Saturday, October 28, 2017


Philosophically, independence has a problem.  To define yourself as independent, you have to choose your referent.  By referent, I mean the thing that you define yourself as independent from.

Achievement of independence depends on a previous state of dependence on something.  The act of declaring independence requires you to:

1.  make a split between one thing and another
2. identify with one thing (A) but not with the other (B)
3. decide that you will not be dependent on thing B

You cannot define a person as completely independent.  It makes no sense.  Try to imagine a baby being born with no interaction with the world that surrounds it.  You will immediately encounter a problem: defining what is the baby and what are its surroundings.  As soon as it detaches from the mother, it becomes a being that will die without receiving nourishment from its surroundings.  This problem extends into adulthood - it just becomes more disguised, or rather harder to see.

Take the example of air.  The air around you: is it you or not-you?  OK, if you defined it as not-you, then what about the air in your lungs?  You have already breathed it in, and are assimilating it into the fabric of your body.  It makes no sense to define this air as not-you.  Now focus on the air exactly at your mouth.  Which air is you, and which is not-you?  Hopefully you will see that this is a ridiculous distinction.  You might as well admit that there is not much difference between you and not-you.

It is better to think of independence as a myth, defined by a person's story about themselves.  Perhaps imagine a continuum, a kind of scale or line between total theoretical isolation and total theoretical assimilation.  Along that line there may be a sliding scale of possible independence declarations, breaking you and the world into different-sized relative blocks.

Individual, state and federation are just some of the mythical names we give to such locations along the continuum.  When people declare the independence of a new state, they are breaking down an existing state into smaller parts, and deciding that their part is going to be independent of the other.  But, just like the air in our mouths, there will be a flux of things between these parts, an interaction which looks very like dependence, if we wanted to see it that way.  People, goods, services, information and ideas will travel across boundaries, and will be regarded as infection by some, and appropriate assimilation by others.  It will depend on their definition of a state, and their choice of state.

The mythical divisions continue: an independent state may then suffer further division into new states, and so on.  The division can go as far as you like, until we are almost at the point of each individual being a state in themselves.  But then, what would be the point of that?  We are back where we started, or rather at one end of the continuum.  It does not even have to end there.  We believe that individuals are indivisible (which is why we give them one name and one passport, for example).  But it is only myth.  We can declare our parts as independent if we like, and let them try to fight it out.

The world confuses itself with battles about where the lines are drawn.  States sometimes collect into federations, sometimes leave them.  Sometimes federations themselves start to look like states.  And, increasingly, it may be that new quasi-states, such as commercial companies, will enforce their own rules, trying to ignore traditional state boundaries.

Once we have seen that independence is largely a myth created by our minds to try to split up the world, and to isolate ourselves, or a group of us, from our environment... once we have seen this, what is the consequence?  Maybe that we can no longer take it all too seriously.  It may matter less whether we are part of a so-called state, or subscribe to a so-called company, or define ourselves as having a so-called identity.

The above examination, and undermining, of independence might feel temporarily liberating to some.  However, there is a contrary concept called 'community' which relies on something very similar to independence in order to flourish.

The politics of oppression, and the language of empowerment that can relieve political oppression, presumes that individuals and communities can be disempowered by their dependence on other individuals and communities.  The language of privilege and class war depends on the idea of oppressed minorities being able to fight their way along the continuum of independence, and achieve a more empowered state, relative to their oppressive environment.

If independence is merely dismissed as a myth, then this politics of oppression will have nothing to hang on to as a sliding scale to calibrate and judge the move from disempowered to empowered.  This politics depends on pointing out where dependence has become excessive, or disproportionate, and facilitating the destruction of the power of whatever community has been oppressing another.  The end game may be a justly interdependent world, where no community segment is seen to oppress another.  But, in getting to that utopia, the mythical differentiation of dependence and independence is a key linguistic tool it is hard to do without.  How can you tell someone they are oppressed without pointing out a power differential, and therefore a theoretical independent variable acting on a dependent variable?

So if we do away with the myth of independence, we also make it more complicated to talk about what an ideal world would look like.  We can maybe describe it as 'right interdependence', or 'a just interdependence'.  But who is to determine the ideal pattern?  It is as though we are making a pattern on a carpet without knowing how the different elements are going to interrelate.

