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Political Philosophy

John Dewey's Critique of Socioeconomic Individualism

S. Scott Zeman
Vanderbilt University

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ABSTRACT: My paper attempts to exhibit the consistency of John Dewey’s non-individualistic individualism. It details Dewey’s claim that the traditional dualism opposing the individual to the social is politically debilitating. We find Dewey in the 20’s and 30’s, for example, arguing that the creation of a genuine public arena, one capable of precluding the rise of an artificial chasm between sociality and individuality—or, rather, one capable of precluding the rise of an artificial chasm between notions of sociality and individuality—had itself been forestalled by an inherited, outdated, but nonetheless dominant custom called individualism. By blocking public investigation itself, by enervating what Dewey called social inquiry, and thus by misguiding historically sensitive assessments of slippery social phenomena, our contingently strapped individualism drifts aimlessly and destructively through the present era. Insofar as it fails to realize how publicity and individuality can be a congruous, inextricable, and mutually conditioning pair, individualism leeches many of today’s individuals of their situated and situating historical potential.

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In the final chapter of his work The Public and its Problems (PAIP) John Dewey suggests that, despite the insistence of most social theorists, if we regard the so-called individual/social distinction as a gap to be bridged or as an antithesis to be synthesized then our nose for public & democratic reform has been tricked by a central red herring of political modernity:

The preliminary to fruitful discussion of social matters is that certain obstacles shall be overcome, obstacles residing in our present conceptions of the method of social inquiry. One of the obstructions in the path is the seemingly engrained notion that the first and last problem which must be solved is the relation of the individual and the social:—or that the outstanding question is to determine the relative merits of individualism and collective or of some compromise between them. [PAIP LW2:351]

or again,

One reason for the comparative sterility of discussion of social matters is because so much intellectual energy has gone into the suppositious problem of the relations of individualism and collectivism at large, wholesale, and because the image of [their] antithesis infects so many specific questions. [355]

In this paper I will attempt to exhibit the consistency of what I shall call Dewey's non-individualistic political individualism. I want to exhibit in detail, in other words, both a) Dewey's claim that the traditional dualism opposing the individual to the social is politically debilitating, a blind alley of sorts, and b) his attempt to legitimize for implementation the practical wisdom that publicity and individuality can be, and indeed in some sense must at present be, congruous, inextricable, a mutually conditioning pair. This is an odd and difficult project, to be sure. In order to defend his claims Dewey must challenge a guiding narrative of modern sociopolitical theory and practice, that narrative (referred to above) which has attempted both 1) to oppose and reconcile private claims to claims for the public good and, thus, 2) to secure rights, liberties, policing mechanisms and, at least since the days of the New Deal, conciliatory welfare systems, all to protect and free individuals from mutual interferences, from politically regulated social relations. Critiquing this tradition which would pit social authority & authoritarianism against individual freedom, which devalues the former for its alleged reduction of the latter, and which claims to regulate the social to further deregulate the individual, as if these were mutually exclusive, Dewey offers a positive politics where authority conditions and guides freedom and where freedom fruits only under democratic self-regulation. He aspires to philosophically justify and cultivate a historically conscious political base upon which to construct a self-critical social network, a genuinely public arena, within which novel forms of individuality might flourish.

This is all not to suggest that in his critique of modern politics Dewey fails to notice how, on the one hand, decrepit social structures might squash an individual already explicitly or covertly associated with those structures or how, on the other hand, decrepit individuals might destroy a social institution with which they are in some sense already imbricated. On the contrary, Dewey keenly recognizes those instances where individuals and social institutions clash. He just resists positing a clash as such, that is, an objective or structural clash between the 'speaking one' and the 'speaking many'. Indeed, modern individuality, character, subjectivity, consciousness, identity, whatever name you wish to call it, is according to Dewey something already and necessarily conditioned by social ensembles, social networks in turn necessarily and already conditioned by the individuals who have come to comprise them. The issue, then, does not lie simply in this "have come". The issue is not how prepolitical individuals come to form and comprise social ensembles. It is rather how certain individuals in pocketed social ensembles came historically to presuppose that flourishing individuality opposes social regulation.

