Reimagining social hope
Ronald Aronson on individualism and the re-emergence of collective agency.
Having finished his latest book, We: Reviving Social Hope, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, Ronald Aronson, a professor emeritus at Wayne State University, is optimistic. Not because of any love for Trump, but because of the movement against Trump – the anti-Trump resistance, as he calls it. We: Reviving Social Hope is not only a testament to Aronson’s optimism, then, but an analysis of the re-emergence of what sees as a collective, rather than an individualistic form, of political action.
That he should be concerned with the relationship between individual and collective agency should not be a surprise. From Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World (1980) and Sartre’s Second Critique (1987), to Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (2004), Aronson’s work has long been preoccupied by French existentialism, especially Sartre’s later attempt to synthesise his existential commitment to individual freedom with the broader historical horizons of Marxism. Add this concern to his broader interest in the main currents of 20th-century radical thought, evident in The Dialectics of Disaster: A Preface to Hope (1983), and After Marxism (1995), and Aronson is well placed to explore the political energies of the present moment…
Ella Whelan: Your new book, We: Reviving Social Hope, is about a concept you’ve called ‘social hope’. Could you explain what it is?
Professor Aronson: Well, it’s funny that it needs explaining today, but it does. It’s funny that it needs a book about it, but it does. Because the notion of ‘we’, of improving the world and working together to make a collective world for all of us, is something that’s been under pretty systematic assault in the UK and the US, for the past generation. That is to say, collective projects (the notion of collectively solving our collective problems) has been de-emphasised, attacked and diminished. This has happened on several levels, starting with Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no such thing as society’ – that famous statement from almost 40 years ago. Ronald Reagan had similar attitudes in the US. And it develops as that process we now call neoliberalism – which stresses the free market as opposed to democratic, collective decision making.
Another process connected to all of this is what I call the ‘privatisation of hope’ – where individuals are no longer thinking of themselves as part of a wider community, and how we will collectively make our world better, (which is, of course, one of the great Enlightenment ideas and one of the great ideas of the past 200 years). All of this has been under assault in a pretty sustained way. People think of themselves, and are taught to think of themselves, solely as individuals, and solely in terms of bettering their own conditions.
Whelan: Let’s talk about this idea of the ‘privatisation of hope’, the ‘withdrawal’, as you put it, ‘of personal expectation from the wider world’. How has hope been privatised?
Aronson: It’s been going on for the better part of a generation, and it happens through the attack on collective ways of considering ourselves. Think of the shrinking of trade unions, for example, and the diminishing of various major political movements. Alongside that, individuals have been encouraged to look out for their own careers without concern for the rest of the world. From public transportation to the private motor car – that would be a very physical, visual example of the shift.
Individuals are learning and being taught that above all they are individuals; they are being raised not to see themselves as members of a wider society. That’s on a personal and individual level. The processes I talk about in the book have to do with the spread of cynicism – we don’t think that it’s very useful or helpful to try to create a better world. People are raised to be in it for themselves – that’s the privatisation of hope. That’s the letting go of a wider sense of community and belongingness.
So, one of the things I write about when discussing the privatisation of hope is the emergence of a massive consumer society, which was implemented with nobody choosing it directly. Nobody democratically decided that what we’re going to do is to devote more resources to consumer goods, rather than devote our resources to give more people leisure time or collective activities. The notion of being a consumer is now a major be all and end all of life. Consuming goods is part of the process in making decisions for yourself. This could sound vague, but I don’t mean it that way. People learn to think for themselves, and experience themselves, no longer as part of a larger community but more and more as solitary consumers.
Whelan: Do you think individualism is necessarily a problem? You sound pretty down on it there. But in the book you write about it positively. For instance, you mention America’s public-spirited citizenry, and how an individualistic society still pursued collective goals – the expansion of civil rights and so on.
Aronson: As I describe one side of it, one tends to go overboard. The book is entitled We, and the interesting thing is We was the title of a major book in the early 20th century by Yevgeny Zamyatin – it was the story of a false collectivity imposed on individuals, something he saw as a problem not merely in the Soviet Union but as a threat to humanity in general. (His book was published in the early 1920s). The ‘we’ march in unison and destroy the individual. That was a problem that was felt in the 20th century in books like Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four or We. In each of those books, the problem of the collective overwhelming individuals was answered in the form of an individual rebellion against the overwhelming collective. The totalitarian society was the great threat of the 20th century.
