Autonomy is a seductive idea

in conversation with

Ich und alle anderen (Ausgabe IV/2016)

Mr. Mishra, do you personally believe that it is more important for people to act out their individual autonomy or rather to belong to a group?

For me personally, the idea of individual freedom has always been very seductive – in a sense even irresistible. I think that is true for many people who were born in India or Asia. To move from the countryside to the city, to leave behind my family, to abandon the traditional idea of community and to fight for myself – all of that triggered an ecstatic sense of freedom in me. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. But I also think that this experience cannot be generalized. Individual freedom also bears risks for many people.

What risks?

We tend to forget that individual freedom as an idea is a very recent thought; it is only about 200 years old. And from the very beginning people have talked about the various burdens that this idea entails: that individual freedom might be liberating people from the alleged oppression of the collectivity, but at the same time confronts them with new sorts of spiritual and emotional issues. In many parts of the world, the ideas of traditional collectivism and individualism are not yet perfectly balanced, even though it might seem to be the case in the United States and in Europe.

In the "West," people are being taught to appreciate themselves as individuals, while in the "East", it is more important to belong to a group – would you agree?

You are exaggerating on purpose of course, but yes – I basically agree with that. Historically, the idea of abandoning old hierarchies and forms of society in which your place was determined by religion and class is European at heart. It has its roots in Christianity, had later been secularized and – in the wake of the industrial scientific revolution – it merged with concepts like economic liberalism. Only through this development has the historical force that we call individualism emerged. Perhaps one can find similar historical developments in Chinese or Indian history, but they surely were not of this magnitude.

Have Western societies in a sense taken the idea of individual freedom too far?

I believe rather that the concept of individualism itself has been transformed in the West. It has very little to do with the traditional concept of individualism anymore. The idea has somewhat degenerated. Initially and above all else, individualism was defined as a contradiction to the concept of collectivity. But in an ironic twist of history we have all come to inhabit mass societies today in which all kinds of forces are pressing down upon us, including technological forces or forces of the labor market. So in a sense, our individuality is being restricted. We are constantly being told what to do and our attention is constantly being occupied by things imposing themselves upon our consciousness. So the idea of the autonomous individual, which was defined in the 18th century by liberal movements, German romantics or the American transcendentalists, in a way does not exist anymore. It was long replaced by a pseudo-individualism corrupted by capitalism. We are living in an era in which not only distant places and countries are struggling with the notion of individualism, but also the Western world itself.

Is this struggle being catalyzed by the fact that our striving for individualism comes with the pressure of permanent self-optimization?

Yes, absolutely. We have come to live in societies that devote themselves to the neoliberal ideology and the imperative of economic growth. In these societies, individuals have become businessmen. We have to go out and brand ourselves, maintain our presence in social media and project ourselves to the outer world – regardless of whether you, the individual, are a writer, a businessman or a factory worker. Today, thousands of ways for self-optimization exist, whereas in the past there used to be far less. But this lack of options has also provided a sense of stability and security. This new version of individuality linked to the global market is nothing more than a ridiculous parody of what thinkers like Nietzsche or Rousseau might have defined as individualism. Individualism has reached the point where it has degraded us to lone warriors and made the sense of collective responsibility superfluous.

To what degree have non-western countries lost communal values – for example the imperative to care for one's family or a society’s elders – because the paradigm of autonomy has become more important?

Well, hopefully these collective ideas will prove strong enough to withstand these challenges. The chances are not that bad, partly because many of these societies have not yet reached the point where they can exchange these collective structures for radical individualism. In Asia, and in the economically weak regions of Europe and America as well, the traditional notion of family still has an important meaning simply because it promises economic stability. Take India for example: The family structure there is sustained in a way by the fact that not everyone moving from the countryside to the city can afford their own house or support their own families on their own. The extended family remains an important point of reference.

Do you believe that personal autonomy is an idea that is universally relevant?

