Autonomy or Freedom?
Without falling into the trap of social constructionism that sees every category as a product of a given social order, we are obliged to ask for a definition of the 'free individual.' How does individuality come into being, and under what circumstances is it free?
When lifestyle anarchists call for autonomy rather than freedom, they thereby forfeit the rich social connotations of freedom. Indeed, today's steady anarchist drumbeat for autonomy rather than social freedom cannot be dismissed as accidental, particularly in Anglo-American varieties of libertarian thought, where the notion of autonomy more closely corresponds to personal liberty. Its roots lie in the Roman imperial tradition of libertas, wherein the untrammeled ego is 'free' to own his personal property -- and to gratify his personal lusts. Today, the individual endowed with 'sovereign rights' is seen by many lifestyle anarchists as antithetical not only to the State but to society as such.
Strictly defined, the Greek word autonomia means 'independence,' connoting a self-managing ego, independent of any clientage or reliance on others for its maintenance. To my knowledge, it was not widely used by the Greek philosophers; indeed, it is not even mentioned in F. E. Peters's historical lexicon of Greek Philosophical Terms. Autonomy, like liberty, refers to the man (or woman) who Plato would have ironically called the 'master of himself,' a condition 'when the better principle of the human soul controls the worse.' Even for Plato, the attempt to achieve autonomy through mastery of oneself constituted a paradox, 'for the master is also the servant and the servant the master, and in all these modes of speaking the same person is predicated' (Republic, book 4, 431). Characteristically, Paul Goodman, an essentially individualistic anarchist, maintained that 'for me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy, the ability to initiate a task and do it one's own way' -- a view worthy of an aesthete but not of a social revolutionary.
While autonomy is associated with the presumably self-sovereign individual, freedom dialectically interweaves the individual with the collective. The word freedom has its analogue in the Greek eleutheria and derives from the German Freiheit, a term that still retains a gemeinsch'ftliche or communal ancestry in Teutonic tribal life and law. When applied to the individual, freedom thus preserves a social or collective interpretation of that individual's origins and development as a self. In 'freedom,' individual selfhood does not stand opposed to or apart from the collective but is significantly formed -- and in a rational society, would be realized -- by his or her own social existence. Freedom thus does not subsume the individual's liberty but denotes its actualization.
The confusion between autonomy and freedom is all too evident in L. Susan Brown's The Politics of Individualism (POI), a recent attempt to articulate and elaborate a basically individualist anarchism, yet retain some filiations with anarcho-communism.  If lifestyle anarchism needs an academic pedigree, it will find it in her attempt to meld Bakunin and Kropotkin with John Stuart Mill. Alas, herein lies a problem that is more than academic. Brown's work exhibits the extent to which concepts of personal autonomy stand at odds with concepts of social freedom. In essence, like Goodman she interprets anarchism as a philosophy not of social freedom but of personal autonomy. She then offers a notion of 'existential individualism' that she contrasts sharply both with 'instrumental individualism' (or C. B. Macpherson's 'possessive [bourgeois] individualism') and with 'collectivism' -- leavened with extensive quotations from Emma Goldman, who was by no means the ablest thinker in the libertarian pantheon.
Brown's 'existential individualism' shares liberalism's 'commitment to individual autonomy and self-determination,' she writes (POI, p. 2). 'While much of anarchist theory has been viewed as communist by anarchists and non-anarchists alike,' she observes, 'what distinguishes anarchism from other communist philosophies is anarchism's uncompromising and relentless celebration of individual self-determination and autonomy. To be an anarchist -- whether communist, individualist, mutualist, syndicalist, or feminist -- is to affirm a commitment to the primacy of individual freedom' (POI, p. 2) -- and here she uses the word freedom in the sense of autonomy. Although anarchism's 'critique of private property and advocacy of free communal economic relations' (POI, p. 2) move Brown's anarchism beyond liberalism, it nonetheless upholds individual rights over -- and against -- those of the collective.
