Individual Autonomy and Collective Commitment


“For some two centuries, anarchism — a very ecumenical body of anti-authoritarian ideas — developed in the tension between two basically contradictory tendencies: a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom. These tendencies have by no means been reconciled in the history of libertarian thought.” – Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm
This chasm still exists, and unnecessarily in my opinion – that is to say I feel it is bridgeable. But to do this we must recognize and come to terms with the obvious: we are not just individuals and we are not just a collective.
Anarchism is the quintessential philosophy that stands opposed to repressive, coercive and unjustified power and authority. That’s what attracts me to it.
I agree, by way of personal opinions and empirical observations of others, that we do have a “human nature,” and while we don’t completely understand it there are some things we do have an understanding of, or at least reasonable assumptions. And the one I am thinking of is Mikhail Bakunin’s comment that we have “an instinct for freedom.”
I drove by a church with one of its signs out front. I was expecting something proselytizing and militant, or some lame line trying to pressure people into subservience to their superstition(s). But the sign said something to the effect that anger is about being controlled, and that when we show anger we let our controller know they control us.
Anger is a gift. But it’s not enough. We need to witness our anger to know we are being controlled. And that’s only part of the problem. Sometimes we don’t know we are being controlled or that we are controlling. That’s why it is important to employ critical thinking. So that we can reflect and analyze, and liberate our individual and social consciousnesses.
We don’t like to be controlled. We like to control our own lives. We have an instinct for freedom. I am very confident that this is a certainty for human nature.
And while we have an instinct to be free as individuals, we are also a social species. To socialize is just as much a part of our nature as being free is. We socialize to develop mentally and behaviorally, to express ourselves in diverse ways, and to procreate. We have an instinct for good, harmonious relations. We enjoy the company of friends, families and lovers. This is confirmed by the very connotations and meanings of pathological and antisocial behavior.
The bridge to the chasm between individual autonomy and collective commitment deals primarily with this.
Individuals should retain autonomy, just as various communities or countries should have sovereignty.
What about when individual choices affect others? What guiding principle is there to act as a “bridge”?
I think the answer is: participatory self-management. We are free to manage, organize and control our own lives, but to the degree others are affected by our decisions they too should be allowed to participate in them. Just as we don’t want our autonomy to be negated by the decisions of others, so too should others not see theirs negated by our decisions. It’s like the old cliché: life’s a two-way street.
If I work in an office environment doing data entry work, and I like to listen to music through headphones then whether I want to listen to Rage Against the Machine or Jackson Browne affects only me. It would anger me to have someone negate my freedom by dictating what I listen to. This authority is unjustified and should be resisted and dismantled.
If I wanted to listen to my music without headphones loudly and for all to hear then that’s a different story. It shouldn’t anger me that others want me to turn it down or off since it is affecting them. And if I refused to compromise with others by setting the acceptable boundaries we can all agree upon then I would be hard pressed to say the authority of turning off my radio is unjustified. I imposed on them, they objected, I ignored their objections and they took action. They’re right, I’m wrong.
This guiding principle of participatory self-management is applicable in all situations from the family to school to cultural and community practices to politics to economics. We should be free to manage and control our own lives in accordance with others to the degree we are affected. This retains individual autonomy while strengthening collective commitments.

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