Death to the Individual

In modern society there is a widespread idea about “the individual”. The idea of the individual is actually an ingenious solution to a difficult social-philo­sophical problem: should we focus on society as a whole, or on its diff­er­ent parts and singular processes? This view has served us greatly in the past and made it possible to avoid the totalitarian, oppressive and very pathological form of modernity we’ve encountered in the 20th century. But individualism doesn’t really seem to cut in any longer, it doesn’t fulfill its function as an effective unit of society’s self-organization, it can’t solve many of social problems and often it even stands in the way of an adequate resolution of these. But entering the opposite ditch of collectivism evidently has its fair share of problems too. So as a solution to transcend this dilemma, without compromising one or the other, allow me to introduce the transpersonal perspective: a way to go beyond the individual without suffocating it.


The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘The Listening Society: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book One’. This is the first book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. What you will read below is from the part about transpersonal perspectives in the chapter on political philosophy; a chapter that also includes an inquiry into complexity and its political consequences, how it will lead beyond Left and Right through non-linear politics and the developmental hierarchical aspects that seems to be the lacking piece of the puzzle to get us there.

”The idea of the ‘individual’ no longer fulfills its function as an effective unit of society’s self-organization. As a solution to the problems of society, it no longer does its job.”

If a society focuses on its totality and wholeness, it can easily repress or deny processes that follow their own, partly independent, logics and social orders: legal systems, business, personal love relations, party politics and so forth (think Soviet communism). On the other hand, if a society (not necess­arily a nation state) fails to integrate the many parts into a whole, it can easily suffer serious consequences: that people work against one another, environ­mental degradation, failure to address wider issues such as social exclusion.

The idea of the individual provides a kind of solution to this problem. It basically says that each human being, over the stretch of her lifespan, is an indivisible whole unto herself. This idea thereby creates a series of smaller “whole” systems, “individuals”, each being a “life project” that ties together many different societal processes into one seamless fabric: child­hood, pers­onal life, education, work, family, political opinions, and so on. By use of this idea, modern society finds a golden mean that addresses the dilemma between the whole and the parts: within each single individual, the many processes of society come together into a whole. By means of the individual, all of society can be integrated into a microcosm.

Individual means “that which cannot be broken down into smaller parts”, if we look at its Latin root. The Greek translation of the same word is “atom”. In actual reality, of course, there are no “individuals” in any deeper sense that corresponds to the theory of atoms in physics: we are just animal bodies that move through a series of socially defined realities. Our bodies are always in a flux, always being changed by the environ­ment. After five years, all mass in our body has been exchanged (at least more than 99%).

The life story about our “individual self” is always just that: a story. There really is nothing to our individuality that makes us very unique: all of our wants, dreams, words and ideas come from the social environment. Even our name and our idea of a self come from interactions with other people, who in turn have been defined by their social surroundings. And the individ­ual has no real “free will”. Even if we are organisms with inten­tionality of our own, we are always deeply shaped by the social environ­ment; this includes our thoughts and intentions. The same conclusion is appar­ent to all people train­ed in meditation or otherwise versed in East­ern philo­sophy: when we quiet down our “talking head” minds and obs­erve our thoughts, it becomes evident that the voice speaking in our head runs automatically and largely beyond our own “will”. Where in all this is the individual located?

After all, even atoms turned out to be divisible; their very existence non-local and always based upon interactions. But the reason that pol­itical meta­modernism must go beyond the idea of the individual, and “see through” the individual person, is not just philo­sophical, not just a matter of being corr­ect in an analytical sense. It has profound practical and poli­tical implications.

