Andy Blunden 2004
The problem as I am seeing it at the moment is what has been called the “death of the subject.” Some people describe it as the growth of individualism or the loss of community, but my take on this is to say that subjectivity is waning, and that subjectivity is being written out of history and social theory.
Now, it won’t be immediately obvious what I mean by “subjectivity.” By “subject” I mean: a self-conscious system of activity. So by “subjectivity” I mean: participating in a self-conscious system of activity which expresses one’s own will.
Now it’s very important that we're all on top of this, so before I go on, are there any questions?
So, on the side of theory, the currents and disciplines I am targeting are economics — which reduces human beings to utility-maximising automatons, all kinds of social theory — which see people as agents only in the sense that someone can be an agent for the spread of a disease, which look down on society from a God’s eye view, behavioural science — “psychology” without the psyche; network theory — relationships without people, social capital and human capital theorists — human life as means of production; postmodern theorists who believe in the grandest narrative of them all, about the end of the narrative, and so on.
All these strands of social theory of course reflect something real in the social world around them, namely, the decline and marginalisation of the subject in modern society.
People who belong to no voluntary organisation at all — that’s about 80% of us nowadays — no political party, church, sports club or anything, people who work for a wage but do not belong to a union, relying on processes utterly unknown to them to determine their wages and conditions, and still don’t give a toss for the company that employs them; consumers programmed by TV advertisements, buyers and sellers par excellence, where the average size of a household is now down to 2.5 with one-adult families outnumbering couple families with children; attention span is down to below 10 seconds, vast masses of information, 99% of which is one-way broadcast.
And of course, the objectification of human beings in theory does not just reflect the decline of subjectivity in social life, but sustains and rationalises it.
For example, Habermas’s discourse ethics, with its intersubjectivity — exchange of views between people who evidently have no particular reason to talk to one another.
For example, Foucault’s power without a centre and without a “great refusal.”
Now, do people understand what I mean by the decline of subjectivity?
One of the illusions which have to be overcome is the idea that historically individuals have come together to form society, in some kind of “social contract.” But the opposite idea, that prioritises “society” over the individual is actually no better. It is a chicken-and-egg situation, because there never was a person who wasn’t born into an already-existing society of some kind, and nor was there ever a society that was made up of anything other than individual human beings.
The idea of subjectivity is a different way of coming at this question, rather than setting off from one pole or the other, from Robinson Crusoe or from some kind of Brave New World made up of automatons rather than individuals.
Subjectivity has always come about through differentiation, through the gradual coming to self-consciousness of a system of activity, of collaboration gradually distinguishing itself from the general interchange going on around it. I want to start by asking you to first look at the idea of an isolated subject.
Now I have defined a subject as a “self-conscious system of activity.” I think the only way for a modern person to imagine an isolated subject is to imagine a tribe living in an isolated valley in New Guinea, self-sufficient, speaking its own language.
Can we have a talk about what such a self-contained, isolated subject is like?
So it should be easy now to use your imagination to think of how this isolated subject reacts when a group of strangers appears over the hill. For starters, they will not recognise the strangers as human beings; they know only members of the tribe, on one hand, and Nature on the other. Strangers are for all intents and purposes wild animals, extremely dangerous wild animals, who have no respect for law or property rights, who do not fit into the established system of collaboration. Either one people will devour the other or vice versa, or failing that, the two parties will withdraw from each other and continue to live in mutual isolation again. But there can be no recognition.
Passing individuals can be married into the tribe or eaten for dinner. Even the possibility of enslaving a person is ruled out, since the traditional subject which we proposed has no internal differentiation, no means of repression, and as a self-sufficient, subsistence society, no surplus of labour. That is to say, they have nothing spare to offer strangers, and no way of incorporating the labour of others into their own life-style.
This kind of isolated subject, which cannot recognise another subject, for fear of mutual annihilation, has nothing to offer to another, nor any use for others, has no internal differentiation, which knows the difference between itself and nature, through its own material interchange with Nature, but has no relation with any other like itself, cannot be self-conscious in any real sense.
If there is going to be any communication or any collaboration with other subjects, then we haven’t discovered the basis for it yet. OK?
Now to complete this picture it is important to see that subjectivity always has two forms: an external form and an internal form, a material form and an ideal form, a labour process and human needs, practice and theory, means and ends. Subjects are not just systems of activity, not just networks or intersubjectivity. There is always an ideal component, a purpose. Even the isolated subject we talked about before knows itself, knows itself as distinct from Nature, it pursues its needs consciously. People don’t just have ideas in their heads, they have artefacts of all kinds, buildings, languages, art, rituals, laws and so on and so forth, objective, material things which orient their activity together.
The way that communication and material cooperation takes place depends on the relationship between these inner and outer forms; it depends on externalisation or objectification of ideals, and the internalisation of systems of activity and collaboration in the form of ideas, concepts, commitments. OK?
The isolated subject is therefore a kind of limiting case. Not knowing or relating to any other subject like itself, it cannot be called self-conscious, it cannot really be called a subject. Becoming self-conscious means being able to see yourself though someone else’s eyes. This entails producing more than you need to just to live, of lifting yourself up from pure subsistence. Once a subject’s way of living has reached a point where individuals can produce more than they need for mere existence, three possibilities open up:
(1) Enslavement and Colonisation.
(2) Internal Differentiation.