And, as I describe it in my book, that’s no longer the problem in most societies today. It may remain so in places under ISIS, for example. But, by and large, the threat is really of an individualism gone wild. The absence of collectivity, and the freedom of individuals and individual corporations to dominate the world, to be irresponsible and not look at collective problems like the environment or the attacks on health services. Certain collective goods became essential for human survival – and now, they’re under threat by an individualist ethos and individualist ruling parties.
Whelan: Where has this feeling of an obsession with the individual come from? It’s always dangerous to reduce the 1960s, which encompassed the diverse aspirations of the New Left as well as the counter-culture. But, overall do you think that there was perhaps too much of a tendency to make the personal political, and self-esteem central? Has that led, in part, to this crises of individuality – this obsession with individuality?
Aronson: You’re making a good point, and you want to press me on this, which is good. Because I wrote in the 1960s on behalf of that individualism, feeling that that individualism was potentially revolutionary. The 1960s was central to my own development and my own writing and thinking and acting. It was a rebellion against the conformity of the earlier period. I mentioned Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four and We. There are two other books that are part of that stream that most people don’t usually consider. One is Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which was this massive poem about the struggle for individual survival and integrity in the totalitarian society. And then, there’s Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which is about a society without opposition. There’s barely a space for authentic individualism in that book. So, you might say there was a rebellion, in part, on behalf of the need for individual identity and flourishing.
You’re not saying this, but I think often a very cheap and easy way to describe it is to simply say: ‘Well that individualism has gone too far and it led to neoliberalism’. And there is something in that, except that the individualism, as it developed, immediately got seized upon by the capitalism system as a way of ensuring profit and economic growth. It’s not simply that individuals have gone too far, but that individuals have also lost a sense of collectivity. It’s a sense that you have no responsibility beyond yourself.
The genesis of this is complex. There is an element in the 1960s, but the element in the economic system is crucial – and in the consumer society, as part of what makes up this privatisation of hope I describe. The ideology is a big part – the ideology of what we call right-wing think-tanks, neoliberal think-tanks and neoliberal ideologists in the US and the UK. They promote a way of thinking which is quite magical – which says that individuals on their own will somehow magically produce the best result for society. That’s way beyond what we envisioned in the 1960s. It’s more deeply to do with the needs of the current economic system.
Whelan: What do you make of the contemporary obsession with self-invention and reinvention? The end point of much of that movement in the 1960s now isn’t just about neoliberalism, it’s this individualistic obsession with defining and presenting ourselves. Do you think it’s a problem that identity and individuality now is all about how you express yourself?
Aronson: There’s quite a problem there. Sociologists like Zygmunt Bauman and even Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck have talked about this risk to society, in the way in which it individualised society. It does exactly what you’re talking about – individuals become obsessed with who they are, writing their biography. There’s an incredibly sharp self consciousness about inventing myself and reinventing myself. What is all that about? What is going on there?
Well, if you look at it closely, it’s a social process. There are social demands made on individuals to do that. The social demands come from the labour market. Individuals have demands made on them – the whole outpouring of various types of pop psychology in which people turn inward to themselves – all this is part of a historical wave. If people spent as much time thinking about their society as they do about themselves individually, we might be able to imagine a balance. But we’re so far from any point of balance. The question might be: how do you combine individual sensibility and self-development with a social awareness and social participation? Well, if we were raised and educated to do both, it might happen. If we had a sense of ourselves as personal individuals, and as belonging to a larger society at the same time, things would be very different. We absolutely do belong, and people need to become aware of it.
But people are becoming aware of it, in the UK and the US, in both good ways and bad. The bad being the Trump movement, and UKIP. The good being the movements that generated support for Bernie Sanders and the shocking support behind Jeremy Corbyn. People totally didn’t expect a return to a wider sense of community, and that is happening too.
Whelan: You brought up the good and the bad – let’s look at what you consider to be the bad. Like the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, you don’t simply condemn the rise of Trump, and paint his supporters as angry white men, as so many other commentators seek to do. Was there a kernel of social hope in his election victory? Even just in its rejection of the business as usual politics?
