This article is about the role of mass society in the general perception of economic and social challenges, and about the need to challenge society in order to foster real change.
Margaret Thatcher has been considered as the typical representative of neoliberal individualism in claiming that “there is no such thing as society”. That was part of a narrative that, during the Eighties, gave free markets a sort of salvific role. However, a big mistake made by most commentators and intellectuals – often in bad faith – consists precisely in claiming that capitalism, as an economic way of producing goods, is necessarily conducive to more individuality. Already in his “Minima Moralia”, back in the Fourties, Theodor Adorno described the progressive disappearance of the individual that he could experience in the “American way of life”. And even the liberal season of the Sixties, in fostering civil rights, has inspired mass movements where being part of a national or even global narrative conditioned choices made by individuals in their families and groups. Masses praised totalitarian regimes, masses bought and buy products of the culture industry, masses tried and somewhat still try to foster social change.
Nowadays, in the age of social media, news is available to millions if not billions of users in a few seconds, in standardised, often predictable ways. But, while individualism – as the free choice of means to maximise one’s utility – and atomism thrive, individuality is still missing. If by individuality we mean the ability to freely choose one’s aims in life (be it economic welfare, social justice, spiritual fulfillment) and to rationally justify the means chosen to achieve this aim, I would say that there is no free choice for the white, middle-class man who endorses the ideas of nation and tradition to escape from what he fears (mostly poverty); nor is there free choice in the corporate manager talking about the merits of global markets just because he or she needs to sell more goods overseas. While many argue that post-truth is what led to the victory of Donald Trump and Brexit, my view is a bit different. I tend to think that a notion of truth still survives, but that it has been reduced to a merely economic (with regard to aims), subjective (with regard to means) and egoic (in existential terms) dimension.
What is the relevance of mass society for progressive policies? I strongly believe that the fight against a monopolistic, inhuman capitalism can take place in two different ways. One way is through proposing a different ideology, alternative to the capitalist one. It can be a generous, egalitarian and for many instances preferable ideology, but an ideology still gives more power to society than to individuals. And it does not change the nature of society as a mass society, which allows interactions only through media (even if social media), political parties or economic exchanges. The other way to fight capitalism as we see it, might imply a notion of community meant as a society that receives its power from the daily, authentic and autonomous choices of its individuals.
Now, there is no doubt that a progressive agenda has to be endorsed and in many instances organised in the political arena of parliaments and movements. On the other hand, I have a sense that until we provide the average voter with an alternative way to look at the world, which goes beyond the individualistic, utilitarian and economic dimension, capitalism and conservative policies will prevail in the long run. We would need to identify a relational capital, an existential capital, and a moral capital, just to name a few dimensions, as resources that are able to create opportunities of contact and exchange among individuals, and that transcend the mere act of producing and consuming. Which means organising society beyond its merely economic, massifying dimension.
In my book “Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times” I proposed exchanges of inner motivations (such as moral and political values), which would take place through documents testifying to the benefits of some individual choices and social policies. If these documents were used as a means of exchange complementary to money, individuals would have an incentive to interact and enrich their vision of the world on the basis of what they receive from each other. This would facilitate a cooperative search for truth as the one proposed by JÃ¼rgen Habermas, a search that seems impossible on social media, for instance. This would also provide individuals with criteria for judging reality which are not dictated by being part of a mass, but by concrete, personal experiences, even though these criteria might be exchanged with virtually any human being in the world.
Capitalism, as we know it, needs masses and individualism. On the other hand, social change needs good politics. Good politics needs communities. And communities need individuality.
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This post was written by Marco Senatore