By Gus Bagakis
Blaming the victim protects the system by keeping the focus on what individuals are doing instead of what the system is doing to them. —Susan Rosenthal.
While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. —Eugene V. Debs
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. —Martin Luther King Jr.
Have you ever wondered where your ideas and beliefs come from? Did they just pop into your brain because you were a human being, or were you trained by your culture to view the world in a specific way? Did you learn how to believe, or did you learn how to think? Do you believe that whatever your view, “This is just the way the world is?” How do you think, and what do you believe about your relationship with other people? Do you prioritize yourself over the group and value being independent? Or do you base your thoughts and actions on the needs of the community?
Our country’s founding documents focus on the value of the individual and the individual’s freedom. The Founding Fathers’ way of thinking about the individual and society can be traced back to John Locke. He promoted a limitation of the power of government in order not to interfere with individual initiative. This ideology of individualism was coupled with a helping and caring society championed by the biblical and republican traditions in the early republic. Thus, the founding fathers assumed that when individuals pursue their goals, they would naturally be motivated by the “common good” to shape our social institutions.
WHAT IS INDIVIDUALISM?
Individualism is the idea that freedom of thought and action for each person is the most important quality of a society. This implies that each person is an independent being, free to choose his or her or their associations, and not be obligated to perform duties imposed by society without consent. This view has been encouraged by the experience of millions of immigrants. They came to these shores throwing off their old traditions, seeking to escape poverty and tyranny, primarily determined by membership in a specific class, caste, or religion. Although some retained their ties to ethnic and religious communities, on the whole, most demonstrated a willingness to start a new life on their own as farmers and artisans.
Individualism is part of the American character. Pioneers who continued their westward expansion after the civil war were called “rugged individualists.” They chose the hardship of moving into what they called “unsettled lands” as they slaughtered the indigenous peoples who lived there. This individualistic ethic held as the United States transitioned from a rural and agricultural to an industrialized and urban capitalist society.
What follows is my critique of excessive individualism in the United States. I share Parker Palmer’s description of a healthy society as one in which “the private and the public are not mutually exclusive, not in competition with each other. They are instead, halves of a whole, two poles of a paradox. They work together dialectically, helping to create and nurture one another.”
Others have also eloquently expressed a similar view. Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of “Democracy in America” (1835), coined the term “individualism” and defined it as “a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.” Tocqueville was concerned about the future of democracy. He believed that individualism needed to be modified by a concern for the community. People needed to be active in civic organizations to sustain freedom and have a fulfilling life.
In 1961 JFK said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He attempted to balance the individual and the community when the cold war was rumbling, and the civil rights struggle was growing. He believed we have to work together as a society to improve collective harmony.
Another critique of individualism was expressed in an exercise performed by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He held up a sheet of white paper and asked the audience what they saw. Most people responded, “a white sheet of paper.” Some children and artists answered differently. They saw “clouds, rain, and trees.” Thich Nhat Hanh replied that “Without clouds, there will be no rain, without rain, trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper.” He continued, “We can also see a logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that becomes his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it, too. When we look in this way, we see that this sheet of paper cannot exist without these things. Looking more deeply, we can see that we are in it too.” The exercise was intended to demonstrate that we are interdependent and not isolated individuals.
I would augment this lesson by adding the relationship between the logger, the company he works for, the political economy, and the earth’s energy and changing climate. Most people answered, “the white sheet,” some due to the natural focus on the self and our immediate reaction to the world, and some due to the inheritance of individualism and capitalist training, which lead them to overlook the broader context and our relationship to it.
A CRITIQUE OF INDIVIDUALISM FROM RADICAL EDUCATION
Paulo Freire argued in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” that the “student’s humanity cannot be carried out in isolation or by individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity.” He further argued that problem-posing education liberated students by transforming them into humanized (non-individualistic) actors. For Freire, education was about making connections.
An exercise based on Freire’s pedagogy has been used by Ira Shore, a radical educator. He asked his students to describe the chair they were sitting on, then answer a series of questions about the chair, similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s above exercise. By using dialogue and writing, Shor got his students to discover the chair’s origin by understanding the economic and cultural system behind its production.
