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V.: THE STRUCTURE OF GENERIC MAN - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE STRUCTURE OF GENERIC MAN
The liberal conception of man has all the beauties of a child’s meccano set; from the basic device of man as a desiring creature, any kind of human being, from a Leonardo da Vinci to a Lizzie Borden, can be constructed. The generic account of natural man presents him as a creature of detachable parts, and there is no obvious limit to the number of parts which can be evolved.
For a desire, being a vague and ambiguous conception, permits of endless modifications. The movement from the desired to the desirable launches an ethics of improvement in terms of which any moral term can be reinterpreted. A need is a legitimate desire to whose satisfaction there can be no justifiable moral or political barriers. A duty is an act (or omission) which recognizes the desires of others, and in so doing also serves to promote the long-term interests of the bearer of the duty. A right describes an individual’s status in the desiring policies of other individuals. My right to life indicates a relation between me and the policies of those I encounter, especially those entrusted with the conduct of affairs of State.
This technique of analysis can move on to deal with all social phenomena, for each particular man can be analyzed down into generic man plus certain environmental peculiarities. In some moral description for example we encounter different moral types—criminals, saints, traitors, heroes. In liberal terms, each of these types is essentially the same, and they are distinguished by the values they pursue. A saint or a criminal thus ceases to be a particular kind of man; he is everyman, but with different values.
Or it might seem that if we are to give any reasonable account of a duke or a banker, we must describe an aristocracy or a particular economic structure. But, even here, the movement away from individualism can be averted by the use of another detachable component called privilege. A privilege is a standing satisfaction of desires and is peculiar only in its limited availability. From this individualist conception we may go on to reconstruct a sociology of a peculiar kind, by distinguishing between privileged or underprivileged social classes. And—a further boon—the difference between a duke and a dustman can now be measured off on a scale of privileges.
The liberal ideology casts a long intellectual shadow on each of us, and the shadow is natural or generic man, a creature composed of a great number of components. But if one strips off from this abstract figure each of the components—the privileges, desires, rights, duties, values, moods, impulses, and the rest of the paraphernalia which liberalism has borrowed from commonsense individualism and made into a system, what then remains? Only the creature who was born free and yet everywhere is in chains, a faceless and characterless abstraction, a set of dangling desires with nothing to dangle from. The individual self, stripped of its components, is nothing. But how is it related to these components? There appear to be two primary relationships—that of possession and that of pursuit. The individual self is an empty function of proprietorship and pursuit; and it can only be made plausible by a species of intellectual trickery.
The trick consists of switching the components to whichever side of the relationship happens to be convenient. Such an abstract figure could not possibly choose between different objects of desire; therefore the values are for the moment seen as constituting the man and thus determining the objects of desire; or vice versa. At any given point in a liberal argument, an individual will be taken as constituted by a set of values; or by rights and duties, or by privileges, or by a given set of objects of desire, but at the same time some of these detachable parts will be under examination at the other side of the relationship. Without this device, the whole structure would collapse. An individual is thus seen as a self in relationship with a number of concepts which intermittently constitute that self. And if one strips away all of these detachable parts, one is left with a phantom, a chooser without a criterion of choice, a desirer incapable of movement.
Yet this residual self has at least one important role to play, for it is the bearer of human identity. The rights, duties, desires, needs, values, etc. of any man will all change in the course of a lifetime; they are possessions or pursuits which may be acquired, or shed like snakeskin. But John Smith remains John Smith so long as he lives, and his identity is both legal and psychological. Legal identity, and to a lesser extent moral identity, is something demanded of people and quite consciously learned. For we must presuppose an identity between the man who committed the murder and the man who is hanged or imprisoned for it; and children must be taught that if they break a window or set the house on fire, these acts continue to be related to them as persons, and cannot be attributed to an essentially different being who existed only for the doing of the act. Identity is a matter of consequences.
