Expand the Mind: Beyond the Myth of Individualism

Are we isolated, rugged indivduals, or are we inextricably involved with others in community? This false dichotomy tends to hang us up. We think we have to pick one or the other. We forget that “the opposite of one great truth is another great truth” (Niels Bohr), that the deep structure of dualistic thinking is paradox: both/and. We live in between the lines, breathing open the space between these two poles.

I lived in a yurt community for a number of years. As you can imagine, yurt people —especially in the mountains of Wyoming! — tend towards the pole of rugged individualism — just as do others who identify as westerners. Most tense moments at our community meetings involved a seeming conflict between individual and community. One person would want to do something to the land adjacent to his yurt that might impact all of us negatively; another person might not be carrying his or her weight in terms of housekeeping the bathhouse that we shared in common. And so on.

As the oldest person who lived there, and, as the one who had lived there the longest, I saw my role as to consistently point out that both individualism and community are valuable and important. That these two poles arise together. Usually this kind of comment just provoked puzzled looks.

One particularly contentious young individualist, after deciding to leave the community and build his own cabin in the wilderness, paid me a visit, his first, and one that I’ll never forget. He told me that he always thought I was crazy, the way I kept stressing that we can’t choose between individual and community, but must realize that they are always in tension, and that our challenge is to work with that tension consciously and creatively.

Guess what? He thanked me! This rugged individualst “got it.” He said he finally realized that I was right! Just the fact that he bothered to tell me that he got it showed me that he was now, finally, valuing others as part of his equation. That he paid me this visit was a generous act; a real rugged individualist wouldn’t have made it a priority. I am forever grateful.

A wise woman here in Bloomington, Indiana — one even older than I! — said something to me the first year I was here that I’ll also never forget. She said that she thinks that the more individualistic were the pioneers in their covered wagons, the more likely they would just keep on going, rather than settle down in community along the way.

Her analysis makes sense. In the U.S., the hotbed of “socialism” or “populism” does seem to be in the midwest, in Wisconsin and Minnesota especially. I grew up in the west, and then, surprising even myself, made a “reverse migration” from west to midwest, eight years ago. I like it here. I’m such an individualist by temperament, that the shared, gentle community focus helps to soften my hard edges.

Thanks to opednews.com.

The Mythology of Individualism

by Brian Cooney

June 10, 2011

In her Textbook of Americanism, GOP saint Ayn Rand wrote: “The basic principle of the United States of America is Individualism.” At a 2005 celebration honoring Rand, Republican young gun Paul Ryan declared that every battle fought by Republicans “usually comes down to one conflict – individualism versus collectivism.”

Randian conservatives are ok with private collectives–even corporations powered by the activities of hundreds of thousands of employees and revenues larger than many nations. What they fear and loathe is the political collective, a people or community pursuing a common good through government action.

As the influential libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick put it, “There is no social entity with a good . . . . There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives.” In other words, society is nothing but a multitude of individuals for whom there is no public good, only private goods sought by different individuals and groups.

As Nozick would add that, in a free society, no individual or group should use the power of government to force others to contribute to their private goals such as food or medicine. Doing so amounts to enslavement. As Rand Paul said, if you want to legislate universal healthcare, “you believe in slavery.”

The only acceptable role for government is to protect individuals’ property and liberty from aggressors.

Individualists want a political system built around self-made, self-reliant and value-creating agents whose connections to other humans are purely voluntary or contractual. That’s why they see the free market as society itself, as the natural environment for human nature.

Of course, the very idea of a market society is hard to reconcile with the individualist picture of humans. Our constant transactions with each other show our dependence on goods and services provided by others.

Individualists would respond that these transactions are voluntary in a free-market society. Each of us can choose with whom to deal and which things we do for ourselves rather than rely on others.

We make ourselves who we are and we create values by these choices. When we get what we want through market transactions, we draw on our own resources to offer something that another person needs in return.

Behold the individualist’s new Adam–a gift to the world from our exceptional culture. This muscular ego is the creature of what Herbert Hoover called “the American system of rugged individualism.”

There is something very appealing about this picture. All of us want our children to become self-reliant and value-creating individuals, and a healthy society needs to nurture these traits in all its citizens.

However, this picture is deeply flawed because what it leaves out is just as important as what it includes. No one is self-made. A society makes individuals just as much as individuals make a society.

Nothing is closer to the very core of an individual than their thought processes. Yet it is language that makes thought possible by supplying the mind with ideas and rules for combining them. There is no private language–it’s community property.

A few individuals manage to put words or ideas together in very original ways, like Shakespeare or Einstein. Yet even they would have been impossible without their societies’ language and education, and without institutions (such as the theater and science) which they did not create.

Every individual’s life is an intersection of pre-scripted roles (e.g. being parents, spouses or professionals) that we did not invent, and without which our behavior would be unintelligible to others or to ourselves. Like actors on a stage, we play these roles more or less well.

All our labor, however skilled, is a social product, a joint production of the labors of countless others such as teachers, farmers and city employees. They build and maintain the environment or infrastructure without which our own work would be impossible.

The self-made individual touted by Randian individualists is a fiction, a distortion. People who believe in this fiction suffer from what we can call Trumpism.

Donald Trump is the perfect symbol of the craziness of individualism. His brief candidacy collapsed as he was laughed off the political stage. Because of his ridiculous self-importance and exaggerated sense of power, people quickly saw him as a clown.

Trumpism makes Americans tolerant of extreme inequality in wealth and income. The top 5% owned 62% of the nation’s wealth in 2007. Trumpists would say that these numbers reflect the immensely greater individual contributions of the very rich.

Finally, it’s simply false to say that there are only private goods, and the only legitimate function of government is to protect them. The society that makes our individual lives possible has many important and essentially public goods.

These include infrastructure, education, a clean environment, social insurance, and basic scientific research of the sort that created the internet and will launch nanotechnology. These public goods empower and liberate our individual lives.

Brian Cooney is a retired philosophy professor at Centre College. He is also a regular columnist for his local paper, The Danville Advocate-Messenger, and has written for buzzflash.com.
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2 Responses to Expand the Mind: Beyond the Myth of Individualism

  1. Dancing Kimbit says:

    This entry has come as a reminder at the most opportune time, Ann. As a self-defined independent living in a concentrated eco-village community, I have been struggling to balance the desire to engage socially and deeply connect with all of those around me (and definitely finding energy from their companionship) while oftentimes needing to be isolated, quiet, and alone (finding a refuel of energy & groundedness from this as well). Neither one pole of the spectrum feels complete to me, but I’m learning both are incredibly essential for my well-being. Thank you for reminding me “that the deep structure of dualistic thinking is paradox: both/and. We live in between the lines, breathing open the space between these two poles.” I inhale, filling that space and exhale, sinking into it with ease.

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