THE INFLUENCE OF CAPITALISM ON INDIVIDUALISM:
Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (1776) is sometimes called the Bible of capitalism. Smith never used the term “capitalism; he used “commercial society.” His most famous quote was, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.” This quote illustrates the self-centeredness of men.
Capitalism is based on the principle of free individuals (both capitalists and workers) who represent their own self‐interest. Under Capitalism’s sway, the common good that the founders advocated became the good primarily for the capitalist class, while the workers got the left-overs.
The workers became alienated and increasingly isolated. They did not identify with their labor products because they were exploited and controlled and did not have a say in their work-life. They were reduced to mere objects used as the means to an end—profit for the capitalist class. American workers have been trained, educated, pressured, propagandized, and entertained to see themselves more as isolated individuals rather than members of a group. Attempts at building unions have diminished over the years, although there seems to be some movement currently. Workers are focused on competing and winning in all areas of their lives: school, careers, the economy, sports, and politics. As historian Christopher Lasch pointed out, we have been turned into a culture of competitive individualism, a war of “all against all.”
In the meantime, the capitalists saw themselves in competition with one another, as individualists struggling for profits. Because of Capitalism, the dominant culture is made up of individuals—people who tend to see themselves as an “I” rather than seeing themselves and others as a “WE.”
This “I” “WE” theme was developed and expanded in “The Upswing,” which argued that in our history, we’ve moved from an individualistic “I” society to a more communitarian “WE” society, and then back again. The era of “I” (the 1870s through 1890s), otherwise known as the gilded age, occurred at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when America and much of Europe shifted from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Millions of immigrants and struggling farmers arrived in cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and St Louis. The Gilded Age was the age of the robber baron industrialists (Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt). At that time, America was highly individualistic, unequal, polarized, and fragmented, like today. Then, with the arrival of the progressive era (1896–1916), there was widespread social activism and political reform, the great convergence, from the 1900s to the 1920s. After the setback of the great depression (1929-1933), we continued the convergence, which culminated in the cooperative age of “WE” from the 1940s to the late 70s when the country was mobilized due to WW2, and FDR’s new deal. Beginning with Reagan in 1981, we began the great divergence, returning to a new version of the gilded age, with growing inequality of wealth and the return of the focus on “I,” summarized in his historic anti-We statement: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” In maintaining his “I” perspective he attacked the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) union, in 1981. Of course Reagan’s attack on government hid his support of the military-industrial complex. During the period of Trump, in late 2020, the emphasis on the “I” continued, exemplified by Trump supporters who insisted that their individual rights were being violated by governors’ coronavirus restrictions.
The authors of “The Upswing” recognized that their “I” “WE” historical summary largely ignored people of color and women. The question is, with the arrival of the new regime and Biden, do we follow policies like those of FDR, with the expulsion of patriarchy and racism, and become a fuller “WE”?
Capitalism’s increasing control of the government enables a small ruling class to divide and rule a much larger working class. It has turned the world, patrolled and controlled by the American military, into a workplace, creating profits for the few and grinding toil and poverty for the many. Workers are faced with daily misery under wage-slavery compounded by inequality, inadequate healthcare, poor housing, job loss, and the danger of perpetual war. Because the capitalist class seeks short-term profits, they have little concern with the long-term effects on the workers and the environment. Workers’ misery, a poisoned environment, an economic catastrophe, a replacement of democratic government with an oligarchy, a growing ecological calamity, and the beginnings of social decay all promote an increase in “I” thinking.
The American style of individualism denies not just community but even society, where no one owes anything to anyone. Everyone must be prepared to fight for everything: medical care, education, shelter, child care, a safe community, and food. The recent example of a Texas mayor’s reaction to the needs of his constituents during the freeze is a perfect example of excessive individualism. The mayor wrote to the citizens that they must fend for themselves and he was “sick and tired of people looking for handouts.”