Still human identity is not entirely an artificial creation produced by social demand. It also has a claim to be an entirely natural product of memory and self-consciousness. But this self-consciousness is a highly unstable thing. In range it can shrink to almost nothing, so that (as in liberal theory) it dissociates itself from any psychological experiences of which it is aware. Equally it can expand—in moments of pantheistic ecstasy—to include everything, so that one “feels” for the tree which is being chopped down, or the flower which is plucked. More usually, it can absorb—or be absorbed by—state, church, locality or any other social institution or grouping. But most important of all, it does not have a continuous existence. There are many moments when we are not self-conscious at all. Locke defines a person as “a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it.” And he adds, as evidence, “it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive.” This might perhaps be an unusual definition of perception; but the way Locke continues makes it clear that he takes it for a true psychological statement: “When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. Thus it is always as to our present sensations and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self.”13 This view is false, for we often perceive things without being aware of it, the most obvious evidence being that we sometimes become aware of earlier perceptions at a later date. And the mistake is the result of Locke’s view of consciousness as a relation (that of possession) between a mind and ideas.
As far as human identity over time is concerned, we may concentrate either upon what is continuous or what is discontinuous. The liberal conception of man, accepting the operative assumptions of law, morality, and everyday life, takes the view that the continuous self constitutes identity and remains the same over time, irrespective of the moods, values, impulses, thoughts, or any other of the various detachable parts. But, as we have argued, this residual self is a mysterious phantom. It is the same over long periods of time, but this sameness is purchased at the heavy cost of vapidity. It is logically objectionable because it inserts a rationalist essence (of a peculiarly empty sort) into the center of a series of situations and thus prevents us from taking the discontinuities of human character seriously. It is primarily in art, and also in some special social circumstances (“I don’t feel I know you any more”) that the phenomena of discontinuity are seriously explored. Because we always bring our assumptions of stable human identity to the consideration of such cases, they seemed to us strange and paradoxical.
The assumption of a continuing self over time is necessary not only in law or social life, but also for the prudential behavior which liberalism has to recommend to us; indeed, this assumption is necessary for all policy. I can only decide now that I shall make it my policy to get rich if I have some confidence that I shall still desire riches when the policy matures. If I knew nothing of my future likes and dislikes, then I could not rationally plan for them. In actual life, my assumptions are often correct; I get rich and enjoy it. But there are also occasions when the “I” does change, and I find myself repudiating a policy which I have been following for a long time—a situation recognized in the German saying which recommends caution in the things one wishes for, since one may actually get them.
The liberal view of man must be regarded not as inadequate or as unfruitful but simply as false, because of the superior logical status it accords to a grouping of interests or desires called the individual self. For in social life, we find ourselves confronted with a considerable number of these groupings of interests, and all share the characteristic of self-consciousness. We find not only individuals but families, states, nations, churches, universities and so on. Within each, many activities are carried on, but each can become self-conscious and concerned with its own comparative status, or with its own survival. The philosopher who recognizes these phenomena most unequivocally is Hobbes, and he is preoccupied with self-consciousness about comparative status between individuals; he calls it pride. It results from an individual comparing his power—defined as “his present means to obtain some future apparent good”14 —with the power of another. The demand for this power is limitless, for an individual “cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.”15 This preoccupation with comparative status turns up in all the Hobbesian psychological definitions, even that, for example, of laughter. “ Sudden glory is the passion which maketh those grimaces called laughter; and is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them, or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves.”16 The general idea of comparative status is a very common one, and has a variety of names, from the urge to power to the Adlerian concept of the inferiority complex. But what is important about it in political terms is that it is a characteristic of institutions, of self-conscious groupings of interests. It is not only individual human beings who behave in this way; but also—as Hobbes recognizes—States, and, we may add, all social institutions. Concern with comparative status is a standing cause of competition and struggle in human affairs, and Hobbes argues that its consequences for individual human beings would be disastrous were there no common power or Sovereign to keep them in awe.
