nick_owen_smaller_sqPlease send me a message.

Name: (required)

Email address: (required)


On having to be
what we cannot be

One of my aims in Other People’s Struggles is to identify how the problem of adherence – the participation of outsiders in social movements – has changed over time. Is it a new problem or an old one?

Adherents, I argue in the book, are best understood as being motivated by concerns for others, and not themselves. Their support for other people’s struggles is not typically disguised selfishness. However, it is also misleading to describe it as selfless. On the contrary, the self is often very much to the fore. The adherent needs to preserve the essence of her self so that she can give of herself. Her self is the ‘furnace’ that fuels her participation.

The problem of the adherent, therefore, is not that concern for others competes with concern for herself. It is that concern for others, to be meaningful, has to be her concern. It is not a concern for herself, but a concern for others which belongs to her.

Some social movements – or strictly speaking some of the work social movements do – can feed the furnace, or allow it to be fed by the adherent, with little difficulty; but others find they cannot do so without having to give up something else that is too important to them. For them especially, but for all movements to some degree, there is a gap, a difference of positioning, a disjointness in the relationships.

The difficulty that the adherent presents, then, is not that the she sacrifices herself for others, but that she realizes herself through others.

How has this difficulty changed over time? The historical studies I used as evidence in Other People’s Struggles suggest that the problems of adherence are not of recent origin. Older struggles have faced similar dilemmas. The studies also show that adherence is not invariably problematic today, even once we have allowed for differences of orientation and ambition. Sometimes, especially when it has made sense given the orientation and ambition of their work, constituents have been grateful and even deferential for the help of adherents.

I think it is also possible to make a conjecture about how the problem has changed over time. The selves around which the problem of adherence moves have become newly complicated, in ways that are only partly captured by the idea that contemporary movements are more ambitious or work in different orientations.

A very simple sketch of this conjecture involves three stages.

In the pre-modern period, obligations to help others in their struggles less a matter of individual choice than of meeting pre-given, public expectations concerning the duties that customarily went with a particular station in life. Some helped, and others were helped. Yet even amid this structural disjointness, there was still one small conjointness: that everyone behaved according to shared expectations. So long as adherents were expected to help others weaker than they, there was no occasion for special recognition from constituents for their doing so. The dilemmas that arose concerned only the alignment of these expectations with the needs of the weak.

In the modern period, with the ‘invention of autonomy’ and the shifts in the conscientious obligations this involved, adherents increasingly defined their obligations for themselves, not just as individuals but also in communities. People became reasoning choosers of their own projects and their own ways of stamping their mark upon the world. These projects included conjoint collective self-advancement, but also the disjoint emancipation of others. Hence this period saw the proliferation both of ‘causes’ and ‘combinations’. The dilemmas included, as before, the alignment of the adherents’ self-chosen emancipatory projects and the needs of those whom they helped. But they also included new dilemmas arising from disjointness between those who got to choose and those who did not; and the new belief that there was something meritorious and not merely expected about choosing to help others.

In our own late modern era, however, this form of participation has become problematic. Modern causes addressed themselves to the damaged selves of the constituents. The selves of the adherents were implicitly defined by their relative completeness. But they were also self-effacing: unmentioned, implicit and unnoticed. Although their own concerns motivated them, and thereby created dilemmas for those they helped, they went mostly unacknowledged.

Now such effacement has become impossible. Adherents have become more aware of themselves, so they are more more self-conscious. Their claims to authority, experience and knowledge were challenged from outside and from within, so they have become self-doubting. But, in late modernity, the self has also become self-actualising. We are no longer stable selves which make choices, but selves defined by our choices. The self-actualising self has to devote effort to securing itself, because the things that once secured it like tradition and community expectations no longer do so. Only its choices secure it, and its choices are its own to make. If, in the modern period, the self became autonomous; in the late modern period, it becomes insecure. Political consciousness – an awareness of what people need and how it might be supplied by them and others – has been awkwardly supplemented by self–consciousness on the part of the adherent.

If that were all, then we might expect adherence to have collapsed into narcissistic insecurity. But self-actualisation need not imply that the self has become selfish. The contemporary adherent responds as an individual (he must decide for himself), without being an individualist (only he matters). He is concerned with his self, not selfish.

Self-actualisation might entail defining oneself as someone who helps others. Indeed, we have kept up, even intensified, the moral concerns we had in the modern era. We still have notions of progress, of ‘going beyond our ancestors’, and of moral improvement. If anything, our moral commitments have widened and grown, even as our selves have required more effort to secure them.

The problem, then, is much subtler than a retreat into selfishness. Whereas in the past moral commitments followed from a certain inherited or newly chosen position, they now imply an actualisation of self. The sorts of commitments we now make have consequences for who we are. Our selves are, to a greater degree than before, made by our consciences.

Hence the characteristic question that people ask themselves when contemplating involvement in other people’s struggles is now, I wonder if it is ‘me’ ? In the pre-modern era, the adherent knew what to do already, in knowing what it was to be who he was, and what was therefore expected of him. In the modern era, she asked herself whether she ought to get involved. For her, the question was, Does my chosen moral code require this of me? Now, in the late modern era of self-actualisation, the question becomes, Is it ‘me’ ?

Adherence today therefore presents its own distinctive knot, made up of three threads.

The first thread arises from the self and its motivational furnace. The adherent has to retain her sense of self (a self she now makes herself) in order to adhere usefully. This need has not diminished over the years. Indeed, if anything, it may have grown hungrier if, as I conjecture, contemporary selves more than ever desire fulfilment through self-expression and self-actualisation.

The second thread is the undiminished obligation to be selfless. There is still, surviving the collapse of authority and confidence, an undiminished expectation (and self-expectation) that historically privileged adherents will support other people’s struggles, not out of advantage but principle. The adherent is privileged, therefore more must be expected of him. He expects more of himself too. He cannot let himself go, because his motivating values and his self-actualisation depend on a helping orientation to others.

The third thread is the necessity of changing oneself according to others’ prescriptions in order to participate fully. The adherent has to change because his unacknowledged historical privilege has collapsed. He cannot be released to himself and his own concerns, and nor can he be allowed to efface himself. He has to change, as he knows, and he cannot participate, as he must, unless he does so. The adherent must not only attend to the needs of the constituents, but also examine and change himself along lines determined by others.

As a consequence, unless something gives, the adherent must be something he cannot be.

The constituents are differently placed. Fighting their own struggles, they find it easier to reconcile autonomy, self-actualisation and the pursuit of improvement. They are not immune to the changes that have affected adherents, but by comparison the values that support their conjoint work, I conjecture, remain robust and interact positively. The problem for adherents is that the values pull in different directions. Contemporary adherents may therefore have to separate their lives in ways that constituents do not. This is another way of saying that contemporary adherents, if these values are important to them, cannot give themselves wholly to other people’s struggles.

If you would like to read this part of a chapter in draft, please click on the paper dart icon to the left, and send me a message.