ADVERTISING AND MASS MEDIA’S IMPACT ON INDIVIDUALISM
Another byproduct of Capitalism, causing isolation, is the advertising industry, coupled with broadcasting and media. Capitalism’s search for profits has turned people into self-absorbed individuals seeking commodities and satisfaction. People are being manipulated through sophisticated psychological strategies to believe they make rational choices as they fulfill the market’s needs.
The Fairness Doctrine (1949-1987) required FCC-licensed broadcasters to cover the pros and cons of important public issues. This rule was revoked in 1987 through an executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan. The revoking allowed the growth of conservative talk radio, and the birth of anti-“We” champions like Rush Limbaugh. Advocates supporting Reagan’s actions claimed they were protecting free speech. They were actually attacking what they saw as government control and, in effect, supporting corporate-sponsored individualism. By prioritizing the ethos of individualism, the ruling class absolves the system of responsibility. When individuals believe they can make free choices, they will blame themselves for choosing poorly, ignoring the possible systemic cause of their troubles.
The corporate media rarely looks at systemic issues, partly because six corporations control most media outlets, and they wish to maintain the status quo by conveying the illusion of objectivity and choice. For the sake of profits, the corporate media mostly covers exciting, fleeting events. News programs, in the time of Walter Cronkite (broadcaster for the CBS news in the 60s and 70s), were recognized as loss-leaders. Now they have become commodities, a form of entertainment that thrives on attention. This move towards the commodification of the news meets an audience of individuals that is trained to seek immediate satisfaction. This dynamic brings in a larger audience, which means more profits. For example, the recent invasion of the capital has turned into a repeated replay of events and people’s actions with minimal discussion of historical, political, and economic questions to explore. As stated in the Intercept: we must dig deep beneath superficial narratives to follow the money. I would add we must address systemic matters like, how does excessive individualism and economic decline lead to authoritarianism?
DIGITAL CAPITALISM THE ACCELERATION OF INDIVIDUALISM
A recent Netflix program, “The Social Dilemma,” reveals how social media, which purports to connect us, also isolates and controls us. This theme is further examined in the book “Surveillance Capitalism,” which explores the shift from industrial Capitalism to surveillance Capitalism. Surveillance capitalism works by providing free services that billions of people use, enabling the providers of those services (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to monitor and diminish the quality of the users’ thoughts and behaviors. It’s a data capture of individuals’ inner thoughts to find more ways to sell commodities.
WHY NO PUSH BACK?
Capitalism’s hierarchical structure has made it difficult for groups of workers to act on their own behalf. Those on top make the decisions, and those on the bottom passively follow orders. Workers, historically defeated in their struggles for labor rights, have come to believe that the capitalist system seems to be “just the way it is.” As Margaret Thatcher said: TINA (there is no alternative). Frederic Jameson, the American literary critic, also pointed out, “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
These troubles, created under Capitalism, can be challenged by organized workers and citizens. Why doesn’t this happen enough? Why won’t workers and other rebellious groups join together and fight back to control their lives? Partly because of the inherited allegiance to “individualism” – the belief that a good society is one that allows individuals to be free to pursue their independent wishes. These wishes are based primarily on the values they absorbed by functioning in the commercial world of working, buying, selling, and accumulating—the world of Capitalism. But these commercial values are a deceptive form of freedom. A more all-embracing form of freedom is based on civic values, which support the community and not merely the isolated individual.
The individualistic stance, which tends to not look at the broader context, opens up the field for reformers. Reformist solutions are often well-meaning sometimes effective attempts to solve problems. But, thanks to our individualistic heritage, reformers too often fail to look at the broader structural context. They look at the surface of the issue. For example, believing that solving police brutality is accomplished by firing a racist policeman. Such an approach overlooks the larger structural policing problem. The individualistically oriented reformer fails to see that police repression is used to maintain a hierarchical system of exploitation. The lawsuit transforming the East Haven Police Department racist policy was based on a larger perspective where the community and police jointly disrupted a corrupt police culture.
