Bob’s Question on “Every man for himself”

Saturday, November 6, 2010

7:45 AM. Guys, Bob Friedman asked an interesting question in response to your previous statements. I’ll quote his question here.

[Bob: Very interesting line of thought here. Seems everything that we think of as “bad” in the world is a symptom of the loss of belief in interconnectness, the false belief in the isolation of so-called individuality. A precious Republican virtue. The every-man-for-himself-will-make-society-better belief. I think we’ve heard that from all the great masters. My question would be: how do you change that mentality? Taking care of changing oneself is a new age cliche–but how do you provide the opportunity for people to change those beliefs when they are in the grip of religion, politics, culture, societal and economic pressure, etc.?]

Your response?

“Every man for himself” will make society better – but not in the way people think, nor in the way that they mean. If you are all a part of one another – as you are – and if the individual is as much a convenient fiction, a temporary approximation, as a permanent reality, what does “every man for himself” amount to but – let each stand on his own feet and do his own work, and it cannot but affect the whole world. This part of the truth is seen by some, ignoring the other part that is, there is no place to draw the line (except arbitrarily) between self and other. Some include their family as extensions or even part of themselves, but this hardly settles the question. If wife and child, what of parents? If parents, what of brothers and sisters? If them, what of their children, etc.? And, if any or all of these, what happens after a divorce or an estrangement? What of in-laws and other family members’ in-laws? What of the rest of the families of those in-laws? You see, there is no place to stop that makes a real boundary except the one physical body – and those who divide the world between themselves and all others are sociopaths or at best social autistics.

Besides, who is going to mend the streets and stock the shelves and maintain the telephone system and in short keep the social systems functioning that support life? Who can live in isolation? If you cannot really live on your own (manufacturing your own pens and journals, laptops and PDAs, among other things) there is no real independence of others, only an arbitrary refusal to recognize extended obligations incurred by reception of benefits. The queen bee might as well try to exist without her drones, or they without flowers to pollinate or air to fly through.

“Every man for himself” will not make society perfect. It will make it fail, and is doing so in your time. The results of “every man for himself” are first hyper-specialization and then a collapse into a simpler social form. Perhaps. Or perhaps other things.

Now if on the other hand “every man for himself” were to be taken to mean “from each according to his ability” (without “to each according to his needs”; we’ll consider that in a moment) you can see it is in everybody’s interest to increase everybody’s ability. That was one theory behind universal public education, and you should notice that free public education was the rule, in the early 1800s, only in the free states, not in the slave states. Thomas Jefferson’s proposal that Virginia adopt a system like New England’s was not accepted. Had it been – well, the entire intellectual life, hence economic life, hence the social life, of “the mother of Presidents” would have been radically altered. Her poor would have received the education that would have opened up new opportunities to them. But it would have opened their minds and extended their ambitions, and perhaps the powers that be in that day were no more anxious for that to happen (lest it threaten their place if only through additional competition) then the present powers that be are today. There is a reason – several overlapping reasons, in fact – why the free public school systems in your day have been rapidly and systematically degraded.

As to “to each according to his need,” this static portrait did not take into account that the putting into effect of such a plan would amount to subsidizing need, thus giving helplessness an economic advantage over self-reliance. Where do you suppose that would tend? Look at 60 years’ experience of your welfare systems.

From our view, a better slogan would have been “to each according to his ability.”


We weren’t finished.

No, but inverting the second half, “from each according to his need” wouldn’t make sense either.

No, but it is a fair approximation of what you see around you. It is the archetypal predatory society. What you call the social safety net is being withdrawn; the curbs on accumulation are being removed. The result is an amazing stratification.

Certainly is. Can’t say I – or anybody I know – like it much.

Why do you suppose something like this is coming into existence?

I presume you mean “why,” as you said, rather than “how”?

Exactly. Why? What does it accomplish? If you want to understand something, you can’t begin by judging it; that merely separates you from it, and separates you from understanding it. It is to abstractions as it is to individual people – condemnation oppresses; only understanding liberates.

I suppose – is this at your prompting? – that what is happening is the re-imposition of nearly a feudal division between the few who control and the many who live within that control.

Proceed. You have hit upon a profitable vein.

Hmmm. I begin to see. You’re right. As soon as you get out of condemnation, different ways of seeing things arise.

So spell out, a little, what you just saw, or felt.

It’s a lot to say. You say it, if you have it in a nutshell.

In a word: For the first time, at least the first time in your recorded history, you are creating a global civilization. This vastly increases the complexities and interactions involved. It cannot be managed by existing structures nor in a multi-polar, or rather we should say fragmented, way. These new unofficial structures are rising to meet the new conditions, just as the big-city political bosses came into existence to provide necessary stability in a time of new complexity in the 1800s. Theory has no way to explain the new realities or what they call forth, so the emerging reality is necessarily described – mis-described – by previously existing theory that sees the new things as “nothing but” some variant of old things.

We have begun a transition into an aristocratic society like Virginia in the 1700s.

You will do well if it resembles that society’s excellences as well as its limitations. Yes, a new global government must be managed somehow, by some coherent functioning group. An hereditary intermarried social elite would do as well as, say, a military dictatorship or a conspiratorial Illuminati.

I have been saying for years that whoever is really running things must be the people who have everything; otherwise those who run it would take those things from those who have them, a la the Russian Revolution, where the aristocrats of ideology (the party functionaries) replaced the aristocracy of birth.

So now is a matter for you and your friends and readers to look on matters with new understanding if you can, remembering that condemnation isolates and oppresses you, and understanding liberates. And this brings us to the second part of Bob’s questions – restate them.

[Bob’s]: “My question would be: how do you change that mentality? Taking care of changing oneself is a new age cliche–but how do you provide the opportunity for people to change those beliefs when they are in the grip of religion, politics, culture, societal and economic pressure, etc.?”

The answer is, you don’t. You work on yourself, which is the only effective work there is, and your life will spill over to others, or (to put the same thing another way) opportunities to help will appear easily and naturally.

Well this certainly isn’t what I thought I’d get when I sat down here with a simple question. But it is provocative. I’m going to reread Michael Ventura’s columns on our society from this new viewpoint.

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