The Art of Walking the Razor's Edge -
Reconciling Autonomy and Community

© Andrew Dinkelaker
Feb 2001

Within recent years there has come, from within the political left, increasing signs of a bias against concepts like ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-determination.’ This rather alarming trend appears to be building enough momentum to encourage others in the movement to assert that these principles are somehow wrong-headed. Some individuals apparently no longer even feel it necessary to offer evidence in support of such a position. I cite as an example a review, by historian Thomas Martin, of Kantian scholar Robert Paul Wolff’s reprint of his 1970 book, In the Defense of Anarchism. It is my intention in this paper to critique the review, published in Social Anarchism #27. I want to show how Martin's view on autonomy undermines one of the core principles on which the struggle for the creation of a society of free individuals is based.

I believe that some challenges to the principle of autonomy and self-determination originate in a deeply felt need to honor the importance of the social sphere, and I applaud this. It is true that renewing our sense of social responsibility and participating as members of a community are important goals, and must be recognized as such by the left. We are social beings. But as necessary an element of the struggle as the project to valorize the social sphere may be, it is not sufficient to free us from the continuously tightening straightjacket of hierarchy, patriarchy, and domination. This project must be accompanied by at least some degree of appreciation for the rights of individuals to conduct their affairs in a self-determining fashion. For in the absence of such an appreciation, important questions fail to be asked - questions about the legitimacy of the State's authority, the established rule of law, and the strict heirarchies by which such laws are established and adminstered.

Many, especially those in the anarchist tradition,1 have succeeded in maintaining a focus on the social dimension while simultaneously honoring the right of the individual to autonomy and self-determination. It is out of this tradition that Wolff speaks, and what he says reflects this concern. Arguing, however, that the concept of the 'legitimate authority' of the State is not compatible with the autonomy of the individual, 2 he turns our attention to the question, How do we develop communities and societies that honor the autonomy of all individuals?

Wolff admittedly offers no answer to this question. Although, in the original preface to his little book on anarchism he expressed a desire to do so in a later work, this work never materialized.3 This does not mean, however, that there is no good answer. In developing the theory of the 'Four Quadrants', it was my intent to pick up where Wolff left off, with a full examination of the issues that this question raises. 4

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Traditionally, community and autonomy are viewed as opposite poles on a linear spectrum. The amount of individual 'autonomy' that can be permitted in any given society is conceived as inversely proportional to the extent that that society is considered a socially cohesive 'community'. The two principles resemble the the rise and fall of two people on opposite ends of a seesaw. As the value of individual autonomy is elevated, the capacity for community sinks - and vice versa.

This tension between presumed ‘opposites’ appears to produce two strikingly different strategies: 1) community is sought, at the expense of individual autonomy, or 2) insofar as individual autonomy is honored, this happens in a way that detracts from the need for community. Our options are presented as an 'either or' situation. This is because, as the argument would have it, autonomy and community are mutually exclusive options. Political theorists who operate within this formula but realize the importance of both principles thus typically focus their energies on achieving the ‘proper balance’ between the two, never realizing the full potential of either. The brilliance of the anarchist theorists in particular, however, is in providing a solution that calls for rejecting the logic imposed by the false dichotomy – what I have elsewhere called the ‘Autonomy versus Community’ fallacy.

In an earlier work I have outlined the way in which what was formerly understood as a one-dimensional dichotomy might alternatively be construed as the product of two separate dimensions in dialectical interaction.5 The framework I used was a rather simple one: construct a two dimensional coordinate system in which the horizontal axis is a spectrum that measures or represents the degree of autonomy (or conversely, heteronomy) of the individual, while the vertical axis represents a spectrum that measures the degree of interdependence (or conversely, independence) amongst individuals. In other words, the two dimensions represent two independent variables. What this coordinate system does is demonstrate how it is possible to create socio-political and organizational environments that simultaneously optimize the principles of community and autonomy. As it turns out, participatory democracy - which seeks to increase direct participation while simultaneously using consensus-forming processes that honor the autonomy of all individuals - is one such organizational environment.

Martin's Review

In his five-page review Martin characterizes Wolff’s book as built on an idea whose time has come and gone. Despite certain benefits that might admittedly be derived from revisiting the material, according to Martin, the issues that Wolff raises are presumably no longer relevant:

The essential core... is ‘how the moral autonomy of the individual can be made compatible with the legitimate authority of the state.’ Like all anarchists, he [Wolff] believes that it can’t be. However this is a modern answer to a modern question – and we have now surely moved into or beyond a post-modern age. ...Is Wolff’s question one that anarchists still ought to be asking? 6

Martin would have us believe that continued insistence on raising this question would not only be beside the (political) point, it would be a recipe for ecological disaster.

