Introduction: A Fetish for the Individual Above All
People in the United States are taught that all of life’s fortunes and misfortunes are brought about solely by the actions of the individual. We are taught that a person, by virtue of living in the United States of America, has every opportunity to work hard and become the next success story. Poverty is the fault of the individual and wealth is the result of an individual’s labor and genius according to this perception, making the individual something of a deity within their own realm. We are taught that those who rule our society and find themselves in the position of master in our political and economic lives deserve to be there, and that those who find themselves in squalor are in their position due to a failure in education, work ethic and character.
Considering that we are taught these delusions from our youngest years, it makes sense that individualism has become central to the false consciousness prevailing in our society. From the liberal retort to the concept of revolution, to the worst dregs of Objectivist philosophy, one can find many currents which prioritize an individual or individuals over the rest of society, and use this fetish for the individual to resist revolutionary motion, to defend the exploitation and cruelty of our system for fear of any alternative inconveniencing the individual. To any argument, any position, any stance or statement of fact, the true individualist need only spew “but what about me?” in an attempt to appeal to the individualism of the person making the argument, or worse, to emotively flail their arms in an effort to resist any and all logic outside of their “principled” position.
While the individual is likely to believe that their individualism will protect them from being coerced or co-opted into supporting things that would harm them, this “independence” is actually an essential ideological construct for their intellectual enslavement. If the toilers and exploited in a society see themselves as the problem, and are unmotivated to unite for their common benefit, and at the same time see the world around them as “fair” and their exploiters as role models for the ideal individual, what interest does this serve? Is it the individual or is it a class of the very same exploiters who have an interest in undermining any attempt at resisting their hegemony?
A Definitive Bourgeois Ideological Paradigm Emerges
While there have probably been self-obsessed individuals throughout the history of our species, individualism as a major ideological force has its origins in the ideology of the Age of Enlightenment and the emergence of capitalism. While in feudalism the main ideological concern was with lineages, bloodlines and aristocratic titles that justified property relations, bourgeois revolutions yielded the need for new cultural means of articulating the reasons for new property relations. The new bourgeoisie were not the aristocrats of old, and required a new justification for their power and hegemony outside of the feudal model. The answer came from the property relations themselves, arguing that individuals with property were entitled to their property. “Liberté, Sûreté, Propriété” (Liberty, Security, Property) was one famous slogan of the French Revolution, and this spirit of the ideological and state protection of private ownership of the means of production continued in America’s political revolution in the 1770′s.
Despite beginning with this more advanced ideological justification for property relations, the United States remained incredibly backward in its production and in ideology. The United States operated with two competing economic systems, an industrial capitalist system in the north and a slave system in the south, eventually driving the country into a civil war until the northern states were able to assert their economic and political hegemony over the union. The racial apartheid of the slavery and post-slavery United States, combined with a religious fervor and puritan religion, put the United States behind other industrialized societies in terms of ideology, and much of the operating of society was still justified with religious mysticism and racial hierarchy. In the class struggles that emerged in the 19th and early 20th century, revolutionary and progressive forces were confronted with some of the most reactionary currents in the industrial world, while at the same time struggling with the enlightenment period illusions that bound the minds of the people.
A New Opium in an Increasingly Secular, Less Nationalist World
In the wake of the Second World War, when nationalism, reaction and imperialism had brought the world into devastation for the second time, the old ideological currents of religious reaction and colonial racism were beginning to lose their edge against the aspirations of American working people for a better world. Racial chauvinism came into contradiction with the appearance of a new generation of black veterans, returning from fighting fascism on the battlefield to finding fascistic and reactionary currents oppressing them in their homes and renewing the calls for civil rights made decades earlier by America’s communists. Women in the workplace necessitated new forms of social relations, while the older forms of capitalist patriarchy began to face resistance. A new post-war generation began to move against the old forms of social control, and the old norms of American society were found to be at a loss for a means of diffusing the powder-keg new imperialist wars and new aspirations for liberation and social justice inspired.
To continue their struggle against revolutionary movement, while appeasing the masses of workers who were dissatisfied with their lot in life, the bourgeoisie had to return their rhetoric to the Enlightenment ideals while finding more modern expressions of racism and patriarchy to keep the social order intact. The solution lied in selling individualism as a uniquely American product, as the virtue of a “free” society, as a weapon against any and all oppressive forces – both real and imaginary – and as the chief method of resistance in an age of protest and social movement. Capitalists were able to shuffle their goods into new markets of individualists looking for “alternatives” – alternative lifestyle, alternative ways of dress, alternative musical expressions – and this culture of the “alternative” became a new ideological force against social movement, channeling the energies of disaffected people away from the more dangerous revolutionary forms and into the more comfortable and superficial pretenses of resistance.
Whereas before the American bourgeoisie relied on religious, nationalistic and colonialist cultural opiates to quell movements for revolution, the crisis that post World War II imperialist adventures and social backwardness drove the powers that be to modernize anti-communism, to make it “hip” when a new generation was yearning for a new society. As a result, the United States was able to weather the storm and continue to wage the Cold War and strengthen imperialism’s grip until the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Standing as the world’s only “superpower,” the U.S. was able to continue its campaign of butchery in the Middle East, in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, confident that the ideology they had set in place would protect them from revolutionary upheaval.
