Individualism and Its Discontents

Why Our Culture Keeps Us from the Pursuit of Happiness

Individualism may be the most entrenched and pervasive icon of American civilization.  After all, personal liberty was one of the founding principles of the republic formed in rebellion against the oppressive rule of the British monarchy and its economic elite.  Rarely mentioned, however, is the historical fact that the economic elite in the British colonies retained power in the new republic and were the main beneficiaries of the political freedom that came to be expressed as individualism.  Yet, over time, liberty has been transformed from a right of political independence and free political expression to an ethic of unlimited shopping.  I will never forget George Bush’s emblematic admonition to the American people after the tragedy of 9-11, to “go to the mall,” as a reaffirmation of the freedom and individualism for which “they hate us.”   Perhaps it is not so odd that the emblematic day of shopping madness is named “Black Friday,” the near-violent or actually violent character of which bring to mind the catastrophic nature of the numerous Black Fridays throughout history.

From its origins in the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment philosophers who developed theories of the individual citizen’s relationship to society and government, American individualism has remained central to the political-economy and culture of the nation.  Yet it has been gradually transformed into a more contemporary ideology that serves the economic interests of the neo-conservative wealthy class – heirs of the colonial economic elite – that shapes the nation’s political and economic policies.  We need not recite the familiar mantra of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or the utopian supposition that the “free market” makes the world right for everyone, to grasp the fact that current economic theory and governmental policy are driven by the usefulness of these illusions in retaining and gaining ever more social control by the power elites that fund their political campaigns.  Do we really know that these concepts are illusions meant to preserve the shape of power in the declining American empire?

I think most people know and understand that the power elites direct the giant financial, corporate, fossil fuel, political and military institutions.  They know that the name of the game for the rest of us has become all against all in the economic realm and that the game is rigged.  Upward social mobility is largely a thing of the past.  Most importantly Americans mourn the loss of community and the fragmentation of families.  But the game is also driven by the use of ideology to control public perceptions of what individualism really is about in this era’s unique race to nowhere. 

Personal identity is now very much tied up in the culture of individual consumption.  The cultural core of the endless-growth economy, which requires unbounded expansion in order for the debt on which it is based to be paid, is driven by orchestrated wants that have little if anything to do with achieving happiness, and everything to do with capital formation in the biggest banks.  Individualism and freedom are equated with the ability to buy the products of the giant corporations, while shrinking paychecks make it impossible to do so without incurring further debt.  In a cultural world dominated by advertising, the corporate media are the primary sources of our images of need, which uphold unrestrained consumerism.  While people know deep down that something is very wrong, it is difficult to see our own relation to the problem when it is the very source of the problem that also shapes our images of reality.

Neither ecology nor human relations are considered by an economy that is driven by profits through increasing debt and endless expansion.  While the ecological limits of growth will ultimately stop the profit-through-debt machine, if we do not override the consumer culture with reality-based behavioral and social change – and a new ethic that recognizes interdependence – the end of unbounded consumerism will be globally catastrophic – both ecologically and socially.  Only by seeking happiness in the areas known to actually produce it, such as personal and community engagement in the context of a steady-state economy based on the pursuit of happiness in an ecologically sustainable economy, will the end of the endless-growth economy mitigate global catastrophe.  Black Friday symbolizes the illusions of individualism by its frantic embodiment of the most absurd elements of the culture of consumerism.

Why Is Social Security So Insecure?

We all know that politics is rife with deceit of the public and deception of the self.  Claims as to the reasons a senator or congressman supports or opposes a bill or a policy are often merely “cover stories” hiding the widespread real reason the politicians vote the way they do – money.  The conflation of the financial status of Social Security with the problems of the national debt and the annual fiscal deficit of the U.S. is a case in point.  Much money is at stake, but rarely is the real issue directly faced.

Social Security is not part of the federal budget.  It is a self-funding program that provides very modest old-age and other benefits to those who have contributed to it during their working lives, and to certain dependants.  As they try to cut back benefits and destroy Social Security, politicians make disingenuous claims that they want to “protect the integrity” of Social Security.  They know that most Americans like the program and want it to survive.  In an economic environment where almost all private pension systems have been plundered by the corporations that administered them for the employees who contributed to them over entire careers only to lose it all at retirement, Social Security has become the de facto fall-back retirement system, despite it’s poverty level “benefits.”

