Competitive individualism: a critique

The self-made man or woman as business success story has long been the motivating ideal of free market capitalism and the basis of its ideological self-rationale; if inequality exists in society, says this mythology, it is because some are more innovative and more hardworking than others, because some are more willing than others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps instead of sitting around complaining about poverty as if they think the world owes them something. As well as being the basis for the demonization of the poor and unwaged generally, this mythology also forms the basis of racist mythology by whitewashing historical forms of dispossession, favouring instead the spurious theory that the impoverishment of indigenous people in particular is somehow due to their genetic or cultural characteristics (more likely the latter these days, given the PR problem eugenics developed after Holocaust). The fact that institutional discrimination sidesteps the issue of their historical dispossession and the crimes of state with which it is associated, predictably, does not figure.

In this sense racism encapsulates the moral disengagement and narcissism of the individualist ethos insofar as it embodies all its blame shifting, grandiosity, entitlement and militantly ignorant tendencies, all of which merit further analysis. Individualism as an ethos of injustice needs to be overcome, but in order to be overcome it needs to be understood. It should be noted before we proceed further though that a critique of the individualistic ethos is not equivalent to a rejection of individuality; indeed, part of the ideologically driven pretenses of individualism as a mythology is that it somehow involves a higher calling consistent with the development of an independent value system. Is there much on this green Earth that is further from the truth? Not very, not least of which because the acquisition of an independent value system involves developing the capacity to think and act for oneself, involves individuating towards a unique identity and personality. Anyone in touch with themselves in that sense hardly needs to pursue self-aggrandizement in the form of consumerist exploits for the sake of the approval of everyone else who can’t think for themselves either. If anything, they are far likelier to spurn such carrying on as an affront to their self-respect.

Individuation as a process, the process of becoming an individual, necessarily involves coming to recognize the limitations of the infantile mindset, or that only aware of the needs of the self. It involves progressively resolving the tension between the demands of the ego and the demands of the superego through the id as per Freud’s original formula, the tension becoming increasingly relaxed as the id becomes stronger and more functional. A major, nay the characteristic facet of this process is coming to understand that other people exist in the world and they have the same rights as we do. Coming to terms with the nature of these rights and the conflict between them and the opposing concept of privilege, whereby rights are denied to generally many or most in the name of allowing special advantages to generally a few, is a major part of developing the capacity for sociability. For many of us this is an exciting process insofar as learning to perceive and appreciate the humanity of others also becomes one of discovering new aspects of our own humanity, especially when we begin to develop greater capacity to empathize with others and experience compassion in the face of their suffering.

Suffice it to say that the inherent moral rewards of this state of personal development is something that those who use ‘respect for the rights of others,’ ‘empathy with and compassion for others’ and ‘political correctness’ interchangeably have not sufficiently developed as free individuals and as adults to be able to grasp. In the worst cases, the arrested development that gives rise to such delusional thinking is indicative of a personality disorder of the order of malignant narcissism, the product of the raging infantile ego in the body of an adult — ‘the quintessence of evil’ and ‘the most severe pathology and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity’ (Erich Fromm), and ‘a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self become idealised’ (Herbert Rosenfeld). As characteristics of both the personal and social selves, this narcissistic pathology comes with heavy doses of moral cowardice in the face of challenges to the prerogatives of privileged cliques, castes and sheer ignorance — much of which is conspicuously militant and fearful of facts and ideas failing to fit the individualist’s narcissistic schema.

It seems hardly surprising given this is the case to find that most of those who are the most privileged in a material sense are the most impoverished in every other sense, in the sense of being the most likely to preoccupy themselves with tossing an endless torrent of consumer durables into the bottomless pit of their alienation and accumulating as much if not more narcissistic supply in the public limelight than they can wealth from the relative anonymity of their corporate boardrooms. Take the antics of Donald Trump as example. His case in particular indicates the existence of all sorts of critical bills that billions of dollars can’t pay. If, as the television tells us, some things in life can’t be bought, and for everything else there’s Mastercard, the gap between the two is still immense — far more so than a trite television commercial suggests. If that gap can’t be bridged with meaning and a sense of purpose in life, then it has to be filled with something else. Nature abhors a vacuum in human subjectivity as well as in physics.

