I believe in the value of the individual (and question individualism)

One of the things that I find myself thinking about often these days is how the word individualism is really a distraction from the individual; how individualism as an ideology is a disruption of what any politics of the individual should be about: that is, the individual.

If my wording sounds circular and therefore confusing, it is for a reason: I think the problem with the way we talk about individuals and their value is that individualism is about a system of living, that is, an economic system, that is hostile to the individual person.

George Carlin once said in a television interview that he had no use for people, but that he liked individuals very much (I am paraphrasing). He said that once people started forming groups, that was where the problems began. There was a tyranny in groups. Carlin also told his audiences late in his life that they were owned; that the United States was run by a club and that he and they were not in it.

I like the Carlin example because it speaks to the trouble I find myself encountering when I try talking about the value of individuals. I think the value of life -whether in the person, the plant or the animal – should be self-evident. But the rhetoric of individualism makes that seemingly self-evident truth hard to articulate. Why? The reason is, I believe, because there is nothing self-evident about the value of life in a system that determines value on the basis of profit and what can be called “profitable outcomes.”

Life is not based on profitable outcomes. Anyone who has children knows that the world of parenting is a world of non-stop challenges: challenges to time, to patience, to schedule; parents are constantly put in the position of balancing the need for spending time with their children to love them, nurture them, mentor them against the demands of work, money-making. There is no natural equipoise here and a lot of what amounts to parenting is not about profitable outcomes in any sense other than maintaining peace at home or hoping that the child will fare well in the near-term to longer term. Any parent knows that there are so many unknowns, so many unpredictable events and risks involved in raising children that duty, obligation and of course, love, become far more important than anything resembling profit.

I am harping on the word profit because it is so quickly, so easily paired with this concept of “the individual” that comes up in conversations about society and politics. Why does the individual matter? Because the individual is the basis of a free system that is free by virtue of its ability to serve the individual. For instance, a social and political system is designated as “free” if it is seen as enabling the individual to pursue their own interest. You will notice that seldom is it “group interest” or “family interest,” or even the interest of their community: it is self-interest. This is a basis of liberal democracy, political liberalism and its various neoliberal and libertarian offshoots. The individual is the focus and therefore the measure of liberal democracy.

My dissatisfaction with this construction is manifold; I can think of a long list of criticisms of it which I could -and should– include here. But I will not because it will deviate from a broad, sweeping point which I am trying to make. That point is simply this: individualism has little if anything to do with the living, breathing, thinking and feeling individual. It has to do with the limits that should be imposed on other individuals, groups and the state in order to prevent their interference with said individual in the pursuit of happiness, property or liberty. It has little to do with that individual’s need to organize with others, to place noneconomic and nonmaterial imperatives before their ability to compete in a legal, economic and social system which values her on the basis of her work ethic, her ability to pay, her contribution to the profit-system. In other words, I am dissatisfied with a political ideology, individualism, whose basis is in negative liberties.

Why am I telling you this on a page dedicated -seemingly- to education? Because my fundamental belief, the belief underlying this page and my work with others is that I do not feel that negative liberties -freedoms from- are enough to protect the individual from the unforeseen challenges and tragedies of life; that negative liberties do not prepare individuals for the many unprofitable choices they will need to make in order to contribute to their communities and their families; I do not believe that negative liberties are enough to help individuals understand what their own value is and what their calling in life might be.

I also believe that thinking in terms of the individual makes individual acts of protest symbols of personal aberration, heroism or pathology, depending upon the predilections of the viewer. This narrowness of understanding, this constricted lens is also an obstacle to solidarity. It is why I feel the need, also, to post these three photographs which have a broad and deep story accompanying them. Better yet, broad and deep stories. To get to these stories, to absorb their meaning and to think about them in terms of the aims and goals and purposes of education is to begin to question individualism.

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