The liberal individual, group identity and human solidarity

by The Editor

FEATURE: The case is often made that liberalism, by its nature, is a cold, selfish ideology. Former President Thabo Mbeki, for example, went out of his way to paint the DA in this light. Ryan Coetzee responds to this criticism in the piece below and draws a distinction between ‘identity politics’ and the liberal individual, arguing it is in fact the former, rather than the latter, that entrenches alienation.

The liberal individual, group identity and human solidarity

By: Ryan Coetzee


The liberalism of the DA is often denounced by ideological opponents as a selfish creed that advocates a society in which individuals are “atomized” or “alienated” from each other, in which these atomized individuals always place their own interests above those of anyone else, in which any form of group identity is false consciousness and in which human solidarity, care and compassion are disdained.

In an argument of characteristic intellectual dishonesty, President Mbeki once asserted that the DA’s “soulless secular theology” is a product of the thinking of the Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. He then summarized it as follows:

“Accordingly, Bentham asserts that:

The individual – the basic unit of the social sphere – is an atom and there is no self or individual greater than the human individual.

Further, he states in “The Book of Fallacies”:

“In every human breast, self regarding interest is predominant over social interest; each person’s own individual interest over the interests of all other persons taken together.”

The thesis goes on:

To begin with, the idea of ‘relation’ is but a ‘fictitious entity’, though necessary for ‘convenience of discourse’. And, more specifically, he remarks that ‘the community’ is a fictitious body, and it is but the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.”

What is outlined above is a crude version of a particular vision of the self and its relation to others, but it is not a description of DA philosophy or policy.

I wish to argue that:

• Contrary to the assertions of President Mbeki and those who echo his sentiments today, liberals have a rich and complex conception of the self.

• Liberals are in fact the greatest respecters of group identities and that the idea of “the primacy of the individual” is entirely compatible with group identification and indeed is necessary for real respect for those identifications.

• Liberals, by virtue of their attachment to the primacy of the individual, are capable of an authentic and empathetic solidarity with their fellow human beings, including specifically those who suffer in whatever way and for whatever reason.

A liberal conception of the self and group identification

The utilitarian conception of the individual is an example of Enlightment rationalism – it posits one, universal description of an individual that is true of all individuals everywhere and across all time.

(An aside: Whatever the demerits of the utilitarian conception of the individual, Bentham and the Utilitarians deserve to be read and understood properly, and not caricatured in the manner of President Mbeki. Indeed any such reading will show that few if any liberal theorists have ever held to the simplistic idea of the individual described by Mbeki. But an investigation into utilitarian thought is not the purpose of this paper, so I leave it at that.)

It is commonly accepted by liberals today that the individual comes into being through a combination of biological inheritance and response to environment (a combination of “nature” and “nurture”). While liberals may disagree on the relative importance of these, the idea is that individual people come to be who they are through a combination of the impact of biological forces; psychological, social and cultural forces; economic forces; language (there is a postmodern school of liberalism, as exemplified by Richard Rorty), and so on.

Indeed during the 1980s and 1990s there was a detailed and sustained debate between liberals and communitarians concerning the liberal conception of the self, which does not need repeating here. Suffice it to say that it is perfectly possible and indeed desirable for liberals to hold a view of an autonomous self grounded in society without ceasing to be liberals.

What makes liberals liberal, ultimately, is that almost all believe two important things, whatever their understandings and disagreements about the nature of individual identity.

First, that what emerges from the multitude of forces that are brought to bear on individuals in the construction of their identity is something unique – a human being with a unique identity; unique experience; unique perspective on the world.

Second, however important they may believe various forces to be, liberals do not believe that individuals are merely the product of the forces that impact on them; liberals believe that individuals have agency (free will) and that therefore they can choose, within various constraints, who and how to be.

(An argument for the existence of free will in human kind is not feasible here. Suffice it to say that all liberals hold the view that a complete absence of free will is nonsense. There is a large body of thought that holds that free will and determinism are in fact compatible; others go further and argue that indeed they depend on each other. But again, for the purposes of this paper it is enough to say that all liberals believe that we are capable of choice, within certain constraints.)

The implications of this view on individual identity are:

First, that individuals have a variety of identities, including group identities, and that these are perfectly legitimate. They are not atomized centres of consciousness with no connection to others: a person may be an Afrikaner, coloured, a woman, a socialist, a mother and a lover of classical music, and all these attachments (and many others besides) comprise her identity.

