Beyond Individualism: How Social Demands of the New Identity Groups Challenge American Political and Economic Life

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Piore, Michael. Beyond individualism: How social demands of the new identity groups challenge American political and economic life. Cambridge (Mass), Harvard University Press, 1995. 215 pp. Index. ISBN 0-674-06897-1.

This book is packed with ideas and may be read on several levels. Some readers will focus on the author's historical perspective on the American political scene or on his reflections on theories of knowledge. This review will examine the analysis he offers of new social groups and the light he sheds on the role of alternative mediating institutions and associations in the construction of society.

First: the trade union movement, which is the most obvious representative of the grievances associated with the "social deficit" (wage and income inequality, lack of economic security, etc.); trade unions are moreover the kind of social actors with whom it is fairly easy to reach a compromise. Nevertheless, little by little another structure of representation has emerged, one consisting of strong organization and group affinities based on social as opposed to economic identity: for example, religion, ethnic and racial ties, physical handicap, gender, sexual preference. The emergence of such groups poses a serious challenge to unions' claims to be the channel for the expression of all social grievances.

What is the best conceptual approach to adopt towards these groups? Traditionally, a distinction has been drawn between pluralist groups (in which the individual may be associated with many groups but has a limited commitment to any single one) and corporatist groups (in which many of an individual's interests are represented by a single "identity" group). The problem is that these new groups are corporatist in a new sense, they are defined independently of the economic structure. In these groups there is a divorce between the economic and the social, and there is no straightforward way for the groups or their members to comprehend how economic resources constrain the satisfaction of their demands. Hence the difficulty of reaching a compromise with them, especially since their demands often have a symbolic value (equality of treatment, for example) which is associated with the very identity of the persons concerned, with the idea they have of themselves.

Governance, argues the author, is today a question of opening up space in the legislative process for groups that are not counted among the recognized constituencies, and of encouraging politicians to address issues they may find strange or even repugnant. Such a remark necessarily requires a reappraisal of the social and economic fabric of American society.

In general terms, a permanent feature of American life is the tension between individualism and community. The attraction for the United States of competitive economic theory lies in the fact that it is based on the ideal of individual autonomy, an ideal which it promises to realize. Competitive economic theory relies on two basic arguments. The first concerns individual behaviour: individuals organize the means at their disposal in such a way as to maximize the ends they wish to achieve (maximized personal welfare). The second presents the economy as a system of interpersonal relations: in a competitive market comprising many buyers and sellers, the individual optima achieved by the separate agents lead to a social optimum as well. This rational choice model has been extended to consumer behaviour and even to human behaviour in general.

However, the dominant view in cognitive psychology starts with the proposition that one's relationship to the external world is mediated by a set of mental images. A better understanding of the relationship with the external world results in an organic perception of society, of its relations with identity and individualism; the individual is necessarily a component part of society. But what does this really mean?

To explore this further, the author leads us on an epistemological excursion to meet Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. …