Individuality vs. Individualism
By Dennis Loo (12/2/13)
Everybody knows that capitalism promotes the greatest scope for individual expression and that communism does the opposite. Everybody knows that communist-led governments suppress individuality and everyone is supposed to be exactly the same, or at least receive exactly the same allotments. If you’re interested in freedom of thought and movement, then you must be a fan of capitalism (or libertarianism or anarchism) because it guarantees the greatest freedoms. Communism, on the other hand, will lead to and has led to the ruthless suppression of individuality; groupthink will replace the full flowering of individuality.
Or so goes the commonplace view.
Is the common wisdom actually correct?
Answering this question takes us into heady territory that involves grappling with some of the central practical and philosophical questions that humanity confronts.
In exploring and answering this question we first need to make an important distinction: the difference between individualism and individuality.
Individualism is an ideology that privileges and celebrates individuals over the group.
Individuality is the recognition that individuals are different from one another.
Individuality, in other words, is a fact. Anyone who fails to recognize or refuses to recognize that individuals are different is being absurd. Not only do individuals come in different sizes and colors, they are endowed with different abilities and interests, some of which are subject to a great deal of modification by environmental factors and some that are not.
Individualism, on the other hand, as an ideology, is a very different matter.
Individualism holds that both societies and individuals operate best when individuals behave as if they have little to no obligations to others that they are required to observe. In addition, it argues that rewarding individuals for hard work and innovation with cold hard cash assures that individuals will work harder and more creatively and the whole society will therefore benefit. The more you materially reward hardworking and creative individuals, the better. If the material benefits such as more money and privileges do not go overwhelmingly to the individual to do what they wish with them, this would quash individual initiative and harm the whole society.
(In contrast to the preceding, in general those who innovate the most are not the ones who are most rewarded materially for their inventiveness. The people who provide the working capital – usually the bankers - are generally the ones who benefit the most. Moreover, what motivates most people isn’t material rewards. But this is something for later on in our discussion.)
Individualism does not consider non-material incentives as effective incentives: individualism holds that motivation by material rewards is really what operates to motivate people, not things such as altruism and other non-material rewards such as concern for the group’s welfare.
In the view of individualism, the group indirectly benefits from everyone acting as if the group does not exist. This is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market – the best society results from everyone acting selfishly. As he put it in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations:
[E]very individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it .… by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention… By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.
Neoliberals such as Frederick Hayek (neoliberalism’s godfather) and his disciples such as Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan, take Smith’s views and stretch them even further, arguing that the group (i.e., society) and the public interest do not even exist. As Thatcher infamously put it: “[W]ho is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.”
Hayek argued that liberty can be equated with property rights and that the measure for liberty is whether the individual can do what he or she wants, regardless of its impact upon others.
In his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek articulated his view of liberty:
The question of how many courses of action are open to a person is, of course, very important. But it is a different question from that of how far in acting he can follow his own plans and intentions, to what extent the pattern of his conduct is of his own design, directed toward ends for which he has been persistently striving rather than toward necessities created by others in order to make him do what they want. Whether he is free or not does not depend on the range of choice but on whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with his present intentions, or whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person’s will rather than his own. [Emphasis added.]
Hayek was an avowed opponent of the collectivist movements of his time – socialism and communism. In opposing collectivism, Hayek treats an individual’s desires as paramount. If an individual’s desires are at odds with the group’s interest then by his logic an individual has the liberty to do as s/he pleases. In a lengthy critique of his reasoning in Globalization and the Demolition of Society of which the following is a portion, I argue:
Hayek in effect dismisses the idea that there is such a thing as objectivity or necessity. There is only what the individual wants and that must prevail. Hayek’s hypothetically free individual declares his or her freedom, as if to say, “I care not what is right, nor what is true. I care only that it is what I want. And that shall suffice.” If objective reality does in fact exist, and if science, medicine, navigation, exploration, and technology all rely upon objective reality’s existence to work (a fact evident to anyone using a car or airplane, for instance), then the ongoing effort to determine at any given time in society what the best ideas are—the ones that more truly represent objective reality—is not merely an idle intellectual exercise but one with powerful material consequences. Which ideas predominate and set the terms matters to the whole of the society. Science, for example, operates through a collective process of peer review. A claim made by one scientist has to be demonstrably true for the scientific community or that claim is rejected as untenable. If what matters more than anything, on the other hand, is that individuals should have the right to pursue their ideas and plans based on their “own” ideas, then the question of what is true and its impact on the whole of society becomes moot. (GDS, Pp. 35-36)
The various gadgets and machines that make up modern life such as cars, airplanes, and cell phones would not function but for the fact that an objective reality exists independent of human consciousness. Regardless of whether one chooses to believe in it or not, everyone is still subject to that objective world. A philosophy built upon premises that ignore or negate the material world can only eventually and inevitably lead to tremendous harm.
