannot resist putting on my best parrot-returning John Cleese: “A class in-and-for-itself?! What caned of talk is that?!” Yet Marx is surprisingly reticent about specifics. It is in Marx that collectivity is most a kind of ghost, not quite an apparition but a sort of palpable presence at the edge of perception. It is more clearly implicit in subsequent Marxists like Georg Lukacs, whose language suggests that the subject of “class consciousness,” as he elaborated it, was not each member of a class, but the class itself. It allowed Lukacs to construct a thoroughgoing critique of reification, i.e. mistaking relations for things, without once spotting that the Marxist conception of class, as presented, was itself a whopper of a reification: mistaking relations for groups of people.

This mental habit, this frictionless telescoping from microcosm to macrocosm and back, inherited from Hegel, is often seen as intrinsic to the dialectical method, but it is really extraneous to it. If, as Chris Matthew Sciabarra convincingly suggests, the dialectical method is encapsulable as the art of context-keeping, then there is no justification for tying a hard-and-fast rule of “as above, so below” to it. Context does not imply seamless continuity. Context-keeping means understanding the specific in terms of the general; it does not mean that the specific and the general are the same thing, and thus interchangeable according to whim.

Early in The Conquest of Bread (1906) Pyotr Kropotkin seems to commit quite plainly to some kind of idea of collectivity:

Every machine has had the same history — a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers, who have added to the original invention these little nothings, without which the most fertile idea would remain fruitless. More than that: every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it in the vast field of mechanics and industry. 

Science and industry, knowledge and application, discovery and practical realization leading to new discoveries, cunning of brain and of hand, toil of mind and muscle — all work together. Each discovery, each advance, each increase in the sum of human riches, owes its being to the physical and mental travail of the past and the present. 

By what right then can any one whatever appropriate the least morsel of this immense whole and say — This is mine, not yours?

But does Kropotkin’s comparatively matter-of-fact language really disguise a leap from “nebulous multitude” to “everyone”? On the face of it he might as well be arguing for non-ownership. He clarifies a bit later:

Under pain of death, human societies are forced to return to first principles: the means of production being the collective work of humanity, the product should be the collective property of the race. Individual appropriation is neither just nor serviceable. All belongs to all. All things are for all men, since all men have need of them, since all men have worked in the measure of their strength to produce them, and since it is not possible to evaluate every one’s part in the production of the world’s wealth. 

All things are for all. … (emphasis mine)

Surprisingly, given Mutualism’s general compatibility with individualism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had elaborated a comprehensive understanding of collectivity. In Shawn P. Wilbur’s recent translation of Principles of the Philosophy of Progress (1863) we find:

From the formation of individuals into a group there results a force, numerically equal to the sum of the individual forces that make it up, but which is, by virtue of its unity, very superior in its application, and which must for this reason be considered as the soul of the group, its own essential energy, its life, its mind. So that the individual—sensitive, intelligent, active and free—being taken for an elementary unity, the various groups in which it can enter form so many unities of a more and more elevated order, endowed, like the individual, with sensitivity, will, intelligence and action.

Thus, alongside the individual man arises the collective man, which is certainly something other than the sum or addition of the individual energies that form it, but, which, converting all these energies into a higher energy, sui generis, has the right to be treated from now on not as a being of the mind, but as a real and veritable person. Such is the immense fact, principle of supernaturalism, which must in the end set the economic science on its certain base, and which I will attempt to summarize.

Yet, depending on what they actually meant, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and probably Marx might have had the wrong end of the stick. Excising collectivity in what I propose below to call a “hard” sense might have made their projects stronger and not, ultimately, have undermined them. At the very least this reveals the need to catalogue what they — or we — might mean when we speak about collectivity.

For some reason, those of us who have worked through the received individualist-collectivist dichotomy and come to recognize something like “non-atomistic individuality” as a point of resolution are strangely reluctant to go back and dig up the question. We are much too ready to wave it away. Was it that exhausting the first time? Or are we afraid of now being associated with the vulgar individualism we had perhaps painfully rejected? Whatever the case, it is unfortunate, because the matter is the occasion of equivocation often enough. 

