“Individualism is the product of private ownership…” *
Whilst a degree of co-operation and collectivism is essential for humans to survive and to produce what they need in the way of food and shelter etc, the rise of capitalism produced an emphasis on the individual not seen before in the name of increased profits.
In the early days the theory and practice were severe, capitalists must be allowed the freedom to exploit their workers to the limit, free of any legal or moral restriction, whilst workers must be free to move about and sell their labour power to any employer that needs it.
Workers must not join together to demand better pay, they should stand alone and beg from the boss – one person (very poor) against one person (very rich), that’s fair isn’t it?
The family was pressured to conform to a pattern of one man, one woman and their children, the so-called nuclear family. This was considered the optimal unit for economic efficiency and labour flexibility.
The patriarchal nature of society was continued by making the male the head of the household with an assumption that he will be the main bread winner, whilst if she works outside the home the woman will still look after the children and do most of the domestic work.
This pattern did not in fact suit many workers. Many people needed more co-operative forms to cope with their problems under capitalism, such as extended families with the elderly at home to help with child-care and the chores, and adult kids who still need a home. And of course gays, lesbians and transsexuals were not taken into account, except to illegalise them and drive them underground.
Since then, Capitalism has of course given ground and many things have changed over the years due to its internal problems, the resistance of the workers and, it must be said, its successes. But it’s worth remembering that there are neo-liberals who still aimed for these conditions.
The capitalist state has not been able to just sit back and let individuals get on with it. The individualist philosophy of laissez-faire has not worked, and they have been forced to intervene to defend the system and to try to keep it flowing smoothly. The amount it intervenes is an ongoing debate within the ruling class that often get heated and divides them into parties. Different bourgeois economists produce different theories as to how much state intervention is desirable, and the capitalists veer from one to the other.
“…society, based on private ownership, inevitably splits into hostile classes, produces class antagonism and social inequality, and is accompanied by the exploitation and oppression of the popular masses by a small ruling class.”*
The USA is often considered the most individualist of modern capitalist societies and this is re-enforced by the mythology of the Wild West – the hard-working man (with or without his hard-working woman) scraping a living against the elements, the Indians (Native Americans) and often what there was of the state on the frontier. This picture of course ignores much of reality, as the settlers included many who immediately formed small towns to provide the necessities and small luxuries of life. These small towns then sometimes grew quite rapidly into cities, with all the complexities that entails.
Ironically the iconic figure of the Wild West, the lawman/gun-for-hire (often the same person played both roles – sometimes at the same time!) needs the setting of the town for his existence; he needs a community to employ him or that he can terrorise.
Understandably, individualism is strongest in the areas of the USA that remain wildernesses or semi-wildernesses. Here, often long distances from major cities, people are forced to be as self-reliant as possible and have often chosen this way of life. They feel alienated from the local state authorities and even more so from the federal government and resent any intervention by them as attacks on their freedom.
But the antagonistic attitude of individualism is not confined to individuals, it pervades the whole of society where each community is at odds with the others. It’s possible to see these off-grid semi-hermits as the bottom rung of a ladder of antagonism in the USA. Above them are the small towns that they try to avoid as much as possible and which in turn distrust the large cities, which in their turn look down on the small towns whilst objecting to any actions of the federal government that might infringe their rights. Of course, needs operate to keep the whole together and in ‘good times’ they rub along, but in problem periods and in crisis relationships can get very strained indeed.
The racist murder by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis displayed an example of the conflicts. Following the murder, President Donald Trump sent federal officers into the city (not to help arrest the culprits but to put down the protesters against the crime!). Such was the feeling against what was seen as federal interference virtually the whole city, Democrat and Republican, turned against him and demanded their withdrawal.
In contrast, socialism is built on the need of working people for co-operation and collectivism. A workers’ state that is built by and for the workers cannot be in constant conflict with them, and any conflicts that arise must be dealt with and not allowed to become severe.
With socialism, individuals are encouraged to find real freedom and real independence within their collectives – in their unions, residents associations, councils etc – which now have real powers. Instead of being isolated individuals whose influence is minimal, they can express their feelings and ideas there and have them considered and possibly adopted by their comrades.
“History shows that independence for the masses cannot be realised by a society based on individualism…a society based on individualism must be replaced by a society based on collectivism, by socialism and communism.” *
* quotes from Kim Jong Il, leader of the DPR Korea, Socialism is a Science. Pyongyang 1994.