The Absurdity of Individualism in Modern Times…

Just a quick observation to keep me writing.

I was taking a walk the other day and I was thinking about the individualist bent of U.S. culture, and I was thinking specifically about libertarians and Ayn Rand types, and the more I thought about it, the more baffled I got.

I mean, it’s really just silly. It’s one thing if someone is literally living on a piece of land, growing their own local food, bartering fair prices for everything, and thus they think any kind of social program, or taxes, or whatever is taking from their own hard work. This could be a passable excuse for individualism.

But that’s not our modern society! The global capitalism that individualists themselves celebrate is one of the most socially integrating forces in world history! It is based on complex and minute connections and relationships between people all over the globe. The idea that almost any product, or any piece of infrastructure comes from the “sweat” of any one person’s “brow” is just ridiculous.

We are social beings. And advanced societies are incredibly intricate engines of social relationships. Ever piece of food, every road, every piece of media is not only produced by multiple people, but it is rooted in the historical legacy and accumulated productivity of millions. Right now, every single thing surrounding me was built and shaped by thousands of human hands and minds (and probably lives lost). Any philosophy that doesn’t take that into account–and that stay’s with simplistic Locke-style references to “fruits of a man’s labor”–is simply intellectually bankrupt.

Take the idea of privatization. The very idea of privatization is based on the individual human being, in that the creativity and passion and innovation of an individual person is much more powerful than groupthink and collectivism. Hmmmmm. Interesting. Because in practice privatization has nothing to do with anything private. It’s the turning over of one kind of collective property (belonging to the public or State) to a different kind of collective property that is shared less equally, but nonetheless collectively (among shareholders). What is going on here?! What is more collectivist and groupthink than the kinds of brand identification and bureaucratic structures that exist in corporate America? How foolish.

Seriously, next time I get in a discussion/argument with an individualist I think I’m just going to have to go off about how absolutely nonsensical this supposed bedrock American value actually is.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the power of individual human beings. I think we are incredible! But I will never forget the social context from which our individual beauty and power come from. Language itself is a fluid social construction that is maintained across generations ONLY because of human interaction and connection. An individual can write incredible, heartshaking poetry, can make me cry and yearn and scream…and that writer owes their words to the thousands of people who have nurtured her/him with conversation for years! And even more, the beauty and relevance of that poem to me is precisely because of our shared social context, language, and life experiences that gave us a similar artistic sensibility. When we start talking about land and labor and economies, the social argument becomes even more clear.

We are beautiful alone precisely insofar as we are beautiful together. Anyone who thinks they’ve found their uniqueness or their specialness only because of their distance from the “mediocrity of the crowd” has to be careful…not only do they owe that crowd their lives, but also their words.

We should be present with what has made us, and celebratory of what we in turn can make. But when we start separating ourselves from our roots…that’s when hubris and corruption form…and to me pure individualism is nothing but hubris and corruption.

Please, if any of you few who read this are individualists, comment so we can keep talking about this.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi


I don’t walk up to people and introduce myself as an individualist but after reading your post I suppose I am, so I’ll explain why I don’t think individualism is ridiculous.

Suppose I decided today that I am going to start a rock sculpture business. In the U.S. I am free to quit my current job and start a business, hire folks and advertise to the public. No one is forced to accept employment with me or stay employed by me or become my customer. If through the “sweat of my brow” I guide my fledgling business into a productive, successful one then I will have necessarily have attracted willing employees and willing customers.

Do I deserve to be able to distribute the profits of that enterprise as I see fit? Well, I certainly can’t take the credit for building every rock sculpture (an instance of the product that you mentioned in your post) but I would take credit for forming the system that created them. Anyone is free to start their own rock sculpture business to complete with me and if they prove to do what I did more efficiently and with better quality, then I think they deserve to have more business and therefore profit. And the architect of that enterprise, I think, should also distribute its profits. If he or she distributes unfairly then I expect another competitor to spring up that is willing to share more with employees, and in turn accumulate a more quality work force.