For one thing, it has made a mess of our popular understanding of private property, by implying that it must be something like personal property, different only in terms of some technical minutiae of profitable productivity. To my mind, a rational definition of private property has nothing at all to do with the number of people who own it: it is that property to which a claim of ownership is made contrary to the possession of whoever possesses it. That is, ownership is privated from the possessor; the possessor is deprived of ownership as an artisan is deprived of ownership of a piece of machinery in capitalist industry, or a tenant is deprived of ownership of a dwelling by a landlord. Note that by this definition, nationalized state property is private property, and nothing other than private property.

Without at least some attempt at a taxonomy of concepts of collectivity, we shall be forever subject to this motte-and-bailey: “You agree, then, that this was the work of more than one person?” “Of course.” “Then you must agree that assimilation is inevitable, and resistance is futile.” There does seem to be a gradient of concepts of collectivity, with the bare recognition of human relationality at one end, and the literal Borg at the other: what we might respectively call “soft” and “hard” collectivity.

Indeed there may be several gradients, depending on which question is asked:

  1. What kind of language are we using? Are we busy with synecdoche or are we speaking literally? (Indeed, have we made up our mind, or are we hedging like that certain kind of evasive flirt for whom I never had time, or the bully whose threat in deadly earnest is capable of becoming a mere joke at the last moment?) Here, soft collectivity comprises convenient figures of speech for admittedly disparate collections of persons, abstractions; while with hard collectivity substantively, objectively real collective entities are intended.
  2. To what extent does the collectivity have a definite boundary, which is at least within certain limits constant over time? Soft collectivity is intrinsically nebulous and essentially ephemeral; membership in it is graded: more or less partial, variable, or qualified. Hard collectivity is sharp-edged and durable, and someone is either in it or they are not. Hard collectivity is everyone, within whatever boundaries. Soft collectivity is anyone.
  3. To what extent is the collectivity able to interpenetrate with other collectivities, especially as regards collectivities considered to be mutually antagonistic? Hard collectivity will tend to insist that Plato’s pancreas can’t simultaneously be Aristotle’s left kneecap, while soft collectivity has no such qualms. Conceiving literal collective entities, hard collectivity will almost automatically conceive them to be separate and complete in themselves.
  4. To what extent is the collectivity conceived to be formally analogous to its members? Here, hard collectivity conceives a lot of people together to form one big person. Soft collectivity conceives whatever it is which results from a lot of people together  to be quite unlike a person, big or otherwise. It could be a completely different sort of thing. Who else has spotted that the popular image of the fish-shaped shoal doesn’t work? Its “jaws” will simply break around the big fish, and the big fish will swim through unimpeded.
  5. What authority is ascribed to the collectivity? Hard collectivity sees each member as morally subservient to the whole. Soft collectivity sees the whole as morally subservient to each member. To my mind, promoting reification to deification, hard collectivity expects all to bow down before the Group and to serve it. Soft collectivity regards the group as only existing in the first place in order to be of benefit to its several members, and justified in its existence only as long as it continues to do so.

It should be clear that I favour soft concepts of collectivity, if there are to be any at all, not least because it forces us to interrogate exactly what we mean, by depriving us of the facility of dreaming up chimerae. It confronts us with questions like, how can a system be independently robust when it has no existence outside the beings which are subject to it? We cannot hand-wave a golem into existence; we have no choice but to get to grips with the mechanics of the thing.

What I am proposing is exactly the same as the shift in the understanding of the functioning of an anthill from quasi-magical emergence in e.g. Eugene Marais to stigmergy in Pierre-Paul Grasse. I am not alone in this. It would be tempting to tie the implicit hard collectivism of Marais the ethologist to that of Marais the Afrikaner nationalist.

Most of all, I believe that this allows Marx’s concept of class to be salvaged, as it has for all its shortcomings become too important summarily to jettison after almost two centuries of political and economic discourse. That Marx should have chosen the term “class” for what is in essence the condition of patternedness or structure of economic relations is significant. The term would have been very odd if he didn’t actually mean social classes of people. What I am proposing now will indeed saddle us with a counterintuitive term and a consequent duty to reiterate what it doesn’t mean ad nauseam. It still feels more viable than introducing a new term and endlessly insisting that what is validly meant by “class” in Marxism is exactly the same thing.

That is: “class” is not a group or body (or indeed emergent entity) of people who have certain economic relations in common; “class” is the systemic structure of those relations themselves, conceived as existing only in specific instant encounters, but nevertheless bound in a robustly independent functional mechanism. Obviously there is a lot to thrash out here, but I believe it’s a first step towards putting the pond back where it belongs.

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