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The Myth of Individualism
The Myths Upholding Capitalism: Part 2
When I was teaching high school I had a pretty brilliant student. Let’s call him Anthony for the sake of this piece. He didn’t try hard, but he just got complex concepts quickly, could explain them to others, scored really well on tests, all that jazz. But he hung out, more and more as time passed, with a crowd of guys who didn’t care about their grades much and just wanted to smoke and drink and whatnot. One day he was in my classroom after school, trying to wrap up a project at the last minute most likely, and we got to talking. We had a good relationship and I tried to explain something that I view as one of the most fundamental concepts of human existence—we become the people we choose to surround ourselves with. Two weeks later he was arrested for shoplifting.
Anthony turned out just fine, he was a great kid and he just finished college last year. One of the many changes he made in life after that shoplifting incident was changing friend groups, rather dramatically in fact. He, in time, internalized the idea that no person is an island, we’re deeply interconnected, and we’re all inevitably influenced by the people around us.
The idea that we’re influenced by those around us is just the tip of the iceberg, and the lesson I hope to impart here is much bigger. What I want to write about is the myth of individualism, which manifests both in the erroneous belief that we are wholly independent of one another, and in a societal structure that further separates us from one another. Adherents of rugged individualism might not phrase their goals quite that way, but the ideas they uphold and preach have very real and detrimental concrete effects in the world. Foremost among them is alienating us from one another, in other words cutting us off from community, networks of support, and most larger structures that allow us to rely upon each other. These are the results of hyper-individualism becoming deeply embedded in the world, materially and ideologically. That’s the bad news. After centuries of individualism becoming ever more popular in the West, with the United States being one of the places where these notions have seeped most fully into the water and into the fabric of society, we have a lot of unlearning and undoing to do, as well as a lot of learning and building and doing. The good news is that people are starting to do it, to see the problem with pretending that we are not intricately connected to one another and reliant upon one another, and to begin thinking and living differently.
There is no one starting point for the history of individualism, although many people try to argue that humanity has always been selfish and that there is something natural about looking out for number one at the expense of everyone else (for an extensive rebuttal of these attempts to justify individualism and selfishness as inherent to the human condition see The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow). But, here we are talking more specifically about the interaction of individualism and capitalism, so we ought to begin with Adam Smith, his most famous book The Wealth of Nations, and the invisible hand. Below is a quote that has been used time and time again by conservative economists, politicians, businesspeople and others to justify an approach to life, and to our economic system in particular, where each person pursues their own selfish goals. It reads:
“Every individual is continually exerting himself to find out the most advantageous employment for whatever capital he can command. It is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society which he has in view. But the study of his own advantage naturally, or rather necessarily, leads him to prefer that employment which is most advantageous to society… He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention.” – Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
What Smith says here is that under capitalism we all pursue our own selfish ends, but in doing so we’ll make society as a whole better. This is quite a silly concept. So silly in fact that he had to invent the concept of the invisible hand, an idea that cannot really be explained. It is, according to Smith, a magical force present in the capitalist system that guides the aggregation of all our selfish aims and actions into something good for society at large. I find it very helpful to know that as The Wealth of Nations was being written, capitalism was already being developed and practiced. Although some scholars say ‘modern capitalism’ was created in England with the advent of the industrial revolution, there was already a history of mercantile capitalism in the Netherlands, and in England itself. So even though Smith categorized his work as an analysis, a description of this nascent economic system as he saw it, he wasn’t really just trying to describe a system, or even trying to prescribe what this new economic structure should look like in the future. Rather he was crafting a justification. His work serves as cover, a way to excuse and justify the selfishness of the growing wealthy merchant class at that time, and to convince more people to embrace this individualistic, selfish approach that is foundational to a capitalist economy.
And it worked. Not because everyone in England, and certainly not everyone around the world, accepted his arguments and embraced an individualistic and selfish way of life, but because the merchant and banking classes did, out of self-interest. Capitalism allowed them to take power from the noble class and amass fortunes from plundering regions around the globe and exploiting the working class at home. But, if we fast-forward quite a bit, about 250 years down the road in the modern United States, we see that millions of people have bought into the logic that underpins, props up, and justifies capitalism and its attendant exploitation. These people are not capitalists, they do not own capital. In fact most are very decidedly working class, trading their labor for wages like everyone else. Yet, they have embraced capitalist logic. And there are many reasons for this. The most prominent reason that working class Americans have bought into the ideologies of capitalism being that it has brought a good deal of material wealth and improvement to our standard of living. The average person in the U.S. does enjoy three meals a day, does have a roof over their heads, and does live much longer than their great-grandparents did. Denying these realities doesn’t do us any good. But, these facts also don’t paint the full picture.
