The myth of ‘the individual’


One of the strangest and most prevalent myths of our times is the myth of ‘the individual’. It is so prevalent, in fact, that it isn’t often questioned: we are all individuals… aren’t we? It is an integral part of our development to identify as ‘I’ (according to Western psychologists). Perhaps it is actually just a developmental phase – perhaps we have been culturally stunted here because isolation is particularly good for the economy… but wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

You probably know the story of The Little Red Hen. You know, that iconic story that libertarian Ayn Rand fans love to tell you in the middle of the night when you’re drunk in their kitchen and have nowhere to escape to – because it proves that human beings are selfish and that poor people are just making bad choices? You know, that chicken who wants to make some bread and asks for help at every stage, but all the other animals in the animal farm are too busy being hedonistic assholes, so when her bread is finally made and they all smell the delicious yeasty scent… and come scrounging… and she’s like: “nah ah”. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but that never happened. You know why? Chickens are communal animals. They hang out in groups and scratch for bugs together – sure they fight over food, especially when there’s scarcity, but being together is something they do. It’s good for their survival, and it’s company. If chickens were going to bake bread, you can bet your arse they’d do it together.

Human beings are social animals – probably even more so than chickens. We always live in communities. We are never completely individuals. We all depend on each other. It is a bit ridiculous to think of ourselves as independent individuals – when we are all so obviously and completely inter-dependent. It’s a bit like treating a cell in your body as an individual – or taking anything and isolating it from its environment and then trying to understand that thing. It doesn’t work. Individuals can only exist in relation to social and environmental contexts. We cannot be removed.

fish

The funny thing is that people are so embedded in their culture they really can’t see out of it – it’s the water in our goldfish bowl, right? So the way we thing – well it’s just normal – IT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE: OKAY? It’s hard for us to even imagine a society without ‘individuals’… but actually, our mythology is not universal. There are lots and lots of cultures where ‘the individual’ is not really all that important. This is a bit hard to understand from a Western perspective because our philosophical history is based on the idea of ‘the individual’. Our morality starts with ‘me’ and extends out – hopefully – to other people, sometimes it stretches to other animals, but rarely does it encompass the ecosystem (which is probably why the ecosystem makes a better starting point). The anthropologist David Graeber, points out:

Western social theory is founded on certain everyday common sense, one that assumes that the most important thing about people is that they are all unique individuals. Theory therefore also tends to start with individuals and tries to understand how they form relations with one another (society)… With no concept of either “society” or unique individuals, [the Melpa] assumed the relationships came first. (Towards an Anthropology of Value, 2001, page 36, 37)

The thing about assuming that we’re all just selfish is that it ignores that we’re equally not. Sure, it makes a great economic platform if you like to promote the kind of economy that destroy ecosystems and exploits people as much and as quickly as possible, and it fits with the Christian heritage of Western culture that assumes we’re all sinners, but it ignores the blindingly obvious communal aspects of us – as a species. Basically, if someone was like: ‘dude, when you’ve got a minute, can you help me grind this flour so we can have some sweet gluten-free fairtrade bread in five hours’ and you had the time and energy, and that person wasn’t a talking chicken, you’d probably be all over that, right? You’re a decent kind of person… and people have been making bread communally for thousands of years.

Anyway, there’s another reason The Little Red Hen is a terrible story: it sucks to eat alone. If I went to all that trouble to make some kick-arse bread I would want to share it, and the recipe, and get all the social credit for my awesome baking. Just sayin’

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Why the market won’t save us

There are lots of things that are said so often that people take them for granted: if you work hard, you’ll succeed, people are lazy and selfish, and so on.  We are usually so absorbed in our own culture that we don’t really see it, and therefore, can’t challenge the things that aren’t healthy/functional/true/ideal. After all, our culture is the water in which we swim.  There are some serious problems with out dominant social discourses.  Neoliberal ideas surrounding work and ‘the market’ tend to come under this bracket, so while I’m in a deconstructive mood I’m going to rant about a few of the false premises that people seem to take for granted:

1. People are essentially selfish and lazy 

This is only a lie because it’s a partial truth: people are sometimes lazy and selfish, but that is not our essential nature (if we have one at all). People are communal animals. We are hard-wired for community. We get satisfaction from work that is meaningful and helpful, we get good vibes from doing nice things and helping other people. Assuming that we are all just selfish and lazy is actually kind of yuck. It’s an excuse to devalue some people’s lives because they haven’t achieved as much as other people.

2. We all have equal opportunities to succeed

Now, even to an amateur goldfish, this would sound ridiculous. No one really believes this, do they? There is absolutely no evidence for this assumption. Perhaps it is part of the fairy-tale of the uber-privileged who have no vision outside of their limitless choices. Okay, so maybe we don’t have equal opportunity to succeed, but surely even socially disadvantaged people have options, right? They have choices, right? Let’s just pretend that this is good enough.