The idea of the individual was a smart solution under the circumstan­ces that modern, industrial society produced. In today’s globalized infor­m­a­tion society, however, when the problems of society are of a much deeper and more complex nature, the idea of the individual tends to blind us to the prob­lems as well as to their solutions. The idea of the “individ­ual” no longer fulfills its function as an effective unit of society’s self-organiza­tion. As a solution to the problems of society, it no longer does its job. This is because the problems of society increasingly stem from deep layers of the psyche – and their interactions with the world – that are hard to access for us as indivi­d­ual persons. How do you make the average person trust her fellow citizens more? How do you make those same fellow citizens more trust­worthy in the first place? How do you make people have genuine solidarity with all people and animals (which, truth be told, most of us simply don’t have)? How do you make the average person more far-sighted, creative and complex? How do you make the average family have more stable and loving relation­ships? How do you break the evil cycle of insecurity, commercialism and over-consum­ption?

In turn, such deeper layers of the psyche are fundamentally intertwined with the collective structures of society. For instance: how everyday life in school is, how the labor market is, how love and sex function (or don’t), what words we are taught to discuss the universe and our place in it. All of these things depend on our surroundings so much more than on indivi­dual choices.

But society cannot be viewed solely as “collect­ive structures” or “net­works”, either, because that would make us blind to the deeply lived and felt per­spectives and experiences of singular human beings – and to the fact that the collective structures are largely defined and determined by such deep, psych­ological processes within each one of us.

”The idea of the trans­individual sees the human being as inseparable from her language, her deep unconscious, her relations, roles, societal positions, values, emo­tions, develop­mental psychology, biolog­ical organism and so forth. Each human being is viewed as an open and social process, a whirlwind of par­ticipation and co-creation of society. Soc­iety as a whole is viewed as a self-organizing system which creates such trans­individuals who are in turn able to recreate society.”

From the Individual to the Dividual to the Transindividual

The French philosopher Deleuze proposes that we should see society as made up by dividuals, i.e. that we all are in fact part of one another and affect one another. We consist of many different influences, roles and perspect­ives, within a multitude of contexts.

I am offering a related bid for anti-individualism: the trans­personal per­spec­t­ive. The transpersonal perspective holds two seemingly opposed, but in reality complementary, positions.

The first position is to see society as determined by the deep, inner lives – the most personal relations and tender emotions – of human beings. This takes the unique lived experience of each human being very seriously. Such lived experi­ence is taken to be the very foundation of soc­iety: if there is anger or love in our hearts, if there is peace in our minds, and if all manner of psychological issues have been properly dealt with. Such things determine if we turn out engaged world citizens, mind­less con­sumers or bitter reaction­aries.

The second position is that this deeply human and personal experience is in turn created by societal processes that are largely invisible to each single person, and access­ible only through a profound and systematic sociological and psychological analy­sis of society.

So this lands us in an apparent paradox: to really see the singular hum­an being, to really respect her rights and uniqueness, we must go beyond the idea of the individual; we must see through it and strive to see how society is pre­sent within each single person as well as in the relationships through which she is born as a “self”. We go from the idea of the individ­ual (vs. “the collect­ive”), to sim­ply seeing society as an evolving, inter­linked set of transindivi­duals. This is the transpersonal perspective. It’s not just that we are each a billiard ball that “interacts” with other people. We co-emerge. Or, as the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad has put it: we intra-act.

Initially, it may seem counter-intuitive to think of humans as some­thing other than individuals: after all, don’t we all have one body each, one voice and one inner monologue? But even neuroscience challenges this assumption. Ever heard of what is popularly called “split-brain”? It occurs in rare cases when the bridge between the left and right hemi­spheres of the brain is surgi­cally removed to treat severe epilepsy. People with “split-brain” show a num­ber of deeply puzzling features; they appear to have two different selves, each cont­roll­ing one side of the body. Some­times these two sides work past one another, the conscious mind (or rather: the linguistically endowed “talking” mind of the dominant hemi­sphere) even making excuses and rationalizations for the behaviors of the ghostly left hand which seems to gain a will of its own.