Martin, with the hope of finally putting this issue to bed, divides the question into two parts. In the first part of his analysis, he declares that the State is ‘moribund’, literally at the point of death. He argues that nearly everyone across the entire political spectrum fears, distrusts, ridicules, evades or simply ignores the State. He boldly asserts that ‘in a sense, a primary goal of anarchism has already been attained.’ 7 I cannot believe that any serious anarchist would agree with such a preposterous claim. 8 It is at best intellectually sloppy, and at worst extremely irresponsible to reduce anarchism’s goal to the mere fostering of widespread skepticism regarding the State. Not until all coercive institutions (including, but not limited to, the State) are in fact dismantled and replaced by non-coercive forms of social organization, can the goal of anarchism be said to have actually been achieved. Also, although it may be true that more people are now questioning government in a way that they may not have done before, this does not mean that they embrace the anti-heirarchical spirit that motivates the anarchist's critique of coercive social organization. Most, apparently, do not.

So to declare, on the basis of grumblings about the government, that we may have reached our goal is as foolish as it would be for me to declare that society has reached the goal of universal health care simply because a majority of Americans believe it is a good idea.

As important as it is to counter Martin's attempt to downplay the role that anarchist insight will play in contemporary social-political change by exaggerating what has already been accomplished, it is the second part of Martin’s critique - in which the concept of individual autonomy itself is devalued - that is even more disturbing.

As for the individual – well, that one is a bit more tricky.... Anarchists have always made the free individual the heart and soul of their philosophy. But postmodernism and ecology have rendered the concept highly suspect. 9

Sparing us a ‘full-blow[n] attack on the underlying assumptions of [Wolff's] book,’ Martin turns his attention to the assault currently being made on the concept of autonomy by postmodernists and ecologists. These efforts, he asserts, are at the ‘cutting edge’ of anarchism. 10

There are two types of ecologists that Martin might possibly have in mind here, although he does not himself specify to whom he is referring. The first type are known as ‘deep ecologists’. In their critique of autonomy they fall into the trap of seeing community and autonomy as mutually exclusive options and characteristically argue in favor of community and the interrelatedness of all things, at the expense of autonomy.

As an example of this approach let us take Suzi Gablik. She argues, in her book The Reenchantment of Art that the future of art and society depends upon the renewal and restoration of our sense of interrelatedness. Although Gablik eloquently emphasizes our essential interconnectedness, and the importance of feelings of belonging to a larger whole - which she believes must be encouraged - she reacts rather negatively to the concept of autonomy. ‘Autonomy disregards relationships,’ she states, as ‘ connotes a radical independence from others.’ 11 Gablik is clearly confusing autonomy with individualism, as demonstrated by the interchangeable way in which she uses the terms. Conflating autonomy and individualism, she collapses the two dimensions about which we spoke earlier - the dimension of freedom/heteronomy and the dimension of independence/interrelatedness - into one. For her, freedom and autonomy cannot possibly contribute to a sense of the common good or the creation of interdependence and relationship:

From the vantage point of individualism – the vision of the self in ultimate control, whose innermost impulse is to self-assertion – it is virtually impossible to imagine the relational pattern between individuals and society changing to a complementary partnership that is symmetrical and that forges mutually enhancing connections. 12

Indeed, she would even go so far as to try to redefine freedom in terms of relationship:

Were we to reframe our notion of freedom... to synchronize with the conceptual shift occurring in science from objects to relationships – freedom might lie... in the accomplishment of ‘bringing into relationship.’ 13
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But what remains, then, of autonomy – our capacity and right to self-legislate? For although I may be in harmonious relationship with others this does not necessarily mean that I am free. The process of coming into alignment with others, without honoring the principle of individual autonomy, indeed often encourages the acceptance of existing rules, traditions, and structures, not the challenging of authority, the posing of questions, or the proposing of unpopular points of view.