In the 20's and 30's, in fact, Dewey argues that the creation of a genuine public arena, one capable of precluding the rise of an artificial chasm between sociality and individuality—or, rather, one capable of precluding the rise of an artificial chasm between notions of sociality and individuality —had itself been forestalled by an inherited, outdated, but nonetheless dominant custom called "individualism". This dominant custom, this -ism which still often goes by the ominous and vague name of "liberalism", arose in parts of 16th-19th century Europe and America precisely as it helped philosophers, scientists, political strategists, industrial captains, and others to resolve pressing everyday issues—at least when and where the supposition of prepolitical selfhood appeared to enable, support, and confirm individuating social institutions. The advent of the industrial revolution, however, so altered our historically situated needs and desires, so initiated our institutional aggregation and interconnection, so solidified our socioeconomic urbanization and collectivization that this once-effective (if imperfect) social custom, this covertly political practice of defending 'the self' and its 'natural rights' against politically regulated activity, soon harmed the individuals it helped to produce. Indeed, if Dewey is correct, today's individuals, or at least most of them, are liberalized. They are caught in a massifying/atomizing political maelstrom, a lived danger. By blocking public investigation of itself, by enervating what Dewey calls "social inquiry", and thus by misguiding historically sensitive assessments of slippery social phenomena, our contingently strapped—but nonetheless strapped—individualism drifts aimlessly and destructively through the present era. It leeches many of today's individuals of their situated and situating historical potential.

Although he was not so synthetic and systematic a thinker as to thematize the following distinctions rigorously, Dewey defines what he means by "individualism" by linking it generally to a number of interrelated forms of ideology, forms of what he sometimes calls ideology but what he might otherwise call "protective fantasies", "absolutistic logic", or simply "dogma" [LW11:42, PAIP:200]. For purposes of length and focus I will relegate this study to an analysis of our modern socioeconomic form. By "ideology" I here mean something similar to, though certainly not identical with, Marx's term. Let's just say that I am stealing a coin from Marx's bank since it works in Dewey's meter; the coin's old face will acquire for us a new value. I mean by "ideology", then, a body of knowledges that, in reflecting upon its own conditions and phenomena, deflects and obscures these conditions and phenomena, often quite innocently, in fact quite logically, such as to promote other acknowledged or unacknowledged interests. A body of knowledges is ideological, in other words, not because it promulgates a set of beliefs which cannot be defended epistemically—indeed, as Marx said, the most important ideologies are those which internally cohere in and through their use of logical forms—but rather and more precisely because it (the ideological body of knowledges) fosters political norms, structures, and objectifications, in Dewey's words "social habits", more or less resistant to the effects of time, to the process of history. Modernity's predominantly individualistic ideology fosters mutually reifying webs of philosophical disavowal, scientific rigidity, and socioeconomic massification/atomization which, by outliving their situated and contingent historical utility, produce political malaise in everyday life, perpetuate everyday malaise in political life.

Unlike many Marxist and neo-Marxist ideological critiques, however, a Deweyan account will not profess to discover behind any deconstructed hegemony a transcendent, ahistorical, or wholly determinate Truth. The etymology of "ideology" may help us here. Behind what some call the individual we will not find an essential societal idea, say, an ideal Republic the social power of which would guarantee perfect virtue in any citizen modelling it to perfection. Below what some call the social we will not reveal a constitutive and essential individual, neither a Kantian a priori subject whose moral claims could serve to ground a political ethos nor this subject's historicized Hegelian version. Rather, to put it in the words of Anthony Giddens, in the type case of ideology "sectional interests are represented as universal interests". This means that within the socializing and historicizing processes that help to constitute individuals we will discover no objective logic or dialogic, no necessary and rigid plan or schema. We will not even assume etiological linearity in the history we unearth—if by linear we mean a two-dimensional ray of caused effects which can be traced and linked to a primordial origin both directly in time and singularly in space. On the contrary. We will work to show that and how politically constructed individualities have contingently come to oversimplify the complex history to which they belong—if by complex we here imply a polydimensional historical network, a volumous web, literally a web, where adjoined 'causes' and 'effects' interrelate and bivalently justify each other in mutual historical endowment.