Now what makes liberal individualism so plausible is that the individual is the only self-conscious entity whose limits appear to correspond to a physiological creature; and also that the thoughts and feelings which constitute institutions such as states or churches must be physically located in the minds of human beings. A prime minister is undoubtedly at various times an individual self standing in competitive relation to other selves; especially, indeed, when he is struggling with political rivals. But there are other occasions when his thoughts and acts must be taken as State-thoughts and State-acts, and when they cannot be reduced to the psychological operations of an individual. In its extremer forms, liberal individualism is a fallacy which since Mill has been called Psychologism: the doctrine that each individual may be psychologically explained, and all social institutions must be explained in terms of individuals. This mistake is endemic in liberalism, though its presence has in recent decades been camouflaged by adding to the basic model of generic man various sociological components—class membership, social norms and so on. Yet if we wish to learn about the military behavior of soldiers, we must study military activities, not psychology. And similarly, if we wish to understand politicians, we must attempt to understand the activity of politics, not discover whether politicians are nice or nasty men. It is not that psychological (or sociological) knowledge is in these cases of no account; it is simply that the distinction here between psychology and military art or psychology and politics is a false one, and that the starting point for explanation must not be the rationalist essence of the individual, but the complex situation we are trying to explain.
A social institution is a self-conscious grouping of interests. But we are not always self-conscious, and the study of institutions is far from exhausting political and social life. For in philosophizing we are confronted with another kind of evidence which in liberal individualism must be explained away, but which for other philosophers is itself a starting point. As examples of this evidence we may take a philosopher absorbed in a problem, an artist in a picture, or a soldier engaged in an attack. None of these people is self-conscious, and the behavior of each can only be explained if one understands the relevant activity. None of them is in the least concerned with his own survival, or with his comparative status vis-à-vis others. There are a great number of circumstances of spontaneous co-operation and unself-conscious absorption in activities which provide the evidence for the Aristotelian view that man is by nature a political animal, and that the state (or any institution) is prior to the individual. It is, of course true that if a fire breaks out in the philosopher’s house, he will usually abandon his problem and become a prudent self-preserver. And the artist may turn to thinking of the market in which he can sell his picture; perhaps he will even change some details of his picture in order to sell it. And the soldier who in attack preserves himself or not according to the requirements of victory, may find that the attack has failed and it is now a case of sauve qui peut; at that point he too may become a self-preserving animal. There are many circumstances in life where we become self-conscious in this manner. But what is false in liberalism is the doctrine that these moments, times of concern with self-preservation and comparative status, rather than the times of self-forgetful absorption in activity, are the yardstick of reality.
It is the rationalist doctrine that there is a yardstick of reality which is the main issue here, dividing philosophers on the question of which facts are basic or real. Even the supposedly empirical English liberal school of thought appears closer to the truth only because its particular yardstick happened, by a confusion, to coincide with visible and audible human beings. Spontaneously co-operative human activities, which cannot be explained as outcroppings of the desires of individuals, appear far more prominently in other traditions of thought: in Plato’s discussion of justice, Rousseau’s of the general will, and in Hegel and Marx. Here we find the individual explained as one of the products of social co-operation rather than the key which explains that co-operation. Indeed, all of these thinkers went further, and found a moral excellence in spontaneous co-operation which could not be found in the prudential calculations of individual desires; for it is in co-operative moments, when absorbed by an activity, that individuals perform heroic and self-sacrificing deeds, and in which they attain moral stature by—so many idealist accounts have it— merging themselves in something greater.
Yet even in these accounts of social and political life, a yardstick of reality begins to rise above the evidence and, as it develops, it often turns out to be even more intellectually oppressive and obscurantist than the generic man of liberal thought. This yardstick is usually the State; but the State is conceived, like the individual self, as the organizing center of many activities, and any institution will do. Yardsticks of political reality do not even have to be existing institutions which are already self-conscious. In the case of the nation, or the Marxian idea of the class, we find organizing categories whose self-consciousness exists over a limited area and for very limited periods of time; and “reality” here is a bastard which can only be legitimized, if at all, by strenuous political exertions.
