What is an individual? And how does he or she relate to the larger community? While these seem like simple questions, the actual ramifications behind how one answers have huge political, social, and ethical implications. During the Enlightenment the individual took on a new emphasis, and consequently political theorists began to define the role of the state by its protection of these universal individual rights and liberties.
In the famous words of Thomas Jefferson:
*“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” *
The role of the state for liberalism was simply the protection of these “unalienable Rights” in order that the individual was able to freely pursue their interests economically as well as personally through unrestricted choices. While the American Revolution secured independence from England, the Constitution declared the rights of the individual and state’s role in protecting these rights. In this model, the state secures and protects these rights, while the individual enjoys these rights and pursues his or her interests freely. (Clearly, these are over-generalizations seeking a certain conception of society and individuals.)
While various historical wars and revolutions secured these rights and liberties of the individual on a global scale, it wasn’t until John Rawls’s landmark work A Theory of Justice in 1971 that the individual in political theory secured a radical liberal separation from the society. By formulating both the individual and other individuals through Kantian rationality, Rawls showed that self-determination pursued through self-interested choices could only be gained through a just, fair, and free society that respects everyone else pursuit of their self-determination. An individual could only formulate himself or herself if others respected his or her freedom.
Rawls thus overcomes J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism by showing that the self-determination of the individual was only possible if the freedom of all was secured. Rawls did not simply declare that “all men are free” but instead showed that the individual could only determine him or herself by allowing others to determine themselves as well. Society as a whole needs to be just and fair in order to respect the individual. Rawls’s theory established both this liberal notion of rights as well as identified the nature of the self as created through rational, individual choice.
In returning to those initial questions of how the self and society relate, this Kantian-based liberal individual struggles to relate the self to the community. If one considers the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger briefly, our being is “thrown” into an “always, already present world”, into a pre-running “Life-world,” into a pre-existing world of roles and relations. Rawls formulates the individual according to a self-determination that one makes alone, but in the most familiar sense we are born into a world that we did not and could not entire choose, a world of parents, siblings, of economic, sociological, and historical situations.
Simply put, we are enmeshed in a world that forms our identity; we are part of communities and commitments that are not exclusively of our choosing. Ideology and even social language, as Robert Bellah comments, leaves us extremely limited in how we express self and society.
As he writes, most people are “engaged [and] deeply involved in the world. But insofar as they are limited to a language of radical individual autonomy, as many of them are, they cannot think about themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition. They cannot express the fullness of being that is actually theirs” (Robert N. Bellah et al. Habits of the Heart, pp.20-21,81 quoted in Kemmis (1990) p.65).
While at least in American culture we speak of our individuality quite easily, expressing the commitments, loves, and ties to the people around remains strained and closely centered around these “arbitrary centers of volition.” Bellah further elucidates this point by saying that traditionally “the quest for the self is a quest for autonomy, for leaving the past and the social structures that have previously enveloped us, for stripping off the obligations and constraints imposed by others, until at last we find our true self, which is unique and individual” (Bellah (1995) p.47).
In a Marxist sense, we are ideologically and systematically entrapped in a contradiction: our capitalist, liberal ideology wishes to proclaim us as wholly determined by our self-interested choices, by our free ability to consume and identify through that freedom to buy and consume; but in contradiction, our lived experience and our identity formulation is one that is intrinsically entwined to roles, commitments, and a community of narratives and a narrative of community, most of which exist before our ever choosing them.
While there are phenomenological and sociological critiques as well as Marxist contradictions to the Kantian-based liberal framing of society and individual, this liberal political theory remains incredibly potent in constructing a politics. Specifically it is a politics that disengages the individual from responsibility and participation and depends upon a stronger central state to both protect this individual’s rights and attempt procedural changes on a mass scale.
Communitarian critic Michael Sandel refers to this as “the procedural republic and the unencumbered self.” Our procedural republic enacts laws and undertakes certain policies, but in relation to the body politic the individual is “unencumbered” in the sense that he or she is not required to be engaged nor expected to take responsibility for the community in which he or she lives and identifies. This liberal notion of the self as “unencumbered” is a person on which rights and protections are granted, but on whom the connection of the self to the roles, relationships, commitments and even stories one is born into are stripped; and on whom responsibilities are not asked for nor expected from. This self has no engaged responsibility to and for his or her community.
