Marx’s distinction between the individual and the collective provides a great lens through which we can view the text. He doesn’t use those words much, but in German Ideology, he presents a systematic relationship between the individual and the collective, and explains how the former travels to the latter via production, which is determined by the materials we are given. In his eyes, we start with materials and a means of subsistence, we replicate that means of subsistence and spend our lives engaged in this production, we form relationships based on that production, and as population grows, we divide out the labour, become collective structures like nations, and then those collective structures interact like we did as individuals. (Think: The job you do shapes the person you are).
He makes two important points here: one, individual modes of life based on production come back to the material world. And second, there is no individual outside of society – we evolve together. Societies are systems within which individuals function as smaller systems. This Russian-nesting-doll view of how society is built is reflected on page 150:
“But not only the relation of one nation to others, but also the whole internal structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development reached by its production and its internal and external discourse” (Marx 150).
An example of the whole being dependent on the parts that come before it is an experience that many can relate to: the inconvenience and frustration of a delayed or cancelled flight. Many different people working in different sectors are responsible for playing their role in making sure that the aircraft and crew are where they are supposed to be and in working order to ensure that everything runs as it should. This past summer (2016), Southwest experienced a server malfunction that resulted in the cancellation of over 2,000 flights, the delays of hundreds more, and the loss of tens of thousands of dollars by the airline.
The collective in Marx is the alienated culture of the workers who perform the same perfunctory, machine-assisted motions to create a product that they neither own nor completely make. In exchange for their long hours of work, the workers receive compensation on only in the sufficient means to live. A series of industrial motions comes to compose the bulk of his a waking life, he becomes a cretin and a machine, an expendable commodity whose labor provides his master with the power to imprison him. the individual becomes estranged from his labor and its product and a slave to this way of life in which creates himself as a commodity, mechanically churning labor in exchange for only “the means to life” (76). While the worker and his master occupy different tiers of the social hierarchy both become embroiled in the larger capitalist collective. Both worker and master relinquishes his individuality by submitting to the authority of money, a phenomenon that mediates their interactions with the world. The more you are and can do and conversely the less you have the greater “is the store of your estranged being” (95). Money reduce man’s interactions with the world to monetary interactions. In the capitalist world, an individual either has or doesn’t have, and it distorts his sensory apprehension of the world by relating to monetary value or wealth. This system of working for life and interacting with the world through money separates an individual from the individual freedom of his individuality, and results in his imprisonment in a collective culture.
Counter to the soul-crushing confinement of the capitalist collective, Marx proposes a free state for the individual that he call species-being. Species being is his ideal of how man’s nature should be were he unshackled from Capital. The ideal nature, species-being is the mode of life in which a man can express his “conscious” freedom from animal instinct. Unlike animals, man can produce “free from physical need” (76) when aligned with his species being and create the way that he lives. Alignment with the species-being also means social with fellow members of his species, while under capitalist conditions he fends for himself in the assembly line. In a true communist society that returns man to his species-being, the individual socially engages with others without being having to conform to a collective in order to survive. Communal activities and consumption will occur in a communist society, but they will do so directly, without the mediation of money.
The consequences of this way of thinking about individual and collective reflect across the text. The idea of the worker as a commodity is made possible by the idea that he is a cog in the machine that is society, a product of himself rather than a free agent unaffected by society’s whims.
A very literal occurrence of this kind of thinking in practice was in the creation of “coal towns” by coal mining companies from the late 1800s to the middle of the 20th century. Coal miners and their families lived in these isolated towns, where the commerce was controlled by the corporation. The miners were paid in “scrip”, a non-transferable, non-legal tender that could only be redeemed at the company’s general store. This limited the miners to “spending” the very little they made mining coal on the basic items that the store provided, with no choice to put their earnings elsewhere.
Smith, also employs systematic imagery to illustrate what society looks like to him, but while Marx evaluates the plight of the individuals dehumanized inside the colossal system, Smith evaluates the capitalist system holistically, and sees it as natural and ideally stable. He believes all individuals naturally have the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange, a trait that sets in motion the system of capitalism, that at in advanced development, allows a nation to prosper across social strata. The stock owners lead bring prosperity to their nation by investing domestically, and although they are driven by self interest, this interest actually favors the whole society. Smith illustrates the healthy state as being naturally “led by an invisible hand” (485). The equilibrium of a state depends on the direction of the invisible commercial power of the stock owner, unlike In Marx’s social model, where the state’s prosperity hinges on the worker’s labor. Smith views society from the top down, and Marx from the bottom up.
Smith, doesn’t zoom out far enough to examine the collective comprehensibly – he sees individuals within systems that are like natural environments. These systems self-regulate, he argues, the same way physical ecosystems do. That is a fundamental difference between how Marx and Smith imagine the collective: a machine built of involuntary metal parts versus a self-regulating ecosystem of organisms.
Smith’s functioning and harmonious social model lacks narrative drama, but Marx’s industrial nightmare of people mechanized to join the collective is formidable fuel for stories, especially science fiction stories. We see the mechanized collective in Metropolis and Star Trek, but nowhere do we see the conflict between the individual and the collective better explored than in Patrick McGoohan’s television series the Prisoner, in which a British spy hands in his resignation without explanation, and wakes up the following morning in a paradisal spa colony called the Village, having been drugged by a mysterious adversary (the Russians? The British?).There they assign him a number, interrogate him about why he retired in a series of crazy schemes, but as the series progresses, the leader of the village, an official called No. 2 (Who is No. 1?!) becomes less interested in why this spy retired, and more involved in getting him to conform to the blithe and mindless culture of the Village, where truth is irrelevant and questions are forbidden. The village may look like an idyllic oceanside getaway, but behind its mock-Italian Baroque lies a maze of machines designed for surveillance, brainwashing, and torture, all for the cause of a harmonious society. No. 6 fights for his individuality against this mysterious, mechanized regime, but as his identity is only a negation of the Village collective, he cannot express his species-being,which for Marx requires the freedom to shape and create his world. Inadvertently No. 6’s indignant loyalty to himself, enacts a kind of psychological imprisonment. While he could conform to the clockwork uniformity of of the Village, but instead he rebels, invariably incurring some sort of elaborate retaliation from No. 2. He cannot be because he is fighting against. The Prisoner doesn’t discuss production and labor, but with Marxian flair it addresses the individual’s struggle against the mechanical collective.
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Topic: Individual/Collective (Section 20)
Contributors: Sylvia De Boer, Theodore Davis, Seychelle Mikofsky