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Individualism With a Vengeance

Capitalism and the Hole


Beginning in the 1970s but only gradually gaining force, a global capitalist revolution has taken place that has changed not just economic relations in the West, but the very way that we see ourselves as social beings. We can argue ideology, but the deeper question is: who is it that is doing the arguing? And while the answer is presumably self-evident to most readers, history and contradictions between self and society suggest that this self-evidence isn’t all that it is purported to be.

In the U.S. a backlash against increasing pressure from the political left going as far back as the late 1940s took form in the deregulation of industry, globalization and the resurgence of the economics of the radical right.  The misreading of history, geography and regional tensions that accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to capitalist triumphalism and further pushed radical right economics to the center of academic and political life. And the accompanying social ontology that poses ‘individuals’ as the fundamental unit of society has revived the social Darwinist ethos of the Victorian era with a vengeance.

When proponents of global capitalism discuss ‘the economy,’ they appeal to deeply hidden premises about who we are as people and against known facts. The known facts are relatively easy to list—the U.S. has low economic mobility, extremely skewed income distribution, large scale and persistent unemployment, environmentally suicidal industrial practices and economic policies supported by ‘both’ parties in Washington that favor continued consolidation of economic and political power and the immiseration of the vast majority of global citizens.

The question of who we are as people is more difficult because the answers are deeply hidden. Be-this-as-it-may, the political and economic establishments provide ready answers that are self-serving, instantiated through centuries of capitalist social philosophy and ultimately, implausible. And far from being the mythological amalgamation of right and left, the political center in the U.S. emerged from and supports the radical right via economic policies, military policies and the hegemonic social ontology behind it all.

An irony lost on most Americans is that the U.S. has the highest proportion of its prison population living in solitary confinement in the world while we also celebrateindividualism as our most basic political and economic identity. Solitary confinement is rightly considered torture by the civilized world. And while social isolation is different from individualism, ‘individualism’ has no meaning in isolation—it is socially defined in its base existence and in the presumed self-knowledge by which it is endorsed. What violence then does economic individualism do to social existence when its factual incarnation is unambiguously torture?

The U.S. pioneered the use of solitary confinement  centuries ago through the ‘Philadelphia System’ of penal incarceration, initially considered progressive and humane because it was believed to force productive contemplation. However, it was quickly recognized that rather than forcing productive contemplation, those subjected to social isolation rapidly lost their minds. Within weeks of being isolated they began to deteriorate physically and psychologically. And while penal confinement and surveillance no doubt contribute to psychological ills, two centuries of evidence strongly support the view that social isolation alone causes psychological deterioration.

This experience and history suggest that social existence is both fundamental to the self-knowledge on which individualism is premised and to the social object of ‘individual.’ People don’t ‘find themselves’ in solitary confinement, they lose themselves. The psychological deterioration it causes is described nowhere as increased self-knowledge or awareness. And with a nod to Karl Marx, a person alone isn’t an individual– the term only has meaning in its social relation. ‘Individual’ exists in opposition to ‘society,’ the object against which it has meaning.

To a fair number of Americans the notion of individualism, economic and political, is sacrosanct. And this may in part explain the absence of abhorrence at the ongoing torture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons—how can being ‘kept to oneself’ be torture? But again, the social isolation of solitary confinement is being kept from oneself, not ‘to oneself’—people lose themselves in isolation. This paradox alone should call the premises of economic and political individualism into question. And were the cluster of theories behind the Anglo-American concept of what it means to be human descriptively accurate, social isolation wouldn’t have the effect that it does.

Historically, the political-economic concept of ‘individual’ derives from strategies of political domination and control. Colonial American ‘individuals’ were political persons—connected rich, white landowners. Under the Constitution slaves were ‘three-fifths’ of political persons to be counted toward the political power of the slave owner. And while this is well-trodden territory for philosophers and historians, its grip on the identity and self-identity of Americans results in some measure from a fear of being politically and economically dominated. But the ‘facts’ of the world would continue were the conceptual borders delineating individual from world re-oriented, or even eliminated. And agency and its relation to social construction through language, shared experience, social devices and political economy would continue to the extent that it ever has—no more, no less.