For this reason then, and as aspects of both their social selves and their personalities, narcissism, cowardice and militant ignorance must become codified into the individualist ethos, with all that entails in terms of codependent romances with the motherland, preoccupation with national security blankets and economic fundamentalisms like neoliberalism. On the social level, as expressions of ideology and policy, we find the same sociopathic assumptions, grandiose attitudes and militant ignorance in the face of the consequences, nowhere more so than in the unwillingness and incapacity of the disordered individualist narcissist to make any kind of distinction between freedom and license — freedom being the right to do whatever we like as long as we respect the equal rights of others, and license being the power to do whatever we like regardless of the consequences for anyone else.

When we develop as individuals and adults sufficiently to understand that other people have rights, that the freedom of each is limited by the freedom of all, we generally do not fear but rather welcome criticism in alerting us to ways that we infringe on the freedom of others. Modeling such behavior in our conduct with others for others makes it easier generally to reason with them when we find ourselves on the other side of the equation, when we need them to be reasonable in coming to grips with ways that their own conduct falls short. It is typical of the infantile mentality of the individualist to model selfishness and haughty arrogance in the way they relate to others, and then complain about what they perceive to be the lack of reasonableness of those with whom they happen not to see eye to eye. Primary amongst the ways in which this selfishness and haughty arrogance appears is the consistent tendency to use of ‘economic and social privilege’ and ‘freedom’ interchangeably, one strongly suggesting that the individualist covets their privileges and is perfectly willing to defend the advantages they enjoy and the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed in that respect at the expense of the rights of others.

In contrast to this and irrespective of the disinterest of those who do not find it convenient to understand, it remains a truism of meaningfully egalitarian concepts of freedom is that by respecting the rights of others we also protect our own; desiring then to preserve freedom equally for everyone, in the knowledge that the safety and security of the rights of others guarantee the existence of our own because the conditions that allow for theirs are the same that allow for ours, we stand in front of it to defend freedom for everyone. Not recognizing or understanding the world outside of their own wants, in the other hand, and not understanding freedom in any sense other than as it relates to them personally, in terms of the ability to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences for anyone else, freedom for individualists is an excuse to hide behind, something that relates only to themselves and others like them if they grow as individuals far enough to recognize the class interests they share with privileged others.

Individualists then are just as quick to conflate privilege with freedom as they are to conflate being criticized and being attacked whenever held to account for their lack of due regard for the rights and freedoms of others, those not fortunate enough to share their social and economic privileges most of all. Their complete intolerance of criticism in this respect goes hand in hand with ignorance of the world outside of the ego; since they don’t understand anything outside of their own ego, either can they fail to regard anything that serves any other purpose with suspicion, as a potential threat to the integrity of their single-minded worldview — and so they might, when we consider the truism of the human condition that the greatest constant in the universe is change. Such is the characteristic feature of the development of each human from infancy to adulthood, as it is the breaking down of the infantile ego and its ignorance of all but the needs and demands of the self as the infant socializes and becomes aware of the existence and rights of others. Fearing change within themselves and the temporary pain of ego death and the stripping away of false pride as they come to terms with the fact that they are neither the centre of the universe not even in the ballpark, the individualist is paradoxically also an authoritarian, since to their infantile mindset the actual freedom of others represents a challenge to their grandiose prerogatives.

The only alternative individualists have to playing the victim by associating those who contradict them or cast doubt on their judgment with those who wish them ill is, after all, reflecting on their basic operating assumptions and modifying their basic worldview to factor in the rights of others. Reflection and introspection are not on the agenda — no more so than is democracy for that matter; this is a statement of the obvious. In defending privilege from the threat of independent thought, individualists must guard against doubt in the majesty of their judgment, magnificence of their person and legitimacy of their class rule, and actively hunt out expressions of dissent, as well as persons, philosophies and movements orientated towards economic and social justice and the regaining of control the conditions of our own work and lives. Such behavior is compulsive, in the manner of a junkie chasing their next fix, the suppression of democratic initiatives to challenge their injustice being comparable in purpose and function to lying to themselves, friends and family members about the nature of their habit while ripping them off to feed their increasingly all-consuming habit.

