14 March 2017

Individual, Egoism, Democracy

Marx writes in Zur Judenfrage (On the Jewish Question in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Paris, 1844):
"Das Menschenrecht des Privateigentums ist also das Recht, willkürlich (à son gré), ohne Beziehung auf andre Menschen, unabhängig von der Gesellschaft, sein Vermögen zu genießen und über dasselbe zu disponieren, das Recht des Eigennutzes. Jene individuelle Freiheit, wie diese Nutzanwendung derselben, bilden die Grundlage der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Sie läßt jeden Menschen im andern Menschen nicht die Verwirklichung, sondern vielmehr die Schranke seiner Freiheit finden." (MEW1:365)

English: "The human right of private property is thus the right, arbitrarily (at will), without any relation to other humans, independently of society, to enjoy his property and to dispose over it, the right of self-interest. That individual freedom, along with the exercise of it, form the foundation of civil society. It lets every human find in the other human not the realization, but rather the barrier to his freedom." (I retain the sexist language of the time)

After discussing other rights proclaimed in Article 2 of the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (i.e. the French Constitution of 1793), namely, "l'égalité, la liberté, la sûreté, la propriété" (equality, liberty, security, property), Marx concludes,

"Keines der sogenannten Menschenrechte geht also über den egoistischen Menschen hinaus, über den Menschen, wie er Mitglied der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, nämlich auf sich, auf sein Privatinteresse und seine Privatwillkür zurückgezogenes und vom Gemeinwesen abgesondertes Individuum ist." (MEW1:366)

English: "Hence none of the so-called human rights goes beyond the egoistic human, beyond the human as he is a member of civil society, namely, an individual withdrawn to himself, his private interest and his private, arbitrary will, and so separated off from the community."

According to Marx, therefore, civil society is the realm of self-interest (Eigennutz), of the "egoistic, independent individual" (MEW1:370) who is the bearer of individual human rights. On the other hand, this bourgeois human has his double and better half in the citoyen, the citizen of state, who is the "moral person" (ibid.). This doubling of the human being into bourgeois and citoyen follows Hegel's distinction between civil society as the realm of particularity in its partiality, and the state as the realm of universality, whose will is directed at the well-being of society as a whole. To participate in the life of the state, the human subject must raise himself beyond egoistic particularity to the level of the citizen concerned with the universal affairs of state.

Citizens actually take part in the universal realm of the state through the mediation of democratic institutions, first and foremost, democratic elections of the representatives to the legislative body of government, flanked by the media, one of whose main duties is to keep the citizenry well-informed on matters of government and state affairs.

Do these neat distinctions in Marx and Hegel hold water without seepage? Is human egoism to be located essentially in private property? Are the rights of private property simply self-interested without qualification? Does the human as bourgeois leave his/her egoistic interests behind when participating as a citizen in the institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state? Does the citizen have exclusively and impartially the universal interests of society as a whole in mind?

Here I mention more as an aside Marx's vision of the human as a "Gattungswesen" (species-being), achieved
"wenn der Mensch seine 'forces propres' |'eigene Kräfte'| als gesellschaftliche Kräfte erkannt und organisiert hat und daher die gesellschaftliche Kraft nicht mehr in der Gestalt der politischen Kraft von sich trennt, erst dann ist die menschliche Emanzipation vollbracht." (MEW1:370)

"when man has recognized and organized his 'own powers' as social forces and therefore no longer separates social power from himself in the form of political power, only then will human emancipation be consummated."

and focus instead on today's bourgeois-democratic society that also goes under other names, such as Western liberal, capitalist society.

Firstly, Marx is right to point out that the declarations of human rights proclaim "rights of man" understood at the time as the rights of the male human as an individual. Article 6 of the 1793 Constitution, for instance, reads:
"La liberté est le pouvoir qui appartient à l'homme de faire tout ce qui ne nuit pas aux droits d'autrui."
"Freedom is the power that belongs to man to do all that which does not interfere with the rights of others."

This formulation describes a kind of private sphere or bubble encapsulating an individual that does not overlap with the similar bubbles of other individuals and within which each individual has to right to exercise its personal powers freely at will. This accords with the notion of an individual isolated and insulated from society and community. But does such an encapsulated individual exist at all? And least of all in civil society? Doesn't the individual always already live in the world with others in various relations of interdependency, thus rendering the notion of individual, atomistic monads or capsules jostling extrinsically against each other fictitious?

The power that belongs to an individual in civil society is exercised for the sake of gain of some form, whether it be to earn income or to purchase or hire someone else's property, usually a useful everyday commodity of some kind. This requires entering into a contract with another individual who is similarly motivated. An individual power may be labour-power, whether it be skilled or unskilled, or it may be money owned by the individual in which the power inheres to rightly acquire someone else's property. The exercise of these individual powers requires that an agreement be reached between two parties in which they agree, i.e. please, and are pleased with, each other (cf. OED). This implies that, although both parties are motivated by self-interest, their agreement results in the mutually pleasing satisfaction of self-interests, thus raising their egoistic self-interests beyond themselves in a mutually beneficial exchange of powers.

