The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism & Anarchism // Review

By Brown, L. Susan | Resources for Feminist Research, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Individualism: Liberalism, Liberal Feminism & Anarchism // Review


Brown, L. Susan, Resources for Feminist Research


Here is an author who became entranced with anarchism after reading an essay by Emma Goldman while an under-graduate. She was "disillusioned with the broken promises of [her] liberal upbringing" and Goldman captured both her "heart" and her "mind."

Her discovery of anarchism, at first seen by her as completely compatible with Marxism, led her to practical involvement with the anarchist movement in Toronto. At the same time she became involved with feminist studies. Here too she found disturbing trends towards ideological repression. These experiences led ultimately to a decision to undertake a critical consideration of the political philosophy of liberal feminism.

In her thesis Brown uses a framework which enables her to explore the contradictions in liberalism between what she calls existential and instrumental individualism. She then argues that if liberalism's instrumentally competitive aspects were replaced with free and voluntary association, anarchism would be the result. Her simple definition of anarchism is that it is a way of organizing society to best allow for the free expression of individuals.

From the start I felt a little uneasy about this somewhat simplistic notion. What about the dangers of individualism? What about "no one is an island?" After all, Brown wishes us to gain fresh insights into certain social movements-in particular, feminism-in order to bring liberation closer. She argues that we will never understand the true nature of the individual while we live with constraints. By removing the bonds of political, social and economic domination we will begin to define for ourselves what freedom and nature really are. So her work is analysis, description and prescription.

In her analysis of liberal individualism she looks first at Marx and Marxism and the authoritarian tendencies which have plagued the political movements based on Marxist ideology. In liberalism, however she finds an important link with anarchism: both share a commitment to individual autonomy and self-determination. But here the similarity ends. Anarchism is committed to the primacy of individual freedom while the property relations of liberalism ultimately lead to domination and exploitation. Because the existentialists came closest to developing the notion that individuals are best able to determine their own existence, Brown calls this kind of anarchist individualism, existential individualism. The liberal belief in property, both real and in the person, leads on the other hand to objectification of the individual and therefore to a negation of individual will. Under this system one person gains freedom at the expense of, or by using, another. This Brown calls instrumental individualism. Freedom becomes a means to an end, maybe an exploitative or dominating end, rather than an end in itself.

Brown finds the same contradiction in liberal feminism as she finds in liberalism generally. On the one hand feminists argue for self-determination, on the other they want women to take their place beside men in the competitive, and therefore exploitative, labour market. …

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