So what bad can happen? Large corporations form that are so cumbersome that there is a disconnect between the, let’s say “owner” or “owners,” and the workers until the corporation treats employees unfairly and without visible regret. I think workers in this scenario are not helpless victims. In the U.S. you have the freedom to work for someone else, or pursue more education, or even start your own business. If you are being exploited as a laborer, LEAVE! That’s what we mean by individual freedom! And every day that people continue to work harder for less they are encouraging that business to continue exploiting them.

Also, we must be vigilant of abuses. The media in our country is imperfect but still extremely effective at spreading public awareness compared to other societies. If CEOs are colluding to form secret monopolies that prevent fair competition then my claim doesn’t hold up because nobody can step in and provide a just opportunity. So it falls on individuals to consume a variety of news sources and be sure to voice opposition when abuses are discovered. I think that any government or private enterprise must have public scrutiny.

So I think for some Mr. Man, it is up to him to participate in The Public Eye and to exercise the freedoms of U.S. citizens if he is begin treated unfairly. And individuals can go ahead and work hard or not and get what they deserve.

Okay, now I’m open to explanations for why I am insane for thinking this way!

Hi Jim, and thanks for reading and writing on my blog! And with some depth, at that!

Okay, let’s work with your sculpture company thought experiment a little. I’ve got some questions. Where does profit derive from? And who does it belong to? It seems that you are saying that it derives from the person who came up with the system of production, rather than the people responsible for the individual instance of production of each sculpture that is sold. Marx would disagree with this, but I’m not a Marxist so we won’t go there. But if the person who came up with the idea and the person who built the sculpture factory are different? Who has the rights to the profits then? And what if the factory goes unchanged for 30 years, but it keeps making the same sculptures? Shouldn’t the weight of the profits move more towards the workers creating each sculpture rather than the original idea-person who is banking on a 30-year old idea? And what if a slick marketer at the factory invents a brand-name and logo that make the exact same sculpture worth twice as much as the original through consumer demand?

Or could it be that this question has no easy answer, and the real derivation of profit in a free-market system is about bargaining power? That is, whoever sets up the contract and the system decides, and whoever joins up with the contract can either go along or look for a better contract. This seems to be the freedom you are talking about. But this freedom is bound by some very serious real-world necessities in order to be true freedom: the need to survive and support a family, the need for perfect information, the need for complete freedom of movement, and the need for safety from material force and violence. If these necessities aren’t provided for equally across a society, a truly free capitalist system is impossible. Because those who are starving will have less bargaining power than those who are well-fed. Because those with access to more news outlets and education will have less choices than those who are well-educated. Because those who can freely move from market to market will have a better choice of where to work.

But the problem is two-fold:

1) Our own society never started out with equality of conditions. In fact it started out in conditions of feudalism with huge class divisions, slavery and colonialism, the forced conquest of lands, and the unchecked exploitation of nature. Capitalism has done nothing to level these factors. Only social movements and protests have brought in leveling and regulating factors. So you can’t say a race is free and fair if no one starts at the same starting line. The entire system is woefully distorted from the get-go.

2) Capitalism and individualism are such that they actually encourage businesses to exploit injustices in the market rather than to remedy them. That is, if someone is making a better product than me and threatening my profits, the market gives me every incentive to buy them out and shut them down and to keep making my shoddier product. It gives me every incentive to lie about chemicals in my products until the lawsuits get too costly. It gives me every incentive to exploit a foreign country’s labor force, even if I know that I’m there on the back of a bloody coup and the torture of union organizers. Capitalism also gives me every incentive to hide the fact that the people who make my shirts are twelve year old girls who sometimes are kidnapped and disappeared, their bones found a couple of miles away from the factory. I have no interest in the public knowing those stories, and since I advertise on TV, the TV channels have no incentive to share those stories. Instead, my official story is “low prices!” and I have no interest in the public finding out why those prices are so dang low. Capitalism does nothing to encourage me to care. That’s a social thing. It’s external to the market.