Powerful forces, such as the national financial elite and extreme anti-government political ideologues, bent on destroying Social Security (and Medicare/Medicaid too, of course) don’t always have the same motivations.  The financial elite wants Social Security funds diverted into “private retirement savings accounts” to be managed by, you guessed it, their very own stock market brokerage firms.  What a windfall of commissions and fees that would be for the most powerful economic class!  And what a high-risk future for retirees!

But the growing insecurity of Social Security is a serious political problem simply because the corporate and financial elites and their congressional agents want it to be.  There is just too much money to be made for them to leave it alone.  Several simple changes in the system designed to compensate for both class injustices in the contributions of wealthy high-income employees versus average workers, and for generational changes in the demographics of employment and aging could easily be made without major problems of implementation.  However, those who would profit – either politically or financially – by the privatization/destruction of Social Security, carefully avoid the easy solutions to any long-term cash flow problems because they either want to take over the huge money flow involved or because they are politically opposed to any government social program that assists those in need.  The first group could be called the “Jackals of Wall Street” while the second group consists of extreme right-wing ideologues who oppose government no matter what.

But what’s the real issue?  Simply put, Social Security was originally conceived as an insurance program, meant to help those elders whose employment failed to afford them an adequate pension or life savings, to see them through after they could no longer work.  But with the corporate plunder of pension systems, Social Security became the default retirement system for most American workers.  Now, with the reduction of the vast majority of the middle class to near-poverty or poverty status, with personal life-savings virtually impossible for many to accumulate, and pension systems no more, Social Security is very often the last defense against homelessness and destitution.  If the Social Security payroll tax were applied to all personal income, including the millions of dollars in “executive compensation” in its many forms such as salaries, stock options, “incentive pay,” and bonuses of top CEOs, the fund would be sufficient to support the small “benefits” far into the foreseeable future for those who need it.

So, the real issue is whether the American people will tolerate the plunder of the Social Security system as they did corporate pensions, or whether they will demand that what was intended as a social insurance scheme actually be implemented as such.  That’s where the tricky language often applied to the Social Security debate needs to be overcome.  Insurance works on the basis of every “insured” person contributing and those who suffer losses collecting the benefits.  Simply put, if Social Security were actually implemented as a social insurance program rather than as a last-ditch inadequate retirement system –  and certainly not as a privatized “retirement savings account”  subject to the whims of the stock market – several principles would have to be invoked in order to make it work quite effectively.  They are:

  •  All personal income must be subject to the Social Security Payroll Tax.  Who has ever gotten fire insurance without paying the premium?  Why should high income earners not pay the premium on all their income?
  • Social Security benefits would be dispensed on the basis of need.  Who has ever collected on her/his fire insurance when there was no fire?   Why should wealthy retirees collect benefits from an insurance scheme designed to protect against the lack of income or loss of wealth in old age?
  • If one were so lucky as to have benefited from a prosperous pension system, then any Social Security benefit would be adjusted down on that basis.  And a formerly wealthy man who lost his fortune (stocks, bonds, dividends, buyouts, bonuses, “incentive pay”), would also draw the maximum Social Security benefit.  What’s wrong with that?
  • The net effect of the system should be that everyone could retire with assurance that they can live in at least modest comfort in their final years without fear of economic and social deprivation.

In an economic and social environment where so much income and wealth has been redistributed from the middle and lower classes of workers to the very top 0.1% of privileged Americans, only some form of re-redistribution can at this point re-establish a semblance of balance to the economy and stability to the society.  A real social security system would still be little more than a small compensation to those who have lost the most over their working lives to the insatiable greed of the financial elite.

