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Choose Your Collective Personhoods


A plausible way to sort political positions into a set of coherent categories is by asking whether they recognize collective agents, and if so, which. Do they treat individual people, by which I mean the sort of persons associated with each individual body, as parts of larger collective personhoods? Since around 1800 in Europe (though more like 1860 in the US) the most basic and effective political tendencies have been, we might say, anti-individualist. Indeed, this might be the most basic and obvious feature of the political philosophy of the last 250 years.

So, for example, nationalists treat nations (whatever those may be exactly; perhaps linguistic communities) as the basic drivers of history, the basic decision-makers. In addition, the sheer fact that they are Germans, e.g., is supposed to explain many of the personality traits of the individual Germans, who are beefy and punctilious or somesuch. Marxists like classes in this regard, and for Marx that you are bourgeois is much more important than which particular bourgeois you may be. Racialists think races have personalities and are the basic agents driving history. Feminists were liable to say things like “I am woman.”

You can watch these collective personhoods being formed or devised, for example, in Hobbes’s Leviathan, where the state is the sovereign, and the sovereign consists of all the people in (Hobbes keeps saying) a single body (the body politic), with a single collective soul. A fundamentally influential version is Rousseau’s “general will”: the “will of the people” as embodied in their government (hopefully). The idea expanded or exploded through the whole 19th century, when all our collective agents were invented and explored. If you care for unedifying spectacle, you can watch the development of nationalism in Herder, statism in Hegel, racialism in Hitler, class struggle in Marx. All these offer alternate pictures of all of human history, and prescriptions for the future. Of course, each is incompatible with the others. And none is…plausible.

Let me quote DuBois in a typical formulation of collectivism: “The history of the world,” he wrote in 1897, “is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races, and he who ignores or seeks to override the race idea in human history ignores and overrides the central thought of all history.”

Now, whether you believe nations or classes to be fundamental might make you a rightist or leftist. If you believe that classes are the real people who drive history, you’re a likely leftist and an advocate of economic equality. If you think it’s nations, you’re a rightist and you’re closing the borders, probably. If you’re a racialist, however, believing that races are real and drive events and determine personalities and capabilities, you might have been an extreme rightist in 1960; you might be an extreme leftist today. But in every case your basic commitment is to…erasing your self into the category.

Just to give the left their due, they are still discovering/identifying/manufacturing collective agents. For example, “LGBTQ+” is a collective agency formed by bundling varied sexual minorities together into an acronym. Or maybe the creation of LGBTQ+ is necessitated by the collective actions of the cis het patriarchy, which doesn’t even know itself to be a collective identity and needs its own acronym. At any rate, what’s happening to sexual minorities now is an excellent example of how collective identities are manufactured: in self-defense, and often in the self-conscious narrative construction of history, though also often as direct strategies of oppression.

Or we might take the example of “Latinx”, an attempt to make a broad swathe of varied cultures, all of whom speak some version of Spanish or Portuguese, into one collective personhood. That one, unlike LGBTQ+, seems to have been invented by people who don’t account themselves Latinx, and has been widely derided by people who might be regarded that way. Indeed, sometimes collective identities are expressions of intrinsic pride. Sometimes they are inflicted in oppression. In every case, however, I want to say that the construction is fundamentally fictional (though these kinds of fictions often move things in the real world) and tendentious: if you are manufacturing collective identities, you are engaged in a power struggle. That’s what those things are for. If you’ve manufactured it to oppress (“Untouchables,” perhaps), it’s disgusting. If you’ve manufactured it to resist (“we’re here and we’re queer!”) it’s admirable. But in either case it is strategic.

Much more generally, the idea of collective identities needs a lot more conceptual clarification, and we should try to get somewhat clearer on the ways it makes us suffer before we absolutely repudiate individualism. So, for example, DuBois thinks the great reality is race, Marx that it’s class, Herder or Herzl that it’s nations, LGBTQ+ activists that it’s sexualities, feminists that it’s genders, and so on. But each of us has many collective memberships. I’m not sure what is and what is not a collective person, but if there are any, I am part of several. Pollsters and politicians, for example, might expect black people and women to vote for Biden this year. Oddly, however, some women are white and some black people are men. There is no answer to the question of which collective body I’m located in or which is fundamental to me. We are each scatters of race/gender/region/sex/generation/etc.

Even if you thought collective identities were perfectly real and were the fundamental facts about human beings, you’d end up with something like individualism once you take seriously the phenomenon of “intersectionality”. Once I list out all my collective identities – my race mix, nationalities, fluid sexualities, balance of masculine and feminine traits, income level, region at a given moment, generation, and so on – I start to get back to being an individual. Once I specify a collective identity of me and four other old straightesque whiteish American/French dual citizens clinging on to the bottom of the bourgeoisie (my People!), I don’t think the five of us are really going to mobilize to transform the polity.

Every time I start talking about individual rights, it seems, somebody pipes up with “but what about the collective?” Okay, I’ll bite. Which collective, this afternoon? Why? And once I list all my collective identities, I’m an individual again, so maybe the opposition between individualism and collectivism is just not the place to start.