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.