The Socioeconomic Ideology of Individualism

According to Dewey, the first and foremost socioeconomic individualist was John Locke, and for a basic, if expedient, reason: To help curb the abuses wrought by late-feudal authorities upon landowners, Locke created—under the influence of Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and, more directly, the Earl of Shaftesbury—a system of negative rights. That is, partly to stem the tide of religious intolerance which had risen with the Protestant Reformation, but also partly to counter the excessive taxation of land-owners by oft-capricious rulers, Locke generated a strategically convenient argument for natural rights, the chief right being, by course, the individual right to secured property, to property the interference of which by another is illegal because "unnatural" or "ungodly". Indeed, although Locke formally suggests at times that property originates when an individual "mixes" himself through his labor with some hitherto unappropriated and unmixed object of desire, he often goes so far as to include under the rubric "property" anything belonging to an individual's "life, liberties, and estates", anything or anyone, that is, inherited (or produced) which can be considered one's "own"—including one's slaves or one's very "self". He comes to mean by property, then, that which government and political society ought to protect, that which, by reciprocal extension, political society and government can interfere with, regulate, or organize only when the owner of this property has himself trespassed upon another property owner's affairs.

For Dewey, this contingently situated political strategy helped to produce and fuel the main engine of the ideology we are here calling individualism. On the one hand, by radically challenging the rather whimsical and unchecked power of dynastic authority, Locke cultivated the rights-infused ground upon which the first 'democracies' could grow. To limit government's authoritarian power it becomes natural, felicitous, and just to establish government by consent—a "social contract" between rulers and the individuals so ruled. Limited governmental authority and limited citizen freedom are in this respect formed through mutual, if negative, exchange: Only by paying those taxes and submitting to those laws agreed upon in social contract will any citizen receive in return policing protections under which to more or less freely pursue private interests. Reciprocally, political authority will gain social consent and, as such, legitimize its regulation of private pursuits—demanding submission to laws here or the payment of taxes there—only by protecting the citizenry from internal deviants and external invaders. If government endangers or breaks the "inalienable" rights of citizens who consent to its authority, however, the citizenry involved can emend the contract or even revolt so as to establish a new one. Indeed, it is well known that Locke helped to inspire and philosophically justify the French and American Revolutions as well as the American Declaration of Independence. At least so goes the positive and popular version of Locke's legacy.

On the other hand, and in large part despite the above, since Locke sanctions "property" as invariably private and even strategically identifies property with selfhood, suggesting that each free self belongs to itself as something fixedly owned, and thus since a self, its basic rights, and the rest of its accoutrements cannot logically be 'owned' by two or more selves simultaneously, well, the famous social contract between self and government (eventually) makes possible types of practice which privilege those engaged in the strategic and perpetual accumulation of private property. As Dewey says, "the importance attached to the right of property within the political area was without doubt an influence in the later definitely economic formulation of liberalism" [LW11:8]. And again, "the economist and industrialist and financier were the new pretenders to the old divine right of kings" [LW11:135]. To clear up this last, pivotal point in a little more detail, and thus to see how the intellectual defense of inherited property transmuted into an intellectual defense of property accumulation, we might quickly note how this Lockean absolutist logic articulated itself into the figure of Adam Smith and into the laissez-faire economics which Smith's theories helped to inspire.

Deeply influenced by Locke's earlier individualism, Smith also held that selfhood is not constituted and cultivated in the political arena via processes of socialization but is rather something inborn, static, and natural, something the essence of which the structure of human being prepolitically determines. And yet because he was faced not with the nasty problem of James II's authoritarianism but rather with semi-feudal laws and guild customs which forestalled production in a Great Britain on the verge of industrial and commercial growth—laws and customs, that is, like those which bound apprentices to one master in extended indentured service, thus preventing the circulation of labor and opportunity to expand industry—Smith rearticulated and extended Locke's theory that individual freedom is guaranteed and even increased via the right to secured private property. To meet the new needs and to satisfy the new wants of those Brits restricted by a static economic situation, Smith suggested not only that all individuals are born with a natural drive to acquire wealth, that we all belong to the species homo oeconomicus, but moreso, that both individual freedom and social health will increase together precisely to the extent that a self is allowed to compete against societal others for material gain in an unregulated marketplace. Insofar as open market competition between individuals necessarily catalyzes their latent acquisitiveness, creativity, and will-to-produce, well then any political, social, or governmental regulation of private economic affairs will only block the capacities society might realize, will only limit the commodities it could produce and market—if only selves were 'left alone' to compete.

