Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Paradox of Individualism

In our age we are taught from our cradle to honor altruism and fear selfishness.  Of course, we are social animals and we survive by sticking together and helping each other.  And our mothers start working on us at an early age: "don't be selfish, share your toys."

On the other hand, our Marxist friends like to conjure up a collectivist golden age when everyone got along and people worked producing things only for use.  Alienation began when people started working for wages, producing for exchange rather than for use.

What a bunch of baloney!  There was never a collectivist golden age.  Before the modern age people were slaves and serfs; they worked, according to the medieval scholars, for the household, the family unit.  Guess what that meant?  It meant that everyone in the family was subordinate to the head of the household.

People weren't producing for use, whatever that means, in those far off days: people were producing for the family unit and producing what the household head told them to do.  Women and young people, especially, were ruthlessly exploited in peasant families.  In return for their labor they got what the head of the household said they could have.  There was no responsibility; there was no accountability.  It was the rule of the strong, and the weak knew that it was best to go along to get along.  It was the world of the aggressive and the passive aggressive.

But the modern era of individualism is different.  It is not, as Ayn Rand seems to suggest, celebrating the "virtue of selfishness."  It is encoded in the idea of the invisible hand.  You got some selfish needs?  Then produce something for other people that other people are prepared to pay you for.  It is encoded in the idea of individualism.  Individualism is not individual selfishness, it is a notion of individual responsibility, and it starts with the Axial Age religions that converted the tribal collective gods, the ones that distributed gifts to humans in response to propitiatory sacrifice, into the one God before Whom we are each individually responsible for our actions.

Notice how the invisible hand fits together with the notion of individual responsibility.  You, the responsible individual, are not sitting in some peasant family, waiting for the boss to tell you what to do.  You are an individual, free and responsible, and you wake up in the morning thinking: wow, what can I do to earn a living, to get my next meal?  Well, you do what Booker T. Washington did, on his journey across the South to get him an education, when he woke up in the morning after a night under the wooden sidewalk.  He went down to the dock and offered to help unload a ship.  With his wages he bought him a breakfast.

It's a paradox.  Under collectivism we become whining victims pushed around by the local household boss or the government, endlessly complaining about what "they" have done, and crawling around to find ways to scam the system.  Under individualism we become responsible individuals that spend our lives worrying about what the other person wants and needs -- and is willing to pay for.

Which is more selfish?  Which is more self-centered?  Which is more social?  Which is more "alienated?"  On the answers we give to those questions about collectivism and individualism depends all that the world can do for us, and all we can do for the world.

It all reduces to a curious paradox.  The notion of collectivism, which seems to evoke altruism and solidarity, always requires the application of force.  The notion of individualism, which seems to encourage unbridled selfishness and egoism, in fact demands of us a constant solicitude for the needs of others.

Why is that?  It starts, perhaps, with the recognition that society is not a system, a mechanical contraption driven by Newton's laws, but an unconscious biological organism of constantly interacting cells.  Under Newton, each cog in the system responds to force.  Under biology, each cell instinctively knows what to do and does it.

And then?  Well, that is up to us to decide.

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