Individualism and capitalism


An idea that has been raised and argued for at the Occupy Sydney general assemblies was that “you leave your affiliations at the door when you participate in Occupy”, as a motion put it. Although the motion was not passed, it gathered some support from people who argued that Occupiers come together as individuals who are unhappy with the way things are and want to change them – not as defenders of any particular ideology.

Ironically, the notion that we are all just individuals above anything else is itself an ideology or political philosophy. Moreover, it is not a very useful ideology for the Occupy movement or anybody else who wants to change the world for the better, because it is much more the outlook of the 1%.

In feudalism, the social order that preceded capitalism in Europe, there was a fixed place for everyone. The possibility that you might have different talents or interests than those appropriate to your position wasn’t considered relevant. If you were a serf, you lived in a designated village and worked the prescribed amount of time on the lord’s estate. If you lived in a town, you could practise a trade only after a long period as an apprentice. For most people, the only way out of their inherited social role was through the church, which imposed its own regimentation.

Individualism as an ideology arose with the beginnings of capitalism. The idea that each of us is unique and should be free to do as we like (as long as we don’t injure another individual) corresponded to a society of market relations, in which people are connected with one another only through buying and selling. In the market, everyone is free to make their own decision about what to buy and sell, without any outside input.

However, as capitalism develops, the freedom of the market turns out to be largely an illusion. The market doesn’t ask anyone where their money came from, and individuals come to market with different amounts of money and different commodities to sell. Consequently, they are not equal in the market, and those with enough money use the market as an instrument to exploit the rest of society. Far from bringing freedom to the individual, the market chains most of us in subordination to the rich.

Because of this, the history of capitalism is also the history of collective efforts to resist exploitation and oppression. Trying to stand up against the 1% as an individual means accepting their ideology. It means following their rules of the market. That is self-defeating, because the market maintains their wealth and power.

Successful resistance necessarily rejects in practice the priority of the isolated individual. It unites the greatest possible numbers on the basis of their common exploitation or oppression and their common determination to end it. Within such resistance, different ideologies are merely different ideas about how best to make our collective effort successful. Restricting their expression would only mean restricting our ability to resist.

Paradoxically perhaps, collective resistance can also be a path for the free development of each individual. This is what capitalist individualism promises but fails to deliver. The control of society by the wealthy restricts the real choices available to the rest of us. Where we work, what we study, where we live, how much “free” time we have, how we relax, who we associate with – all are circumscribed by the economic, political and social control of the capitalist 1%. Ending that control is a precondition for a free flowering of human personality. Only when capitalism no longer exists will each individual be free to develop through interaction with the rest of humanity, unhindered by economic restrictions or class barriers.

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