According to Dewey, however, it was precisely when "primary groupings" of associated individuals with shared concerns and practices—not when mere individuals—articulated their mutually emergent needs and wants via universalistic (mis)representations that the antagonism of one against all, that the Individual/Social antithesis, became not only the guiding problem of political modernity but, as with Smith and today's enthusiasts of government minimalization, the selfsame solution to that 'problem'.

By this account, then, the individualistic ideological complex represented in the above does not endanger us only to the extent that its prevalent theories disavowed their situated and situating conditions. As I briefly indicated earlier on: individualism is more thoroughly ideological and insidious precisely to the extent that its disavowals can and do historically drift and reify beyond their era-specific usage, to the extent, say, that our contemporary social institutions have uncritically inherited the atomizing, universalizing, and ahistoricizing views of a Locke and Smith. Indeed, this brings us to a basic lesson of Dewey's critique, the lesson of his politics in general: Although he insists that the turn toward modernity helped to direct many peoples out of authoritarian & religious oppression and out of scientific & economic stagnation, and thus although he insists time and again that individual freedom, effort, and creativity remain general ideas of liberalism worthy of pursuit and value, Dewey emphasizes how the eventual rerouting of enlightment advancements for merely private pecuniary gain, for the inheritence and accumulation of private properties & private powers, drained and continues to drain liberalism of an otherwise promising career. He emphasizes how our modern forgetfulness of historicity and sociality has taken its revenge, how scientific and technological advancements have been appropriated by and shaped into social institutions thoroughly geared for individuated financial gain. The competition today, then, is not really or effectively between mere individuals in an open marketplace, as Smith would have had. The free market has never "opened". On the contrary:

The conflict is between institutions and habits originating in the pre-scientific and pre-technological age and the new [industrial] forces generated by science and technology... Because of conditions that were set by the legal institutions and the moral ideas existing when the scientific and industrial revolutions came into being, the chief usufruct of the latter has been appropriated by a relatively small class. Industrial entrepreneurs have reaped out of all proportion what they sowed. By obtaining private ownership of the means of production and exchange they deflected a considerable share of the results of increased productivity to their private pockets. [LASA LW11:53]

and again,

[Many early individualists advocated] representative government, for they saw in this measure a means by which the self-interest of rulers would be forced into conformity with the interests of their subjects. But they had no glimpse of the fact that private control of the new forces of production, forces which deeply affect the life of every one, would operate in the same way as private unchecked control of political power.... They failed to perceive that social control of economic forces is equally necessary if anything approaching economic equality and liberty is to be realized. [ibid, 28]


Instead of bringing freedom to those who lacked material possessions, [individualism] has imposed on them further subjection to the owners of the agencies of material production and distribution. [LW11:139]

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, true, and with respect to the turn away from the medieval regime, many stiffled groups 'discovered' the expedience of a socioeconomic individualism. Since the medieval state could at times extend its might into the very capillaries of social circulation—into the family by way of the Church or into the economy, wholesale, by way of guilds and taxations, as was the case under James II prior to the Glorious Revolution of 1688—it was not difficult, and in fact it may have at times seemed necessary, to seek refuge in the naked individual, to abolish all associations as foreign to nature, right, choice, privatude. Individualism thus seemed to serve what many Western Europeans and New World pioneers took to be their needs.

