Finding the sovereign individual

Finding the sovereign individual
Image by Chuck Rutenberg from Pixabay

Harder than it looks.

Keep your hands off my cow

Many years ago I got into a conversation with a silly person on Facebook. This isn't hard to do, so I will give a bit more information. He was talking about how he would have his own cow and be off grid and independent from everyone else in some kind of individualistic paradise. Obviously from the USA, and didn't know much about how cows are persuaded to produce milk, which is extremely cruel, to be honest.

I made a throw away comment about the collective managing the cows and he got all upset. You see, in his consumer capitalism addled mind, the collective and himself were completely different things. Also, he had been infected with the American Dream lie where you can homestead your way to a better life. Git off mah properdy or ah'll shoot you. It's all nonsense.

The individual with a cow, no bull, and no way of keeping that cow healthy and replacing it when it gets old is a recipe for ridicule, isolation and failure. If you take the lunatic attempt to be independent from all other people to an extreme the log cabin you build in the wilderness will probably be quite small, as the size of logs you can move on your own are probably not that big. Also, did you mine your own iron ore, and then process it into steel to make the axe? How do you keep it sharp? Then we have the problem of buying the seeds for your imaginary farm, how did you buy them, from whom, with what? In my mind it's an ironic microcosm of the approach a lot of people take when they go down the individualist route.

The homesteader always needs to go back to the town to get supplies of some form, even if it isn't much, just to make life liveable and possible.

All our mothers

You are dependent on other people. You always have been and always will be. A weak human on their own is going to struggle. We are dependent on our care givers for a long time. If you take it all the way back to birth then someone fed you, kept you warm, taught you to use language and turned you into the collaboration machine that all human beings are. It sounds like a hippy wu wu thing to say, but we are all part of a long chain of human beings working together to create the world we live in, one that is friendly to us and lets us survive. The society we live in needs to reproduce itself or we're all doomed along with it. We evolved the mechanisms that give us language so we could collaborate and survive because we can't do it as individuals.

When I became a Buddhist this chain of being was one of the things I was taught to think about a lot. The countless people who made your clothes, the road you walk on, the shoes that keep your feet from getting sore and wet, the food you eat. You need to think about them and acknowledge their existence. You are not special in the sense you stand apart from them, you and they rely upon each other to survive and there is a mutual gratitude and caring we need to show each other that is part of the human heritage. Privilege creates a barrier that blinds us to the thousands of people who make our lives possible.

In my particular Buddhist tradition the belief in reincarnation and the vast age of the universe means that every sentient being you come across, even the fly in your house, was once your mother, so treat it kindly. Even if you don't believe in reincarnation I think this is a profound idea, we are all connected to the world that we live in, and denying that connection denies your humanity.

The sovereign individual

We come to the idea of the sovereign individual. When you take the individualist pill the world becomes a place where there is only you and the people who want to control your metaphorical cow. You can say that you don't acknowledge their power over you, that you refuse to let them control you, and you won't pay taxes or fees to drive on the road or whatever.

The concept was originally given a name in a book by Davidson and Rees-Mogg, published in 1997. They posited that the changes in society and technology would make the nation state weak, and therefore the individual would have to take steps to protect themselves and we could all live in some free market utopia. The idea still has currency with some of the libertarian and tech enthusiast circles.

This is a bait and switch. It completely ignores that the state is what enforces the laws and those laws are generally written to make the lives of the people who control the state, and their enforcers, as easy as possible. If you come to its notice you generally have to do what the state asks of you or you will be violently forced to comply. That's how it works. As Lenin said (quoting Engels) the state consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command.

You cannot be sovereign, actually realise the liberal freedoms that helped usher in capitalism, while there is a capitalist state that needs to force you and the vast majority be the worker class so it can perpetuate the conditions that make its existence possible. You cannot have any real kind of freedom or autonomy while the only people who are allowed to exercise those things are the people who own everything, the privileged. Under capitalism there are only two freedoms, to be exploiter or exploited. If your material needs are not met you cannot be free or sovereign. If you meet them at someone else’s expense you might find they have a bone to pick with you.

Of course, the last several hundred years mean that we have managed to win huge concessions from the owning class at great cost to ourselves, and there is an appearance of balance. They have spent most of the last 50 years taking that away, and trying to get back to a world where we have to accept inequalities and want because the only way you can have obscene wealth is to have vile poverty. Britain's richest families have more than doubled their wealth in the last few years while the rest of us are suffering through the worst wages squeeze since the mid nineteenth century.

Overcoming the medieval superstition of magic blood creating kings, and therefore ownership of the world, came as the result of a revolution. In this revolution the original liberals changed the way we thought about things like royalty and our relationships with each other. This is when the modern capitalist class was created and became the dominant one. In places like Britain this revolution only went half way and is still unfinished. We still have a royal family and a lot of people who think magic blood and whose vagina people fell out of gives them special rights and privileges. A good chunk of the country is still owned and controlled by people whose ancestors were part of William the Conqueror's entourage. It's ridiculous when you examine it closely.

