Monday, June 19, 2006

What or Who is All?

On this Technoprogressive blog, our motto is “Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All.”

Nice words, and I support the concepts wholeheartedly. But I want to examine the meaning of the last word: ‘All’. What or who is all?

I propose that the word all should be understood in this context to mean two different things: first, a lower-case all, referring to a set that contains every individual member of a group; and second, an upper-case All, meaning the group as a collective entity. A proper understanding of human society includes the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Obvious? Perhaps, to most of us. But not to everyone.

In a private online forum that I moderate, a member recently asserted that “involuntary wealth transfers, unless done to enforce reparation to the recipient for real damages done to them by the payer, are unethical and harmful/destructive to the payer.”

Fortunately, this libertarian dogma regarding taxation is far from universally accepted, even in the conservative United States, but especially in Europe and the rest of the world.

Taxation, in my view, is not a ‘necessary evil’ and should not be regarded as an accommodation we grudgingly make. On the contrary, taxation is a positive. When applied wisely, wealth redistribution results in positive-sum gains. This works at every level, from family to municipality to region to nation (and, someday, the whole world). It is a means of establishing and building community; indeed, it is the basis of any healthy, interdependent, civilized society.

The argument from the Right is that individuals form the basis of society and that the individual person is the proper building block from which to begin creating any model of human organization. But this position assumes that individuals came first and community later. It’s a flawed concept, one that is derived, apparently, from primitive Judeo-Christian writings. More than just errant, it’s a dangerous idea, because it works to oppose community and to retard social progress.

The truth is that human social organization is a natural occurrence, an intrinsic quality. It is not something that ever was imposed on us from outside. To take the individual human as a starting point for building a world-view or a political ideology is a mistake. Any healthy society starts with community. Families, small groups, and neighborhoods: these are the real building blocks. Our focus should be on how these communities can work together most successfully.


Dale Carrico said...

Yes, it's weird that individualism seems to want to see the individual herself as a purely individual rather than a collective achievement -- even though we became who we are in families, schools, friendships, immersed in public media, in enterprise, organizing, with lovers, and on and on.

For me the key thing for us is that technodevelopmental social struggle isn't an abstract thing, it's social practices of actual people on the ground, understanding stuff, inventing stuff, using stuff, appropriating stuff, educating people about stuff. Too often the people who benefit most from particular technoscientific developments simply are not the same ones who have taken on the most costs and risks of that development.

I think it just makes sense from the point of view of democratically-minded folks to stress that "technology" isn't an abstract force, but concrete practices in a world with multiple stakeholders differently situated by luck, temperament, geography, capacity, aspiration to take up or get taken in or taken over by particular developmental outcomes.

I think liberal, social, and radical democrats should all demand that technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits will all be more fairly distributed among these many stakeholders. This will ensure fairer outcomes, sure, but also more robust, flexible, knowledgeable, innovative, useful outcomes, too, seems to me.

I think there is a virtuous circle here: democracy gives us a better handle on what works technoscientifically, but such an attitude also redirects technodevelopment in ways that fuel the ongoing emancipatory democratization of global civilization. Deliberative technodevelopment beholden to all its stakeholders is more likely to be fair, more likely to be safer, more likely to be sustainable, less likely to successfully hide elite ends that are costly to the rest of us, etc.

For me stressing the "All" is a way to recognize the mystification at the heart of delusive hyper-individualist understandings of productivity, creativity, or authorship.

We are the beneficiarties of a cultural archive, a creative commons, a functional division of labor, a collabortive interdependence, a civic society, and publicly maintained infrastructure.

I don't mean to deny the centrality of consent or the gorgeous treasure of personal diversity or anything like that when I stress the "All" -- I just mean to foreground the indispensability of "general welfare" to what technoprogressives are looking for from consensus technoscience and technodevelopmental social struggle.

Tom FitzGerald said...

This post nicely highlights how contributions to the general welfare are indirectly contributions to the individual welfare, however selfishly construed.

Two quibbles:
1) It is inaccurate to state that modern hyper-individualism is derived from primitive Judeo-Christian writings. Judaism ancient and modern, primitive Christianity, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy both medieval and modern are highly communalistic institutions both on the pragmatic level of congregational togetherness and on the doctrinal level of varying appropriations of the collective heritage of the pilgrim people Israel.

While Protestantism shares these themes, it was born in a capitalist, print-literate era that both shaped it and was shaped by it in individualistic directions. These were very modern, creative reinventions.

More recently, the market fundamentalists in various conservative parties have hijacked some of these themes for their own ends. The Gospel of Wealth is no more a reflection of most Christianity (outside of certain U.S. circles) than Social Darwism is of biology (outside of certain ev-psych circles).

In the U.S. for instance, it is less the case that the corporate welfare state that calls itself ruggedly individualistic is a creature of the Religious Right Republicans, than that the RRR are creatures of the corporations.

2)It is true that "human social organization is a natural occurrence, an intrinsic quality," but that wins it no points from this postnaturalist. Still, I like it anyway.

Mike Treder said...


Re your Point 1, a philosopher friend of mine noted that "Hobbes, Locke, et al. assumed that God created man on earth to be full grown, naked and hungry, so that's how the starting point of the individual got slipped in back then...which still persists now."

You're right that modern hyper-individualism was not a characteristic Judeo-Christian belief, but those early writings (Genesis and the Pauline epistles, mainly) influenced and legitimitized the emerging individualist position of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and beyond.