Posted by: Dan | September 10, 2009

Capitalism and Individualism (not what it seems)

As far as I can tell, it has now become something of a truism to connect rampant individualism with the economic structures of global capitalism.  Individualism, to borrow the words of Fredric Jameson, is a part of ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’, and one sees this idea expressed in the writings of everybody from Catholic theologians, to Communist economists, to Post-Marxist cultural theorists.

In fact, while initially an exciting thought (‘ah yes, capitalism has fractured us from our communities, leading us to live as isolated monads, so a renewed investment in the Church/the vanguard of the revolution/the multitude/the neighbourhood/our tribe/whatever will produce change!’), I have recently been thinking that it is a somewhat deceptive line of criticism.

The truth is that capitalism would be completely unsustainable if it genuinely did produce a sweeping form of individualism across all layers of society.  Instead, the inculcation of the type of individualism we see expressed today is a part of the old ‘divide and conquer’ technique employed by those who benefit the most from the world of global capitalism.  Individualism becomes an in-habited ideology that ensures that the many remain fragmented from one another, and therefore also remain impotent, poor, or just trapped in the cogs of the machine.

Meanwhile, those who are at the top of the chain live anything but lives structured as individuals.  This is easily illustrated in the common expression, “It’s all about who you know.”  Knowing the right people, joining the right clubs, living in the right (gated) communities, gets you into the right schools, which gets you into the right jobs and the right marriages, and so on.  So, while the many in the middle or on the bottom of society are encouraged to live as radical and free individuals, those at the top are maintaining and consolidating networks of power and control.  Individualism for the hoi polloi, community for the wealthy and powerful!  (So, community ends up becoming the private property of the rich.)

To me, then, this suggests the priority of class-based analysis over criticisms that rely upon subsidiary notions like individualism.  Why is it, I wonder, that people talk far less in class-based language these days?  Is it, perhaps, because some many of our critics are themselves members of the upper classes?

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Responses

  1. I get your point, but I wonder if the kind of connection that serve the rich so well actually make up community.

    • I totally agree, the social connections spoken about in the article are selected on the basis of self promotion. Yes a community of sorts but not exactly the community i’m thinking of.

  2. To your important point on the lack of “class based’ analysis, speaking as one with (peachable) working-class credentials, critical theory often responds to market forces as much as any other discipline in academia Many Profs. And writers are always on the lookout for the next, publishable, “philosophical Idol” (could it be ‘speculative realism’?). Some, like Jameson at Duke, are good Marxist workhorses, yet even he bent to the winds of post-structuralism back in the late 90’s (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Also, the now old-hat Foucault offered a critique of Marx’s ‘top down’ critique of power that took some wind out of older Karl’s sails with his inversion of Marx’s structure of power relations, to wit, ‘power is exercised rather than possessed {by a class}.’ Your post, perhaps offers an insightful fusion of Marx and Foucault (with a gospel twang?). “…no doubt power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” Obliged, Daniel

  3. But class membership is increasingly fluid across generations. You exaggerate the community of the rich.

  4. Dan,

    Very insightful post. Thank you.

  5. I’d have to say that “individualism” is a myth any where but in Christ and that “community” is a myth any where but in Christ (i.e. what you describe in the paragraph that starts with “Meanwhile…” doesn’t strike me as community at all). Anything we would call “individualism” or “community” without any reference to Christ is a delusion perpetrated on us by “the powers and principalities” that rule in fallen human culture anywhere it may manifest itself.


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