Ironies of individualism

We think of Western civilization as individualistic. ‘Freedom’ and ‘democracy’ have become catchwords in the cause of global capitalism, which has promoted certain individualist ideals through the spread of consumerism and a competitive spirit. People have choice over an expanding range of products and services, though little input into what those should be. They can choose among candidates for office pre-selected by others.

Since humans are highly social creatures, the individual can exist only in relation to the collective. Individual rights exist only in the context of the group and in balance with the needs of society. By long tradition, modern China is still far more collectivist than modern America. But individualism in both societies is relative, a question of degree. The same people in the U.S. who tout individual freedom may also shout for their collective identity: “America first.”

The success of the human species has been a collective effort and a function of increasing numbers. As population increased, so did human prosperity, which enabled specialization and technology, which in turn furthered prosperity. Individuality was made possible when it was no longer necessary for everyone to do the same tasks just to survive. Nothing seems to make it inevitable, however. Relief from drudgery implies little about how people will use their liberated time and energy. Humans are the most cooperative of the primates, and cooperation depends to a large extent upon conformity. (“Monkey see, monkey do” describes our species far better than literal monkeys.) We are conformists at heart—or by gene. The individual identity we can achieve always strains against the tug of the herd.

Technology can be liberating, but “drudgery” is a relative term. (Washing machines and backhoes are great labour-saving devices. But how much labour is saved by clapping hands instead of flipping a light switch?) Since the body is naturally a labour-producing device, sparing it effort is not in itself a good thing. Instead of having to wash the clothes by hand, or dig the ditch with a shovel, we can go to the gym for gratuitous “exercise.” Freedom from drudgery is relative to the limits and needs of the physical body. We strive against the body’s limitations, but cannot be totally free of them. We live longer now, but can only dream of immortality.

There seems to be a definite expansion over time of what we now call human rights. At least since society reached the stage beyond small groups of hunter-gatherers, it was always the case that some individuals claimed the freedoms that go with power over others. With increasing prosperity came social stratification. The masses eventually coveted the same privileges and benefits they could see possessed by elites. With industrialization, they could have token versions of the same luxuries. With democratization, they could have a diluted and second-hand version of authority. Money conferred an ersatz version of status: the power to consume. Real power remained behind the scenes, however, in the hands of those positioned to define the apparent choices and influence the mass of voters or consumers.

Imagine trying to market your product to a hundred million consumers who have absolutely nothing in common, who are completely disparate—that is, truly individual. Suppose also that they are rational beings who know what they actually need. How many would buy your product? Imagine, further, trying to get them to agree on a leader! Both democracy and the consumer market depend on conformity far more than individuality, and on whim far more than reason. True, each person now can have a personal telephone cum television cum computer, thus spared the inconveniences of sharing a wired facility with others. Convincing people of the need and right of each to have their own personal devices maximizes market penetration—just as convincing people to live alone maximizes rent collected.

From an economic point of view, consumers are hardly individuals, but mere ciphers with a common willingness to purchase mass-produced widgets or standardized services. Lacking imagination, they reach for what is readily available and may seem to be the only option—or perhaps  for no better reason than that they have seen others flaunting the latest offerings and don’t want to be left behind. Long ago, people envied the nobility for the indulgences they alone could afford. Now the Joneses compete with each other to get ahead—or at least not fall behind. Remember the brief period when a mobile phone was a novel status symbol? Now staying “connected” seems a bare necessity. Social media have democratized status, which is always in flux according to who “likes” what. Is the mobile phone a labour-saving device or is it a new form of drudgery?

Carl Jung articulated the concept of individuation as the process of unfolding through which one becomes a specific mature self. While we may think of freedom and individuality in the same breath, becoming a unique individual is quite another matter than having unrestricted choice. To have the capacity to think and act independently of others is different from access and entitlement to a limitless variety of goods or experiences. In a sense, they are nearly opposite. We may be offended by restrictions imposed on what we can do or choose. But, to what avail is freedom if all we can imagine or do is what everyone else does, or if the choices have been predefined by others?

On the one hand, a rational individuated human being ought to be immune to the herd mentality. On the other hand, such a being should be capable of objectivity. If everyone were truly unique, they might see things really differently. What basis would there be for agreement? What basis for the commonality and cooperation that made civilization possible? Why would two people buy the identical product—if, indeed, they would want it at all? There would literally be no accounting for taste, and no basis for mass production. Capitalism could not succeed in a society of truly individuated beings. Even in that society, no doubt some people would consciously try to exploit the weaknesses of others, who would resist if they are equally awake.

But, of course, humans are not all that different, and mostly not fully awake. First of all, we come with more or less standard issue: the body, which imposes much upon our consciousness. As individuals, we are mass-produced tokens of a kind. We grow up indoctrinated in a common culture, programmed to view the world in standard ways, to want standardized things, to have conventional goals. The fact that opinions can diverge tells us that consensus is not the same as objectivity. (Agreeing on something does not make it true.) Even if all people were completely different from each other, we still would occupy a common world, with its own real and singular existence apart from how we think of it. (Is that not the definition of ‘reality’?) Objectivity means accordance with that common world, especially with the preexisting natural world which encompasses us all. In principle, our minds could be completely diverse internally and still agree on what is externally real. But only, of course, if we were truly objective.

Obviously, that is not the human condition. Quite the contrary. We vaunt the inner differences that are supposed to make us unique and give us identity, while hardly able to agree about external things. We love to bicker (and sometimes wage war) concerning externalities we deem real and important. We love to take a stand, to be right or superior, to debate and argue. Paradoxically, that only makes sense when we are convinced of knowing a truth that matters. For, simply having divergent inner experiences is not itself a basis for conflict, which is always about outer and bigger so-called realities. Any number of sugar plums can dance in our heads, just as any number of angels can dance on the head of a pin, since such things take up no space. It’s rather our cumbersome bodies, with their natural needs and programming, that compete for space and resources. We have thus always been in competition as well as in cooperation.

An individuated person is not an individual in the conventional sense—not someone obviously different in appearance, tastes and desires, for example. Rather, it is someone whose thinking can transcend the factors that render us inherently alike—and also render us unconscious and therefore incapable of objectivity. To be conscious and objective is to see—clearly and for what they are—the limiting perspectives that hold us in the communal trance.

Mobile phones free us from stationary connection points, while the social platforms they enable chain us to the opinions of others. News and entertainment media monopolize our attention with standard schlock. The chatbot or design tool may be your handy personal assistant, but can feed you a pablum of clichés. While our society becomes ever more individualistic, through technology and in accord with market needs, we do not necessarily become more individuated. In a different age, Jung thought of individuation as a normal progression in the natural life cycle. I doubt such inevitability. There are too many forces mitigating against it, keeping us immature and conventional. Individuation may be possible, but only through fierce intent.