So, to summarize. I agree with your desire to have freedom to choose a profession, and to freely move between workplaces and professions. I agree that good ideas should be acknowledged and rewarded. I have no interest in living in totalitarian system where everything is dictated by the state and all individuality is lost in the great, equal collective blob. But I believe there are far better systems possible that could be more truly free than our own. And I think those systems must also acknowledge how murky this whole profit and “taking credit” thing are.

I mean, think about all the forces that went into making you a good sculptor-business creator, Jim! Public school, public roads, public utilities. The world around you that inspires you and gives you visual feedback. All of the praise and encouragement. And so much more. All of this is part of every single thing you create. It doesn’t just start at your factory. There is the social investment that has been made in you. And if we were truly could capitalists we could put a price tag on this. I should charge you a fraction of a cent for every word I write to you, because I am helping strengthen your language skills right now. That is, I’m investing in your education. So pay me. And if you don’t, I have the freedom to find another friend.

No thanks, I’d prefer something different, where the social and ecological roots of our wealth are acknowledged, and the profits therefore more collectively distributed. Not by some grand government, mind you…but amongst all of us who work in that darned sculpture factory, and who live in that sculpture factory’s community!

Thanks for engaging and creating an exchange. It’s great to hear you share your ideas again. Agree or disagree.

Okay, you brought up a lot of points that I have no answer for.

Should the weight of capitalist profits change over time? This seems like a great idea to me. It sounds like how patents work. If I invent a new shampoo and couldn’t patent the formula then my competitors would simply reverse engineer it in a heartbeat and get the formula for much less time, effort and money I spent on R&D. So in the U.S. I can patent the formula and I get seven(?) years to sell it until it becomes public and anyone can make it. Then folks come along and improve the process, tweak or vary the formula, etc. I think this a fair system that rewards people for inventing new things, and later lets the public at large do an open source software-ish improvement.

Bargaining power is another one I don’t know what to do with. This might sound horrible, but if a worker has a large family and cannot take the risk of quitting a job, does he or she deserve less bargaining power? You can’t change your skin or your parents or where you were born, so none of these attributes should affect your practical ability to exercise the freedoms I mentioned before. Having a large family is a choice, though, and I think, sort of brutally, that a person should seek financial security before starting a family. So in that sense, I’m fine with the way things are.

Now, I recognize that where you are born and what color your skin is and who your parents are really does affect things like your education opportunities. This is a problem, and I suppose I hope that it is solvable. That’s not an answer at all, really, so I’ll recognize the actual inequalities that exist all over the place that dirty the bargaining power concept as a fair basis for a society.

Does capitalism and/or individualism really encourage companies to do all those terrible things? Why wouldn’t another structure be subject to greed, corruption, or other problems like that? I mentioned in my first post that the U.S. media is free and effective. Not ideally so, but much, much better than in many other places. The only way to keep powerful individuals in line, I think, is to guarantee free speech so we can, as a public, keep each other informed of wrong-doing. I guess I’m unfamiliar with the properties of capitalism to see what about it encourages exploitation.

And yes, you’re one hundred percent correct that my rock sculpture factory, my ideas, and every other part of me is a product of the dense network of people and institutions that is the society around me. My society should get the benefits of investing something in me. And today there is no requirement to do so. The only thing we can do is hope that successful people have the desire to give back.

I guess that means I agree with a lot of the things you say. Here’s a tough one, though. Do you think the U.S., however imperfect, is a good society? I do. I’m not absolutely against changing it, or parts of it, but I read history (just for fun, I’m no historian!) and over time the world has been a REALLY scary place for most of the people alive at any given time. The U.S. doesn’t help everyone, but I would say the majority of people who live here do so in relative happiness as opposed to the norm which is a small minority. Nay?

Okay, with 2009 officially begun, and my work kicking into high gear, I have less free time for the blog, so bear with me if I can’t respond to everything right now.