According to Hayek, other people create necessities. However, other people do not create most necessities in life. We face necessities because, to put this succinctly, we do not now—and never have—lived in the Garden of Eden. Food, water, shelter and reproduction are some of the necessities that are met by and through social groups. Try, for example, reproducing without someone else of the opposite sex. Gravity is another example of a necessity that exists regardless of anyone’s desires. If I declare that I refuse to recognize gravity, does this mean that I can now fly?Suppose I declare that my plans do not include my ever having to work for anything and that I do not recognize work as a necessity. I may have a right to do so, at least according to Monsieur Hayek, and doing so shows how much “liberty” I have, but should I?
Hayek pits individuals against groups, but individuals and groups are actually interrelated and interpenetrating expressions of the same dynamic process. We might even say that individuals and groups have an organic relationship to each other. Individuals, to begin with, can only exist because of groups. Not only is this true in the literal sense of an individual’s birth via a group of two, a female and a male, it is also true throughout the life processes of all individuals. We acquire language, our brains develop, we learn social knowledge and skills, and we survive through our interdependence with others. We become human through this socialization process and we become individuals. Becoming human isn’t something that happens by our simply being alive. We do not become humans solely or principally because of our DNA. We become human through our interaction with other humans.
Individuals are like the leaves of a tree that extend out from twigs (the family), that spring out from branches (populations) that in turn spread out from the trunk (society). The tree, for its part, cannot live without leaves. It is true that some trees shed their leaves for a season and live on their stored resources and connection to the ground. But they would not have those stored resources if they didn’t sprout leaves for the rest of the year in order to collect the sun’s rays and carry out photosynthesis. Leaves are a tree’s way of providing for itself. Leaves, in turn, cannot survive without being attached to trees. A detached leaf, going about its own merry way, freed of its connection to and the dictates of the tree, falls and dies.
Individuals also serve as a way for the group to express itself and achieve its ends. Groups act through the mechanism of individual leaders who focus the group in action. Leading individuals are the group’s cutting edge. Depraved individuals, on the other end, express the darker side of the group. There are, of course, different groups within any society, with their own respective representatives. We might compare a group’s leader to an arrowhead that can penetrate an object when propelled through the air attached to an arrow and its fletching. Without the connection to the arrow shaft, the arrowhead itself could not perform properly. You could not even send an arrowhead minus the arrow shaft through the air with any real force; the arrowhead would tumble about and fall quickly to the ground.
The individual’s connection to the group is also evident when you sample people’s opinions about a given subject; you will find without exception that their opinions can be grouped into a fairly small number of categories. If the alpha and omega of individual opinions reside within the individual and are not traceable back to any group, then why do individual opinions constitute identifiable patterns that can be grouped? There is no such thing as an entirely unique idea or an entirely unique behavior, no matter how bizarre or outstanding. Even the most extraordinary achievers in human history, for instance Isaac Newton, achieved what they did by advancing what already existed in their time. These inventions and discoveries represented the next breakthrough needing to be made in order to allow those arenas (e.g., science, technology, art, music) to move forward.
Behaving as if society doesn’t exist doesn’t alter the fact that people have to rely upon others to survive and that one’s survival depends upon society itself. Hayek tries to conceal this reality under a doctrine that defends and promotes the notion that some (or all) can act as if they are free of any obligations to others. Taken to its logical conclusion, if everyone were free of the will of others, then no one would be or could be in a relationship with anyone else. Two people who are a couple, for example, exert their wills over each other. We call that “going steady,” “marriage,” or a “partnership.” Hayek recognizes that it is impossible to be entirely free of the will of others but what he doesn’t do is acknowledge the inevitable and necessary interrelatedness of compulsion and freedom. If he did recognize that, then his whole argument would fall apart since his view is premised on attempting to minimize compulsion to the nth degree, regarding, as he does, compulsion as per se undesirable.
