Ongoing debate: Freedom and the shape of things to come (part deux)

In out ongoing blog debate Snouck Hurgronje has posted a rebuttal to my earlier post, taking me to task over my emphasis on individualism versus collectivism.

He is right of course in asserting that individualism always takes place in a social setting, where the limits of freedom are determined 'collectively' by some power that sets our conditions.

The question, however, is: What or who will that power be. Snouck implicitly assumes a democracy when he places the Collective in opposition to the Individualist. But in essence he is talking about the State versus in the Individual. And the State can take different forms, most of which are not democratic (or in other words: collectively defined and guided).

And this is what my post was mostly about: the approach the State, or the government, or the authorities, take with regard to their subjects. The collectivist is adamant the entire political, social and economic process is controllable and open to conscious guidance. It presumes a gremium of people, whether democratically elected or undemocratically instated, that decides what is best for 'the people', the 'blue collar worker', 'the unemployed' without regard for the fact that people are not statistical definable entities, do not necessarily react identically in identical situations. It will set the ends, and deploy the means accordingly, to engineer society in a way that this gremium thinks is best. No matter that such a gremium is made up of fallible men who's objectives may not necessarily be shared with those who the lord over. Anyone not quite fitting the mold of the few strictly defined categories of humans identified by the State will find it increasingly impossible to satisfy their own ends, because the State forces them to adhere to the ends he State has set for the category the State has assigned this individual.

The Individualist does recognize those differences and will try to set conditions (through universal legislation) in such a way as to let the natural forces of social and economic interaction run their natural course and still achieve the result the Individualist State is after.

The difference, or the contrast, is not between Individuals and the Collective. The contrast is between the approach the State adopts and the subsequent individual freedom, or lack thereof. And to my mind, we find ourselves increasingly on the wrong side of the equation.

I don't agree with Snouck that the equality before the law is contingent on the existence of the nation state. Moreover, I think that idea is outright dangerous. It is the abandonment of the Rule of Law. The notion of equality before the law is so fundamental to freedom and, more importantly, justice, that any model of government now or in the future abandoning that principle will by necessity be a step back. As Orwell has argued far better then I ever could, the principle of some being more equal then others will inevitable lead to a form of State (national or otherwise) that is oppressive and less free the Western society at the moment.

I am not quite sure what Snouck envisions when he predicts the end of the nation state and predicts a civilization in a new Era. I hope he will elaborate on that idea in future posts. For now I don't have any real counter, accept maybe to say that based on the evidence delivered by the history of the last 50 to 100 years I don't see any real viable alternative to the nation state. The League of Nations was a dismal failure, the UN seems to be rotting corpse that doesn't know it is dead and the EU is also spreading a suspect odour. So it seems we'll be stuck with the nation state for some time to come. But if there's an alternative I would certainly like to know about it.

Snouck, in the face of modern military technology and WMDs, also doubts the effectiveness of the nation state versus diffuse movements like al-Qaida. I think he is overly pessimistic here. Ever since 9-11 the western world at large has invested considerable amounts of time and resources, military or otherwise, to mitigate the dangers of al-Qaida minded jihadists. The fact that, despite promises to the contrary, we still have to see another 9-11 type event is, I think, testament to that fact. At the very least is is not for lack of trying on al-Qaida's part, if statements by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are to be believed.

If the actions of the West in Afghanistan and Iraq prove anything, it is the concentration of fire power nation states are able to bring to bear and visit upon diffuse, low-tech networks of the al-Qaida type. In asymmetrical warfare it still, apparently, is about who can muster the most fire power. Even if there are no clearly defined battlefields or uniformly identifiable opponents.

I agree with Snouck the current situations not easily repaired. However, repaired it must be, else we will lose more then we want or bargained for. Just because a task is great does not mean it should be abandoned. I think we live in a time when the pendulum is about to swing back. And when it does it'll do so rather crashingly, because for too long and too far the pendulum has been pushed into one direction.

Yes, we do live in interesting times.

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