Second, that while individuals are complex constructions, and have multiple identities, including identities that number them as members of various groups, they are also something more than that: unique, and therefore different from, and therefore also in a certain sense separate from, everyone else. (I will come back to the claim that we are “in a certain sense” separate from others, and argue that we cannot engage in meaningful solidarity with others unless we are; that separateness is a condition of solidarity.)

Third, that while individuals may be in part the product of biological and environmental forces, they are still able to exercise choice and thus can decide their identity and attachments for themselves, at least in so far as they feel alienated from the identities imposed on them by their history and environment. The woman described above can choose not to be Afrikaans, not to identify as coloured or as a socialist. She can even choose not to identity as a woman (and can certainly hold a variety of positions on what it means to be Afrikaans, coloured, socialist and female in the first place.)

This is an optimistic and empathetic vision of what it means to be a human being. If we are mere representatives of larger entities (the middle class; Muslims; Africans; whatever) then there would be nothing about others to respect or with which to empathise. Indeed, there would be no other people (as we use and understand the term) at all – just ciphers representing abstractions.

All this contrasts sharply with, for example, a nationalist conception of the world, in which membership of “the nation” is a function of birth, is the over-riding feature of your identity, and is immutable. Any attempt to resign from the group, or to exercise choices that do not conform to the preferences of the dominant in the group lead to accusations of false consciousness.

The idea of the “coconut” is a perfect example. A black nationalist believes that “real” blacks are all the same in some fundamental respect, or at least all share certain beliefs, experiences and values (and understand them in the same way), and are different from whites, who themselves are all the same. Blacks who think or behave or sound “like whites” are not real blacks, they are “coconuts”. The idea that one can be black, and think what one likes, and still be black, is anathema. In other words, the idea that you can self-identify as black and then define for yourself the meaning and significance of that identification is anathema. Someone else decides – usually a self-proclaimed spokesperson for the group in question.

For liberals, this is a denial of the uniqueness of each person, and his or her agency, and to deny that is to deny his humanity and to trample on her dignity – to do him an injustice. For liberals, the individual human being is an end in him or herself, not a means to an end. That is the basis of the liberal conception of justice. When groups are given primacy over individuals, and individuals become mere means to the group’s ends, a humiliating and destructive dehumanization is always the result.

For example, if someone is the only homosexual in a deeply conservative community, his sexual orientation must be respected if his dignity and humanity are to be respected, and justice to be done, whatever the weight of community opposition to that aspect of his identity. Tolerance is the necessary value here: his right to be himself should be respected, whether or not the majority approves. The gay or lesbian man or women is an end in him or herself, not a means to the end (self-conception) of the community.

The alternative to this approach is a society in which people are coerced in one way or another to conform to an identity or way of being that is not authentically theirs. Such coercion in no way respects their unique identity, their values, their desires or needs. In short, there is no respect for the person at all. Rather, humiliation and suffering is visited on them.

And so liberals believe in the primacy of the individual. We do not believe that the individual is all; we do not believe that group identity is illegitimate or wrong or false; but we do believe that a recognition of and respect for the individual’s uniqueness and ability to make himself are ultimately of primary importance, because unless we so do, we deny her humanity, trample his dignity and cause suffering where there need be none.

Some implications for the DA of a liberal conception of the self and of group identity

The implications of this for the DA and South Africa are important. It is precisely because we believe in the primacy of the individual, and precisely because we respect the uniqueness of every person, that we champion the cause of diversity and pluralism. That is why we protect and promote the language and culture of every person in South Africa and work hard to ensure that the DA “feels like a home” to people of all cultures.

But, having said that, our belief in the primacy of the individual is also the reason we do not treat people as mere representatives of groups. We do not reserve positions for people on the basis of their group identities; we do not advance or retard collectives; we do not accept that in order to be a legitimate member of a particular group (“real” blacks, Afrikaners, etc) one has to conform to a given conception of the nature of the group or the people in it.

We in the DA are a collection of complex individuals with many identities. We are not a collection of race or linguistic or religious or cultural groups that are immutable and that define the individuals in them, rather than being defined by the individuals in them.

In politics, especially in a society that has been divided through act of law and executive fiat into groups, it is very easy to pander to group identity, and often it seems relatively cost-free to do so.