It would be dangerous not to continue being skeptical about the concept of individualism. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the idea itself is wrong – but I do think that we need to be critical about it in the same way we need to be critical about a lot of ideas that we have inherited from the 18th century that have been conceptualized by only a tiny minority of British and French people. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a certain craving for the ideal of individualism in many parts of the world. But many people are also beginning to realize that this quest for self-fulfillment is not a wholly positive experience. Take migrant workers in Asia. They struggle along on their own, move to the city and earn more money as they would normally make working on the countryside. But more often than not, their quality of life depreciates: They lack the time to meet new people or enter into closer relationships. Life in the city is anonymous. One cannot experience pure self-liberation without risking a certain degree of alienation.

Would you say that striving for self-fulfillment necessarily leads to disappointments?

Well, certainly in its economic, neoliberalist form, in which self-determination can only be attained through consumption and by buying the newest smartphone, individualism is bound to lead to disappointment because there is always another opportunity to upgrade: We are never finished. Our identities in modern society are therefore increasingly more reliant on whether we can keep up with the pace of self-optimization. At the same time, in our technological and interconnected world, we are becoming increasingly more dependent on what others might think about us, even though we prefer primarily to exist as individuals. Am I smart enough, rich enough, beautiful enough? These are the questions that the economistic individualism of our time confronts us with every day. That opens up an endless potential for disappointment while keeping us longing for more at the same time.

In your opinion, is the idea of individualism today inseparably intertwined with neoliberalism?

I think that the sinister mix of enlightenment ideals and neoliberal dogmas is about to engulf our world in chaos. In Europe today we are facing a collapse of those social agreements, ideas of community and cooperation that were created after the Second World War. In India, there are intra-state conflicts between minorities even though the postcolonial project should have united people. Interest in organizing communities in a way that safeguards co-existence decreases when everyone is out fighting for themselves – and thus against everyone else.

Is it possible to once again separate the concept of personal freedom from economic ideology?

For this we would have to fundamentally question our whole political and economic system. I do not see this happening, as there is no movement to initiate such a process. Even the social democratic left, from whom such a push could have been expected in the past, has recently pushed neoliberal ideas rather than opposing them.

Building on that, what issues will we have to face in the future?

Predicting the future is something that I never do. I just analyze what I see. Currently, I see wars between nations, wars between single persons and nations, but more than anything else I see an exponential rise of interpersonal violence. I am continuously appalled by the unbelievable abundance of hostility that we have been experiencing since the rise of social media und interactive online news. The verbal abuse, for instance against women, knows almost no limits. It seems that there is huge potential for conflict within our societies and among individuals – it's just waiting to explode. In some ways, this might be the final phase of our degenerated individualism. When Alexis de Tocqueville travelled to America in the mid nineteenth century, he praised the high degree of individual autonomy he found there. But he also realized that there were institutions, the church and political organizations for instance, that upheld a certain sense of stability within society. We have now reached the point where we have forgotten that. We have sacrificed forms of collective coexistence upon the altar of individualism and we are left standing alone.

In Europe and the U.S., populists like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump are using this vacuum to appeal to voters …

There are many phenomena like Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign or Podemos in Spain, that principally represent a quest for new meaning and belonging. Demagogues who promise a clear separation from and denunciation of everything that is “different” seem to be striking a chord with people. This is the downside of a world built upon the foundation of radical individualism. Those who have fallen down along the path towards self-fulfillment are being tempted by strong political leaders.

Do we then need to return to a more collective form of coexistence?

It would already be a good start if we could recognize that a sense of collectivity is always needed in order to fathom the scope of individualism. Without the existence of community, individualism is an entirely meaningless idea. If we return to the understanding that we need collective norms and social cooperation to provide the frame for a healthy form of individualism, we would have achieved a great deal already.

The interview was conducted by Jenny Friedrich-Freksa and Kai Schnier

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