Social Imaginaries

Volume 1, Issue 2, Autumn 2015

Fred Dallmayr
Pages 127-145

‘Man against the State’: Community and Dissent

The relation between individual freedom and social community or solidarity is always tenuous and fraught with many possible conflicts or derailments. The essay examines two main forms of such conflicts: the first where individual pursuit of private self-interest completely overrules social solidarity; the second where individual freedom and even radical dissent serve to promote justice and a more ethical mode of solidarity. The formula ‘Man against the State’ goes back to Herbert Spencer and his advocacy of a radical laissez-faire liberalism. Relying on Hobbes and Locke, Spencer argued that in the ‘state of nature’ individuals are endowed with complete liberty, especially the freedom to acquire property - whose protection is the sole objective of government. In some formulations this argument gave rise to the doctrine of ‘social Darwinism’ and the motto of the ‘survival of the fittest’. In opposition to this ‘possessive’ or egocentric form of liberty the essay turns to more ethically grounded conceptions of individual freedom, civil disobedience and dissent, conceptions articulated especially by Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Camus, and also evident in the conduct of Socrates and some members of the German resistance movement. Here the conflict between individual freedom and solidarity serves as the lever to raise community to a higher level of ethical life.