A few of you may know that I have lately been reading China Miéville's New Crobuzon series of socialist steampunk fantasy. I have, however been reading them in the wrong order, reading THE SCAR and Iron Council before the original book, Perdido Street Station, which I have just started. Either way, I highly recommend these rather Dickensian fantasies to anyone who likes both to read fantasy and to read about social change. They are, however, very grim stories, and Miéville has a taste for the grotesque, like his mosquito-women in THE SCAR. *shudder*
However, in Perdido Street Station, there is an interesting idea that I thought I'd turn into a Politblogo post: that of concrete vs. abstract individualism. Early in PSS, Miéville presents us the character Yagharek, a "garuda", which is a half-human, half-bird combo. In garuda culture (they are a desert people), the individual is paramount. However, only certain kinds of individualism are permitted. Yagharek has been severely punished and exiled from his people, ending up in the dirty streets of New Crobuzon. His crime? "Choice-theft" and being "too too abstract." Miéville's garuda believe that one must be "concrete" about one's individualism. That is, one must recognize that one's choice emerge partly from the efforts of others to give you these choices and to avoid denying them to you. That leads to the crime of "choice-theft": among the garuda, to knowingly deprive someone else of choice is to commit a heinous crime of abstraction. Becoming "too too abstract", therefore, is the condition under which one performs the crime of "choice-theft". The abstract are those individualists who believe that their individuality emerges from some inner right to be liberated from the community---and that their individuality gives them the right to make choices that affect others willy-nilly. This system of concreteness vs. abstractness enables the highly solitary garuda to maintain coherent communities.
I don't know yet where Miéville is going with this: we don't know what exactly Yagharek did to be punished painfully and severely for "choice-theft". As described so far, I find the "concrete individualism" quite congenial to myself. I do tend to think that the proper purpose of all these political peregrinations and machinations should be, in the best case, maximizing the well-being of the maximum number of individuals, rather than defending abstract collectivities. But that requires recognizing the connections and dependencies between people and the world.
"Abstract" individualism seems to resemble nothing so much as the form of libertarianism that is favoured in some quarters, particularly in the USA. They have their own science fiction/fantasy writers, some of them very good. Verner Vinge is almost as good if not better than Miéville at writing, particularly his A Fire Across the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, both brilliant books deserving of the accolades they received. Nevertheless they are firm polemics in favour of an "abstract" individualism, which is nonetheless ironically considered to be optimal for the maximum number of individuals. But Vinge's Qeng Ho very clearly consider the most fundamental ethical principle to be an abstract right to live unmolested, no matter the consequences of that position, and that there are no positive actions to be taken to maximize human freedom except to maximize profit.