The Myth of Individualism

In Western countries, there is a widespread belief in what I will call the Cult of the Individual. This cult is manifested in things like the emphasis on individual rights, individual freedom or liberty, and individual tastes and preferences. The prevalence of this belief has led many people to believe mistakenly that they are more independent of Nature, other people, and the society they live in than they really are; in other words, it has made them overlook the innumerable ways in which we are dependent on other people, other living organisms, and the natural environment for our survival, well-being, and fulfillment as human beings.

Historically, the rise of the concept of the individual – a human creature that stands apart and can be considered separately from the community or society in which one lives – was due in part to the tyranny that resulted from living in large groups of more than a few hundred or thousand people, in which populous groups it was common for rulers to oppress and tyrannize over their subjects. Unlike other social creatures like ants, bees, and termites, because our species did not evolve in such large, disparate groups, our innate human capacities did not develop to deal with the many problems that arise from living in large groups, which explains why we are not well-adapted to living in them and resolving the many problems that invariably accompany their existence. But this historical period, which has lasted for the evolutionarily insignificant period of a few thousand years, has been a recent aberration in our species’ much longer existence.

Prior to this period, all human beings lived in small communities that, in the great majority of cases, did not contain more than a few hundred members, and were probably much smaller than this. Within these groups, one would have found a cultural, linguistic, and behavioural uniformity that is extremely rare in today’s world of increased mobility and cross-cultural and multilinguistic influences and exchanges. Every member of the community identified wholly with the group, meaning its other members, and probably would not have been able to conceive of a life apart from it. Moreover, with very few exceptions, the behaviours, practices, clothing (or lack of clothing), beliefs, traditions, dietary preferences, language, and customs of all the members were identical. Hence, there was, among its members, a social cohesion based on a shared uniformity that is increasingly rare in today’s world.

As I have discussed elsewhere, another important cause of the development of individualism was increased privacy. This is because, the more time a person spends alone, the more one will become unlike other people, especially if one spends one’s time observing and practising models of behaviour that are not performed by others.

Dipping recently into a multivolume history of private life edited by Philippe Ariès, I was fascinated to learn how the room of one’s own (specifically, the private study located off the master bedroom) and the modern sense of the individual emerged at more or less the same moment during the Renaissance. Apparently this is no accident: The new space and the new self actually helped give shape to one another. It appears there is a kind of reciprocity between interiors and interiority.[1]

The fact that, until recently, all human beings lived in small, uniform communities with very little privacy probably explains why, even in today’s highly individualistic societies, the great majority of people still feel the need to belong to some sort of group whose members share the same values, ideas, beliefs, practices, interests, and lifestyles. The sense of alienation that comes from living in a large, modern, and largely anonymous society, where people are different from each other in a multitude of ways, arises from not belonging to a uniform group of people, like the ones in which all our ancestors lived their entire lives not so very long ago, during the bulk of the time that human beings have existed on the Earth. Such uniformity is much rarer in today’s world, so much so that when two individuals meet who find that they have many things in common, they often take these shared interests, beliefs, practices, and preferences as a sign of compatibility or fate, in cases where there is sexual attraction between them.

In today’s complex and multifaceted world, the fact that even those who grow up in the same society are different from its other members is not due primarily to genetic differences, as is widely believed. These differences are due to the fact that people grow up observing and admiring different models of behaviour. To give an example, it is impossible that a person who grows up hearing people speak only one language, such as Spanish, Swahili, or Urdu, will later in life speak a different language that one has never heard spoken before. Moreover, except for those with a speech or hearing impediment, the person will speak the language using the same words and expressions, and pronouncing them in the same way, as all the other speakers of the language one has grown up observing. This linguistic determinism, to which there are no exceptions, is also true of other features of our behaviour, such as our dietary preferences, the way we dress, and all the other aspects of our lives, which many of us mistakenly believe are the result of individual choices and preferences. In other words, if all human beings grew up observing exactly the same models, then our behaviour would be much more uniform than it is in today’s chaotic and complex world of multiple, and sometimes contradictory, models, including those that are invented or fantastical, such as those depicted in movies or described in books.