When a black man dies because of stress-driven hypertension, we might ask, “What caused the stress?” It is common knowledge that hypertension is more widespread in African Americans than in Caucasians. Answers to this question often revive the old nature-nurture debate. Do African Americans have a genetic predisposition that leads to hypertension, or does it have to do with their environment and history? We can exclude biological differences; there is no such thing as a “race” in genetics. Race is a social and not biological descriptor, so we can conclude that racism is the causal factor. And probing more, we may see that Capitalism’s growth and use of slavery in its expansion has a lot to do with why black men have so much hypertension. While it is important to use medical help to stop imminent death. It is also essential to critique and change the system that brought about that stress in the first place—the racist capitalist system. By looking at the larger context we see that, as Ibram X Kendi, author of “Stamped from the Beginning” and “How to be Antiracist”, views capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins” and that “…the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism… the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.”
Some reformers can open up the path to systemic change. For example, FDR, pushed by organized labor, the CIO, the communist, and socialist parties, advocated the new deal. This temporarily transformed the country into a more compassionate capitalism with a concern for some working people. However, it is significant that it excluded many people of color, women, and the Japanese. Through his policies, FDR found a way to get many people out of their individualistic cages and work together to address systemic problems. But this reform was temporary since it was designed to save Capitalism, so it left the business interests in power. Business interests undid the new deal by gradually privatizing the public commons and turning it into capitalist for-profit businesses. Capitalists systematically privatized many government services: like schools, parks, hospitals, utilities, emergency services, infrastructure development, environmental protection, waters, civil service, utilities, welfare, prisons, libraries, public transit, retirement, social security, justice, consumer protection, postal system, broadcasting, the military, etc. FDR’s reforms were gradually undone by the business interests precisely because his reforms didn’t anticipate and uproot the capitalist system’s clout, the power of the corporate sector.
SYSTEMIC ANALYSIS PUSHBACK
Those who want to practice a systemic analysis need to educate themselves by looking at history and the broader political/economic context and organize with that understanding. Given the power of individualism, communal values must continually be taught and renewed. The recent influence of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement with the powerful political slogan “We are the 99%” pointed towards a systemic analysis. Also, speeches where one person spoke, and the group repeated what was said were demonstrations of thinking and acting based on recognizing the community’s importance.
A systemic approach explaining the “defunding the police” movement would go beyond the simple request to reduce police power. It would recognize that Capitalism’s use of police violence and military violence (The U.S. has the largest military budget in the world and the most prisoners per 100,000 people of any country), and the funds that support them, are paid by our federal taxes, (which indirectly reduce local taxes) and are designed to primarily protect Capitalism’s profits. In increasing the police and military funding, the local programs for the poor and people of color for health, welfare, housing, and education have less available funding. In this way, the outcry for defunding the police could also be placed in a larger context.
Also, the current movements reacting to the resurgence of racism and economic collapse: the black lives matter movement, the George Floyd foundation, the women’s movement, LGBTQ organizations, the socialist movement, the Sunrise Movement, the Green New Deal, the social-democratic movement, the climate change warriors, the democracy collaborative, are some examples of appreciating and organizing against the corrosive danger of the system. Diverse groups must collaborate and also focus on the power of the system. We should join them and urge them to join together! In addition to the rebelling groups, we also have a transition occurring in our political economy. For example, the growth of worker-controlled enterprises, modeled by the Mondragón development in Spain, where most of its workers are partners and company owners. The worker co-ops movement, also called Workers Self-Directed Enterprise or WSDE, reveals an alternative economics model. And finally, there is the resurgence of the labor movement, which challenges the legitimacy of unfettered corporate capitalism.
CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC AND INDIVIDUALISM
We are now facing the coronavirus pandemic and a planet-wide economic and climate catastrophe. These catastrophes can accelerate our sense of separateness and isolation or serve as a stimulus to validate our connections’ importance. Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who led the fight against smallpox, said: “outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” If we don’t place this pandemic into a systemic context, we will be blind to what caused it. We will also be unable to prepare for inevitable future pandemics.
