Why Individualism is Stupid and Wrong

Not going to bury the lead here, there’s nothing to build up to, the individualist credo that seems to be constantly gaining currency in our society is one of the most wrong-headed, misguided philosophies to ever claim that title. There have been few schools of thought to gain as much traction with the public while at the same time being so utterly worthless as an ethical system, both in moral and practical terms, and it is quite frankly astonishing to me how many people have bought into this bald-faced lie. It is a philosophy that only ever could have gained popularity in this time and place, for the simple reason that any other place or time would have seen it for the lunacy it is and rejected it immediately. The idea that we are all (or should all be) autonomous individuals with nothing but a mercantile connection to the people around is stupid at least, and sociopathic at worst, so why does anyone believe it at all? To put it simply, because it appeals to the selfish jerk in all of us by telling us that it’s OK to be a selfish jerk, in fact it’s encouraged. Of course, they don’t flat-out say you’re a selfish jerk; the trick is to point out what selfish jerks other people are in order to make it all seem justified. You’re not being a prick, you’re looking out for your own interests in a world full of people looking to take what’s yours, and you’re the good guy here. It’s all those spoiled, entitled jerks out there who are trying to live off your hard work and freeload their way through life, they’re the bad guys who need to be cut off so that society has the money to run the programs you want to keep running, right? You’ve worked hard your whole life, you earned everything you have, and nothing was handed to you. You’re a self-made man who has already given more than enough to the bums and wastrels out there leeching off the government, off your tax dollars, it’s time for you to start looking out for old #1 and let the hobos take care of themselves for a change.

Of course, in any sane society, such nonsense would be laughed out of the room as comically misguided, but unfortunately we’re not living in a sane society these days. Even though the self-made man is a creature of myth, for some people he is not only an ideal to strive towards, but at present, lived reality in themselves. They really can’t see that practically nothing of who they are is purely self-directed; they honestly believe that they are their own creators and creations at the same time. Tell them that their entire primary and secondary educations were paid for by someone else, they’ll dismiss that as irrelevant, because who we are is determined by how we thrive in the adult world, not in the little fishbowl of elementary and high school. Tell them that their post-secondary education was also paid for at least in some (likely large) part by others, and they’ll give you a similar answer. Ask them how many jobs they’ve gotten without relying on friends and family members to provide a network they could take advantage of, and that’s just using the resources available to you. Roads and other infrastructure to get to those jobs that other people referred them to and still other people educated them in preparation for, and still other people paid the teachers who educated them once their parents spent 4-5 years feeding, changing, clothing and potty training them? All paid for by those hard-earned tax dollars that the self-made rugged individualists are trying to protect from the grasping masses.

In the past, this kind of thinking could never have taken root, because you would have seen immediately that you absolutely depend on other people for your own survival and personal thriving. What’s that you say? You don’t need other people to help you, you can do it all on your own? OK then, good luck with shoeing your own horse, growing your own crops, raising your own barn and any of a million other tasks that require any number of other people to get done. I’m sure you’ll do just fine, because unlike everyone else, you are an island, aren’t you? The difference between then and now is that while all the people who helped you with your survival needs were right there in your face, today there’s a layer of technology separating you from everyone else. There really are people out there who make their living on a computer, order everything online, and never need to depend on another physically present person for years at a time. There really are people out there who depend on money for every human interaction they experience; it’s a viable way of living your life, if techno-hermit is the life you want for yourself. However, all this does is mask reality, not change its nature. On the other end of your computer, there is a real, flesh and blood human being interacting with you and delivering the things you require to get by. And let’s not forget all the people involved in keeping your computer turned on and connected to the internet 24/7, they’re actual people too. Oh, and the people who pay you for whatever goods or service it is you provide in your techno-hermitage, you sort of depend on them coming to you and giving you money for what is very likely a luxury item that could only have value in a society with sufficient advancement. Just because you don’t see the people giving you what you need doesn’t mean they aren’t there and you’re some kind of Randian superman who can live on an isolated island with all the other supermen who have no idea how to plant a garden or mend a torn pair of pants.

So here’s the reality of our situation: We all depend constantly upon the continued goodwill and cooperation of our fellow citizens, wherever we happen to live. Collectivism isn’t some horrible plot to rob from the rich and give to the poor (Remember when Robin Hood was considered a hero for doing that very thing?), it is our present, lived reality, whether we recognize it or not. “No man is an island,” isn’t just a nice bit of poetry, it is a basic fact of life; nobody gets anywhere on their own, and the sooner we all come back to that truth, the better off we all will be. Think about it, if NASA were to run its space program with the belief that the world is perched on the shoulders of four elephants that are standing on the back of a giant turtle, how successful do you think they would be in getting someone to Mars? People who run their lives on a false premise at the core of their belief system rarely do very well once reality comes around and asserts itself. Should it really come to a shock to us that the economy is in the toilet if government policy and corporate governance has been guided by such a deeply flawed idea? Want an explanation for why people are out in the streets protesting these days? It’s because they see the lie for what it is and they’re tired of hearing it preached at them day and night. It’s because they see the iceberg ahead and they want to steer us all away from it before there’s a disaster we can’t recover from. It’s because they know that we all depend on each other to get by in this world, and they’re speaking out against the lunatics trying to take control of their asylum.

