By Leonidas Donskis
My Finnish friend, a philosophy professor from Helsinki, once told me that Estonia for some of his colleagues is an example of the worst nightmare of libertarian politics. Such a remark, if publicized, would have dealt a blow to a sweet dream of Lithuanians to stand in the Estonians’ shoes enjoying Finland in the vicinity and celebrating 70 kilometers away from something radically different than postcommunist traumas and painful dilemmas. The dream was broken by my colleague like a house of cards.
Too much individualism, atomization, and fragmentation of societal ties, too little sensitivity and compassion, too huge a gap between the jet set and ordinary folks, no welfare state – these were the main points made by my Finnish friend. Ironically, the postcommunist folks who had always thought about the West as a bliss of freedom and civil liberties accompanied by some iniquities of capitalism should have found themselves in the shoes of those admirers of the free-market economy’s side effects that manifest themselves in our new habits of the mind and those of the heart.
“Whereas life in Helsinki is like a constant Sunday afternoon, life in Riga is always Monday morning” – as a graduate student from Latvia once put it after my seminar in Helsinki. I would start an argument by reminding that we, Eastern Europeans, seem to have skipped the era of political and moral individualism of the industrial era. Having been isolated from the social and political change of the West for more than five decades, we find ourselves in the era of, as Zygmunt Bauman would have it, liquid modernity with its toolboxes made to enhance our powers of association – the Do It Yourself strategy and the Assume Responsibility for the World mindset, the Facebook as the embodiment of liquid friendship, that is, the weakening of human bonds, and social networks on the net as a new policy of inclusion and exclusion.
Do It Yourself (DIY) – this is a new code of behavior widely assumed as a new moral responsibility of the modern individual. There was a time when we had good reason to expect to be, say, a scholar clearly knowing that we would find a publisher, a book designer able to supply the layout of the book, and a manager capable of a skilled strategy to promote and sell our book. Last but not least, we expected to be paid for our endeavor, instead of paying ourselves to the publisher for the work we have done for their benefit.
Nowadays things tend to change in more than one way: We have to pay, then to provide a camera-made copy of the book, also assuming responsibilities for a good marketing strategy. Do It Yourself. Be an academic, a scholar, and a manager at one and the same time. Get the money for your research, conduct your research, publish a monograph, and then attempt a PR move to promote it. Do it yourself. Make of yourself anything you want. You will be a self-made-man or a self-made-woman by acclamation and default, instead of free choice. This is no longer Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s dream of a human individual capable of shaping him or herself. The paradox is that the individual is now shaped by globalization and its anonymous forces.
Somehow, this strikingly reminds of Karl Marx’s dream. There are many reasons to regard Marxism to have originated as a form of technological determinism. Marx’s resentment against the modern division of labor as the principal reason behind the split of human personality and the resulting alienation from their creations and products sheds much light on Marxism as an awkward reaction against solid modernity.
The humanization of science and technology, according to Marx, can occur only in Communism as the new socioeconomic formation, which coincides with the end of prehistory and the beginning of real history. Therefore, Communism will harmonize the human personality divided by the modern division of labor and capitalism. It will do so by fully releasing the creative potential of humankind hitherto suppressed by the modes of production based on the division of labor and exceedingly encouraged specialization.
We will be able to toil and rejoice over physical work, while simultaneously cultivating our mind, soul, and all other faculties of our creativity and imagination. We will display our magnificent abilities as a worker, a scholar, or an artist upon our wish or someone else’s request. Hence, we clearly see the manifestly utopian moment in Marxism, its tirades against early utopias and French utopian socialism notwithstanding.
This is no joke nowadays. Instead of harmonizing and reconciling our faculties of the soul, we become individuals by default. We are supposed to act on behalf of the world. We have to tackle all grave problems created by previous generations. We are expected to find the way out of the most painful predicaments of modernity – as courageous, self-asserting, self-sufficient, risk-maximizing, and conscious individuals. Who cares that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman warned us that there are no local solutions to globally produced problems, and that individuals cannot act as a viable and sufficient response to social and political challenges which became part of our lives by accident and whim of history, instead of our conscious choice. How true this is of the Baltic region, a laboratory of unbearably light, rapid and incessant change.
The best scene from the Monty Python film made with the stroke of genius, Life of Brian, that crosses my mind as regards our destiny to be individuals by acclamation of the world or simply by default, is when Brian, a young man from Jerusalem mistaken for Jesus, wakes up after a sweet night of passionate love and appears naked at the window. He is saluted by the crowd. Getting desperate and trying to rid of this sound and fury of true-believers, Brian says: “But you are all individuals! You are all different!” A single voice in the crowd replies: “I am not.”
Yes, we are all individuals nowadays. We are so by acclamation or by default, rather than by dramatic and intense moral choice.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
© 2012 The Baltic times. All rights reserved.