This is exactly where Daniel Kemmis begins his communitarian critique. In his two books Community and the Politics of Place and The Good City and the Good Life, in the first as a communitarian political theorist and in second as a communitarian mayor of Missoula, Montana, Kemmis believes, “No amount of reforming institutions that are widely and rightly perceived as beyond human scale will heal our political culture until we being to pay attention once again to democracy as a human enterprise” (Kemmis (1995) p.6).
Kemmis thinks this “human enterprise” of healing must be undertaken on two levels: “On the individual level, it requires a revitalized sense of what might be meant by ‘citizenship.’ On the level of the body politic, it implies a renewed understanding of the polis” specifically tied to place (Kemmis (1990) p.111).
On the individual level, Kemmis is making a clear distinction between a taxpayer who can be characterized as an “unencumbered self” and a citizen. While taxpayers often look to “a third party” to decide between the two poles of opposition, citizens have a different relation to each other and their place. While we often abstract ourselves into individuals with our individualistic interests, we fail according to Kemmis in realizing how the place brings us into community in which no one is living or can live separately from others and, in which, we all must learn to live together.
The emphasis is not on the right-oriented sense of justice nor a purely self-conception or self-actualization of an abstract or disengaged individual but on the concrete process of creating and building a harmonious human community.
We are neighbors. We live with and near others. Or in the words of Heidegger, we “dwell” together. All of these are done in relation to a specific place in which we are all engaged. Because no matter what or for whom a mediating “third party” decides, we still must live together. As such, the process of a “procedural republic” fails to properly address our communal relations to the place.
One must consider as primary our communal inhabiting and interacting in this place together:
*“Places have a way of claiming people. When they claim very diverse kinds of people, then those people must eventually learn to live with each other; they must learn to inhabit their place together, which they can only do through the development of certain practices of inhabitation which both rely upon and nurture the old-fashioned civic virtues of trust, honesty, justice, toleration, cooperation, hope, and remembrance. It is through the nurturing of such virtues…that we might begin to reclaim that competency upon which democratic citizenship depends” *(Kemmis (1990) p.119)
In denial of this unencumbered self,” practices of inhabitation require a mutual recognition of responsibility to the place and to all living and “dwelling” in relation to the place. Citizens cannot turn to the state to solve problems but must instead turn on themselves to reach a way in which all can continue to *“live well together,” to live harmoniously well together. *
As the federal government expands and individuals continually look to the federal government to solve societal problems, the entire body politic is weakened, because firstly solutions to problems have been made “abstract” and secondly individuals have been “distracted” from their physical place as communal citizens. Cities bring people into both a flourishing and a straining “presence.” We are able to make huge economic and social leaps through communal innovation and production, but equally the demands of proximity also create difficult challenges to living both together and wholly.
As Kemmis writes, “because their dwelling in this place makes them interdependent, they develop patterns for dwelling near each other, for living with each other” (Kemmis (1990) p.118). To be individuals is to forget one’s interdependence in the same place.
One specific way in which self and society must change in order to live communally is through “collaborative methods of problem-solving” (Kemmis (1990) p.116). For example, one does not turn to a third-person neutral referee to decide a dispute, but one must turn to one’s neighbors, turn to the people inhabiting this same place.
*Everyone has “a stake in what happened to a particular place…[but unfortunately they all have] different stakes, and had they been left to themselves, they would have done different things with the place, but in the end it was one and the same place [and] neither party wanted to leave the place” *(Kemmis (1990) p.117).
The goal of a healthy society and community is two-pronged. First, individuals must recognizes themselves as neighbors and citizens inhabiting the same place, and second, society must be “directly and profoundly engaged with working out the solutions to public problems, by formulating and enacting the ‘common good’” (Kemmis (1990) p.12).
It can only be common good if everyone realizes the place is equally part of all and if everyone flourishes through a balance of self, society, and engaged responsibility.
*For my account of how Disney’s urban project, Celebration, FL., which aimed at building a sense of community, failed to meet up to what “real community” entails, especially as Kemmis understands it, see: *Celebration, FL: Building Community Disney-style.**