If to some this sounds like hyperbole, there is a simple test to determine whether or not it is in fact true, and that is individualists to stop everything they do in the name of fulfilling their ethos. This is not in any sense a challenging or perplexing proposition for anyone in control of their drug use. For those devoted to throwing an endless torrent of consumer durables into the bottomless pit of their alienation and keeping up with the Joneses, it is a different story. You can’t stop, says the success-driven individualist trying to rationalise themselves, because you need to service your lifestyle. Remove all other aspects and we’re looking at a junkie, an alcoholic, or a religious fundamentalist; put them back and you’ve got any or all of the above running the economy. Is this not the basis of neoliberal ideology and the neoliberal impulse to bring every aspect of social life under market relations, to reify and objectify every human being on the planet, all the flora and fauna, every moral and ethical value, every humanist and democratic ideal, even the very planet we live on and that supports and sustains all life? Is it not the basis of how neoliberal ideology determines worth of all of the above depending on their exploitability for profit, or lack thereof? It appears that it is.

In the compulsive aspects of the individualist ethos as it degenerates into pathology in the form of neoliberal ideology, we find its propensity to look at the world as a sociopath would — ie. from a completely subjective and ego-driven perspective, regarding the world as existing solely for the benefit of the market, and using freedom and privilege interchangeably as noted as a means of justifying and attempting to rationalize itself ideologically. In this sense, the ultimate thrust of competitive individualism as it comes to be realized in neoliberal ideology is inherently sociopathic and totalitarian, reflecting the narcissistic grandiosity inherent to the pretense that the right to invoke license in exploiting other people and the earth at will in the name of freedom, much less to say the impulse to conflate criticism and attack and respecting the rights of others with politically correct through policing whenever anyone tries to hold them to account. As such, it reflects the observations of Wilhelm Reich regarding the subjective dynamics driving the Nazi war machine to the effect that they were anything but limited to Germany in the 1930s.

Nazism, Reich concluded, was merely a dangerously acute example of subjective psychological and emotional tendencies towards emotional codependence on power far more pervasive in individual human subjectivity. There was, in other words, a little bit of Hitler in all of us — various attempts to portray the Nazi leader as somehow something other than human, as opposed to someone who was in reality all too human, notwithstanding. The fascists of that era had essentially the same kind of relationship with the state and with religious hierarchies that people more generally have with codependent romantic partners, the former drawing on tendencies latent within the collective unconscious of society in general — a fact that appeared to reflect in no small part Hitler’s evil genius and the ability of the Nazis to deflect popular anger away from the architects of capitalism and onto the scapegoat of the day, demonstrating the pattern for the demagogues of today. In the case of individualists, their subjectivity is not only dependent in the increasingly autocratic corporate state with its militarized police and ever more total surveillance, but on the accumulation of material goods in the compulsive manner of an addict, as we have seen.

In reality, the irony is that the actual thought police are the individualists who adopt this kind of mentality as their own, since it is they and not those who doubt or contradict their black and white, binary logic who are unable to brook doubt or criticism lest their narcissistic delusions fall apart completely and leave them without armor against the poverty of their actually existing subjectivity, or a psychological crutch to lean on. To the extent that that that’s the case individualists are also anti-intellectual, since they must as a matter of course identify any expression of intelligence not favouring their preconceived prejudices, which is just about any of them, as support for the enemy. Individualists learn nothing when they don’t perceive it to be in their direct self-interest to do so, the binary thinking and narcissistic assumptions at the core of their individualistic belief system being enough to presuppose and map out its contours prior to the introduction of fact or empirical method, best summed up in the logic of ‘if you think for yourself, the terrorists win.’ Or communists. Or witches. Or what have you.

In this sense in particular, individualists are living proof of the observation from the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ This is especially true considering the fact that, as individuals, individualists are in a state of perpetual crisis, perpetually blaming the rest of the world for their irresolute state and making the rest of the world pay for the coping mechanisms they put into effect to try to compensate for such, their ideological crutches not least of all. Hardly an example to follow, it is nevertheless taken up by millions amongst the working class, a phenomenon driving John Steinbeck to observe that ‘Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.’ Unfortunately for the temporarily embarrassed millionaires of the world, while the pawn works hard so that he can become king, what he fails to realize is that the whole time he works, he enriches the king and helps him to more deeply and more completely entrench his position within the class hierarchy. In opposition to this ethos and its driving question as to how one can accumulate the most for oneself irrespective of the consequences for anyone else, a better one in the face of someone telling you they got rich through hard work might be to ask them, “whose?”’

Original draft July 2016