'What distinguishes [existential individualism] from the collectivist point of view,' Brown goes on, 'is that individualists' -- anarchists no less than liberals -- 'believe in the existence of an internally motivated and authentic free will, while most collectivists understand the human individual as shaped externally by others -- the individual for them is 'constructed' by the collective' (POI, p. 12, emphasis added). Essentially, Brown dismisses collectivism -- not just state socialism, but collectivism as such -- with the liberal canard that a collectivist society entails the subordination of the individual to the group. Her extraordinary suggestion that 'most collectivists' have regarded individual people as 'simply human flotsam and jetsam swept along in the current of history' (POI, p.12) is a case in point. Stalin certainly held this view, and so did many Bolsheviks, with their hypostasization of social forces over individual desires and intentions. But collectivists as such? Are we to ignore the generous traditions of collectivism that sought a rational, democratic, and harmonious society -- the visions of William Morris, say, or Gustav Landauer? What about Robert Owen, the Fourierists, democratic and libertarian socialists, Social Democrats of an earlier era, even Karl Marx and Peter Kropotkin? I am not sure that 'most collectivists,' even those who are anarchists, would accept the crude determinism that Brown attributes to Marx's social interpretations. By creating straw 'collectivists' who are hard-line mechanists, Brown rhetorically counterposes a mysteriously and autogenetically constituted individual, on the one hand, with an omnipresent, presumably oppressive, even totalitarian collective, on the other. Brown, in effect, overstates the contrast between 'existential individualism' and the beliefs of 'most collectivists' -- to the point where her arguments seem misguided at best or disingenuous at worst.
It is elementary that, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ringing opening to the Social Contract notwithstanding, people are definitely not 'born free,' let alone autonomous. Indeed, quite to the contrary, they are born very unfree, highly dependent, and conspicuously heteronomous. What freedom, independence, and autonomy people have in a given historical period is the product of long social traditions and, yes, a collective development -- which is not to deny that individuals play an important role in that development, indeed are ultimately obliged to do so if they wish to be free.
Brown's argument leads to a surprisingly simplistic conclusion. 'It is not the group that gives shape to the individual,' we are told, 'but rather individuals who give form and content to the group. A group is a collection of individuals, no more and no less; it has no life or consciousness of its own' (POI, p. 12, emphasis added). Not only does this incredible formulation closely resemble Margaret Thatcher's notorious statement that there is no such thing as a society but only individuals; it attests to a positivistic, indeed naive social myopia in which the universal is wholly separated from the concrete. Aristotle, one would have thought, resolved this problem when he chided Plato for creating a realm of ineffable 'forms' that existed apart from their tangible and imperfect 'copies.'
It remains true that individuals never form mere 'collections' -- except perhaps in cyberspace; quite to the contrary, even when they seem atomized and hermetic, they are immensely defined by the relationships they establish or are obliged to establish with each other, by virtue of their very real existence as social beings. The idea that a collective -- and by extrapolation, society -- is merely a 'collection of individuals, no more and no less' represents an 'insight' into the nature of human consociation that is hardly liberal but, today particularly, potentially reactionary.
By insistently identifying collectivism with an implacable social determinism, Brown herself creates an abstract 'individual,' one that is not even existential in the strictly conventional sense of the word. Minimally, human existence presupposes the social and material conditions necessary for the maintenance of life, sanity, intelligence, and discourse; and the affective qualities Brown regards as essential for her voluntaristic form of communism: care, concern, and sharing. Lacking the rich articulation of social relationships in which people are embedded from birth through maturity to old age, a 'collection of individuals' such as Brown posits would be, to put it bluntly, not a society at all. It would be literally a 'collection' in Thatcher's sense of free-booting, self-seeking, egoistic monads. Presumably complete unto themselves, they are, by dialectical inversion, immensely de-individuated for want of any aim beyond the satisfaction of their own needs and pleasures -- which are often socially engineered today in any case.
Acknowledging that individuals are self-motivated and possess free will does not require us to reject collectivism, given that they are also capable of developing an awareness of the social conditions under which these eminently human potentialities are exercised. The attainment of freedom rests partly on biological facts, as anyone who has raised a child knows; partly, on social facts, as anyone who lives in a community knows; and contrary to social constructionists, partly on the interaction of environment and inborn personal proclivities, as any thinking person knows. Individuality did not spring into being ab novo. Like the idea of freedom, it has a long social and psychological history.
