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S e l f h o o d a n d P o l i t i c s 8 3 83 SIX Selfhood and Politics The Social and the Private The political implications of the ethics of restraint can, perhaps, best be drawn by some observations taken from the current political scene. Since the close of the cold war, a certain constant appears in the conflicts that have marked many multi-national conferences. Again and again, we see the smaller states opposing the efforts of the larger to determine the structures of their relations. One of the factors of this opposition is their fear of losing their identity. In a world increasingly determined by global interests, cultural and economic particularity seems to be a luxury that few can afford. For many, the name of this fear is “globalization.” They take the term as signifying a process that threatens to replace their individuality with an empty universality. Benignly regarded, globalization promises a world where we all drink the same soft drinks, wear the same jeans, watch the same movies and listen to the same music — all of it, presumably, North American. A darker vision sees within such homogeneity the dangers of totalitarianism.As HannahArendt noted, totalitarian systems presuppose a certain uniformity to achieve their effect. The ideal they tend to is that of reducing their 8 4 H i d d e n n e s s a n d A l t e r i t y subjects to a situation analogous to marbles on a table. The slightest tilt will make the marbles roll in the same direction. When citizens lose their individuality, when each is stripped of his particularizing relations to his neighbors, then the state gains an unrestrained ability to apply a uniform power to produce a uniform effect. Here, the controllability of the response is directly proportional to the reduction of each of us to everyone else. In this less benign view, the globalization that American capitalism promotes is actually a new form of totalitarianism. After the fascism and communism of the previous century, its third, capitalistic wave is now upon us. We need not accept this dark vision to feel uneasy about the emerging global community. At the root of our current disquiet is, I think, a sense that an aspect of our selfhood is under attack. The fear is that when we do become just like everyone else, we will lose our privacy. The privacy that is threatened is not the privacy of the isolated self. Isolation, in fact, is the mark of selfhood in totalitarian systems. It is the connections between people that allow them to resist state power. Those who do resist are both social and private; they are determined by their social situations and they retain the ability to judge them from their individual perspectives. In doing so, they assume a standpoint both within and outside the society they judge. Their privacy is such that it breaks up any attempt at “totalization.” In Levinas’s words, such privacy undermines all attempts (including those of globalization) to “reduce the other to the Same” (Levinas 1969, 43). Current views are not very helpful in capturing this dual sense of the social and the private.At their extremes, they either see society as a sum of individuals — as an aggregate of essentially private selves — or they take individuals as completely formed by society. The former view expresses itself in the “consumer” or “market society,” where the market is determined by the aggregate of private purchasing choices. It is also found in the politics that is driven by the latest public opinion polls. The view that sees the individual as completely moldable by society resulted in the collectivism of S e l f h o o d a n d P o l i t i c s 8 5 communist societies. Its most quixotic, yet telling attempt was the project of creating “the new socialist man.” To attempt this is to assume that we have no inherent private content, that whatever privacy we possess is, in fact, something infinitely accessible. If this view raises the fear of having the self swamped by the collective, its alternative evokes the fear of having the collective swamped by the self. Its nightmare is the destructive individualism that marks certain Western societies. Both views are obviously one-sided and the failures of each have been used to argue for the other. In this, they call...


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