The consequences of such a devaluation of the concept of autonomy can be clearly seen in the statements of Gablik's fellow deep ecologists Frederick Turner and Christopher Manes. Frederick Turner asserts that ‘rules must be followed, or the freedom, the limitlessness, the generativeness, will not come about.’ 14 But who is to determine the ‘rules’ of the game? Michael Zimmerman, in his book Contesting the Earth's Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity describes Manes’ position:

In the view of approaching ‘ecological scarcity,’ Manes apparently concludes that eco-activists should put into effect authoritarian measures of their own before the technological elites do so. To avoid ecological destruction and even ‘extinction as a civilization,’ we must be willing to abandon ‘the individualistic basis of society, the concept of inalienable rights...’ 15

What a radical and unacceptable price to be paid for 'relationship'! Apparently some deep ecologists, in their understandable urge to transcend the alienation endemic in western society and respond to the denaturing of our lives, focus almost exclusively on enhancing social stability and cohesion, without giving nary a second thought to the potential loss of autonomy that threatens to accompany such projects. Most who hold to this line of thinking fail to ask who it is that currently wields the power to make decisions in our society and whether these decisions are conducive to continued authoritarianism and hierarchy or to a society of individuals in free association with each other. With an exclusive emphasis on social cohesion and interrelatedness, and in the absence of any significant concern about the rights and autonomy of the individual, deep ecology is likely to be directly and/or indirectly used in the service of perpetuating the hierarchy and domination of Capitalism.

As we mentioned above, Martin may be referring to the other kind of ecologist who is perceived as having challenged the principle of ‘autonomy.’ Here we find the 'social ecologist', the most prominent amongst which is Murray Bookchin - the individual who created the term. If it is Bookchin that Martin is in fact referring to, he may be making a mistake that is common - misreading Bookhim on the subject of autonomy. This is a mistake that Bob Black makes, for instance, in his 1997 essay, "Murray Bookchin, Municipal Statist", when he comments:

... [Bookchin] isn’t interested in liberty (in his jargon, autonomy), but only in what he calls social freedom ... 16

Tom Watson, in his 1996 book Beyond Bookchin similarly states:

At its best, the classical anarchist ideal has always been an attempt to synthesize individual autonomy and communal responsibility. But to Bookchin, such ideas are not only 'potentially reactionary,' they reflect 'a notion of autonomy that is antipodal to freedom...' 17

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Watson correctly and convincingly argues that Bookchin’s attempt at making a distinction between autonomy and freedom is specious.18 But he may be mistaking Bookchin intent in proposing such a distinction. In a collection of articles spanning from 1994 to 1998, Bookchin attempted to address what he saw as a trend in the left to focus on the autonomy of the self to the exclusion of the social dimension. 19 He was warning us that the danger in this approach is that it leads us to believe that social interaction and participation is somehow a distraction, impeding our ability to achieve the goal of psychological/emotional self-sufficiency and personal salvation. Bookchin clearly saw that these tendencies generally develop into either political quietism - a troubling indifference to society - or to a kind of rebellion expressed primarily in terms of narcissistic self-expression that leaves relatively unchallenged the fundamental conditions of hierarchy and capitalism.

In response to such an approach, Bookchin, echoing the words of Bakunin, asserted that the freedom of the individual and the exercise of said freedom has meaning only within the context of one’s social interaction with others. In this context, he argued that ‘ conceive of the individual without society was as meaningless as to conceive of society without individuals.’ 20 Bookchin correctly concludes that it is the combination of the two principles -- the principle of personal autonomy and the principle of community - that will provide the necessary focus to lead us out of our current social, ecological, and political situation. In his 1998 article "Wither Anarchism? A Reply to Recent Anarchist Critics," Bookchin explained:

Supporters of the socialistic tendencies in anarchism, which I have called social anarchism, never denied the importance of gaining individual freedom and personal autonomy. What they have argued, however, was that individual freedom will remain chimerical unless sweeping revolutionary changes are made that provide the social foundations for rounded and ethically committed individuals. 21

In evidence of the fact that this has indeed consistently been his position on the matter, I cite the following passage, from his earlier (1995) essay, entitled "Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm":

Acknowledging that individuals are self-motivated and possess free will does not require us to reject collectivism, given that they are also capable of developing awareness of the social conditions under which these eminently human potentialities are exercised. 22
These two principles are not mutually exclusive. And so we must constantly be on the lookout for theorists/activists who would focus on one while neglecting the other. People can operate in ways that are autonomous and interdependent at the same time. In fact, genuinely democratic forms of socio-political organization, which operate according to consensus-oriented processes, are forms that specialize in maintaining our focus simultaneously on both.