If someone knows more about something than I do, does my doing what he wants, even if my own desires and plans are different, mean that I have sacrificed my liberty? I have sacrificed some of my individualism, but what if others are right and I am wrong? I would want to be compelled to do the right thing if I were wrong (I might not like it, but this was what it was like practicing piano or learning the proper grip in tennis as a child). Being involved in a discussion about why another way of doing things is preferable is important in its own right, because just being told what to do based on faith or control doesn’t help anyone learn. But getting anything done with a group of people does mean that the opinions of some individuals are not given precedence at any given time. The idea that it is wrong on principle to compel someone to do something that is different from his or her own individual assessment is obviously wrong. Freedom isn’t the absence of necessity. Freedom can be expanded on the basis of recognizing, understanding, and on that basis, transforming necessity. . .
If you are interested in the best ideas and plans prevailing in any given situation, then you are a) committed to group action, and b) committed to the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Why is this so? To begin with, if you do not care whether the best ideas and plans prevail and only care about what you as an individual do, then you aren’t interested in what the group does. Secondly, if you want the best ideas and plans to win out, then you also believe that an objective reality exists by which one can measure whether something is right, or approximately right, or at least on the right path. If you do not believe in these things, then all opinions and plans are equal because there is no independent criterion by which to measure whether one idea or plan is better than another.
Coercion and freedom from coercion are coexisting opposites: no freedoms exist without some level of compulsion attached to them. Hayek’s stance makes as much sense as this: “I would like to jump into the air so as to be free of gravity without the nuisance of having to deal with the restraint of the ground.” You cannot jump into the air, however, without having the resistance of the ground to push against. Jumping into the air has no meaning and isn’t possible without the constraint of gravity. Necessity and freedom, in other words, make up antipodes of the same inescapable process. It is a process that will never cease. Necessities impose themselves on us regardless of whether we want to recognize them and regardless of who alerts us to their existence. The depiction of necessity as something that people arbitrarily impose on others does not conform to actuality. (GDS, Pp. 35-47)
Groups benefit from the diversity of talents, experiences, and insights that individuals can bring to a group. Suppressing individuality harms not only individuals but it also harms the groups that they are part of because it denies the group of part of the strengths that different individuals can bring to the group.
Criticizing and seeking to overcome individualism is part and parcel of actually unleashing the collective individuality that individuals bring to the table. Far from advancing individuality, capitalism’s ethic of celebrating individualism in fact suppresses the full unfolding of individuality’s greatest virtues.
In conclusion, the conventional wisdom about individuality and individualism viz a viz capitalism, anarchism, libertarianism, and communism is wrong. I have touched on certain core reasons why that is so in this first installment. I will go into these matters in further depth in subsequent installments.
But before leaving this segment, let me address very briefly and in a concentrated way the question of where this ethic of individualism comes from:
Capital likes to assert its independence from everything else, but first and foremost capital cannot exist without labor. Labor, in fact, creates capital. Rich people with big houses and manicured lawns may live lives of luxury, but they can only live those lives because others do the less carefree labor and dirty work of tending the gardens, cars, house, swimming pool, tennis court, and children of the estate. Rich people like to think that they are free of anyone and anything, but their very lifestyles and survival depend upon the work and support of others, most of whom are low-paid laborers. Rich people’s sense of self and the degree of their life satisfaction are intimately tied to others in their social networks from whom they derive their sense of belongingness (e.g., the other members of the business and social circles within which they operate). Hayek’s fantasy fuels those who are either already wealthy or who aspire to wealth or to putative independence, conveniently overlooking the actual fact that their status can only exist because of mutual obligations and actual necessities. Those people of the rentier class whose worry-free lives appear to be dictated little by necessity can only live in such a way because many other people in their lives are subjected to great necessity. (GDS, Pp. 44-45)
To be continued.
In Part Two we will explore The Liberal Version of Individualism: Meritocracy and ‘Equal Opportunity.’
1 Some adherents of individualism, such as some economists, even go so far as to argue that there is no such thing as altruism and that what might appear to be altruism is really just a variant of self-interest.
2 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Gutenberg.org, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7766/7766-3.txt.
3 Douglas Keay, “Aids, Education and the Year 2000!” Woman’s Own, October 31, 1987, MargaretThatcher.org, http:// www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=/62231.