At some point we will have to admit that we have failed. We will not have averted catastrophic climate change. We will not have spread prosperity as far as it could be extended, educated all the young, or cared for the old. What we have won in the way of equality and mutual acceptance is unlikely to survive the century’s last decades, which look to be marked by spiraling inequality both within and among nations, drowned cities, murderous heatwaves, dying oceans, parched or unproductive fields, empty forests, and the anger or desperation of those unable to find work, safety, or even food. We will not have failed partially or sporadically; our failure has been, or will be, all-encompassing and all-destroying. There is so much that we had thought we would do, and we will have done none of it.
And making these failures all the more bitter is the arrogance with which we will proclaim, with tragic self-importance, that it is humanity itself that has failed. For we do not see ourselves as anything but Homo sapiens in its purely natural state. Our triumphs are the triumphs of humanity, and our failures lay bare the weakness and guilt of the human animal as it really is.
But it is not humanity that is failing. One way for people to live with each other and with themselves is failing. There are other ways to live, and the end of this one would be no great loss if it were not taking so many lives along with it, human and non-human, and blighting so many future generations.
Ours does not look to us to be a partial and constrained form of life. The modern world of liberalism and capitalism claims universal validity, as the only social form that permits individuals to live as they really are. In the past, we tell ourselves, people’s lives were shaped or even scripted by myth, religion, or fixed social status. Our ancestors might have carved out limited realms of thought in which they felt free, and could perhaps have claimed a limited realm of free action, but as we understand it their lives were not their own. They had no say in who they were or what they could do. They were slaves to their culture.
We are sure we are different. We have no overarching theory, no sacred order of things. We have stripped away everything that might hamper the individual pursuit of happiness and self-realization. Private lives had once been possible only within the spaces left over from the demands of the social. Now, for the first time, the social is made subject to the demands of its members’ private lives. It is open to any and all individual projects. This is an ideal, of course, and we are only too aware of the obstacles that remain. But our underlying assumption is that social life must be secondary to private life. Each person should live as she chooses, and public life should be no more than an arena in which we negotiate with each other to achieve our goals. What will emerge from our lives together will be untainted by any particular idea of human nature or social order.
This is what sets the modern world apart from all others. We choose our political leadership by adding together individual choices, and our ritual of expressing those choices in curtained-off booths tells its own story about the sovereignty of private minds. We decide what uses we will make of our natural resources through markets in goods, which add up individual decisions about what to consume, and we decide what tasks will be accomplished by bidding for people’s services in labor markets, which compile individual decisions about what people should do.
Underpinning all of this is a single idea: that each of us is essentially alone. We come to social life from the outside, nursing a pre-social essence which lies at our very root and to which we turn when we seek to find or express ourselves. This is not so much an idea as it is a way of making sense of our experience, and it takes the form of several mutually reinforcing separations. The personal and the social are separate, as are the private and the public. The human and the non-human are separate, and so on. These divisions must be maintained, because our liberty seems to depend on them. Freedom in our sense is not Kant’s autonomy, the ability to give laws to oneself, but the ability to act in accordance with one’s authentic desires, and that kind of freedom is meaningless unless the source of those desires lies outside the realm, in which they are realized. If we could not step away from social processes, we could not claim those desires as our own.
All of this seems obvious. But what if we are wrong? What if there is no standpoint external to social life, and those separations are simply the artifacts of self-consciousness? Our deepest ambitions and wishes would not be private but public, then, and what seem to be our own thoughts and feelings would be distorted echoes of a shared life that is as all-pervasive as it is inaccessible to conscious thought. If that is the case, our justifications for the way we live are mere bootstrapping. They rest on the belief that we have incorrigible access to an individual essence that logically precedes our interactions with each other. If that belief is false, our culture and our ideas of our selves are as delusional as the divine right of kings.
The idea that we are mistaken about who and what we are seems absurd, yet it is what many traditions have taught. Buddhism starts from a rigorous demonstration that all objects of awareness, the self included, are transient forms of an endless web of cause and effect. Non-dualist Vedanta, Kashmiri Shaivism, and Taoism have similar foundations. A critique of individualism and separation runs through many indigenous traditions as well, which frequently envision individuals within a welter of intermingling powers and influences that can be glimpsed only through isolation, starvation, the ingestion of psychotropic drugs, or other practices that undermine the everyday sense that we are self-subsistent beings.