3. Poor people are just making bad choices

This has been bugging me since I read Linda Tirado’s essay: Why I make terrible decisions. We all know the price of rent, food and power has gone up heaps and the minimum wage and benefits haven’t followed suit, yet some people insist that people accessing food banks are just not budgeting properly, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you see that poor-looking person over there smoking cigarettes/gambling/drinking and you think it’s as simple as ‘bad choices’? Fuck man, you have no idea what it feels like to have massive social pressure and so few choices, that easing the pain just a little bit, and sacrificing other important things, seems like the best choice you have. I’m not even going to go into the implications of inter-generational trauma, but I will mention that my supervisor who did her PhD looking at food scarcity found that some of the people she talked to smoked cigarettes because they suppress hunger and a packet lasts longer than a meal.

4. Hard work can work for everyone

Even if you don’t really believe in premise 2, you might have a bit of faith that with a lot of hard work and a dash of determination success is possible for anyone. The ‘hard’ work discourse really grates because it assumes that the people who are at the top worked the hardest. News flash: the people who clean your toilets work fucking hard for relatively little reward. This also assumes there are enough jobs for everyone and that everyone has the ability to work.

5. There is this trickle-down effect…

So, the idea here is that people who make it to the top will invest in more business ventures and create more jobs, that this is all good for the economy, and that wealth trickles down. Now, anyone with a bit of critical awareness will tell you that the trickle-down effect is nothing more than the rich pissing on the poor, that for those people to get to the top they have to make tough choices – like paying people as little as possible and employing as few people as possible. That’s just good business sense, right?

6. What is good for the economy is good for us

People seem to have this idea that the economy is very important and must grow at all costs, without really knowing what ‘the economy’ is and who it is serving. We all need to think a bit more critically about what ‘the economy’ actually is, every time these words crop up in conversation. The way we measure ‘the economy’ is actually just a number based on all the transactions (GDP) and lots of transactions might just mean lots of crises – earthquakes are great for the economy, times of peace are not. While the economy is booming we still have poverty, crime and deprivation, in fact, we seem to be getting even more of the above as the gap between rich and poor widens. What is good for ‘the economy’ is not necessarily good for us.

7. The market is holy

‘The market’ is a similar concept, used in the religious discourse of neoliberal devotees: the market will save us. Just let it be free. There is absolutely no evidence to support this religious belief.  The main problem with this is that it leaves corporations free to exploit whomever they can, in whatever way they like. Corporations function much like cancer in the body – their job is to grow and grow and amass more and more resources. That is all. If you take all the power away from governments to regulate this kind of unhealthy social growth, you give all the power to the the tumors.

8. Paid work is morally good

This is based on the premise that people are inherently selfish and lazy. It’s much like the other puritan discourse in our social religion: we are all born sinners (selfish and lazy) and therefore to be morally good we must perform paid work – as much as possible – then we are able to feel self-righteous and superior to those who don’t work. If we are really really good we will even do unpaid work for charities or something, and if you work very hard for a long time you deserve your pension (not a Neoliberal idea) but any other dependence on the system is morally wrong and should be punished with verbal abuse and judgement, never mind that people who seek welfare are vulnerable and socially disadvantaged, never mind that they are human beings, never mind that the way they are treated by society and dysfunctional welfare systems is dehumanising and not really helping, never mind that poverty and social inequality is bad for everyone and that more equal societies are better off.

9. Taxing the rich is mean

Now, someone keeps telling me that extra taxes on high incomes are punitive, that is: punishing the rich. I fail to see how wealth distribution is a kind of punishment when more equality is better for everyone and quite frankly, I’m not overly sympathetic if Banker-Brad can’t afford a second yacht when there are far too many hungry children in this world. Now I’m not meaning to be mean and judgmental of wealthy people, there are lots of unhelpful stereotypes of rich people as well, I’m sorry about that, but it’s not top priority for me.

Negative stereotype of rich person

 

10. Taxing the rich is bad for productivity The argument goes like this: Banker-Brad works hard for his money (unlike those lazy toilet cleaners).  If Brad doesn’t get rewarded with extra money, or (heaven forbid) he gets extra money but it’s taxed at a higher rate (to subsidise the lavish lifestyles/healthcare/education/welfare of the undeserving poor) then Brad will start to lose motivation for his high-flying job, he won’t want to work as hard, and neither will all this other high-income-bracket friends. The economy will collapse and everyone will suffer. Bullshit. Research into human motivation shows that money motivation only has limited effects – for example, when people are given a task that requires creativity/challenge or ‘thinking outside the box’, money doesn’t help them achieve the task, but in a similar experiment where the creativity is taken out of the equation more money does work as a motivator. This suggests that people with more challenging/creative roles like Brad would actually benefit less from monetary motivation than the people cleaning his toilets.

For more information, watch this TED talk:

There are lots of other things that could be included here, but I hope this begins to point out how ridiculous some of the ideas we have around work and poverty are. Sometimes the ideas we take for granted are analogous to the shit floating around our social fish tank. We can either see it as part of the water or we can see it for what it really is: an unhealthy part of an unsustainable eco-system.