To understand the pandemic’s impact, we must look at the world capitalist system. It is managed not for the people’s benefit but rather for the corporations and the small elite who lead them, for example:
1) Capitalism’s need for growth through the use of fossil fuels promoted climate breakdown. This led to the warming of the earth and the uncovering of centuries-old hidden bacteria and viruses trapped in ice and permafrost.
2) New pathogens occur where big business and Capitalism grow and poison the landscape, destroy forests, expand industrial agriculture, increase mining and road building. These actions help transmit zoonotic viruses (viruses transmitted to humans from other species, often found in wet markets).
3) Profit-focused market incentives in Capitalist economies and human welfare-centered public health requirements are contradictory, especially in the United States. The Capitalist model of marketization and its just-in-time-supply chains require small inventory holdings, designed to optimize efficiency and not flexibility. This led to an absence of masks, toilet paper, hospital beds, ventilators, testing kits, and emergency supplies
4) Tech companies also are making tremendous profits from the pandemic and are inclined to maintain the status quo.
5) Capitalist healthcare is determined by the market and not by what society needs. Comparing the U.S.A. with Cuban healthcare reveals the injustice of Capitalism’s priorities when compared to community-oriented approaches.
Global Capitalisms’ short-term profit-oriented ever-expanding geography and its effects on the earth’s ecosystem, coupled with its transportation efficiency and excessive pro-individualistic, anti-community orientation, allowed for the rapid spread of infection worldwide.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.”—M.L. King Jr.
As we try to cope with the isolating effects of the pandemic and impending economic and ecological catastrophes, we see many people trying to find ways to exit this “Road to Ruin” and work towards constructing community through organizations like the Extinction Rebellion, the Revolutionary Love Project, the Poor People’s Campaign, and Compassionate America. Their actions and innumerable others point to a resurgence of care for the community and the beginning of efforts built on system-based thinking.
An example of the tension between individualism and a systemic/community approach is how people argue over coronavirus masks. Individualists say wearing the mask in an enclosed area is a hindrance to their “freedom.” Those who think of the community say that masks help keep others from getting the virus. This tension is also seen in the arguments of those who want business and profits to return despite the danger versus those who want to first stop the pandemic, then return to their lives in a system that makes their existence safe and fulfilling.
Of course, our dilemma is more nuanced. As Palmer above said, there needs to be a balance between individual freedom and social responsibility. This balance allows the individual and the community to develop to their highest potential. Anthropologists point out that humans survived because of our unique ability to maintain a link between the individual and the group. They recognize that we are a social species.
The debate about the freedom to wear or not wear a mask is really a debate about how we define human nature – as individualistic or social – and how we define social relationships – as coercive or cooperative. An example of the situation’s complexity is revealed when we look at the millions of people traveling for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. On the one hand, it was an individualistic action – they put their families and friends in danger by not following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. On the other hand, they were expressing the social nature of our species. They want to be with friends and family. They were tired of being isolated.
While organizing and pointing to the systemic problems, you can practice an exercise with your acquaintances that I and others have devised, inspired by Paolo Freire and based on Leo Huberman’s questions for workers. “The 5 whys”. I used it when I was teaching my 5th graders. To a statement presented as a fact, you may ask why? You get an answer, then you ask why again (a friendly authentic why). Finally, after 4 or 5 whys, you get an exasperated response similar to, “Well, that is just the way it is!” This is the crucial place to ask another “why” question, which often leads your subject to a larger unquestioned assumption, and perhaps a research project. Some examples of questions might be: Why are there people without homes? Why is healthcare so expensive and unavailable to everyone? Why is there sexism? Why is there racism? Why doesn’t our media and education system ask these questions?
After you answer the specific “why” question you addressed and researched, you need to go one step further and ask a “what question”: What should we do about it? This is a question many people, like Valarie Kaur and the Revolutionary Love Project and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, are currently addressing. Let’s join them! Remember, as Sweet Honey in the Rock sang, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!
Gus Bagakis is a retired philosophy instructor at San Francisco State University and the author of Seeing Through the System: The Invisible Class Struggle in America
Image: PAM illustration