Left to his or her own self, the individual loses the indispensable social moorings that make for what an anarchist might be expected to prize in individuality: reflective powers, which derive in great part from discourse; the emotional equipment that nourishes rage against unfreedom; the sociality that motivates the desire for radical change; and the sense of responsibility that engenders social action.
Indeed, Brown's thesis has disturbing implications for social action. If individual 'autonomy' overrides any commitment to a 'collectivity,' there is no basis whatever for social institutionalization, decision-making, or even administrative coordination. Each individual, self-contained in his or her 'autonomy,' is free to do whatever he or she wants -- presumably, following the old liberal formula, if it does not impede the 'autonomy' of others. Even democratic decision-making is jettisoned as authoritarian. 'Democratic rule is still rule,' Brown warns. 'While it allows for more individual participation in government than monarchy or totalitarian dictatorship, it still inherently involves the repression of the wills of some people. This is obviously at odds with the existential individual, who must maintain the integrity of will in order to be existentially free' (POI, p. 53). Indeed, so transcendentally sacrosanct is the autonomous individual will, in Brown's eyes, that she approvingly quotes Peter Marshall's claim that, according to anarchist principles, 'the majority has no more right to dictate to the minority, even a minority of one, than the minority to the majority' (POI, p. 140, emphasis added).
Denigrating rational, discursive, and direct-democratic procedures for collective decision-making as 'dictating' and 'ruling' awards a minority of one sovereign ego the right to abort the decision of a majority. But the fact remains that a free society will either be democratic, or it will not be achieved at all. In the very existential situation, if you please, of an anarchist society -- a direct libertarian democracy -- decisions would most certainly be made following open discussion. Thereafter the outvoted minority -- even a minority of one -- would have every opportunity to present countervailing arguments to try to change that decision. Decision-making by consensus, on the other hand, precludes ongoing dissensus -- the all-important process of continual dialogue, disagreement, challenge, and counter'challenge, without which social as well as individual creativity would be impossible.
If anything, functioning on the basis of consensus assures that important decision-making will be either manipulated by a minority or collapse completely. And the decisions that are made will embody the lowest common denominator of views and constitute the least creative level of agreement. I speak, here, from painful, years-long experience with the use of consensus in the Clamshell Alliance of the 1970s. Just at the moment when this quasi-anarchic antinuclear-power movement was at the peak of its struggle, with thousands of activists, it was destroyed through the manipulation of the consensus process by a minority. The 'tyranny of structurelessness' that consensus decision-making produced permitted a well-organized few to control the unwieldy, deinstitutionalized, and largely disorganized many within the movement.
Nor, amidst the hue and cry for consensus, was it possible for dissensus to exist and creatively stimulate discussion, fostering a creative development of ideas that could yield new and ever-expanding perspectives. In any community, dissensus -- and dissident individuals -- prevent the community from stagnating. Pejorative words like dictate and rule properly refer to the silencing of dissenters, not to the exercise of democracy; ironically, it is the consensual 'general will' that could well, in Rousseau's memorable phrase from the Social Contract, 'force men to be free.'
Far from being existential in any earthy sense of the word, Brown's 'existential individualism' deals with the individual ahistorically. She rarefies the individual as a transcendental category, much as, in the 1970s, Robert K. Wolff paraded Kantian concepts of the individual in his dubious Defense of Anarchism. The social factors that interact with the individual to make him or her a truly willful and creative being are subsumed under transcendental moral abstractions that, given a purely intellectual life of their own, 'exist' outside of history and praxis.
Alternating between moral transcendentalism and simplistic positivism in her approach to the individual's relationship with the collective, Brown's exposition fits together as clumsily as creationism with evolution. The rich dialectic and the ample history that shows how the individual was largely formed by and interacted with a social development is nearly absent from her work. Atomistic and narrowly analytic in many of her views, yet abstractly moral and even transcendental in her interpretations, Brown provides an excellent setting for a notion of autonomy that is antipodal to social freedom. With the 'existential individual' on one side, and a society that consists of a 'collection of individuals' and nothing more on the other, the chasm between autonomy and freedom becomes unbridgeable.