Sunday, October 21, 2012

Capitalism and the Management of Individualism

It is widely contended that individualism is a product of modernity and a feature closely associated with capitalism. At the same time, there is some discontented recognition of the homogenization that results from mass-production, and a certain nostalgia for personal craftsmanship (note the popularity of the word "artisanal"), cottage industries, and mom-and-pop businesses. I have looked before at several ways in which modernity in general and capitalism in particular have generated contradictory impulses. It is interesting to consider how this principle applies to the idea of individualism.

On the one hand, modernity has atomistic tendencies. Capitalism is based on the commodification of individual labor; governmental power relations focus on penetrating and shaping individual consciousness (often, for example, centering upon educational campaigns); religion is a matter of personal beliefs. The motto of neoliberalism is “personal responsibility.”

To the extent that power relations hinge upon the Individual, it follows that individuality assumes a heightened importance as a cultural value. The significance of this value is far from difficult to detect in popular culture and public discourse. Everyone is extolled to “be yourself.” People struggle to figure out exactly what particular career is meant for them. Modern societies pride themselves on the ability of their citizens to follow their own beliefs and personal whims. (This is contrasted to the perceived patriarchal authority/entrenchment in tradition of less modern societies.)

Yet paradoxically, individuality is realized within categories, and while modern power relations act upon the individual, they simultaneously do so by reinforcing and homogenizing these categories. Scientific research on human beings separates populations into discrete, internally homogenous categories, which are used in the construction of simplistic cause-effect relationships. Survey research and polling likewise reinforce social categories through the use of statistics (and thus we scrutinize “the black vote” and “the women’s vote”). We are barely able to comprehend the ways in which these categories intersect. Moreover, categories are so important to the basic mechanics of modernity that opportunities for reinforcement are constant.  All institutions (medical, educational, legal, professional, etc.) define people in relation to social categories, and thus it is not possible to interact with any institution without overtly constructing one's identity via these categories. One cannot apply for college, go to the doctor, or rent an apartment without classifying oneself on the basis of race, gender, marital status, etc.

Even more paradoxically, as diversity and “being yourself” are celebrated, the ideologies and strategies of power associated with modernity have created the concepts of normality and deviance (in a way that never existed before). Children are subject, probably more than anyone, to constant comparisons against the norm; their development is carefully measured and tracked against growth charts; rigidly defined stages of mentally, emotional and moral development; and cultural standards (e.g. regarding the appropriate age to potty train or wean).  Statistics and psychology are the primary tools of governmental power, and they work together to define normality and deviance.  Statistics provide percentiles and bell curves.  Psychology lends scientific legitimacy to cultural norms and renders deviance as pathology. You have trouble with social situations? You are diagnosed with some sort of psychological disorder, which defines who you are as a person – a defective person.

Finally, from a more materialistic standpoint, which I have already alluded to at the beginning of this post, individuality is celebrated at the same time that our lives are overtaken by mass-produced goods. A relatively small handful of corporations determines what we wear, what we eat, and what we watch on tv. Rebellion and nonconformity are expressed through the possession of commodities that have been socially coded as such. In fact, the people on the fringes are the trailblazers who, purposefully or not, determine what the “next big thing” is. They do not lie outside of the curve; they determine its shape.

In the modern world, the Individual has a privileged position as the basis of governmental and capitalistic power relations. The sanctified status of the individual has come at the expense of communal bonds and social support mechanisms. At the same time, the forms that individual subjectivity can take are carefully managed, limited, and homogenized by those same forces. Individual subjectivity is, after all, a medium of power.

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