Karl Marx challenged the capitalist economic premise of ‘individual’ one and one-half centuries ago under the charge ‘Robisonade’ based on Daniel Defoe’s fictional ‘Robinson Crusoe’ character that was stranded on a desert island. Mr. Marx referred to the deduced histories of capitalist economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo and social philosopher John Locke to argue that they were then what they are today—implausible fantasies used to provide ‘natural’ foundations for the then current economic relations of early capitalism.

Uber-capitalist Warren Buffett clearly understood Mr. Marx’s point when, in a speech he gave in North Carolina in 1995, he admitted that the skills that allowed him to become rich were historically contingent—they are what society values in his time and place. Ignoring for the moment that much of the accumulated wealth in the West in inherited, this ties to the notion of ‘Robisonade’ in the sense that were today’s titans of industry and finance marooned on a desert isle, not only would they produce very little wealth, there would be little point in their doing so. Wealth is a social artifact, the product of a particular political economy. But the individuals of the ‘earlier time’ who first produced wealth in isolation, deduced by the antique theoreticians of capitalism, remain the fundamental social unit in capitalist social ontology.

Associated with the concept of individual is that of the ‘self-evidence’ of the world. If individuals are indeed responsible for their own lot in life then direct engagement (not dependent of social engagement) with the world is required. This direct engagement inferred that we all have equal opportunity, if not likelihood, of economic and political success. How else could concentrated political and economic power be justified when the church had already claimed divine right and European Monarchies were coming unwound with the rise of Smith’s / Ricardo’s / Locke’s bourgeois shop-keeps in ascendance? The theories of capitalism that supported them could hardly be sold as ‘freedom’ if the ‘wants’ of society’s newly constructed individuals were socially, rather than individually determined?

Closer to home, in the early twentieth century a less reported ‘crisis of capitalism’ occurred when it was found that past a fairly modest point people really didn’t want the stuff that capitalist enterprise produced. The use of psychological techniques to convince people that they ‘individually’ wanted consumer goods brought rise to the advertising industry. ‘Individual’ wants (that didn’t previously exist) subsequently appeared en masse for just what capitalists were then producing.  Herr Marx called an earlier incarnation of stuff-lust ‘commodity fetish’ to indicate that what is today called consumerism was a clearly demarcated cultural oddity in his time. Again, without psychological manipulation, people didn’t that much want the stuff produced by capitalism. With psychological manipulation people collectively as ‘individuals’ decided they did want the stuff of capitalism. Where then lies the relationship between agency and individualism?

Where individualism as a social philosophy remains today is clearly with the radical political-economic right, by which I include the political and economic mainstream in political centers and academia in the West. When Barack Obama or Mitt Romney use Clintonisms like ‘opportunity society’ and ‘level playing field’ they appeal to deeply constructed notions of the self in contrast to economic fact. Mitt Romney is the incarnation of economic fact—born to wealth and privilege that are social artifacts, not evidence of individual effort. The wealth he accumulated is plundered social wealth, not something he sat in isolation and produced. And it is these same economic facts that the political establishments of the West serve.

The industry of academic economics is even more culpable in promoting not just the existing economic facts but also the implausible social ontology of capitalism. Capitalist economists have spent thirty years advancing ‘micro-foundations’ as the fundamental objects of economic life where individual actions sum to social outcomes. Again, isolated ‘individuals’ don’t function socially. How then do isolated individuals aggregate to produce social outcomes? And if these ‘individuals’ aren’t isolated in that they exist socially, in what way are social outcomes then the sum of the actions of isolated individuals? As deeply embedded as the concept of ‘individual’ is in the Western psyche, we don’t appear to exist at all outside of social existence.

Finally, the great fear in the West, and in the U.S. in particular, is of losing our ‘individuality.’ That this individuality expresses itself through consuming the stuff that capitalism produces provides a hegemonic ‘foundation’—the self-fulfilling object of the capitalist social ontology, via the purported self-knowledge of individualism. Western economics are premised on this historically contingent ‘foundation’ and perpetuate the economic interests of the radical right under the guise of representing human nature. But the rapid psychological decay of social isolation strongly suggests the social nature of individualism. In this case, recognition of this social nature isn’t to lose one’s individuality– it is to find it. And the individuality (agency) found in social life is the opposite of the fundamental principles of capitalism.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.