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The Illness is the Cure

Purchasing Individuality in America

by M. JUNAID ALAM

Bracing against the Marxist menace, America erected a powerful pantheon of ideas where the deities of Capital received frequent and fulsome tribute. Foremost among these deities was Individuality. The scripture inscribed at the base of this particular god was unmistakably clear: Americans, unlike their enslaved Soviet counterparts, were free. Uninhibited by draconian government, unimpeded by drab tyranny, their horizons were limited only by their individual willpower, work ethic, and imagination.

New enemies have stepped out from battered caves and Babylonian crevices to replace the old, but the sanctity of Individuality still stands, untarnished by time. Striking down oily terrorists abroad and grubby miscreants at home, Individuality inveighs against all enemies of Capital with unmatched fury: as an integral part of their quest for ‘uniqueness,’ Americans hold a natural right to pursue infinite power and wealth, without regard for fellow Americans or human beings elsewhere. And if these worldly treasures happen to become amassed in the hands of a select few–if, by the very procurement of immense profit by these few, many more are fated to suffer misery–that is simply the nature of the game: Kings crowned and paupers parsed out by the forces of the Great American Way.

But between kings and paupers lies the public. Pretty prose extolling the virtues of Individuality may massage the moral senses of handsome millionaires even as it mocks the lot of voiceless victims, but above all its impact is most pronounced–and most important–among the large middle layer of the broader American masses. In a period of affluence and widespread wealth, the rhetoric of Individuality finds many receptive ears; wages and living standards rise, social mobility eases class tensions, new products are introduced and new markets opened up. On this rail of economic upswing, the ideological train of Individuality enjoys a smooth ride. There is no need to ask too many questions about long-term consequences, eye too closely the story of the Self-Made Man, worry about those left behind, or philosophize about the social desirability of certain products, advertising, consumption, and so on. Life is good, and backdrop, unnecessary.

But what happens when the Self-Made Man is unmade? What happens when the woman married to the unmade Self-Made Man must work long hours so the family’s income may merely match what the father alone once earned? What happens when real wages stagnate, when work hours increase, when benefits dwindle, for a major part of the working class and even a growing portion of the ‘middle class’? What happens when not only low-end jobs but skilled labor is sacrificed at the altar of Capital’s freshly minted deities of automation and outsourcing; when social safety nets evaporate, when income inequality grows? What happens–in a word–now?

A healthy society would have prepared some answers. But not healthy society alone: American society, too, has prepared answers. Here, however, one will not find any rebuke of the endless glorification of the (successful) individual or easing up of the contemptuous derision directed at ‘those who did not make it'; any criticism of that type of differentiation which recognizes only the level of domination achieved over others; any emphasis on the importance of social and collective responsibility or on the wealthy classes’ abdication of such responsibility. The unhinging of Individuality from its rails of Opportunity and Affluence has not given rise to much concern or consternation in America: Decades of inundation by capitalist theology will not permit it.

Instead, the spectacle has only become more absurd, more intense. What was previously only the obligatory worship of Individuality has now been subsumed by the fervent cult of Individuality. Signs of this cult are omnipresent. In the social sphere, everywhere one turns one finds a coiling loop of deception: the life sucked out of the worker by the strict regimentation, monotony, and hardship imposed by Capital is ‘relieved’ by products claiming to offer myriad instant enhancements to one’s individual features or attributes. For every illness the market system produces, it offers up a supposed cure, relayed by advertisement, obtained by purchase, and administered by consumption. Thus, the illness is the cure. A brief examination of just some of the more salient ‘cures’ currently being administered in America to the nation’s youth today will reveal the dangers posed to the well-being of any society that clings to this faulty loop as a respiratory system.

Any American who has braved adolescence in the past fifteen years has already been exposed to capitalism’s most intense and relentless effort of ‘individualizing’ the individual: the apparel industry. Immense pressure, reaching its crescendo during high school but beginning as early as elementary, is exerted over youth to select a certain style of dress. Boys, for instance, find themselves identifying with one of several possible groups: ‘preppies’, with their clean-cut, expensive, buttoned shirts, pressed khakis, and stylish loafers; ‘gothics’, recognized by the overwhelming blackness of their attire, prominent chains, and piercings; ‘jocks’, outfitted in muscle shirts, tank tops, and sneakers touting advanced scientific engineering features; and ‘gangstas’, donning pants always prepared to fall off and long, baggy hooded sweatshirts, layered over with four or five faux-gold chains.

At first glance, all this seems more or less harmless. One can endlessly debate the aesthetics of it all, but styles and fads come and go, and any child’s particular choice of one over the other is hardly a blow against genuine individuality. The real problem lies is in the fact that it is not actually style that is being chosen, but status being bought. Anyone familiar with the scene well knows that no boy literally pines after the aesthetics of this or that shirt, pair of shoes, or pants, or agonizes over this or that particular design. Rather, what is desperately sought after is entry and acceptance into one of the various social cliques; what is coveted is the approval of the clique members by immersing oneself in all the proper external ‘gear’ associated with the projected image of that clique.

Equally well understood by both children and parents is that, despite the vastly different images each clique attempts to project with its choice of apparel, preppies, jocks, gothics, and gangstas alike all obtain their license to cliquedom through the exact same means: walk into a mall, enter a clothing store, buy the goods, and leave. All the clothing styles are equally expensive, each with their own exclusive company brandings, with "quality", ie., branded, shirts and sweaters ranging from $20-$50, pants $30-$60, and shoes $50-100, on average. Therefore what we see in this supposed foray into ‘individuality’ by youngsters is merely an expensive game of gaining group acceptance, an anxious rush into conformity poorly disguised as individual ‘choice’ and ‘style.’