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1. A small pamphlet produced by the Affinity Group of Evolutionary Anarchists entitled "Consent or Coercion" has a nice description of Anarchism:

Anarchism is the belief that people can voluntarily cooperate to meet everyone’s needs, without bosses or rulers, and without sacrificing individual liberties. A common misunderstanding is that anarchism is the total absence of order; that it is chaos, or nihilism .... Anarchists are[only] opposed to order arbitrarily imposed and maintained through armed force or other forms of coercion. They struggle for the order that results from the consensual interaction of individuals, from voluntary association. (p.1)
Brian Morris in his book Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom (1993) speaks to the common misconception that writers have of anarchists:
And when a contemporary writer suggests that the anarchist ‘is forever torn between the liberal values of individuality, independence, autonomy, privacy and self-determination, on the one hand, and the non-liberal values of community, solidarity and the encouragement of virtue through social pressure on the other,’ he precisely forgets that anarchism, as formulated by Bakunin [1814-1876], is a political philosophy that insists on the necessary integration of liberal values and socialism. [Brian Morris. Bakunin: The Philosophy of Freedom. (1993) Montreal: Black Rose Books. (p.76)]

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2. In his analysis, Wolff tacitly relies on cogent arguments made by Kant regarding the principle of ‘autonomy'. Simone Chambers does an excellent job of summarizing Kant's position, as well as Wolff's appreciation for that position:

The most famous secular formulation of the principle of respect is found in Kant's account of human dignity: 'Now I say that man, and in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will.' The intuitive idea being expressed here is that people should not treat each other as things, that is, as objects to be used for private (or collective) purposes.

Kant maintained that each of us must acknowledge that in some fundamental sense we are free, self-directing agents. An honest (and rational) self-examination confirms that we are put on this earth not merely to serve other people's purposes but to pursue our own freely chosen purposes even if those freely chosen purposes involve serving others. Thus, even the very religious must acknowledge that the dignity of their service to God resides in their having freely chosen it. If rational, we will see ourselves as ends (i.e., as free) and not as means (i.e., as instruments).

From this recognition comes a second: If I am an end by virtue of my rational capacity to direct my life, then all other rational agents are ends by virtue of their rational capacity to direct their lives. Thus, we are all not only free but also equal in this freedom. The conclusion of this line of thought, according to Kant, is the recognition that you must 'treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.'

The idea that individuals are not things and should not be used like things has great intuitive appeal for the modern mind. Robert Paul Wolff, echoing a great deal of modern moral theory, describes the passages in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals where Kant defends the dignity of each person as 'one of the truly sublime passages in the corpus of Western moral philosophy.' Against the Hobbesian notion that worth, including the worth of a person, is simply the price that one is willing to pay, Kant insisted that persons have no price. This idea of dignity then became 'the supreme limiting condition of every man's freedom of action.' A respect for individuals as ends in themselves, that is, as self-directing rational agents, represents a line we may not cross in the pursuit of our own private goals, wishes, and life plans. And one way to respect individuals as ends is to consult them, to offer them explanations, and to give them a chance to object to actions that affect them.

Simone Chambers. Reasonable Democracy: Jurgen Habermas and the Politics of Discourse (1996). Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (pp. 3-4)
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3. Robert Paul Wolff, In the Defense of Anarchism (1970): Harper Torchbooks. pp. viii-ix.
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4. Andrew Dinkelaker. The New Frontier in Democratic Theory and Practice: Organizational Forms that Simultaneously Optimize Autonomy & Community. (1997): Unpublished.
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5. Dinkelaker. (1997): Chapter One.
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6. Social Anarchism #27 (1999): pp. 53-4.
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7. Social Anarchism #27 (1999). p. 54.
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8. Those functions that were once considered the rightful functions of 'government' are increasingly being 'privatized'. Public policy decisions once made by elected officials operating in the so-called 'public sphere' are now being relegated to the higher echelons of non-democratically organized multi-national corporations. But people don't typically recognize the network of multi-national corporations that now engineer policy as the covert government that they in fact are. And so, despite the fact that individuals seem to have become increasingly skeptical of 'the State', as Martin points out, this skepticism does not often extend to the multinationals and thus does not adversely impact on the shadow government's capacity to usurp and wield power over public policy. Anti-government rhetoric in fact plays into their hands in a curious way, by providing an ideology that rationalizes the transfer of power from the public sphere, where elected officials can sometimes be held accountable to the electorate, to the private corporate sector, which is never held accountable. Contemporary anarchists typically recognize this, and have expanded the scope of their critique accordingly, beyond the traditional focus on the 'State' (as it was originally conceived), to this other less overt and more threatening decision-making power-base.