About One Fell Swooper

Philosopher, Theologian, Promoter of Grand Ideas, though I do occasionally have to work for a living.
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15 Responses to Why Individualism is Stupid and Wrong

  1. Alex Jones says:

    What do you see as the alternative to individualism?

    • A rational approach that respects individual rights without making them some sort of automatic trump card, and at the same time recognizes that we are all part of a collective society, nobody got where they are on their own, so nobody deserves what they have in an absolute sense. Basically, if you have a billion dollars, it isn’t because you worked 2 hours a week more than the single mom working three jobs to make ends meet, it’s because you won life’s lottery and she didn’t, so pretending that you somehow earned every penny of what you have while she’s just not trying hard enough is at best disingenuous.

      • Alex Jones says:

        Thanks for your reply.

      • Pejeu says:

        You don’t know how right you are.

        Capitalism rests on the three prongs of

        1. Private property – arbitrary. Some guy some day long ago decided that he owns something. Or a friend oh his does. Or they bought that property for 6 pence or something.

        2. Right of private parties to issue money out of nothing – arbitrary. Banks can simply conjure up arbitrary amounts of monetary units. Out of nothing. At virtually no cost to themselves. At least in comparison to the purchasing power of the money they just conjured up. All banks issue money whenever they extend a loan.

        Not just central banks. Those only issue the physical currency.

        Retail banks issue the virtual currency (by far the largest part of the money supply) through the mechanism of fractional reserve lending.

        3. Right of inheritance – arbitrary. Basically, you get property cause you came out of the right cunt. Or you lucked out on your father’s side.

        And that’s capitalism basically, the long and shor of it.

  2. skepoet says:

    I don’t know that any is actually an individualist, but it is a good justification mechanism and is thus dangerous.

    • If it’s someone go-to justification mechanism, it’s who they are. Maybe they aren’t conscious of it as a chosen philosophy, but if it’s their regular mode of thinking, does that really matter?

      • skepoet says:

        I actually disagree with you, the justification mechanism generally obscures what do they do. Hence why it is a justification mechanism and not a lived fact, and that is it’s particularly socially damaging delusive element. It leads people to see themselves as unique beings without a context, which actually leads them to be self-blind. But as a way to maintain one’s self-delusions, it’s pretty brilliant effective.

        • I think maybe we’re not meaning the same thing when we use the term “justification mechanism”. I was looking at it as the way in which people explain their actions to themselves in order to keep their inner narrative positive about who they are and what they’ve done. In my view, if it’s part of how you explain yourself to yourself, it’s part of who you are.

          Of course, it’s a bad faith situation, where a person is trying to make wrong into right, so in a Sartrean sense I can see how this is a false consciousness and therefore not a person’s “true” identity. Is this the direction you were going with that, or have I misunderstood your meaning again?

    • Oh, and it’s nitpicky, but I’d also take issue with calling it a “good” mechanism, but I know that’s probably not the way you meant it.

  3. "Reason obeys itself, and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it." -Thomas Paine says:

    You have an awfully skewed view of individualism. It does not state selfishness, that one individual matters more than others, but only that individuals matter more than collectives, that is, you and your neighbor matter more than categories, such as nations, races, sexes, etc.

    • But isn’t that selfishness, by definition? If I value my own wants and needs over those of my community, is that not self-centered? It may be a perfectly justifiable selfishness in any number of cases, but taking it as an overriding principle where my needs trump everything always is the thing I’m taking issue with, as found in Randian Objectivism.

      Basically, I’m totally OK with people looking after their own needs, but not so much with people asserting an imaginary right to take all the benefits of living in society without ever giving back anything in return.

      • "Reason obeys itself, and Ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it." -Thomas Paine says:

        Not your own, but the wants and needs of individuals, hence individualism. Put down the Ayn Rand and read some John Locke.

        “take all the benefits of living in society without ever giving back anything in return”
        That’s collectivism. Individualism means personal responsibility. Collectivism means collective responsibility.

        • If John Locke had a political movement gaining power based on his philosophy, I’d be dealing with that; however, this is sadly not the case (I’m a Locke fan from way back, and I’d love to see a system of capitalism built on his thoughts, with some Rawls mixed in for balance.). Because it’s Rand’s insanity that’s gaining political capital in North America, it’s her brand of nonsense I choose to address. If Rand had ever come up with a thought like, “Covetousness and the desire to having in our possession and our dominion more than we have need of, being the root of all evil, should be early and carefully weeded out and the contrary quality of being ready to impart to others inculcated.” I wouldn’t be so worried about her followers gaining political power, and I wouldn’t bother writing in opposition to them.

          As for collectivism, it is the ethic that gave us the idea of “From each as he is able, to each as he has need”, but its critics always forget that these two things come in a balance, nobody is expected to give or take everything without some reciprocal exchange ever taking place. You are responsible to give what you’re able, even when you’re receiving what you need, it’s not an either/or kind of thing. The fact that government social programs have made countless mistakes in their ham-fisted attempts to implement this ethic is not the fault of the idea, any more than Locke is to blame for abusers of his writing presenting government’s primary responsibility as being the protection of personal property, full stop, with no consideration for any other element of the social contract he and Hobbes fleshed out.

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