It follows from these remarks that the sense of being different from others is due to the observation and practice of different models from the ones which they have observed. In the past, before the ubiquity of visual images that presently abound in various mediums of communication such as movies, magazines, television, advertising, and the Internet, these influences were due primarily to reading books. Hence, those who developed the idea of individualism, along with the legal rights that accompanied it, were primarily readers of books. Their newly-developed philosophy was an attempt to break free from the strong tendency to conform to the models we have observed and are practised by those who are in our realm of influence, as well as to the Law of Coercion, the innate human desire to make other people imitate the models we have grown up observing. In the past, the punishments, such as death, imprisonment, ostracism, exclusion, or banishment from society, that were inflicted on those who failed to imitate and conform to the prevailing models of behaviour were much more severe than they are today, when, in many societies, the force of conformity has lost much of its rigidity.

The differentiation from the other members of the society one lives in that is due to reading books arises in two ways: first, directly, one acquires from the books models of behaviour that are different from those one observes in the rest of one’s life and are practised by those one knows personally; and second, indirectly, while one is reading books, one spends less time observing the models of behaviour that are practised by others. Consequently, one will feel less inclined to imitate these models, and because one values them less than the others do, one will feel less compunction in rejecting or modifying them, and hence, may seek to replace them with different models.

So what does all this amount to? The important fact that individualism – the fact that people who live in the same society are different from each other – is largely the result of accidents in one’s upbringing and the models of behaviour one happens to observe while growing up. In other words, these differences, on which many of us place so much importance, are not innate, as is commonly believed.

Of course, this does not mean that these differences are not important. For example, the particular language one speaks and the particular religion one practises, or whether one practises a religion at all, even though these things are entirely the result of a historical and geographical accident, namely, the time and place one happens to be born or raised, are important in determining one’s image of oneself and the nature of one’s relations with others, such as, in the case of language, whether one will be able to communicate with them and be understood or not.

In Western societies, there has arisen a tradition, in both real life and art, of celebrating and glorifying the person who stands apart from the rest of society. These individuals are celebrated for their courage, genius, foresight, skill, strength, daring, innovation, ingenuity, leadership, resolution, rebelliousness, or some other feature that distinguishes them and sets them apart from everyone else. Hence, there are many inhabitants of Western societies who, having observed these models from a young age, want to be different or stand out from everyone else, just like their heroes. In addition, some of these heroes are fictional or cinematic, meaning they are embellished or exaggerated depictions of real persons.

The capitalist system of social and economic organization is based on the assumption that both human beings and companies are individual, rational, and independent actors that base their decisions on certain kinds of information like prices, wages, and profitability, but not on what they see and hear of other people doing. This mistaken assumption ignores the fact that we human beings are imitative creatures par excellence, and that the desire to imitate what we see other people doing is a strong and innate part of our nature. Economists have caused a great deal of harm and confusion by seeking to impose on all people a theoretical model of behaviour that ignores our strong tendency to imitate and conform to the behaviour of those who are in our realm of influence.

But even with this false model of human behaviour, we see many instances of the strong tendency to imitate bursting through this artificial and assumed rationality, like seedlings that break through the sterile asphalt or concrete with which we humans like to pave the fertile earth. Some of these instances are not at all beneficial, such as the speculative bubbles that occur periodically and cause chaos and instability in national or global markets when they collapse. These bubbles swell as more and more people see or hear of others making large amounts of money in a relatively short period of time, which in turn drives up the price of the stock or commodity even higher. But eventually there comes a time when there are no new buyers, or not enough of them to maintain the artificially elevated price, and the former steadily increasing supply of money dries up, at which calamitous point the price starts to drop, sometimes as quickly as it rose to its vertiginous but unsustainable summits.

