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Varieties of Individualism

Tags: spirituality, individualism, freedom, power, anarchism, creativity, competitive materialism, property rights, meritocracy, libertarianism, capitalism

There are two conflicting concepts of individualism, one with a material focus called libertarianism, and the other with a spiritual focus called anarchism. The spiritualist orientation conceives the individual as a gusher of inventive creativity, a fountain from which good things flow. On this view, power is not something that originates from the barrel of a gun, nor is it created by institutional customs and habits of stratification, authority, and subordination. Power originates in the creative freedom of individual spirituality. Emphasis on this spirituality creates a picture in which you want as much originality and sharing as possible, and the best political system is one which enables and enhances that power at the individual level. Tapping into the personally interior gusher of spirituality (intelligence), and bringing spontaneous creations into the world from personal interiority is identified as the way to fulfillment for both individuals and human collectives.

Spirituality, Sociability, Interconnectedness, Equality

Anarchism is an assertion of individual autonomy founded on a vision of human equality. It comes from a history of anti-oppression, and grows organically from the radical enlightenment in European history. Anarchism does not denigrate the importance of human interconnectedness, but makes an effort to remove injustice and top-down human-on-human macro-parasitism from relationships. It is espoused mainly by people who have little property and who live with a history of top-down authoritarian oppression. Anarchism is an assertion of autonomy as a counterforce to lethal violence from historically entrenched factions practicing exploitative repression in the name of some supposedly sovereign community or transcendent civilization.

Competitive Materialism

In the contrasting, and far more common, materialist orientation the individual is conceived as a hollow pit, a kind of black hole, which inherently strives to fill itself by sucking in, taking possession of, and consuming as much as possible of the goods from its environment. Such activity inevitably brings it into conflict with the other black holes in its vicinity. The sucking and the conflict determine the essential character of human existence on the competitive materialist view, which is the matrix of American libertarianism. Libertarians embrace the myth of the free market: competitive self-interest as fundamental and unalterable human nature. On this materialist interpretation of individualism, life is pervasively and inescapably competitive because human nature glimpses fulfillment only by continuous consumption and by winning the conflicts necessary to take the most desirable consumables. Competitions inevitably produce inequality, hierarchy, subordination, and macro-parasitism. The concept “meritocracy” reveals how apparent individualism is meant to morph into an institutionalized power structure, a mechanism of top-down supervision and control. People who win a lot of trophies for themselves are somehow supposed to have shown by that activity that others should be subordinate to them. It is a short slide from libertarianism to fascism.

Given its conception of human nature and motivation, the worldview of American-style libertarians is focused on property rights and ownership of property. The libertarian stance is a declaration of self-identification in terms of trophy-properties and the personal determination to exercise with jealous possessiveness any and all advantages that arise from ownership of property and wealth. It is a rejection of any empathic (ethical) impulse to bond and share, especially with people of colour, again expressing a stratified conception of human relations which is perfectly compatible with racism and xenophobia. This competitive materialism of capitalist free-market libertarianism is a vision of human inequality as essentially good (matrix of magnificent accumulators and their spectacular accumulations), generally espoused by persons who expect to be among those who have plenty. However, embedded in this conception is also an urgent justification for human nature to be controlled because, as an aggressively competitive sucking pit, it is innately unstable and de-stabilizing for social relationships. Since no person is actually viable in complete isolation, even a libertarian expects to have some enduring human relationships. As an expression of political conservatism, the expected relationships of libertarians are hardly matters of speculation, they will be hierarchical and privileging to the masculine as traditionally conceived in the alpha-trophy-looting culture of masculinity.

What makes the possession of property so vital is that it enables living from ownership rather than from labour, which is to say, it enables living on the labour of others. The normal picture of libertarian autonomy assumes ownership of sufficient property to support a profound self-sufficiency. Only a scant few can ever really have such a concentration of resources. Libertarian assumptions are an idealized and sanitized nostalgia for the autonomy of medieval crime family estate owners. Because of that materialist value focus, libertarians are not, and can never be, against strong government (in spite of claims to the contrary). It was those antique medieval versions of libertarians, people dedicated to the strategy of living from property ownership rather than from labour, who conceived and established sovereign governments in the first place, even though they also kept private armies. Owners of property always want the most powerful protection possible against any risk of losing their property, which means they depend on the machinery of armed violence in the form of personal weapons, police, and military organizations, as much of it as can be arranged. Protection of property absolutely requires the “right hand” of sovereign government, the power that comes from the barrel of a gun: armed forces, spies, assassins, and a sovereign who represents property owners, as traditional sovereigns always do. Such sovereignty implies the whole apparatus of class macro-parasitism, and a general culture of top-down orientation, the mass subordination to sovereign power. The propertied minority did not seriously want to restrict sovereign power until governments began to be influenced by people who make a living by labour. Conservative emphasis on the limitation of government became prominent when sovereign governments became, to some extent, an expression of popular choice, chosen by elections with broad enfranchisement.

The Romantic Idealism of Conservative Morality

When individual spirituality is defined as inherently competitive then empathy is ruled out as the basis of morality, since it would always be overridden by anti-other impulses. Without empathy, morality has to be based on the primacy and enforcement of top-down commandments, rules, edicts, proclamations, sometimes presented as metaphysical principles. Right-wing morality is conceived as obedience to a proclaimed list of such virtues and duties: the code of honour, hard work, and self-reliance. (Accepting charity is a moral failing on that view.) Normally, conservative ideology ridicules idealism and conflates it with romanticism as unrealistic and impractical, a cowardly evasion of realism. However, nothing is more romantic and idealistic than promoting authoritarian society based on the ideal of the masculine hero, combined with the idealism of metaphysical virtues and duties. If social arrangements are not constructed on the basis of empathy then they have to be based on enforcement of such metaphysics, and supposing that anyone is qualified to police the commandments requires pure romantic hero romanticism.

Although the purest form of American libertarianism is officially rejected by political parties in the ideological ‘centre’ during election campaigns, some degree of this attitude pervades American culture and capitalist culture generally, so when people like Barack Obama, George Bush, or Ronald Reagan (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, or David Cameron in the UK), use the word “freedom”, they don’t mean anarchism, they mean the freedom of people with great accumulations to do whatever they like with the vast majority of that wealth, no matter how much publicly created goods such as roads, general literacy, and norms of civility and security of person have contributed to the possibility and production of that wealth. They mean American libertarianism, a freedom for the investor class. That’s all that freedom can mean in capitalism. Other than in anarchism, the political left has no coherent model of an alternative to capitalism nor a philosophically bottom-up or horizontal system of reality, and so, no conception of how to advance beyond capitalism.

Recommended source on anarchism:

The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936, written by Murray Bookchin, published by AK Press (1998), ISBN 1-873176-04-X.

Copyright © 2016 Sandy MacDonald.

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