This is no better, and in fact probably worse, than youth’s overall headlong rush into materialism and endless hankering after the latest consumer products. Leaving aside the issue of cost, what kind of individuality save the most superficial and trite can be gained by the obsessive fetishization of apparel? How does one become more unique of by announcing to the world via his t-shirt logo that he is the "property of Abercrombie & Fitch?"

All that really occurs here is the subsuming of the individual into the hype and mantra projected by the clique. This is a kind of vicarious fantasyland where wearing sagging pants transforms one into a rhyme-rolling rap star, sporting athletic shoes catapults one into all-star NBA player status, and shrouding oneself in black adds the aura of a rock star. And if the ‘rap star’, ‘all-star’, and ‘rock star’ all happen to harbor hatred or suspicion for one another based on a quick glance, as so often happens in clique-filled schools across the country, then chalk up one more point for ‘individuality’–superficial differentiation.

The bitter irony is that those who suffer most for this false individuality are the working-class mothers and fathers who must slave away at work to pay for it. While rich and well-off children can be lavished with expensive clothes without much financial worry for their parents, the poorer kids invariably demand the same kind of status-defining items from their already over-pressured parents. Thus the story of people like Kechia Williams is not atypical: a mother of five and university custodian who rises at 4 a.m. to begin work at 6, she already works overtime "to pay for basics like new school clothes and supplies," but finds her boys "always begging for brand namesespecially the ones the rappers are talking about," and can "see in their eyes how bad they want something, and I want to get it for them." (Newsweek Sept. 13, 2004)

Whatever the pressures exerted upon young boys in capitalist America, they pale in comparison to the much greater pressures brought to bear against young girls. For them, ‘choices’ stretch far beyond the meager scope of mere apparel into the vast beyond of cosmetics, or ‘beauty products.’ As the name implies, these are advertised to enhance their wearer’s beauty, their desirability, their sex appeal, their comeliness, in myriad ways. One cream will offer smoother skin, another, age-defying powers; one lipstick brand will promise lustful lips, only to be outdone by one offering even more lustful lips–and less stickiness to boot. In this manner, a thousand other variations on a thousand other aspects of the female form will be presented and peddled as improving one’s attractiveness.

Once again, at first glance there appears to be nothing alarming about this situation–and once again, what is seen at first glance turns out to be deceptive. For the keen observer will note that what is impressive in this arrangement is not the vast number of products and sheer combinations intensely advertised and offered by the market to young girls, but rather the narrow, suffocating scope of what aspect of a woman’s overall humanity the market is targeting–and, by its emphasis and glorification–what aspect a woman’s humanity is reduced to: eye-candy.

The reduction of young girls to eye candy has very painful consequences for many of them, and very happy ones for capitalism. An artificially-induced and distorted competition to be the most beautiful and attractive ensues, invariably with its small share of ‘winners’ and large share of ‘losers,’ the latter of whose anxiety, insecurity, and frustration is quickly pressed into service by the market, which beckons them to purchase more and more products to improve their place in the pack. Instead of cultivating individuality or uniqueness, this process only cultivates insecurity and unhappiness.

Other critical areas of development are left neglected and underrepresented–where are the massive billboards and pinups appealing to and advancing women’s strength, intelligence, self-reliance, and versatility? What one finds instead in most media avenue are images of apparently anorexic, doe-eyed, half-naked women striking submissive sexual poses. In this environment, women are taught at a young age by the market not about solidarity or self- advancement, but to set themselves against each other in competition for pole position in the race to be the best eye candy.

And candy in precisely whose eye? Obviously, that of the man. "Sex sells"–and by "sex" what is mostly meant is sexy women–because men buy. Here we see the infinite cleverness of capitalism, the grand masking game that it plays in American society. Of course, there is no visible male authority figure, no controlling, overbearing stereotypical sexist barking orders, directing or commanding women to run around feverishly and anxiously to improve their looks, to alter their appearance, to become bare-bone thin, or adjust themselves in any other number of superficial, sexual ways for male pleasure. In our atmosphere of depoliticized feminism, of a feminism decapitated by the guillotine of Capital, women are more or less free in that they are not forced to do any of these things–they simply ‘choose’ to. This is a feat no sexist could duplicate.

What lessons can be drawn from this brief exposition? For many decades, we have been force-fed a major lie: capitalist ideologues intone that there can only be true individuality within a framework of economic ‘freedom’–freedom for Capital, that is–and any serious attempt to curb the freedom of Capital will, conversely, result in a severe curbing of individuality. But what does reality tell us? That, far from offering the positive value of individuality to counter its negative tendency to produce economic inequalities, capitalism instead merely reproduces and replicates its economic inequalities in the social sphere.

Genuine individuality–not the false idol of Individuality, as defined, packaged, and peddled under capitalism–is indeed possible. It is possible in a world where the sagging of one’s pants or amount of lipstick on one’s face does not determine one’s status or desirability; where status and desirability are not in turn determined by a handful of elites who invent artificial distinctions and exacerbate natural ones as a means of enriching themselves at the expense of the security and self-development of those below them. It is possible in a world where all individuals exercise control over their economic, and therefore social, destinies. Genuine individuality is possible in a world where, in essence, individuals are allowed to exist genuinely.

M. JUNAID ALAM, 21, Boston, co-editor of radical youth journal Left Hook, feedback: alam@lefthook.org