We are unlikely to be convinced by religious doctrines or spiritual testimonies, of course, and few would want to live in a social world rebuilt on their account. But we know from contemporary neuroscience that self-consciousness is unreliable, more prone to after-the-fact rationalization than to rational deliberation, and it seems to make only a small contribution to our intentions and acts. We can be aware of nothing else, of course, but what appears as the whole of our cognition is only a supplement, overlaid on and interacting with the same pre-conscious, embodied activities that all other animals live by. This makes evolutionary sense; cats, crows, and cockroaches perform extraordinarily without any self-knowledge, and it would be strange indeed if we, alone among animals, junked what they had evolved and came up with a comprehensive replacement.
We act out of emotion, not reason, and the thinking that seems to guide our acts is generally, perhaps entirely, the reflection and justification of intentions that originate in the drives and interconnections of our common lives. The spiritual world of which so many traditions speak has the same shape as this world of interconnected bodies. In our minds we are alone, but in our bodies we are connected at the heart. Nothing that issues from our embodied life can be separated from the lives of all others.
These ideas may seem alien, but they explain why our embrace of individual empowerment condemns us to impotence rather than liberating us. Agency is and can only be shared; it vanishes the moment we try to claim it as our own. The dance of mutual self-creation looms before us as an assault on an ego, which we must defend at all costs. We pit that illusory self against a reified society, waging a war within ourselves, which we cannot win.
The psychological toll of this stance is glaring, but its social and political consequences are even worse. We can aim at nothing more than negative liberty, the absence of constraint. Positive liberty—deciding anything at all about the shape of our common life—is an unjustifiable intrusion on the imagined freedom of individuals. Collective action can be nothing more than a congeries of individual actions, and a commitment to the welfare of others, to the preservation of the non-human world, or to future generations can be seen as just only if we freely choose to sacrifice our own immediate interests.
Political life is thus hollowed out. Both right and left want to make the world safe for individuals; they differ only on the means to that end, and the disputes themselves conceal their shared presuppositions. Progressives point to structural inequalities and opportunities denied on the basis of race, gender, sexual preference, and so on, and they are right to do so. But if and when all individuals are treated identically, the social world we inhabit will have the same shape and its world-destroying progress will go on just as before.
It is bad enough that we can barely hang on to the belief that we can change the world. It is worse that we cannot see that we ourselves are always already bringing that world into being. Marx—like Fichte and Hegel—knew that self and world emerge together, simultaneous products of collective human self-fashioning, and he expected that the proletarian revolution would awaken us to our shared power and show us that we are genuinely our own creations. But there has been no awakening to this fact, only an even deeper slumber, one that is literally self-induced. We have chained ourselves, and the links of that chain are forged by our fantasy of freedom.
The project of modernity rests on illusions, and whatever we build on those illusions only drives us farther apart from each other and from our ability to shape the human world. Appeals to reason, to compassion, to stewardship, to the better angels of our nature—all fall short, because none can bring us to the recognition that we make ourselves and our world together. We do not lack imagination or good intentions. The problem lies in the narrow channels through which our imaginations run. Separations between the inner and the outer, the public and the private, the individual and the social, act as scaffolding for our everyday experience and our political and philosophical speculations: we can think and see nothing that does not arise from or embody them. We remain trapped in our individual minds, hostages to a world we indeed make but which we cannot control or even recognize as our own.
How, then, do we begin? We must learn to save what and whom we can without reproducing or reinforcing the delusions of our age. Beyond that, we might look to other ways of living and other ways of understanding ourselves, pay attention to what remains of the world outside capitalist modernity, and seek out new roots of power. Our private lives are the site of an insidious tyranny, so our first task may be to create public spaces where change might come about.
But we may have to content ourselves with the relentless critique of all that seems self-evident and with the hope that arises beyond the death of hope. Our task may be nothing more than opening doors for others to walk through and tilling fields that our descendants might plant. Even this little is a great deal, though. It is surely better to struggle against our deepest prejudices and presumptions than to clear away the rubble of a collapsed civilization. But there is no guarantee, alas, that we will not be confronted with both of those tasks.