The conformity of non-conformism
The great thing about individualism for the bourgeoisie, as previously mentioned, is that its manifestations work within the capitalist framework. Individualists wanting to protest society by being “more individual” will find their way into the goods, the art-forms and the ideology the capitalists have for sale, all while maintaining the illusion that they are effectively resisting the forces in society they don’t like. This comfortable, passive pseudo-resistance leads to organizational and practical lethargy, while at the same time allowing for newer markets and more opportunities to profit for the capitalists.
At the same time, individualism is utilized as a justification for nationalism and as a foil for those societies that the United States is competing with. From the straw-man Orwellian socialism, to the exaggeration of societies like Iran and North Korea, the capitalists argue that in the U.S., the individual is “free” and elsewhere they are not. The idea that in such societies every aspect of your life is decided for you, that a “totalitarian” regime controls every aspect of your life, and that in America one is “free to decide their own destiny” is an important ideological lever for justifying imperialist attacks on such societies and repression on any who sympathize with them against imperialism.
In a society where “democracy” is a phrase pigeonholed to mean “democracy for the capitalists,” “individualism” is altered from its stated meaning to itself being the privilege of those with power. One’s ability to express their “individuality” is proportional to their spending power, just as one’s “participation in a democracy” is proportional to their access to voting rights, to the candidates and to the wellsprings of campaign donations which speak louder than stated principles. Yet this objective state of affairs will continue to be dismissed by individualists due to the cult of the individual and the notion that the individual, and not a combination of the individual, the society and the class struggle, decide one’s fate.
What is the Individual?
A denial and dismissal of a political and economic social context wherein individuals are influenced and motivated to action or inaction is at the crux of individualism’s argument. “No matter what the world around you does, you decide on your own actions,” “no one forced you to do this,” etc. These and similar statements are utilized to make every circumstance a person finds themselves in brought about by personal responsibility, or lack of responsibility.
Yet, to counter this, an important question to ask is: since I’m so responsible, how come I have no say in where I was born? What educational opportunities I had growing up? What class background my parents had? My biological characteristics and general state of health? How people have perceived and treated me? If I’m supposed to be a “self-made” person, how is that possible when I was not “self made,” but born to parents, taught by others, shaped by individuals and institutions at every phase of my life?
The objective reality is that there never was, nor ever will be, a “self-made” man or woman. Every one of us is created by certain conditions within a certain context, shaping our opportunities and outlooks, our experiences and our abilities, our skills and aspirations. Without our context, we would be nothing, and without society, we are nothing but isolated biological organisms barely able to subsist. The way that we know ourselves, the way that we live and grow, is through our interactions with others in the larger social networks in which we participate.
What Truly Makes One in 7 Billion
Having established that there is no such thing as a self-made person, and the importance of the larger world we live in as a motivating factor in the positions in which individuals find themselves, it’s important to understand that how we relate to the world is dialectical: just as we are created and influenced by the world, we help to create and influence the world through our own actions. Each day, some 7 billion individuals come together for production, for socialization, for teaching and learning, building and demolishing, conflict and cooperation. This network is all-encompassing, with all human beings in some way being affected by the expenditure of energy by other human beings.
Knowing this, one might ask, what does it mean to be “one in 7 billion?” Does it mean we are special, or does it mean that we are insignificant? The answer is not that simple; we are all unique in certain ways, from different sequences of DNA to different sets of experiences and skills, yet we all have commonalities, and in the organization of our societies into classes, common interests within these classes.
When it comes to whether the efforts of an individual can have a greater or lesser impact on the human experience, the way that we measure this is through the individual’s contribution to the movement of society, to its progress or to its degeneration. How does an individual expend their energies? To help humanity’s transformation, for the end of exploitation and greater social justice? Or does the individual aid the cause of reaction, serve to exploit his fellow person and move to benefit themselves and the exploiting class? It is in this way we must evaluate our own contributions to the greater fabric of human society.
Why Should One Person Care?
When confronted with this paradigm, the true individualist would reject it as a whole, saying that the individual decides what an individual is worth. “Why should I care about the rest of them? How does that help me?” The idea here is that the individualist, prioritizing individual desires to collective needs, must be “put out” if they are to break their focus from their individual fetish.
Yet it must be understood that, as human beings interconnected with other human beings in this social framework, who rely on that framework for survival, we receive a benefit when the conditions of our class are improved. When people like us, who work the same jobs we do, who are in the same social position, benefit as a collective, we will experience these benefits in our everyday lives, and actions we take to achieve benefits for ourselves and our peers eventually reach home.
The idea that society is, to the individual, so abstract and removed that they can receive no tangible benefit from working on its behalf is, in a word, ridiculous. Consider the benefit of child labor laws. Would you be where you are today if, instead of spending your youth in a dusty coal mine or working at an assembly line, rather than receiving some manner of education? How about with simple utilities like public sewage? Doesn’t the individual benefit from not living in cities overflowing with human waste? The 8 hour work day, which workers fought and died for, continues to yield a tangible benefit for every worker in the U.S. How does the individual worker not benefit from things like this?
Conclusion: To move forward, we must all move forward
In order to change our lot in life, first American working people need to realize that we are in the same boat. Rather than succumb to the illusions laid out to us by capitalism, that we as individuals are solely responsible for our destiny and we merely need to work harder to succeed, we must understand that the problems we face are systemic, and their solutions involve the cooperation and common activity of the working class rising up together to take the reigns of society. To attempt to resist capitalism by simply attempting to “not conform” rather than engaging in collective revolutionary work is making a retreat, falling into capitalism’s trap.