The myth of individualism

The myth of individualism

I have been, and will continue to be, highly critical of neo-liberalism – the spread of the core values and concepts of mainstream economic theory into all areas of social life. But even without this spread, these values and concepts are themselves fundamentally flawed. Economic theory, at least since the time of Adam Smith, has been built upon the notion of rational self-interest, that we use rational thought to pursue that which is best for ourself as an individual, and that if unimpeded this will translate, as if under the guidance of an ‘invisible hand’, into what is best for everyone. In its turn, this economic theory is built upon the liberal premises that we are all, in some fundamental sense, individual, and that not only does our rational ability set us apart from animals but that this ability is our default setting.

I would guess that most of us take the claim that we are individuals to be self-evident – but self-evidence can be misleading. There are at least two aspects to individualism: that we are all unique; and that we each possess a fundamental core that is the real me. The first of these is undoubtedly true. It is impossible for anyone else to have exactly the set of experiences and perspectives on the world as I do. And whilst I think that such an understanding is the best argument for democracy (that as there is no definitive perspective on the world the best we can achieve is the synthesis of as many as possible), it is not the classic liberal understanding. This understanding makes the concept of being an individual to be something fundamental to being human. It is based on a clear mind / body distinction that assumes the existence of some kind of individual essence or soul that is the recipient of our experiences rather than the product of them. Whilst his ‘self’ develops relationships with other ‘selves’ it is fundamentally distinct from them. There are two major flaws with such an understanding of the individual. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support such a claim, and, because it is fundamental to so much else that we believe in, we are blinded to the true nature of our social relations.

Social relations are not forged by the interaction of atomised individuals; they are inter-subjective in their very nature. We are not individual subjects who establish relationship with each other, we are inter-subjective beings who develop (or are able to develop) a unique perspective on the world. In technical terms, our individuality, such that it is, is emergent from the social process not fundamental to it. We learn and develop our ability to speak, think and form concepts only through our inter-action with others, upon who we are inter-dependent. Without others we are nothing – we are only biologically human, not human in the full sense that we use the term. But because the liberal myth of a fundamental individualism has penetrated to the very heart of Western culture it not only ‘feels’ intuitive and self-evident, it has distorted much of our social fabric.

The internalisation of this myth has led to a false dichotomy that has dominated politics since the Enlightenment, that of freedom versus equality. Put very simply (possibly too simply – sorry) politicians on the right have tended to champion the cause of freedom in the belief that our individual identity and interest is only a matter of our own concern, and should not be restricted by the actions of others. Politicians on the left have tended to focus instead on the notion that we are all born equal and that our equality needs protecting in the face of the greed and self-interest of others. The problem is, of course, that focusing on one inevitably leads to the reduction of the other. Allowing an ‘individual’ unlimited freedom to pursue their own self-interest will inevitably allow some people (those, for example, who are either born stronger in one way or another or who are born into a dominant family or class) to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of others and create inequality; protecting an equality that is not there by nature will inevitably put restraints on very capable ‘individuals’ and create a sense of frustration and possible anger. But the dilemma is a false one. Rousseau was wrong, we are not born free. We are born totally dependent on others – not just physically dependent, but emotionally and psychologically dependent. We need others in order to grow emotionally and intellectually. We have evolved to our current position of ecological dominance not because we are the biggest or the strongest, but because we can co-operate and work collectively.

And the famous American Declaration of Independence was wrong, very wrong, when it claimed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. We have not been created, we have evolved, and the notions of equality and rights have no place in our evolutionary past. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that human rights should be dismissed. Far from it. It simply means that we need to recognise that we have created the notions of human rights and equality because we recognise that they are good; that as human society becomes increasingly more complex endowing each other with certain rights and endeavouring to create more equal societies increases our ability to co-operate and work collectively, which in turn enhances the probability of our future survival.

Individual self-interest has also become the bedrock of capitalism, the liberal economic theory and system that emerged from the Enlightenment and which now dominates our global society. However, this self-interest is only partly founded upon the myth of individualism – it is also founded upon the myth that this self-interest is pursued rationally, and that rationality is the dominant feature of humanity. Whilst I would be the last person to dismiss the importance of rational thought, this importance comes with three caveats: that our emotional being is of equal importance (in some scenarios, of greater importance); that we are only born with the potential for rational thought; and that both develop only through our interaction with others. But more on rationality in the next thrilling instalment.