Aronson: No. That would be similar to asking if there is there a kernel of hope in fascism. But there is something there in the support for Trump. It’s the rejection of the neoliberals in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party – the rejection of leaving people on their own. (Which is the strongest ideology of the other Republican candidates opposed to Trump.) No one really seriously thought about our society and the inequalities that had occurred or the social devastation of the past decade. Trump addressed that, and in that sense, people are saying something is wrong and something has to change. I call that a distorting mirror of hope. It’s hope where you say something has to change – but you say he has to change it. I call it an anti-hope, because you want the great man to come in and solve your problems, instead of some collective movement to find the social sources of the problem and collectively act to make a difference. I know that sounds very much like old-style socialism, but that’s what Bernie Sanders brought back; a politics where we collectively make a difference to democratise society and to search for meaningful social changes that are effective for everybody.
Whelan: Okay, so you argue that Trump wants to act alone, not with a collective. But don’t you think there is potential, simply in the raw rejection of the establishment in the Trump vote, for change? Can the US left harness that?
Aronson: Yes – in the resistance against Trump. From within it, all sorts of possibilities are bubbling up. People see themselves as acting together. There is a ‘we’ versus the ‘him’. People see themselves as within a large social movement. It’s not just a matter of defending, for example, Obamacare, which is a very incomplete, partial healthcare system. But, within that, the natural solution to the healthcare crisis that Trump is worsening would be medicare for all – a single-payer national healthcare system. People are saying that – large numbers of people are saying that. So, we see a movement beginning to raise demands for large-scale social change that would benefit everybody. I think that’s built into the anti-Trump resistance. Many people see it moving in that direction. There’s a real possibility there.
Whelan: I want to bring in your previous work now, because your life-long intellectual interest in Sartre is fascinating in this context. What would Sartre make of the ‘psychotherapeutic injunction’, as you put it, ‘to take command of our own lives and become the active subjects of our stories’?
Aronson: Well, Sartre sees, particularly in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, and in his later works, the serialised, isolated, separated, individual. An individual who is dominated in that separation and isolation. It’s not just a natural state; it’s a state in which one is passive in relation to the larger social world. Sartre sees that individual under threat, looking around to find other individuals, coming together collectively to find a means to deal with the crises. Sartre very much understood that and wrote about it. That part of his writing really inspired my own work and is embedded in what I’m trying to describe as social hope. That is to say, collectives functioning collectively and overcoming that isolation and separation.
Whelan: How would you assess Sartre’s philosophy of freedom now?
Aronson: Well, it’s still there. Sartre’s analysis is still there in that stage of individual development and intellectual understanding. Those stages are still very much there – they’re part of us – they’re part of you and I. So they’re presupposed in everything we do. We make choices, always. We create ourselves, always. But, as Sartre later understood it, under conditions not of our own making and not of our own control. Just as he moved from the understanding of how we make ourselves to an understanding of the conditions under which we make ourselves, and the tools that we are given (sometimes very paltry tools), to make ourselves. He understood the deeper social layers of the process. So, I think we have to take his initial, very striking and important ideas on board, and continue as he did to understanding and struggling in the larger society.
Whelan: Your book is very positive, you talk about the possibility and potential for social change. You write that if somebody like Bernie Sanders can come out of nowhere and make such an intervention, anything can happen. Do you remain positive about a reimagining of social hope?
Aronson: I was writing the book in the deepest period of cynicism after Barack Obama’s hope phase. I was exploring our roots – what is the basis within us for reconnecting with a deeper sense of social hope that motivated past generations? And, lo and behold, in 2016, we saw that process happen. Albeit in a false, distorting and mirrored way. But it also happened in a very positive, democratic, collective way with Bernie Sanders. I saw reality proving what I was talking about in my book. So, the postscript in the book is about the 2016 election and Trump. The book really points towards the anti-Trump resistance as the path for recreating hope. Both Bernie and Jeremy Corbyn seem to me to be at least the harbingers of something really new, based on a refusal to let go of our sense of social belonging.
Professor Ronald Aronson is professor emeritus of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University. He is the author, most recently, of We: Reviving Social Hope, published by University of Chicago Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked.
Picture by: Phil Roeder, published under a creative commons license.
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