In contrast, Martin's own analysis of the current situation, as evidenced by his conclusion - that the primary goals of anarchism have been met - suffers from the manner in which he has taken the subject of autonomy/rights off of the table by declaring it to be a passe, irrelevant and unnecessary topic for discussion.
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9. Social Anarchism #27 (1999): p. 54.
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10. Social Anarchism #27 (1999): p. 54.

Despite what Martin may see as the 'cutting edge' of anarchist theory and practice, most contemporary anarchists fortunately continue to remain as sensitive as ever to the need for a dual focus - on autonomy as well as community. The issue of individual rights remains a fundamental issue, a vital one. And this is accomplished, in anarchist theory, without sacrificing the importance of the social.

Such individuals are quick to notice new trends that impinge on human rights, and are thus in the best position to quickly identify imminent threats to the goal of establishing a society of free yet interdependent beings.

Noam Chomsky's vigilance with respect to such developments is exemplary in this regard. It has put him in a good position to notice the insidious manner in which the contemporary corporation, increasingly totalitarian in its insistance on top-down decision-making, has ironically usurped for itself the very rights that it denies to workers, rights that were in the past conceived as the exclusive privelege of the human being. Speaking of 'freedom, rights, and sovereignty', Chomsky asks:

Do they inhere in persons of flesh and blood, or only in small sectors of wealth and privilege? Or even in abstract constructions like corporations, or capital, or states? In the past century the idea that such entities have special rights, over and above persons, has been very strongly advocated. The most prominent examples are Bolshevism, fascism, and private corporatism, which is a form of privatized tyranny. Two of these systems have collapsed. The third is alive and flourishing under the banner, TINA - There Is No Alternative to the emerging system of state corporate mercantilism disguised with various mantras like globalization and free trade.

He details how giving corporations the rights of 'persons' led to a totalitarian situation similar to the one fought by the anarchist critics of Bolshevism:

A century ago, right about that time, corporations were granted the rights of persons by radical judicial activism, an extreme violation of classical liberal principles. They were also freed from earlier obligations to keep to specific activities for which they were chartered. Furthermore, in an important move, the courts shifted power upward from the stockholders in a partnership to the central management, which was identified with the immortal corporate person. Those of you who are familiar with the history of communism will recognize that this is very similar to the process that was taking place at the time, very quickly predicted, in fact, by left critics, left-Marxist and anarchist critics of Bolshevism, people like Rosa Luxembourg, who warned, early on, that the centralizing ideology would shift power from working people to the party, to the central committee, and then to the maximal leader, as happened very quickly after the conquest of state power in 1917, which at once destroyed every residue of socialist forms and principles. The propagandists on both sides prefer a different story for self-serving reasons, but I think that’s the accurate one.

The 'deep ecologists', and commentators like Martin, in their quickness to dismiss the importance of individual autonomy, freedom, and self-determination, are less likely to notice when corporations (or other 'groups' of individuals) speciously claim for themselves 'rights' that had previously only belonged to the human being.
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11. Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art.(1991). New York: Thames and Hudson. p. 62.
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12. Suzi Gablik, (1991) p. 170.
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13. Suzi Gablik, (1991) p. 69.
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14. David Ray Griffin. ed.. Sacred Interconnections: Postmodern Spirituality, Political Economy, and Art. (1990) New York: State University of New York Press. p. 153.
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15. Michael Zimmerman. Contesting the Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity. (1994) Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 177.
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16. Bob Black. Murray Bookchin, Municipal Statist. (1997). I found this on the Internet at the end of 17th paragraph.
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17. Tom Watson. Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a Future Social Ecology. (1996) Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia. p. 195.
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18. Watson. (1996) pp. 194-5.
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19. See Bookchin: What is Communalism? The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism (1994), Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm (1995), and Whither Anarchism? A Reply to Recent Anarchist Critics (1998). All three articles can be found on the Internet.
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20. Bookchin. (1994). I found this on the Internet in the 14th paragraph.
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21. Bookchin. (1998). I found this on the Internet in the 5th paragraph.
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22. Bookchin. (1995) I found this on the Internet in the 12th paragraph following subheading of ‘Autonomy or Freedom?’
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