Or, you can show a picture to one eye and not the other – and the split-brain person will act as if he has seen the picture. But if you ask him, he is still unaware of having seen the picture and gives rationalizations for why he acted as if he had seen the picture. What you can see here is that the brain becomes split in half, and each part seems to have a mind of its own – although some­times the two communicate indirectly. This truly is bizarre, at least from a perspective where humans are thought to have an individual self and will of their own.

Or you may have heard of the cranially conjoined child twins (mean­ing that their heads are partly physically merged into one) from Van­couver, Krista and Tatiana Hogan, who seem to be able to pass visual impress­ions to one another direct­ly through their brains: you can ask one girl what the other sees and she will know. Such cases make the reality of the dividual clearly apparent: the single human mind is not indivisible, not a “single atom”. It’s just not; not even biologically speaking. But these un­com­m­on cases serve only to underscore something more fundamental that involves all of us: nowhere can you find a single, individual “self”; it’s always connected to every­­thing around us.

To the metamodern activist, the rights and interests of the trans­indiv­id­ual are seen as much deep­er, more real and more important than the rights of the individual. Just like modern society scrapped the rights of the clan or the family in favor of the individual, we are now scrapping the indiv­i­dual in favor of the much more morally entitled and more analy­tic­ally valid trans­individ­ual.

The idea of the listening society serves the trans­individual: the human being is seen as more than a unique, separate life story. The idea of the trans­individual sees the human being as inseparable from her language, her deep unconscious, her relations, roles, societal positions, values, emo­tions, develop­mental psychology, biolog­ical organism and so forth. Each human being is viewed as an open and social process, a whirlwind of par­ticipation and co-creation of society. Soc­iety as a whole is viewed as a self-organizing system which creates such trans­individuals who are in turn able to recreate society.

To sum up, the idea of the individual and her rights and freedom has served us well, but now we need to move on – lest society come crashing down on us like London Bridge.

Metamodern politics, working from sincere irony, applies a trans­pers­onal perspective to society, serving the trans­individual, her rights and inter­ests. You can use the words transpersonalism and transindividualism more or less interchangeably. Just remember this: It is by looking at deep psychological issues, the inner development of each of us, and how such properties are generated within society, that we address the core of society’s problems. (In the appendix of my book you will find some more conden­sed definitions of what the transpersonal perspective means.)

”…the terrible truth is that Breivik is you and me. He is a direct result of the society we create and uphold every day. He is not an alien force. He is that kid from school who came back and killed our kids. It’s all inter­connected. We are all interconnected.”

The Terrorist and Mass-Murderer from a Transpersonal Perspective

Let’s take an example. How about a terrorist like Anders Behring Brei­vik, the Norwegian guy who killed 77 people (mostly social-democratic youth) and injured more than 300 people on that fateful day in July 2011. There are two major explanations people use to account for his acts of terror: that it is a political issue (the spread of neo-Nazi ideas in the wake of rising populist nationalism) or that it is a mental health issue (the guy is crazy). A third, less common, explanation is the suggestion that Breivik is the result of neoliberal developments of society, which have purportedly made people unhappy and narcissistic (obviously championed by main­stream Left sociologists). Some social-psych­ological observers have sugge­sted that the long process with years of isolation and self-disciplining while preparing for such a grave trans­gress­ion of norms is the main issue: how did someone like Breivik at all manage to get himself to follow through?

What all sides agree upon is that online forums played a big part; that Breivik is at least in part an internet phenomenon.

These discussions choose between an individual and a societal (collect­ive) perspective. From a more transpersonal viewpoint, the issue appears quite differ­ently. The matter at hand is instead the social psychology of a long seq­u­ence of everyday events: somehow and somewhere in everyday life, this young man became very embittered, and was clearly unable to handle life in a prod­uct­ive manner. Breivik, the mass murderer, was born in the school yard, in the dysfunctional family, in the peer group, on the internet, in the labor mark­et, in failed love aspirations, in sexual frust­rations, in failed masculinity (a recurr­ing theme in his crazed “manifesto”, released the same day as the kill­ings occurred – he even spent his last night with two expensive prosti­tutes and champagne), in hurt pride, in failed interethnic relations and stalling inte­gration processes. In short, he was born as a result of the entire fabric of society.

