The Scourge of Individualism


If you asked any heroin addict what they would like to sustain, they would answer something like, “My high.” If you could imagine asking this question to a business, it might answer, “Growth and my competitive edge.” If you asked the US government, the answer would probably be, “Growth. Then if you ask them how the world is treating them right now, you would get a very different answer. The heroin addict might say, “His or her body is falling apart and needs ever more of the stuff.” The government might say, “The natural and social worlds are falling apart so fast I can’t keep up any more.” Business might answer, “My risk levels are rising and my supply chain is becoming threatened.”

The week’s elections are said to be a repudiation of the government for not solving the problems that face both blue and red Americans.We are not growing fast enough. We are taking too much of my hard-earned money. The TV ads that blared for weeks before the election highlighted growth and more jobs. If they did not do that, they said something like get the government out of my face.

I know I am greatly simplifying the underlying dynamics of political life in America, but I see two features of our political economy at play: growth and individualism. We all heard about or read Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, asking how come people vote out of alignment with their self-interest. The two topics after the colon in the last sentence are strongly related. The self in the hyphenated phrase is assumed to be that of an insatiable, need-satisfying, pleasure seeking, rational subject, capturing an objective world in the mind through some transcendental process. An economy with growth as its central value is nothing more than this individual model placed in a collective context.

Individualism also arises from the same model of human beings. I am separate from the world and its assemblage of all other objects, including human beings. I find this short passage from James Collins, The Existentialists, a powerful argument why this foundational model creates the strongly individualistic, self-interested feature of our culture.

Every entity other than myself figures in my consciousness as an object in my world. My native inclination is to order all the objects I encounter according to the pattern of my private project. Some of these objects are recognized as being other selfs, but they must also submit to the general law of the subject and its subordinate objects. However, the resistance of selfs to my imperialistic design is different than that of things, since other people are also centers of consciousness and freedom. Each man has his own subjective perspective within which he tries to fit other men as facets reflecting a central brilliance. Thus there an inevitable clash class of private worlds and the personal projects. (p. 237)

This tale explains the argument for the Hobbesian “state of nature” as the natural human condition, and the absolute need for some sort of social contract that respects the presence of the other as having the same desires for domination. The language of politics today is full of dominating words and phrases. We are returning to a state like Hobbes envisioned. All the trappings of civil society cannot hide that trend, hard as the media and our own awareness tries to to do just that.

Voting is an act toward creating a future world just as sticking a needle full of dope in one’s arms is. The irony of the way we vote today is that we are merely feeding our addiction to individualism and approaching closer to a Hobbesian world. The trappings of civility we claim as a society, just as those in the Congress claims to own, cannot hide the fundamental drivers of our society. Neither political party can cure the ills of our society. At best they can produce economic growth, but, without the necessary context of the consequential face of Hobbesianism, that is, the social contract. Everyone who has studied or senses the system dynamics of addiction know this. It is and we are in a vicious cycle still built on the domination of both humans and nature.

The ultimate irony is that we are not destined to act this way either as an individual or a society. Both liberals and conservatives of all stripes, as the names get very fuzzy around election periods, are ideologues at bottom. So are we all. We have our creation stories about how we got here and about is our essential nature. We may not invoke these stories in our everyday activities, but they are always there embedded in the personal and institutional structure that shapes virtually every act we perform. They are but only a story, and that means they can be rewritten and edited as we get a better understanding of the world.

As every addict knows, our stories and their manifest consequences are very hard to cast off. But throw them away, we must. We are free to make existential choices during our lives. As Sartre says, “We are condemned to be free [to make such choices]” Today’s entry is another small chapter in what I have been writing and am still working on. Nowhere in the political talk was there any mention of flourishing or anything close to it. We are still bickering about how to preserve our individualism and reduce the governmental constraints upon it, but can’t see that individualism is what prevents us from being truly free. As Collins implies above, it is impossible to be free until one recognizes the existential legitimacy of every other human being.

Individualism brings negative freedom, the right to be let alone, but that freedom is illusory for it lacks positive freedom, the freedom to choose who one is to be in the world. To enjoy such existential freedom, one must recognize that everyone else has the same freedom. We cannot ignore the existence of other humans by thinking of them merely as objects like rocks and trees that intrude upon “me.” That’s a good description of a state of nature where humans act just as every other living species, surviving according to some essential nature. We can escape by telling a different story: that we are free to choose our essence, that we are fundamentally conscious, social animals, interacting out of concern for the world that envelops us, that our collective endeavors enable, not constrain, the existential freedom that only humans can enjoy.

(Image: Thomas Hobbes)

ps. Andy’s and my work has gotten some great reviews lately. You can find them on the book’s Facebook page. If you haven’t read our book, please do, and, if you have, tell your friends or use it in teaching and at work.