Friday, November 21, 2014

Georg Simmel: 18th and 19th century views of freedom

Society want to be an organic whole of which "individuals must be mere members." But the individual rebels against total absorption into the whole, writes Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt. H Wolf.
The individual strives to be rounded out in himself, not merely to help round out society.
This conflict between the whole and the individual is insoluble. The individual's striving for wholeness appears as egoism, compared to the altruism of serving society. But society itself "is an egoism that does violence to the individual". Thus comes freedom, to referee a boundary both for society and for the individual. The 18th century and the 19th century offered different ways in which freedom could be understood and implemented.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

In the 18th century the old social forms -- the old aristocratic privileges, the "despotic control of commerce," the "still potent survivals of the guilds, the intolerant coercion by the church, the feudal obligations of the peasantry" -- seemed "an unbearable limitation" on peoples' energies. Thus it invented freedom from obligation and coercion and equality to level the ranks.

But the freedom of the individuals to pursue their energies immediately creates problems.  The 18th century idea of freedom assumed equality between individuals and the abolition of ranks, but individuals are not equal. Freedom allows the powerful to accumulate power, the moneyed to accumulate money, and the clever to outshine the stupid. This is what socialism was invented to cure.
"[S]ocialism" does not refer to the suspension of freedom. Rather, socialism suspends only that which, at any given degree of freedom, becomes the means for suppressing the freedom of some in favor of others. This means private property.
 There is an "antimony between freedom and equality" that only Goethe seems to have seen.
Equality, he said, demands submission to a general norm; freedom "strives toward the unconditional." "Legislators or revolutionaries," he pointed out, "who promise at the same time equality and freedom are fantasts or charlatans."
How then did the 18th century not grasp this problem? It is because of Kant, who posited an abstract and idealistic ego which is really identical in every man. And then there is Kant's categorical imperative:
Act in such a way that the principle governing your will could at the same time be valid as the principle of a general legislation.
The 18th century "based equality upon freedom, and freedom upon equality."

This ideal broke up in the 19th century into two tendencies: "toward equality without freedom, and toward freedom without equality." The first is obviously socialism.

The second tendency is a new individualism. The individual that had broken "the rusty chains of guild, birth right, and church" now wanted "to distinguish himself from other individuals."
The important point no longer was the fact that he was a free individual as such, but that he was this specific, irreplaceable, given individual...

This new individualism might be called qualitative, in contrast with the quantitative individualism of the eighteenth century... At any rate, Romanticism perhaps was the broadest channel through which it reached the consciousness of the nineteenth century.
Simmel summarizes all this in a majestic paragraph that still resonates unabated with us a century later.
[T]he doctrine of freedom and equality is the foundation of free competition; while the doctrine of differentiated personality is the basis of the division of labor. Eighteenth-century liberalism put the individual on his own feet: in the nineteenth, he was allowed to go as far as they would carry him. According to the new theory the natural order of things saw to it that the unlimited competition of all resulted in the harmony of all interests, that the unrestricted striving after individual advantages resulted in the optimum welfare of the whole.
Simmel looks to a higher form in which the two ideas of "personality as such and of unique personality as such, are not the last words of individualism."

Next: Numbers and social life

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