All the above can be distilled into the problem of cognitive economy.  This is the idea that we need to simplify the truth in order to do its politics.  In the above arguments, I have said that independence is a myth.  But I have also suggested that this myth helps with cognitive economy: in other words, although independence is not real, it helps the fight against oppression to label some battles a 'fight for independence'.

So next time you participate in, or identify with, a battle for independence, or a declaration of independence, know that you are enlisting a myth to help you combat a perceived oppression.  You have decided that one part of the world, involving you, is oppressed; and so have labelled the oppressor more independent, more powerful, than your side.

Once you have used this simplified view of the world, this cognitive economy, to achieve your change... then begins the difficult task of realising that the work is never-ending.   You will suddenly spot another injustice, another oppression, that needs righting; another community that needs to declare its independence from another.  And so on.  And so on.

Harmony might be the result of this iterative process.  But I guess we can try not to forget that any battle we fight is probably just one iteration of a much larger picture.


The problem of ageing can be put succinctly: you are dispensable, and nothing reminds you of that fact more than the decay of your body.  Think of a life as the firing of a firework up into the sky.  It launches with great energy - it needs to be so: a baby needs to clear its throat with a good wail, and use up energy like a gannet to get started and find an arc into society.  The way we have evolved makes reproduction an equivalent to that moment a firework explodes - a bewildering and charming display of colour and movement.  But then, sooner or later, the ascent is complete, at least biologically, and energy becomes a matter of conservation rather than expansion.  There is no attention given to the expired firework husk making its way to the ground.  No one really cares where it falls... as long as it doesn't fall onto their head, or make a mess.

So, what are we to do when we ARE that firework?  When, according to biology, we have done our bit for display and noise, and are set on a course towards the ground.  Normally, to feel redundant is to feel excluded and left behind.  How can we find an attitude that copes well with the change of our bodies from capable to incapable, from smooth to wrinkled, from full to empty?

There are some positives.  Given that all things go the way of decay, the ageing person who accepts their ageing with grace is showing a great wisdom about life, a reconciliation to the way of things.  Acceptance of decay is no more or less good than acceptance of energy or acceptance of youth.  An old person who accepts their situation can be a great example to others who suffer misfortune.  They can demonstrate the art of making do with what you have.  They can console those who have suffered a loss, by reminding them that it is possible to just get by, without ambitions being achieved, without being noticed.

Our society celebrates fame, to the point where many people feel that their sense of self depends on being visible to others.  This creates illnesses born of the unfulfilled desperation for attention.  We think that adulation is rightfully ours, and chase it like the wind.  After a long time chasing it, we begin to realise that we will never be satisfied, that there is never enough fame to counteract the gradual and overwhelming disappearance of attention.  We begin to realise that we are indeed dispensable.

Age is the embodiment of this process, of the realisation that we are no more important than the fly that sits on our window sill, or the speck of dust that floats across the room.  Why is this good?  Because, ironically, it can bring us into communion with everything around us.  Earlier in our lives, we have been chasing attention, and attention is necessarily self-focused.  The need for attention is based on the principle that we are more important than others.  And, as you know if you have the least idea about human relations, such selfishness is isolating.  Two people competing to selfishly fulfil their needs will increasingly come to feel isolated from each other.  In our consumer society, we are trained to drain the world around us for our own benefit.  The planet can be raped, others can suffer, resources can be drained... as long as our selfish needs are recognised and fed.  But when we realise, through necessity, that our own benefit has no meaning - that we are no more important than a rock - when we realise this, we can relax and stop fighting for ourselves.  That self was a mythical self anyway.  It did not really exist.  And there is nothing like death to prove the futility of the self.  Try being selfish when you are dead.  You won't be able to.

So what am I saying?  That we are like fireworks, up one minute, and falling down the next.  That, although our biology convinces us for a while that we are important and worthy of resources, we are not.  That becoming old with grace is accepting this fact, and understanding a beautiful truth that we are not a separate system from everything around us, but part of everything.  In terms of physics, growing old is a living-out of our togetherness with the world around us, until, at our death, whether we are buried, cremated, or something else, we finally join it, and are gone at the same time.

Well-accepted, age is a chance to be relieved of the terrible illusion of selfishness, and to relax in the fact that we need not hang on so dearly, express ourselves so violently.  But it all depends on how willing you are to regard yourself as dispensable.