In countries that don't have the tradition of magic blood like the USA the revolution was completed, so instead the owners took the liberal principles of individual freedom and autonomy and enshrined them in their constitution. You have to understand the historical context, though. The people whose rights were enshrined were the property- and slave- owning minority who didn't want to pay taxes to the English king. Everyone else was just part of the backdrop. The early Liberals were not democrats, they wanted to create another aristocracy, based on instead of magic blood, of ownership.

So the liberal principles of personal autonomy, not being interfered with by the state, being able to live your life without fear or hindrance from arbitrary authority, habeas corpus etc. were not meant for the masses, but for the property owning few. The masses were supposed to work in the factories, die in wars, and generally do what they were told. Our owners were afraid of a democracy that embraced the whole population, and took steps to impede and prevent it being established. Just think back, women (and men without property) didn't properly get the vote in Britain until 1928. Still not a hundred years have passed. Liberalism is much older than that, and was for the privileged.

There is now a new magic blood superstition attached to the billionaire class. They are said to be special because of their success, the massive amounts of luck and pre-existing privilege quietly pushed to one side. Look at Musk, now we can see past his PR, the greedy, unoriginal, subsidy-sucking buffoon emerges shambling into the light. The special thing about him is how long his utter repugnance was hidden from view.

It’s said that cream rises to the top. So does shit, you see it floating down the river. Boris Johnson is another obvious example. All of the billionaires in the US that are under 30 inherited their wealth, we owe them precisely nothing.

These parasitic clowns, and their apologists, are deeply invested in a status quo that is well on its way to killing the rest of us while they face no consequences. They are truly the sovereign individuals at the cost of our survival. You can't be one at the cost of other people, because you are not sovereign if others can take it back from you. More to the point if your own sovereignty is built on depriving others, it's an illusion, and also immoral.

Freedom of capital is not the same as human freedom. Capitalist progress is not human progress. We are subject to what Marx called alienation where the work we do feeds us but does not belong to us, we're separated from what he called our species being. So the freedom we have is not freedom but alienated freedom, unfreedom. Your boss can control your every movement when they rent your time, you do not have any freedom other than to do what you're told or leave. In the 19th century when mines or factories were sold the workers were sold as part of the transaction. People were forced to wear badges saying who they belonged to. When Marxists talk about wage slavery, it wasn't just a rhetorical device saying people have no choice and end up in poor conditions, people had to carry papers saying they were free to move around.

Of course, you could live naked in a forest, without language or human contact, munching on nuts and berries, and be extremely sovereign. As long as you don’t mind getting cold and wet. Everything you have was given you by someone else. Sometimes you paid for it, sometimes they gave it to you because they had it and you needed it. Most of the time it was knowing how to do things, which is the greatest gift.

Defending the commons

Originally, when humans lived mostly agrarian or hunter gatherer lives they would hold various resources in common. Certain fields, water, nut harvests from forests and so on. This is simplified, but you get the idea. Resources were managed so they would continue to exist and work for everyone.

Then there emerged an aristocratic class who in theory had owned the land the rest of us lived on because their ancestors were luckier than ours which gave them magic blood. Technology changed and that individual could make money by taking the common land, enclosing it, and doing other things with it. This also had the useful, for them, byproduct of impoverishing the mass of people so much they would work in terrible conditions in the new factories rather than starve.

The commons we have now is comprised of the things we need to thrive and survive as human beings. As part of the worldwide triumph of neoliberalism governments sold all the things that make them up and now we’re paying rent to their owners while things like water are becoming undrinkable excrement. How could we be sovereign in any sense if we have to pay rent to use the things we need to live? We are forced to work for the tokens they control to feed ourselves.

Property is theft

I recently read an article that mentioned the sovereign individual and tied it back to the thing that matters, which is property or more properly ownership and the privileges of ownership. Property is privilege. We're not talking about your house or toothbrush here, but the ownership of things that make a profit as well as the commons. Those things need to be owned and controlled centrally by all of us.

The only way to survive in an individualist mode is to first rob the commons of the resources you will need to survive and deprive others of them. We’ve tried that and maybe need to change how things are done to avoid the existential threat humans face, don’t you think?

Our first act should be to reclaim the commons and build systems that support, rather than exploit, our needs.


The sovereign individual isn't a bad idea in and of itself. It can't be realised at the expense of other people, because it removes their sovereignty and your own would be built on sand. It can only be realised as part of a common human heritage, where everybody has what they need to live a full life. An individualistic approach will eventually deprive others, we need to work together to survive when up against an uncaring universe, which is what we have always done. This needs to be done consciously and with love.

We now have the technological and organisational base to realise this for everyone.

Are you in?