I hadn’t heard the term before and maybe it’s not a ‘thing’, but it brought me up short when I came across it in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (Vol 45 No 24, 14th December 2023). It’s a striking term and I think it’s useful for analysing a problematic aspect of contemporary progressive politics. The article in which it appears is a review of two books about post-war Germany, and the reviewer (Neal Acherson) deploys it in the context of the dawning realisation of the scale of the horror perpetrated by the Nazis during the war.
He’s reviewing Frank Trentmann’s Out of the Darkness: the Germans 1942-2022, and at one point Trentmann says, ‘Learning once more to see with the eye of compassion, after the Nazi years, was an enormous challenge’. This gives rise to the idea of ‘collective solipsism’, or the ‘collective inability to recognise the experience of others’. Little by little, it seems, collective solipsism in Germany was shaken off to the point where, according to Acherson, ‘It scarcely affects young Germans today’.
In the specific context of compassion for the victims of Nazism it may well be true that recent generations of Germans aren’t prey to collective solipsism, but more widely - well beyond the specific context discussed in Acherson’s review - I’d argue that collective solipsism is a concept that describes, disturbingly accurately, one of our key contemporary political disorders. I’ll try to explain.
We usually think of the recognition of the experience of others as something we grant to those others. In other words the recognition is experienced passively by those on its receiving end. However at some point in the not-too-distant political past this recognition of the experience of others came to be a positive demand by previously unrecognised and excluded others. As a challenge to the solipsism of the wealthy and the privileged this seemed (and seems) a wholly positive move: after all it brought the experience of women, subaltern colonial and ex-colonial populations, and the LGBTQIA+ community (for example) into the political mainstream.
What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was the multiplication of lived experiences and the consequent entrenchment of solipsism rather than its overcoming. This works as follows. Each of the categories above - women, subaltern colonial and ex-colonial populations, and the LGBTQIA+ community - has its own lived experience, the recognition of which requires, by definition, an effort to overcome solipsism by the other categories (as well as by everyone else).
More problematic still, the categories overlap, proliferating lived experiences and increasing the likelihood of solipsism. For example, the lived experience of a subaltern gay woman will be very different to that of a gay woman CEO of a FTSE 100-listed company, and both of them will be different to that of an MTF trans teenager.
This leads, in all but name, to collective solipsism, an unintended consequence of the progressive demand for recognition by an ever-increasing number of political and social identities. This is how the fissiparous nature of progressive identity-based politics works against the possibility of a shared experience upon which a politics in common might be built.
Is there a way out of this? What are the chances of a shared politics in a world structured by the collective solipsism of both the left and the right? Click here for some answers.