How individualism gives cover for inequality and prejudice…

Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in how ideas shape us, for good and ill. I am particularly interested in ideas that shape us in ways that we may not even notice; ideas that sit in our subconscious and dictate what thoughts are possible, almost like the soil quality dictating what kind of trees can grow.

There is no doubt that one such idea that has dominating our thinking throughout the late 20th C and into the 21st is this one;

individualism noun

  1. the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.
  2. a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.”encouragement has been given to individualism, free enterprise, and the pursuit of profit”

It is a word that has many good associations, you could say that it is the hallmark of our democracy, the peak of what we aspire to as citizens.

It is an idea that is also at the centre of almost all the other ways we think about ourselves and our culture;

ECONOMICS. The dominant economic model for the western world is still Neoliberal economics, which is based around the idea of individual autonomous consumer units

POLITICS. ‘There is no such thing as society’ said Margaret Thatcher, and successive governments on the left and right have tried to prove her correct. Instead we have strivers/skyvers. There are those who are contributing to society and those who are ‘excluded’. The latter need only individual solutions.

RELIGION. We offer only a personal Jesus, who seeks to save the world one sinner at a time. The Hebrew God, who refused even to be given an individual name, and was collectively engaged with a whole nation, has been forgottten.

THERAPY. It is not just because of swiftness and convenience that ‘self-help’ has become such a huge seller and gained such traction within the world of mental health. We can only see individual solutions to what are mostly collective problems.

HEALTH. Positive thinking is offered as the cure all for everything from depression to cancer. Your healing comes from the power of your individualism.

You get my point, I am sure. In some parts of the western world, individualism seems like an unassailable ideal. Any percieved threats to ‘individual rights’ are greeted with howls and threats. Think about the USA and guns. Think about the UK obsession with home ownership and consumer protection.

We are at a tipping point in our culture, and typically when one epoch shifts into another, then underlying ideas that are intermingled with the old paradigm tend to be challenged too. There is a danger of pendulum swing, in which we lose the good along with the bad, but I would suggest that it is essential that our concept of individualism is examined again.

Take a look at this quote and think about how you respond to it. Is it ‘true’? Does it make you feel inspired, or does it make you feel inadequate? Does it even apply to you, or is it more relevant to other people- those that need it more than you do?

It might be helpful to think about the quote in the context of your personal success.

Then in the context of your personal failure.

The thing is that anyone who has ever made even the most cursory study of social science will tell you that Henry Ford (who was after all not the most sympathetic individual) is talking absolute nonsense. Let me say more;

Psychologists can demonstrate in a hundred way that relative success in life (measured any way you like) is pre-loaded at birth, then shaped further by formative experience.

Sociologists can demonstrate in a thousand ways that success and failure is generational and ebbs and flows on a population wide level. Detailed studies of the effects of poverty have shown that there was never a level playing field. Poverty brutalises, hinders our cognition, makes us ill and die young, and we pass these things on to our childrens children.

Social historians can reveal to us how these arguments are not new. They can tell us the story of how the sweep of history has not primarily about famous individuals, but rather about mass collective action. They can show us how other generations have failed to the learn the lessons that we are grappling with now.

Even economists (and I mean even) know that Haydek’s individual autonomous economic unit is just a simplistic canard. They know that, no matter how much you try to ‘just leave it to the market to decide’, interventions will be necessary. They know that free market economics always leads to boom and bust, in which individuals are victimised.

So why, in the face of so much opposition, do ideas about individualism still hold such a grip over our culture? I am no conspiracy theorist, but here we have to consider whose interests are being served most by this narrative, and how the mythology around it is sustained. It is totally unsurprising that those in power tend to believe that their success came as a result of their own merit; of decisions they made and individual positive attributes that they posess.

But when we think about it, we know already that there was never a level playing field. Individual success was always dependent on your place in the collective.

One very topical way that we can demonstrate how this works is in relalation to how racism works.

The standard individualist response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been to say “NO- ALL lives matter.” This is one of those classic tautologies, in which a truth is used to hide and obscure a deeper truth. Of course all lives matter, but the point here is that pervasive, institutional, hidden racism has meant that black lives have never been lived with an equality of opportunity.

The other standard individualist response to a collective challenge is to choose individual examples that buck the trend or prove the stereotype; the high achievers from poor backgrounds, Obama becoming president, the benefits cheats who never wanted to work in the first place. Of course individuals can trancend their circumstances, and of course some people who are poor make bad decisions, but by choosing to focus on these examples (as we see the mainstream media doing time after time) we perpetuate a myth and fail to engage with the realities of iving in complex community.

Individualism has quite simply made it harder to see collective difference. If we can blame individual black people for their lack of success, we do not need to confront the benefits of our own privilege. If poor people are poor because of individual failures and unwillingness to use the power of politive thinking then efforts towards equality in society are pointless.

Our politics has essentially sold us a set of lies about how humanity interacts in the western world. We have always known it was not true, but this has not stripped the idea of any of its power.

Why does this matter?

It matters because most of the problems this world is facing right now can not be solved at an individual level alone. Even those problems (like homelessness and rough sleeping) that seem almost hyper-individualistic in their nature have to have collective solutions in the form of home building, sensitive support and benefit systems, etc.

The bigger ones, such as poverty, racism and inequality generally- we have to stop pretending that these could ever be addressed at an individual level. We have to call out those politician on the political right (and even the left) who ignore the huge body of research that tells us about how collective behaviours shape individual choices.

There are two other things happening in the world that also reveal the limits of individualism.

The first is COVID-19. What we do as individuals affects those around us. Some are affected more than others because of vulnerabilities over which they had little control.

The other one is climate change. Individual action is not even a drop in the (warming) ocean. Only by releasing the power of the collective can we hope to save what we have left.

This is as good a way to end as any.

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