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For one, it’s clear that many of these trends are reversing. The pandemic, worsening economic conditions, the opioid crisis and more have caused life expectancy to drop for multiple consecutive years, and the response to these issues has been dictated by a brutal capitalist logic. The official covid response, outside cutting us checks in the first six months or so, has been that work must go on, the show must go on, and the short-term costs of protections like air filtration would not be paid by the government, and certainly won’t be paid by bosses who can sit alone in offices or work remote while working class laborers are crowded onto factory floors or into restaurants and cafes and other service industry jobs. And this response is emblematic of the mentality of the super-rich and the political class, and in particular how their desire for their bank accounts to grow endlessly is coming at greater and greater cost to everyone else. Since the Reagan administration we’ve seen the ratio of ruling class wealth to working class wealth explode, with CEOs and billionaires and their ilk making more and more relative to the workers who produce their wealth. We’ve seen housing and healthcare get harder to access, we’ve seen union participation decline, the cost of college explode, and so on and so forth.
I lay all of this out to say that while it has long been regrettable that so many working class people in the West have bought into the logics of capitalism, often at the expense of our counterparts around the globe, it’s now becoming harder and harder for these logics, myths if you will, to hold up. Cracks are starting to show, as evidenced by the popularity of socialism, the rising support for unions, waves of mass protest, and more. But, at the same time, we see people on the opposite end of the spectrum doubling down. For some conservatives this means overt fascism, but for the majority of working class people still embracing capitalism their beliefs are changing in ways that are more subtle, but still insidious.
In particular we’re seeing a doubling down on individualism that accepts the rationales of capitalism and responds to its decline with even more of its underlying ideologies. What this looks like is, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world, so as this economy gets worse I have to do even more to look out for number one. I have to be even more focused on my individual needs.” And this mentality is understandable, if unsustainable. It’s a lot to ask that someone shake off the ideology that they grew up surrounded by, and the individualism of capitalism surrounds us in a very real, material way. It’s a belief, yes, but over the last 250 years or more this belief has been translated into material reality in numerous, powerful ways. For one the suburbs were upheld as the America dream, and that dream was reinforced with tax breaks on the interest that comes with mortgage payments, so people were incentivized with some serious chunks of change to buy that house with the white picket fence, where your nuclear family gets space and privacy and also a whole lot less community. In cities, big apartment complexes and constant interaction with neighbors, and neighborhoods filled with stores and places of worship and libraries and parks and more all meant that the illusion of separateness was a lot weaker, is a lot weaker for many of us, in our day to day lives. But that lifestyle has been described to us for decades now as the lifestyle of the poor, while the rich have lived uptown in big houses, or out of the city in bigger houses. So as people got money they copied the rich, and left cities. White flight went hand-in-hand with the so-called American dream to make us increasingly isolated, and individualistic.
So now the ideology of individualism is embedded. It’s in these suburban “neighborhoods” which are often just a collection of houses. In many cases there is no communal space. No park, no stores to be reached without getting in the car, no coffee shop or bar. At work you’re less likely to be in a union, and communal organizations are far less common than they used to be, so countless people go from their nuclear family to their job where they may have friends but where the concept of solidarity might as well be a foreign language, and back home again. Of course there’s extended family, but we’re also more spread out and far away from family than ever before. So as economic conditions get worse it’s understandable that people think they need to just grind harder, work longer hours, get two jobs, whatever the case might be. They’re wrong, in that these are not long-term solutions to the underlying issues that have gotten us to where we are today, but if you’ve never heard of alternatives or have been taught and convinced your whole life that the alternatives are a bunch of commie lies then it’s understandable that you’re not open to other ways of thinking and other ways of organizing society. And if you’ve never had experience orienting yourself towards underlying issues, or thinking about how to get at the root causes of our problems, because you weren’t taught that either, doubling down on individualist tools and an individualistic approach can feel like the only option.
That’s where the left comes in. I often talk about how a friend of mine was a union organizer in Pennsylvania for a dozen years before I met her, and she likes to say that labor organizing changes people. She’s seen folks with politics very different than her own change as they took action in solidarity with coworkers they might not like, or might even be prejudiced against. The long and the short of it is that being in the trenches with someone changes your relationship with them. And seeing union siblings, for example, respect your picket line and refuse to cross it can start to teach us that individualism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I have fond memories of visiting a friend on the Columbia University picket line when 5,000 grad students were on strike in 2021. As I walked over to the main rally point in the middle of their campus I passed a delivery entrance to the school. Two grad union members stood there wearing placards that read “UAW on strike” and as trucks drove up, they would turn around once they saw the sign, or after a short conversation with one of the students. Turns out most New York City delivery drivers are unionized with the Teamsters.