According to Dewey, however, these 'needs' were in a sense coerced, or rather, fabricated. They were misrepresented. As the rapid development of science released itself from religion, material resources and technologies appeared as never before. With the invention of the steam engine, for example, the entire material and conceptual framework for production and distribution was changed overnight. An era of relative need and scarcity was almost instantly changed into an era of relative abundance. And yet, only if one was already a landed business merchant, aristocrat, or protoindustrialist did opportunity present itself. Since capital was by the time of the Industrial Revolution and by unregulated course most easily captured by those few who had already inherited or gained both the capital and the ideological impetus to oligopolize the market for private pecuniary success, and since these holdover aristocrats's, landed merchants's, and protoindustrialists's responsibililties did not now logically include the spiritual or material welfare of employees, well, the average, newly 'liberated' individual, having come to the city a little or a lot too late, was beset with little economic and cultural opportunity—excepting, of course, the opportunity to sell his/her labor to the captains now in control of multiplying resources and technologies. Reciprocally, as the individualistic entrepreneur reaped profits, he could become increasingly powerful. With increased profits, he could stop working as he did and hire laborers. Suddenly his money could 'work' to make money, which could give him the clout to influence the market, to dominate it.

As the Industrial Revolution progressed, in other words, individualistic society not only increasingly disavowed its collectivization and urbanization; moreso, it became further capable of performing this disavowal. Despite the material fact that American assembly lines and factories, for instance, began to massify what had once been a manorial and feudal labor system, one based in manual as opposed to engine technologies; that is, despite bringing and linking together hundreds or thousands of workers who labored to perform mutual tasks and who increasingly shared common health concerns, class, media, locales, wages, legal tender, power sources, educational systems, and language; despite this, the owners of such lines & factories typically used their disproportionately accumulated rewards to reinforce the ideological system. Those with little access to material capital were thus left with little access to spiritual capital, to the fruits of an educational system and press themselves not shaped by capitalists in search of a cheap labor source. Unable to understand let alone overcome the giant social complex which had helped to produce their socioeconomic bonds, average workers were thus atomized and individuated, that is, separated off from coworkers, bosses, and society at large—ideologically so, at least.

Given the above exegesis of socioeconomic individualism, it ought to be clear that in the quotes which opened this essay Dewey is not suggesting that we attempt to attenuate our political maelstrom by reconciling the political one to the political many or by merely regulating the laissez-faire practices of atomic individuals through negative, curative, and reactive means. Trust-busting, 'progressive' taxation, reflex legislation, and all other ex post facto means only serve to weaken and buffer the system, not kill it. For, quite simply, to police the atomic individuals who deviate from prescribed norms and laws is still to presuppose the actual existence of the atomic individual.

Most contractarians, for instance, fall into this bind: In accord with the prevalent ideology, they imagine the social arena as constituted by atomic selves with merely private interests. They must therefore place selfhood in basic opposition to (non-policing) societal controls, in basic opposition to any positive social organization of individuality. They must therefore regard their political task as articulating and instituting a social contract between government officials who police and protect, perhaps reconciling oppositional claims, and atomic selves, those private citizens who consent to such governance. But of course, only if one already conceptualizes the individual in essential opposition to the social does this specific political problem of instituting a contract arise.

The thrust of Dewey's entire ideological history and critique thus asserts itself. It's not that we must somehow resolve the individual/social split or reconcile these binaries. On the contrary, because modern individuality is already socialized, albeit covertly, and thus because every attempt at reconciling the individual to the social and every such attempt to police laissez-faire deviants fails to critique and thus tends to reinforce the atomic suppositions of the old individualism, and thus because this selfsame custom of individualism precludes the emergence of a genuine public arena where organically socialized individuals might flourish together, united through shared social bonds, our basic political task becomes neither resolution nor reconciliation but rather preemption. At this point our map reads simply, promising, however, a difficult pass: Only when we deconstruct the aged but current inutilities wrapped up in the suppositions of atomic selfhood and its laissez-faire accoutrements will we preempt merely reactive means to political progress, and only then will we lay the foundation for the construction of public apparati which do not merely police atomic selves negatively in their battles for economic supremacy and which do not merely reconcile Society to the claims of private Selves but which produce selves habitually resistant to atomization.

Indeed, as we also indicated above, according to Dewey the problem of publicity in modern society and the modern state lies less in need of bridging the gap between the one and the many as in showing the impractical effects of thinking according to the conceptual scheme of a gap. It is currently anathema, in other words, to think sacrificially of publicity, to think that a lively public arena can exist only when certain individual claims are sacrificed or, conversely, that individuality will thrive only at the expense of the greater public good.

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