But we run a great risk by pandering to group identity, as opposed to promoting the right of individuals to self-identify with groups. Because when we do that we divide people in a way that sets them up as antagonists, and we deny their individuality and agency, and so trample their dignity.

And so we must embrace the legitimacy and importance of group identities, but we must not embrace “identity politics” which reduces people, whether implicitly or explicitly, to mere representatives of groups and seeks to advance or retard advancement on this basis. The distinction may seem subtle, but I think it is actually quite clear and easy to apply to real-world situations.

There are implications too for the DA’s approach to affirmative action, and understanding of the idea of non-racialism.

Our approach to affirmative action is that redress is needed in response to past injustice, but that the redress needs to be targeted at individuals, not groups, who still suffer the effects of that injustice today. We do not believe, as President Mbeki once argued in parliament, that redress must be directed towards groups because the injustice was directed towards groups. His statement was deeply reflective of the assumptions of his African nationalism: it implicitly acknowledges that the existence of African nationalism in the first place is a consequence of racism – a response to it; also it implies that redress for some is in some sense redress for all, because all are part of a greater whole (so if an incredibly wealthy black person wins a BEE contract and buys a Mercedes Benz, other black people living in abject poverty have vicariously been uplifted).

The idea of non-racialism as “colourblindness” (a quite common liberal approach) is understandably offensive to many black people because they argue, quite reasonably, that being black is an important aspect of their identity and to deny it is to deny them the right to be fully themselves. Colourblindness is not necessary for a belief in non-racism, however, any more than genderblindness is necessary for a belief in non-sexism. The requirement of non-racism is first, never to discriminate against people on the basis of their race and second, never to assume knowledge of their identities on the basis of race. Some of the opponents of colourblindness are of course racial nationalists, and they oppose the idea precisely because they assume knowledge of an individual’s identity on the basis of his race. But the fallacy at the heart of this approach is no reason for liberals to promote colourblindness in so far as it means pretending race is an illegitimate aspect of identity.

I hope that this understanding of what liberals mean by “the individual” and her relation to groups will help us determine an appropriate response to issues of language, culture heritage, race and identity in South Africa and inside the DA itself.

The primacy of the individual and human solidarity

Liberalism is often denounced as a selfish creed that seeks to justify the advancement of self interest against the interests or needs of community, but this vision of liberalism simply does not follow from a liberal conception of the self or a liberal conception of justice.

What makes solidarity possible for liberals is not the idea that other members of my group are facsimiles of me. In this conception of things, no solidarity (identification, care or compassion) is possible anyway, because there is no other with which to identify or empathise. In this (collectivist) conception of things, solidarity is really just self-interest masquerading as compassion for others who aren’t really other at all.

I think that the liberal’s attachment to the idea of personal responsibility (a consequence of the liberal’s belief in the agency of individuals) often gives rise to a misconception about our ability to empathise and respond with compassion to human suffering. It is of course true that liberals are as capable of coldness as anyone else, including communitarians, collectivists and nationalists of all stripes, who tend to feel rather more attached to their own than to people in general.

Our belief in an economic system that puts the free choices of autonomous individuals at its centre is also a cause of much dismay among collectivists and paternalists. But in fact, our economic policy outlines an important role for the state in creating opportunity and in providing welfare. Indeed our policy platform in general, which is informed by our vision of an Open Opportunity Society for All, provides ample evidence that the DA is moved by human suffering. Our platform includes a welfare plank that is very extensive, given the financial capacity of our country for such welfare (we have some views on how to reform the welfare system, but our bottom line is that people who are unable to provide for themselves must be provided for – a position hardly commensurate with Mbeki’s description of us in 1999!)

In any event it is quite clear that neither our philosophy nor the policy to which it gives rise promotes selfishness or alienation. Our challenge is to communicate this through a properly compelling explanation of what we stand for.

I wish to end with the point that solidarity between individuals requires imagination and the empathy it allows. The post-modern liberal, Richard Rorty describes his understanding of solidarity like this:

“In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away prejudice or burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increases in sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking “They do not feel it as we would”, or “There must always be suffering so why not let them suffer?”

These are inspiring words, and pertinent right now as Xenophobic violence sweeps our country. We should remember them whenever we contemplate our response to the issues that face South Africa and humankind more generally.

Ryan Coetzee is the Democratic Alliance’s strategist and Special Advisor to Western Cape Premier. He writes in his personal capacity.