Re: individuals and systems

Fri, 25 Apr 1997 21:59:35 -0400 (EDT)
Andrew Wayne Austin (

I find Harlow's comments very insightful. Bringing Mead into the debate is
a wonderful idea, particularly in discussion of behavior at the
microlevel, the level at which the rhetoric of rational choice is couched.
I have presented research into cognition that refutes the assumptions of
rational choice theory. Symbolic interactionism provides a dialectical and
sociological perspective of human relations that gives theoretical weight
to what researchers into psychic systems have been discovering about human
cognition. It begins with the social system, and understands individual
behavior in its context. This is a legitimately scientific paradigm. I
have a few things to add and a point of clarification.

First, the point of clarification. When I use the term "human nature" I am
using nature in the sense of physical and biological systems. Mead was
asked about the naturalness of social interaction. He regarded it as
probably an unanswerable question, but his hunch was that Homo sapiens
became human beings within the system of interactions that we have come to
regard as society. Harlow is quite right when he argues that what is human
is the product of socialization. However, I disagree that socialization is
a natural process. I do differentiate between the social and the nature,
but more along the lines specified by Lefebvre. Nature and society, and
the human beings are in constant flux (as Trotsky noted, "A" is never
really "A"). What is ontological is the relationship between these
entities. It is the relation that determines the form that emerges. Human
is no more natural than nature is social. The assertion, that without
nature the human cannot be, tells us very little. The question is, what is
the human relation to nature? At the same time all three are transforming
each other. The process of emergence is an objective process that is best
understood dialectically. Therefore, the division I make is not a false
dichotomy, but the recognition of a deeper relational structure that
underpins ever changing phenomenal forms.

In so far as interests are objective, they are bound up with objective
social relations. Human beings become aware (subjective) of these social
relations (through the development of self). Thus interests are the
product of the social face of the ontology. Interests are socially
determined and exist outside of individual awareness, and are therefore
objective. Interests are also relative to social location (which creates
fits for rational choice theory, as I will demonstrate). Individuals may
act contrary to their objective interests. We call this false
consciousness, contradictory consciousness, or lack of consciousness.

Rational choice theory asserts that failure to behave rationally, i.e.,
failure to act in one's objective interests, occurs because of a lack of
information. Given perfect information, then every individual would act
according to predictions of the model. This is a common assumption in
positive, linear science; any positivistic conception of human behavior
must assume, at least partially, essential rationality since the model
itself is rationally designed (big problem for abstract, deductive
theorizing). This defines what these objective interests are in
order to determine whether the individual acted rationally (rationally
oriented to their objective interests). I have no problem with this one
point; I agree that there are objective interests. However, this is an
admission of an a priori objective relational ontology that creates
interests. Since I accept the prior existence of the social system, then I
am free and clear. But if an individual assumes that the rational choosing
behavior of individuals is a priori, that person is in a mess of trouble
by their own admission. This is a problem for any theory that might assert
the effect as the cause of itself--it is illegitimately teleological.

Let me make clear the correct temporal ordering of variables that must be
in order for choosing to even occur. There first must be society. Society
contains the values that will form preferences in individuals. Preferences
will guide their choosing. Why do people choose one thing over another?
Even if we accept that it is because they perceive that it is in their
best interest, we still have to explain where that perception comes from.
These subjective interests are socially bestowed. We also understand that
people do not choose correctly. This is an admission of an objective
interest-choice structure which the individual may or may not be
subjective of. This is bound up in the social ontology, which is prior. A
working person, or a peasant, will have different objective interests than
a capitalist. The objective interests are opposed. But they are opposed
because these interests are bound up in social class, that is, groups of
people with different relations to each other and to the means of
production--social class that exist in opposition. Interests are a product
of these class relations, which are prior. Then there are structural
constraints which reorder the system of interests, changes the nature of
choice, and the means to obtain objects of preference. All these things
exist prior to the act of rational (and irrational) choosing. And, as I
have already demonstrated, individuals often do not, perhaps rarely do,
behave rationally.

Again, if we suppose that the basis of the social order is self-interest,
then we have to explain why it is in the self-interests of a majority of
the world's population to be workers, peasants, and paupers. Why is it
only in the self-interest of a very few people to rich? Rather it is in
the interests of workers to overthrow the capitalist system only because
there is a capitalist system that creates workers and their interests,
interests that are structurally and objectively opposed to the interests
of capitalists. Worker interests are not prior to the system of
capitalism. The proletariat does not even exist prior to the labor-
capital relation.

What rational choice advocates are doing is taking a value system, one
that recognizes altruism and selfishness, and trying to essentialize it.
Altruism is dangerous to the bourgeoisie whose political economic system
is legitimated by positively sanctioning selfishness as a virtue. Altruism
is dangerous because it demands power-sharing and wealth-sharing--
deathblows to capitalism. These values have to be essentialized because if
they were recognized as socially produced then one may be sought over the
other--altruism may be sought over selfishness. So the bourgeoisie
advocates essential selfishness because it ideologically legitimates
systems of inequality. Bourgeois ideologues see altruism as weakness,
destructive to a system predicated on social Darwinian assumptions. The
bourgeois world is upsidedown, so this is all understandable. Just as they
see the social world as beginning with the atomized individual, so they
also attribute to that individual an inverted moral system where good
(altruism) is bad and bad (selfishness) is good. I don't try to naturalize
or scientize these values, so again, I am free and clear.

How rational choice advocates sneak ideology into the backdoor is the same
way that neofascists legitimate racist ideology--by dressing up their
values in scientistic garb. If somebody wants to argue for the value of
selfishness, then have at it. But if somebody wants to argue that it is a
scientific assumption, then I can clearly refute that. I already have.

We have achieved much clarity in science. We have withstood the purposeful
confusion of nihilism and postmodernism. Now we have to battle it out with
the rising neoclassical liberal tide and their false science.

Andrew Austin