Magazine article Soundings

Rethinking the Collective

Magazine article Soundings

Rethinking the Collective

Article excerpt

Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism, Pluto 2013

Common Ground begins in familiar territory: the failure of our democratic institutions, designed for an era of homogenous lives and bloc interests, to adapt to the needs of increasingly diverse and fragmented populations. It's a commonplace of this literature to contrast the collectivism of the post-war years with the individualism of neoliberal or postmodern culture. What Gilbert draws out is the extent to which those bygone collectives--whether found in Fordist capitalism or state socialism--also depended upon a philosophical commitment to individualism, in which social groups could only coordinate their actions through becoming a 'meta-individual' via their vertical relationships with a central leader or idea.

The book traces this 'Leviathan logic' from Hobbes through to Le Bon and Freud, showing how the premise of competitive individualism limits the politically possible, so that even radical thinkers such as Laclau can only conceive of the social as a negative limitation upon the freedoms of individuals. A wide-ranging exploration of alternative conceptions of group organisation based on lateral relationships follows, bringing in ideas of mimesis, affect theory and 'becoming', as well as the expected discussions of Hardt and Negri or Deleuze and Guattari. (Of particular interest also is his use of French philosopher Simondon who is relatively unknown in English.) For those less familiar with the wide-ranging array of thinkers he draws upon,

Gilbert is helpfully explicit about the partiality of his own interpretations; perhaps a reading list pointing in the direction of alternative viewpoints would be beneficial for the less well-read.

While Common Ground doesn't link explicitly to a programme of action--there is no manifesto for fostering collectivity in an age of individualism--the author's practical schooling in anti-capitalist experiments and new social movements is palpable, as is his frustration with the British Labour Party. Institutional power is not denigrated, and lateral coordination is not fetishised, but the need to create space for the latter within the former is recognised as a radical demand since it undermines the competitive and individualist premise of liberal political thought.

Gilbert's book is particularly important, I think, for those like myself who come from a generation who became politicised just at the point when the internet was beginning to demonstrate its potential for enabling mass action based on horizontal relationships. …

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