These moments of agreement and mutual benefit (a.k.a. win-win situation) imply that civil society cannot be characterized purely and simply as the "sphere of egoism, of the bellum omnium contra omnes" (MEW1:356), as Marx does. A war of all against all would only be the case if the individuals exerted their powers over others either without any quid prop quo or grossly unfairly. All freedom in civil society is exercised as a play of powers of various kinds, starting with individual abilities and proceeding with the power of reified value, first and foremost in the shape of money.

The sociation of civil society is basically what Aristotle already called _synallagae_ (exchange, commutation) in Book V of the Nicomachean Ethics, the book that Marx drew on to formulate his infamous -- and largely misunderstood and neglected -- value-form analysis. _Synallagae_ means that the realm of civil society is essentially one of having dealings, exchanges with one another, especially, but not only, of the economic kind. Such dealings can always be viewed as a power play. To be just and fair, such exchanges must be mutually beneficial power plays. Even power plays that are vigorous power struggles may be fair, but there are also countless instances of unfair dealings with one another among the members of civil society, including within the bounds of the rule of law. Fairness in civil society always remains contestable and must often be struggled for. Even in such struggles, individual egoisms are raised beyond themselves to some kind of mutual benefit attained in an agreement that reconciles opposing, but nevertheless complementary, interests.

From this discussion I conclude that the exercise of property rights cannot be characterized as bald egoism. Furthermore, isn't it  naive to tie egoism essentially to private property ownership? Does the bourgeois individual leave his/her egoistic interests behind when donning the garb of citizen and participating in the institutions of the bourgeois-democratic state? Are citizens non-egoistic?

Even if the citizen raises him/herself above mere individual self-interest when participating in the modern democratic state, does this defuse the mass egoism of social groupings of all kinds with shared particular, partial interests that do not deserve the name of universal interests? Doesn't the consensus reached in democratic politics amount to the elevation of particular group-egoisms into a mutual agreement and concord, on a par with individuals' agreeing contractually in economic dealings within civil society? Is this the best that can be attained, presupposing that selfless altruism is not only an unrealistic ideal, a moralistic self-delusion, but not even desirable?

Are not democratic politics played out largely as power struggles among various mass-group interests that can be identified and assessed by commentators in the electoral analysis of such political power games? Do not democratic politicians fight for election by catering to the perceived mass-egoistic interests of their electoral constituencies?

Even when an entire people or nation unites politically, with a large majority, in a common cause, is this not mostly the case in a power struggle with some foreign power which may not be simply a foreign state but the 'foreign power' of foreigners that impinges upon the free exercise of citizens' powers in some way? For instance, when these foreigners want to immigrate to better their lives by exercising their powers and abilities in the domestic economy?

In short, don't both individual and mass egoism leak liberally into the political power plays of the democratic state? Isn't the contest of mass egoisms one fitting name also for liberal democracy? Even supposing ideally some kind of socialist or communist society as envisaged by Marx, don't the individual or mass interests of those engaged with organizing the affairs of a consciously sociated, socialist society continue to play out in political power struggles? Hasn't the self-delusory hermeneutic fore-casting of solely the individual bourgeois property-owner as egoistic already long since come to light and disgraced itself through the bitter 20th century historical experience of 'real, existing socialism'?  Isn't the struggle of mass egoisms a fitting name also for the very idea of democratic socialism?

Further reading: Critique of Competitive Freedom...Capital and Technology and Social Ontology.


  1. Marx "egoistic independent individulal" is the isolated and worldless'ego' of modernity no the 'self'that arises from the human free interplay once such an interplay is seen as sharing an openness of possibilities sharing a common world. The same happens with 'mass egoisms' of whatever kind, beginning with 'America first'. Within which horizon can we think the 'self' (i.e. the plurality of human beings re-cognizing themselves / their 'selves') in processes of mutual estimation (with a lot of possibilities ending with mutual desestimation and destruction)? How do we redefine (or 'recast') democracy in the 21st century beyond the nationalist project of mmodernity? what is the role of the internet (or, more broadly, the digital casting of being) in this re-casting of democracy? how can we imagine democratic processes of self-recognition in the digital age? Kant couldn't foresee that republics would be bellicistic nor that a free exchange of messages would turn into information monopolies and wars. This structural changes two hundred years after Kant were identified by Habermas in 1966 See: http://www.capurro.de/graz.html
    But Habermas could also not foresee at that time (1966) the Internet.
    Rafael Capurro

  2. Social ethics writer James Luther Adams distinguishes between two kinds of voluntary organizations: self-interest and general interest. One works for only the interests of its members. The other works for the interests of society. The motivation for the latter is what Adams calls "vocation," as in religion. I call it the difference between power and strength, as currently illustrated by the statues of the bull and the young girl on Wall Street.

  3. As a young woman I viewed myself as selfless and only interested in the pursuit of the common good of humanity. However now, much older, I've noticed that people have very different ideas on what constitutes the 'common good of humanity'. Society is made of people with different interests, different ideals, different aims and different ways to be in the world, and my ideas of what constitutes the 'common good' are just that: 'my' ideas. To use January's words (or James Luther Adams' words) my 'general' interest in fact stems from self-interest.