So Breivik planned for nine years and then went out and killed people. In doing so he of course violated the rights of each unique person, and the rights of their loved ones.

Think about it; the only way to have prevented this from occurring would be if people like Breivik were simply much less likely to emerge in the first place. We can’t really protect each single person from the ill will of all conce­ivable wrong­doers, not even with super-efficient policing. No matter how much we “stand up for the rights of the individual”, the indiv­idual will still be limited and harmed in a million ways, even to the point of being murdered, if we don’t see her deeper insides and the social-psych­ological contexts of which she is part – if we fail to see the trans­individual and stand up for her rights.

We cannot do much about the sporadic occurrence of pathological psycho­paths, as psychopathy clearly has strong hereditary or genetic fact­ors. Nor can we make crazy Nazi ideologies disappear from the inter­net (or do-it-yourself guides for terr­orists, for that matter). In any case, neither psychopathy nor internet extremism is sufficient to explain Brei­vik the terrorist.

What we can do, however, is to make sure that the average person is happ­ier and healthier, has better relationships, better self-knowledge and more support. Because the terrible truth is that Breivik is you and me. He is a direct result of the society we create and uphold every day. He is not an alien force. He is that kid from school who came back and killed our kids. It’s all inter­connected. We are all interconnected. Obviously Breivik is an extreme ex­ample of social deviance, but he emerges in continuity with the rest of us. Somehow, we are made of the same stuff. The answer to the horror show that Breivik unleashed is to be found deep within ourselves.

Would Breivik have become who he became if the whole fabric of bliss and suffering had been more intelligently weaved? It is a matter of likeli­hood: some societies generate more terrorists than others, Norway usually being relatively peaceful, but evidently not without its fair share of social tensions. It is a transpersonal issue; it goes beyond and through the indiv­id­ual person. But as such, it still is, and will remain, deeply personal, in the sense that it involves matters that are exquisitely intimate and emo­tional.

”To see human beings as ‘individuals’ in an obviously interconnected and co-evolving universe is not only poor social philosophy. It is an unforgiv­able insult to the greatness of the human soul.”

Let us go beyond the terrorism example. Extend this transpersonal per­spec­tive to all kinds of other issues: un­employment, where the issue is not only how many are employed, but how it feels to be unemployed, what it means to people and why; or bullying, where the whole environment and social setting of schooling and the educational system set the limits for inter­personal trust and solidarity throughout society; or public health, where the lifestyles of our friends and relatives affect our habits and there­fore our lifespan – which in turn depends on how well they are doing psychologically in terms of happiness, which in turn depends a lot on the quality of their relationships, which in turn depends on how much people are forced to compete for social status, and so on. So the great fabric of hurt and bliss that explains acts of terror is the same one that explains so many other miseries in our lives.

There is of course not “one explanation” for the gruesome mystery of Brei­vik, but some perspectives are much better at dealing with the com­plex nature of these issues than others. The inner life of the singular citiz­en is married to the collective structures of society, and vice versa. Our failure as a society to see this interconnectedness is the real explanation that people flip out and become murderous Nazis. None of the other pers­pectives can stop the next Breivik; only a transpersonal perspective can.

To serve the individual – or the collective – is thus increasingly becom­ing regressive and harmful. “The individual” and “the collective” are analy­t­ically faulty positions. We are not simply balancing individual and collective inter­ests; we are attacking both in the name of the trans­indiv­idual.

To see human beings as “individuals” in an obviously interconnected and co-evolving universe is not only poor social philosophy. It is an unforgiv­able insult to the greatness of the human soul. We are more than individuals; we are much larger beings. This is why, in a transpersonal perspective, I can say in all sincerity: Death to the individual.

Long live the dividual – or the transindividual.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.

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