At the present time, the myth of individualism is most strongly developed and widely accepted in the United States. Not surprisingly, it is there that the harmful effects of this myth are also most visible, where extravagant wealth is juxtaposed with abject poverty, where manicured estates lie a short distance away from slums and ghettos. In the United States and elsewhere, the rich have convinced themselves that taxes are a form of legalized theft, and so they seek whatever means possible, whether legal or illegal, not to pay them, even though the government provides them with many services that enable them to earn the vast sums of money they do and contribute to maintaining the value of the money they have. Hence, we see private displays of extravagant wealth in the same cities and country as deteriorating public buildings and infrastructure, insufficient services, and poorly-paid government workers. In the United States at the present time, there is a selfish refusal, on the part of the rich and those who are well-off, to cooperate, share their wealth, and act for the common good. The result of this refusal on the part of the rich is the steady deterioration of American society, a deterioration that, if it continues unchecked, will have serious consequences in the long run even for the rich.

It used to be that citizenship in a strong and healthy state was universally prized, because citizenship confers rights. But with citizenship also comes responsibilities, and it turns out that not everybody wants those. In the minds of some, if you can get the rights without the responsibilities, you’re really into something.

In other words, there’s a new class of people whose goal is to become above citizenship. Live in America, conduct your trades in the weaker regulatory arena in London, pay your taxes in Antigua or the Isle of Man. Keep the rights but offshore the responsibilities.[2]

The adamant refusal of many Americans to act collectively because of their strong attachment to the myth of individualism, as well as to the false belief that such collective actions, whether they are democratic or not, will inevitably lead them down the road to communism or socialism, has gravely weakened the power of ordinary citizens. In contrast, this situation permits the continued unchecked usurpation of power – financial, political, and legal – by the many voracious corporations that are largely owned by and thus help the wealthy to gain even more wealth.

There is a military strategy that declares that, in order more easily to defeat your adversary, you must first divide them into smaller, uncoordinated, and non-cooperating units before conquering them. This is what has happened in the United States. Whereas the people, due to their foolish adherence to the myth of individualism, which ironically makes them believe that this adherence makes them more free, are divided into largely powerless individuals or groups who, in many cases, refuse to cooperate and coordinate their actions for their common good, the rich and mighty corporations stand united in their opposition to government programs, laws, restrictions, regulations, and taxes. The result of this process has been greatly to increase inequality and injustice, while it delivers many Americans, in particular the poor, increasingly into the bonds and economic shackles of corporate serfdom and exclusion.

A global example of the harmfulness of individualism is the desire of most couples to have children and see them grow up to have children of their own. When people decide whether to have a child or not, they usually only consider how it will affect them personally, such as whether they want a child or how many children they will have, whether they will be able to afford it, whether it will be born healthy, and so forth. There are very few people who take the time to consider what effects the child’s existence will have on the Earth’s many other non-human organisms, and whether the planet, which sustains all Life, can support another human child, along with everything it will consume, and the large quantities of garbage and pollution it will produce, during its increasingly prolonged lifetime. It is no exaggeration to say that this myopic and selfish attitude on our part has begotten a planetary catastrophe that is primarily due to our completely irresponsible exploding human population, as well as the many artificial desires that did not exist in the past, which desires significantly increase the harmful effects we have on the environment and other living organisms.

As is true of social and economic problems, the grave and worsening environmental problems that we must solve, which are entirely of our own creating, can only be solved by collective and cooperative actions. We will not be able to solve them if we continue to act selfishly, by doing whatever we feel like doing, encouraged by the many preachers of the false doctrine of individualism, who declare that it is an innate part of our human character, and therefore we cannot help behaving the way we do. So long as people continue to act selfishly and individually, thinking only of themselves and the very small number of people they care about, we will continue on the course on which our too-clever and overconfident species has been travelling for the past several centuries and millennia, a course that, in my opinion, will lead to our extinction in the near future, because of our numerous failings and limitations as complex social organisms.

[1] A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder by Michael Pollan, chapter 1. Random House, New York, 1997.

[2] The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi, chapter 5. Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2014.