We have suggested that those philosophies which arise from the evidence of our participation in activities, rather than those which start from self-conscious institutions like the individual self, will provide an adequate account of social and political life. Yet the reputation of idealist theories in liberal circles is poor. Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Marx have been selected as the particular targets of attack. While much of this contemporary liberal criticism is hysterical in tone, and most of it is perpetually on the edge of a confusion between the fate of ideas and the actions of men, it is certainly true that these philosophies all end in some strange and unlikely account of political life. The logical reason, as we have noted, is that some institution presently emerges as a yardstick of reality. The political reason is that all these philosophies incorporate attempts at political persuasion, and are therefore inclined to manufacture spontaneous co-operation whenever it does not exist. Many people find great moral beauty in all instances of unself-conscious co-operation, and this kind of admiration is not even withheld from the solidarity and loyalty of criminal bands. The moral features which are pleasing to the eye can perhaps be most explicitly grasped in propaganda: in pictures of happy workers on collective farms, or a people united in indignation against its enemies, cotton pickers singing at their work, or a national army marching off joyfully to engage the enemy. Here is a solidarity often found within teams, combining joy and self-denial. In cases of this kind, acts which in other contexts must be prescribed as virtues are performed naturally. These situations support the view that society is natural, and the idea finds a general expression in the Marxian notion that production (with its implications of co-operation and solidarity in pursuit of some common good) creates society, and consumption (with its implications of selfish demands and possessive acquisition) creates the State.
There are times when we step back from some venture, or break the connection which binds us to an institution, and ask, in effect: “What’s in it for me?” This is a disharmonious question, for while we may still continue doing the same series of actions, the spirit will be different. We will not like what we are actually doing so much as the advantage which we hope to derive from it, for in this mood we have become rational men and do things for reasons. If we are disappointed, as must sometimes happen, we may become angry, resentful and envious. A plausible line of argument in moral philosophy would identify this kind of self-centered withdrawal as morally evil. This line is taken by those utilitarian moralists whose key categories are selfishness and unselfishness; and it is also taken, in a much more sophisticated form by many idealists for whom self-forgetful participation in some “higher self” is the measure of good.
It is thus easy to understand why English liberals often regard idealist political thinking as a pompous fraud masking only a demand for unconditional obedience to the State; and why the idealists have regarded utilitarianism as a base and mean-spirited defense of prudent selfishness. But while utilitarianism can give no account of those occasions of self-forgetful participation, it is not hostile to them. For the idealists, individual prudence, where it conflicts with the demands of the State (or other institution nominated as the yardstick of reality), is something which must be extirpated as a moral fault; a course of action which politicians are strongly inclined to follow anyway.
What has happened here philosophically is that whilst idealist theories begin with the sophisticated notion of participation, they generally end by vulgarizing this idea into that of obedience, which is simple and easily testable. The only proof of virtuous loyalty and participation becomes uncritical obedience, and the virtue of spontaneous co-operation is thought to be generated simply by the bark of command. And this is absurd; for moods of prudent self-interest in individuals, whatever their moral character may be, are often produced by conflict within an individual between an activity he is on the point of abandoning, and one or more which he is proposing to take up. Selfish moods are often those in which an individual works out, indeed creates, his own identity. But they are highly dangerous to institutions, which therefore are often found in decline to glow with an incandescence of moral prohibition. The decline of the Puritan way of life pared it down to a barren sabbatarianism, that of Victorian England, produced a generation of ageing moralists deploring the selfish indulgence of the flapper. The prohibitions which in a vigorous institution are boundary lines lightly indicated to control a few straying members are transformed by decline into obsessions, the last clear beacons in a darkening world.
Generic man must be seen, not as the isolated folly of liberalism, but as a member of a class of essences whose conflicts have long dominated political philosophy. He is on the same logical level as the state, the class, the nation, the church and similar political concepts which tower over political philosophy. He is indeed a tame creature; there is no blood on his hands, for it has all been defined away. But even so agreeable a yardstick of reality belongs to a fantasy world, and obscures our view of what is actually going on.
[13. ]Locke, op. cit., Bk. II, Ch. XXVII, Sec. 9.
[14. ]Leviathan, Ch. X.
[15. ]Ibid. Ch. XI.
[16. ]Ibid. Ch. VI.