The first scenario is that one subject defeats the other, but instead of killing them all and taking over their land, colonises or enslaves the other. That is to say, one subject destroys the other subject, but incorporates its materiality into its own subjectivity in a subjugated or subordinate position.
The second scenario is a variation on the first whereby instead of conquering and subordinating a foreign people, a people differentiates into a dominant and a dominated class, some kind of division of labour goes beyond the bounds of division of labour and we have one class doing all the work and having no say in anything, and another class living off the surplus and calling the tune. The result is the same as what you get through the first scenario.
The third scenario arises when neither side can defeat the other, but each manages to prevent the other from stealing their land and produce. Instead of retreating back to their own territory, because each actually has something which is of use to the other, the two subjects engage in trade.
So in either of the first two scenarios we now have two different subjects, with one subordinating the other; and in the third scenario, we have two different subjects, each treating the other as free and equal. So we can talk now about self-consciousness, because we have self-conscious systems of activity that know about one another. We have either a one-sided kind of recognition, or a mutual recognition. Is that clear?
So to understand this process of colonisation, we have to look at the division of labour between theory and practice within a single system of activity. It sets up one-sided forms of mediation. The subject-object relation of the slave is mediated by the needs of the master — the own activity objectifies not their own needs, but those of the masters; the subject-object relation of the master is mediated by the (unrecognised) objectivity of the slave, their culture is built not by their own hands, but by those of the slaves. A relation of dependency is established: robbed of their own culture, the slave is legally dependent on the master, while the master is materially dependent on the slave.
In the scenario where the two subjects enter into a trading relationship, each uses the other as a means to their own ends. Each sees in the labour of the other an image of their own needs and in the needs of the other an image of their own labour. Exchanging commodities is then a material form of communication, the basic form of communication between subjects which remain nevertheless foreign to one another. Cooperation is an accidental side-effect of mutual instrumentalisation.
Communication only ever takes place through some kind of mediation, and for any kind of genuine communication you can trace it back to the relationships within and between the objective and subjective aspects of self-conscious systems of activity, subjectivity. This seems to be a round about way of understanding communication; it probably seems more sensible to start off with the idea of little signalling devices sending messages to each other, but conceptions like that, which dominate social theory and science today, belong a way of thinking which has already dehumanised people. People can’t communicate unless they have something to talk about. So-called “communication” only makes sense if the activity in which people are collaborating together, the real content of the conversation, is put in the centre of the picture.
Does this make sense?
So this is how Recognition comes in. When a subject can prevent another subject from treating them like a doormat, then they get Recognition. Getting recognition from others like yourself is the basis of self-respect. In the case of the subjugated subject, he doesn’t get recognition, only the master is recognised. But the master is not recognised by another subject like itself, but only by a slave. So the master’s consciousness is an unreal kind of idealistic consciousness.
On the other hand, when you recognise someone, it means you can’t just use them like a slave, but you can trade with them. You can use them, but only to the extent that you allow them to use you. Self-esteem arises from finding that someone else has use for what you produce, your life is valued, because someone is willing to pay for it. But they don’t necessarily want to know you. Social cooperation is an accidental side-effect of exchange.
That’s the market relationship, commodification. That’s the modern condition. Freedom, equality, and mutual estrangement. The problem is: how can we overcome this fragmentation?
But before a person gets the chance to earn any self-respect or self-esteem, they have to grow up as a human being. It is working within a subject (a family, a play-group, a company), which lays the basis for self-confidence. Participating in a self-conscious system of activity, even one in which you are in a subordinate position, gives an individual confidence that their actions will produce the intended result.
Trust arises from collaboration within a single system of activity with another person. Trust means you know someone’s track record and there’s a reliability about it because your interaction has not just been random, passing interactions, but has taken place within some definite project or institution or movement. Trust extends only as far as the self-consciousness of the relevant subjectivity. So for example, if I've worked with someone at work, I will trust them with work matters, but I won’t necessarily trust them to look after my kids or in personal relationships and so on. And vice versa. In any case, trust is the relationship you have with people that you have collaborated with within a subjectivity.
The working class, the Left, people that want to do something about the state of the world need to be able to trust one another. But there isn’t a lot of trust around, and there’s no basis for trust actually.
Solidarity is the key relationship I believe. Solidarity means offering support to a stranger on conditions determined by the receiver. OK? So solidarity is a relationship with a stranger. But that kind of solidity which you find in a closed shop, in a rural village or a close extended family, is something else. It’s not a relationship which can be used to deal with the problems of modernity, and it’s a relationship which is in decline as well actually, but I don’t think we have to shed a tear over that.
Charity (or philanthropy) is a relationship of extending support to a stranger alright, and nothing wrong with philanthropy, but philanthropy is about helping someone on terms set by the giver; it is a great way of building yourself up, of recruiting new souls to the true religion, but it is not a relationship which supports new subjectivity, which supports independence and individuality at the same time as offering material support. It’s a form of benign colonisation.
When you see someone in trouble, someone you'd like to support, and you offer solidarity, you say to someone “How can I help you?” You invite them to show you how to fit into what they're trying to do. You add your energy to their subject. You collaborate on their terms. Over time trust builds and before long they are going to be saying to you “Do you think we should do it this way or that way?” and you can participate together, not only in the material, but also the ideal aspects of the project.
So solidarity is the relationship which not only offers recognition, but also builds trust and strengthens subjectivity. So this is the form which political activity has to take if we want to build a new movement. It’s a kind of pre-condition, rather than the solution itself.