It’s easy to say that no one is an island. It’s harder to demonstrate that. I’m not opposed to debate, to propaganda or the spreading of good ideas in whatever forms it takes (I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise). But I’d wager that the demonstration of our ideas has convinced far more people of the righteousness of the left’s politics than all of our most articulate speakers combined. These two things are not mutually exclusive, of course, but I often find that action is deemphasized by folks who have grown up under liberal democracy where we’re told that simply getting enough people on our side is sufficient to create change, an idea that simply isn’t true in a country controlled by a wealth minority of the population. We must organize, and act.
I’m reminded of the book Black Against Empire, a fantastic history of the Black Panther Party. Early on in the book, and in their trajectory, they were struggling to recruit members of the community in Oakland. So they began to act. One example that stuck with me is of a woman who was about to be evicted by a landlord. The Panthers talked to her, and ended up going to her house, and refused to let the police evict her. That act, and many others, showed folks in that neighborhood, and the broader Black community, that they meant business. People rallied to their cause and joined the organization, then once these neighbors were involved in organizing they read, learned theory, and developed a more comprehensive vision for change. Now we, or at least certainly not me, are not going to recreate the Black Panther Party. But this example shows us how communal action is a powerful antidote to individualism. Organizing and taking action with others allows us to accomplish together what we cannot do alone, and that lesson is difficult to ignore.
And we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that hyper-individualism isn’t a problem for us, because of where we live or who we associate with. It’s not just an issue in red states, or rural areas, or certain social circles. It’s in the water here, it’s in the landscape and the air. It’s in the architecture of our cities, the architecture of our phones and social media and the internet at large, it creates and sustains celebrity culture, it’s written into our job descriptions. So it’s incumbent on all of us to resist it, to both take action and free ourselves from the ways of thinking that perpetuate a hyper-individualist mentality. And the good news, the news I often try to share, is that there’s a beautiful way of life waiting for us, and it’s within reach. Living with a more community oriented and inter-dependent mindset can bring us a tremendous amount of joy. It can feel like dependence, or reliance, but the truth is that we’re interconnected and other-reliant already. We rely on farmers, truck drivers, nurses, teachers, conductors, grocery-store stockers, servers, our neighbors and more every single day. We’re just told that we don’t rely on them, and the network that ties us to them is very effectively made invisible to us, but it’s there. We’re just told that we’re wholly independent and separate creatures who don’t rely on a whole intricate, massive, complex web of connection just to eat breakfast every day, but we do. We rely on others for our survival in innumerable ways, and that’s not just something we should reluctantly accept—it’s actually quite a beautiful and profoundly human thing.
Once we do embrace that inter-dependence, and run with it, amazing and ultimately liberating possibilities start to open up. That’s not to say there’s no role for the individual, there is, but a more communal world is in fact healthier for each individual, and there is a future where the autonomy of each person is respected while simultaneously individuals choose to be a part of vibrant and healthy communities—choose to be a part of a larger whole. And we can begin right here and now. If we start to see, today, that we’re reliant on workers across the country and the world, why wouldn’t we unionize with the workers at our jobs, and federate with others around the globe to advocate for what’s best for all of us? If my neighbors and I have the same problems, we might have the same solutions, so why wouldn’t I organize with them to make things better for all of us? And, if understand that we’re all so reliant on each other, why would we accept just a few people taking all the wealth they rely on us to build.
Now I know it’s not just that easy. It’s not a snap of our fingers and now we’re all organizers living in beautiful community with one another. But we can make a start. We can experience a good chunk of the joy of a more inter-dependent, other-reliant lifestyle just by getting active in some of these spaces, or by forming groups with our friends and neighbors and coworkers. That’s very literally how a friend and I started a mutual aid group nearly two years ago. And people came, people joined us in forming a new place where we could come together to support each other. Not to say, “If you build it they will come,” but there’s a good degree of if you build it, people will come and join you and be changed by their involvement. Some of their individualism will slowly slip away as they experience relying on others and experience their lives being tied up with the lives of others. It can be an undeniable experience. And it can bring a deeper, more lasting sort of fulfillment and satisfaction than just about anything else. Because, despite what powerful people want you to believe, we are not inherently hyper-individualistic and selfish. If there is anything inherent to the human experience it is our inter-connectedness and our desire to be in the middle of a loving community that supports us as we support them.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this piece helpful. If you did, I hope you consider a paid subscription to make more of this writing possible. - Josh