Friday, November 11, 2011

Individualism: Cultural Trait or Political Economic Necessity?

Much has been made out of concept of Western Individualism versus Eastern Collectivism. Usually, these are framed as existential cultural traits: there is something particularly European about individualism, and something particularly …. non-European…. about collectivism. European individualism is used as an explanation for their economic and political “achievements” (colonization included).

Of course, our notions of “culture” were forged in a colonial context, and any scheme that pits people of European ancestry (people of color in the United States are generally deemed “collectivist” as well) against everyone else, as an undifferentiated whole, should be suspect. As a general rule of thumb, any binary which places people of European ancestry on one side of a divide and everyone else on the other is a product of the discourses that constitute (actively and passively) “modernity.”

What the culturalist perspective construes as a personality trait or an attitude, actually derives from legal practices that were specifically developed to support capitalist relations of production. Thus, it was an intentional arrangement, subject to very specific power interests. While other relations of production are premised on the products of labor (and surpluses may be appropriated from collectives, including families), under capitalism, labor itself is commoditized and collective action is coordinated from the “top” (all other lateral relationships, like unionization, are discouraged). Furthermore, private ownership of land and other means of production is necessary to ensure the limits to competition that capitalism requires. In this environment, a legal system that privileges private ownership and contracts between individual agents is indispensible. The “individual” is the linchpin that holds it all together.

It is in a capitalist’s interest that people are not able to satisfy their needs on their own. Instead, people are reliant upon an endless number of commodities. They are separated (“alienated” in Marx’s terms) from the products of their own labor, and must procure their needs from unknown (in terms of the human labor) sources. Furthermore, as the production process becomes finely segmented, to the extent that each laborer is only involved with a fraction of the overall process, collective action toward a common goal is limited. In essence, under capitalism, the productive process consists of relationships that are more structural than interactional. People inhabit roles in which, for the sake of efficiency, they are interchangeable with others. The “individual” as a legal, political, and economic entity is a function of the role-based nature of capitalist relations of production. One might say that the “individual” is one of the “technologies” (and don’t humans often function as machines?) created by capitalism.

Still, one must be careful not to overstate the divide between individualism and collectivism. One characteristic of the project of “modernity” along with its concomitant ideology of progress, is the tendency to turn products of capitalism (in themselves neutral, potentially even harmful) into evidence of progress, and then to place them on one side of a great modern-premodern divide, where they become inextricably associated with the inhabitants of the “modern” side of the chasm: white, middle/upper class, straight males. (Notice how even Western women are supposed to be more collectivist in nature, while the image of the rugged individualist is invariably male.)

Since a certain sort of codified individualism was created by the forces of capitalism, individualism is hence seen as inherently European, as well as a mark of European progress.

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