I’ll just focus on your last paragraph on this one. Hope that’s okay.

Do I think the U.S. is a good society? Well, I don’t think it’s a uniform society, I think it’s a stratified and layered society. So I would say that, for me, yes, absolutely. For others, more so. And for many more others, less so. Is it a better place to live than the majority of countries in history? Once again, it depends on who you ask, but I would say that yes, it’s a pretty nice, relatively free place to live.

But there is another question in here. At what expense comes the “goodness” of our society? It is a fact that we use more than our proportionate share of the resources. It is a fact that our government has done some really nasty stuff too secure the flow of those resources to maintain our country’s economic dominance. And I think it can be argued historically that we couldn’t have industrialized nearly as fast without massive exploitation of slave and immigrant labor, and without massive expropriation of indigenous lands. This matters, because if my “goodness” comes directly at the expense of other people…then how good is it? Comfortable? Yes. Shiny? Yes. But good, in the deepest human sense? That is the tougher question.

I believe that our society would be much better, and it would be practicing its best historical values if it asked itself more often, “at what price our way of life?” “Who all is benefiting from the current structure of things?” It’s not about just condemning the very society that produced me (after all, that would be taking myself out of my own context, just as I accuse individualism of doing). Rather, it’s about understanding how it functions so that it can be improved. How can I hate my own country if it made me who I am? But how can I accept its contradictions when I know how much better it could and should be?

And, of course, I am a revolutionary. That is, I want to see drastic, radical changes to the structure of our U.S. and global society. But I would argue that I am trying to get more in touch with the U.S. best values (as seen in its inspiring social movements), rather than trying to reject all and impose some brand new ideology or something.


I also want to comment briefly about the big family thing. I do think it’s brutal what you’re saying. For reasons of access to birth control, propaganda related to birth control, and more deeply a question of whether women particularly have full control and access to decisions about their own bodies and the size of their families. So it can’t be said that it’s a choice if it’s only a choice for the men in the family, and if that choice itself as limited due to lack of access or education or cultural support for birth control. More fundamentally, no matter the size of one’s family, I personally believe basic financial security is a human right, and should be guaranteed by the society and the community.

We should be cautious about judging too harshly about people and lifestyles in contexts that are not our own, especially when we have little experience with them.

Even more basically, I don’t believe in a competitive social contract. Period. I believe we humans are social creatures, and we can afford to have taking care of each other as a basic value and right. Sure, competition is fun in games. It also can help drive innovation in many ways (but so can cooperation!). However, it is possible to have a society where, for example, we value competition in board games, sports, and the sciences…but we don’t think people should ever have to compete for survival. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Jim, if you are able to read any extra books right now, I highly encourage The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein.

It gives a lot of historical perspective to the type of capitalism that’s running rampant right now.

I’ll check out The Shock Doctrine. It’s funny that you brought up competition in board games as something we can always play around with but shouldn’t necessarily model our daily activities or societies after. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately.

I still play Starcraft with friends and my brothers, and I really think it is one of the most well-designed computer games. My brothers and I stopped playing straight-up confrontational multiplayer matches very early on. For most of the years since the game’s release I make different maps that are designed for human players to cooperate against AI opponents. This style of play is about team work and coordination and we seem to have more fun playing this way.

I mention this because it brings up two things I feel very strongly about. One is that cooperation and team work skills are what human beings ought to be consciously or unconsciously developing as method for better themselves. The other is an observation that most games being published are about direct conflict with the other players.

Why aren’t there more games about cooperating? You might not think it from my posts above, but I see the ability to communicate and participate in group planning as fundamental skills for being successful in the work place and in other communities. It seems to me that competition comes naturally, but we have even stronger instincts to work together. Unfortunately, our games aren’t nurturing those instincts.

Anyway, I suppose I better read some other perspectives of capitalism before jumping back into this discussion, which I am enjoying a lot!