Clearances, Foreclosures, and Evictions

I used to wonder how it is that after generations of Americans spent their entire adulthood paying mortgages just as their parents had, only a tiny fraction actually owned their modest homes outright upon retirement. The next generation, in most cases, starts the process all over again with little if any inheritance. Where is the accumulation of wealth in home ownership? In the 1950s, interest rates were very low, around three per cent, and the credit card had not yet been invented. Of course, World War II had pulled the nation out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs had only partially alleviated the suffering against all odds and aggressive opposition by the wealthy. But after the full employment of the war and the educational and lending benefits of the GI bill, a returning veteran could get an education and a job with a wage to support a family. With most women staying home, a man could still support his family and save enough for that standard twenty percent down payment to purchase a home. That’s quite a contrast with conditions today.
I had been reading a lot about money and the debt-based economy before I began a trip through Scotland last August. But I wanted to get a sense of the lives of the Scots in the centuries past that were represented in the many historical sites I observed across that land, so I decided to read Neil Oliver’s A History of Scotland, as I traveled. The thick small paperback traveled well and the saga drew my interest, although I was a bit stunned by the incredibly bloody record of violent transitions among clan chiefs, noblemen, kings, and eventually the industrialists. That got me thinking about the possible inheritance of America’s culture of violence from Great Britain’s violent evolution. What I did not expect was to find parallels in economic history.
Then, later in Oliver’s book, I read of “the clearances,” which had occurred with the agricultural “improvements” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and had accompanied the early stages of the industrial revolution. After countless generations of attachment to the land through tradition and relations of fealty, large populations of both highlanders and lowlanders were forced off their land and into the industrial towns or expanding coal mines, or to emigrate to North America or Australia. James Webb chronicles the subsequent lives of the Scots-Irish descendants of those emigrants to the U.S. in his fascinating book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. The landowners, clan chiefs and noblemen, needed to combine the small traditional plots into larger more efficient holdings to apply the new agricultural techniques with far fewer workers and vastly greater profits.
Those “clearances” reminded me of the eighteenth and nineteenth century English “enclosures” which ended traditional rights to common lands, but were accomplished by the legal means of the parliamentary “Inclosure Acts.” As I traveled through Scotland, that context brought to mind the current massive loss of the homes of American mortgagees. How could it not? Our national economic crisis was brought on by the vast concentration of “paper wealth” (indeed, more accurately, electronic forms of abstract wealth) in the shape of heavily leveraged sub-prime mortgage debt packaged into a falsely valued derivative “asset” pyramid that ultimately collapsed because investors could not be paid when inevitable losses occurred.
The government covered the losses of the Big Banks because the Treasury and Fed officials all came from Wall Street firms where their first loyalties (and wealth) could be found, and because too many in congress drank from the trough of Wall Street lobbyists. The Banksters kept their giant bonuses and nobody went to jail. But we know all that. My point is that in each case, a very small number of very wealthy people found a way to exclude very large parts of the population from any viable participation in the economy in order to vastly advance their own wealth.
New and old ways of removing people not needed for the current ‘capital formation’ game, and consolidating assets among the wealthiest 0.1%, are essentially much the same. The technological, economic, and political tactics have changed, but the plunder of the larger society by its most powerful elites remains the same. Having read of the bloody history of Scotland, I cannot say that today’s billionaire bandits are any more ruthless than their historical counterparts, except in the scale of the suffering their plunder causes. But they get to keep the suffering they cause at such a greater distance that they are conveniently insulated from it. It is clear that given the planetary impact of their misdeeds, the consequences for humanity are vastly greater.

Some Serious Social Illusions

It’s hard to accept the idea that most human activities are based on illusions.  But look at the nature and kinds of illusions out there.  Some illusions are necessary and good, while others are quite destructive.  We tend to see the illusions of tribal cultures as “myths,” illusory fictions about the world, whereas we see our beliefs as real.  But what’s the difference between the Native American’s image of the origins of “Turtle Island” and the biblical creation story?  Both are creation myths (stories around which a people organize their understanding of life) and they serve mostly the same purpose in their respective cultures.  Some myths conflict directly with scientific evidence, such as the idea that the earth was created four thousand years ago and that man walked with dinosaurs, or that recent and forecasted unprecedented climate disruption is unrelated to 200 years of accelerated emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. Well, in these cases, the evidence just conflicts with the myth.

Some illusions conflict with reality because they are more detached from our everyday lives; others are consistent with everyday observations.  Yet, the idea that society operates on illusions points to some other kinds of phenomena.  Social illusions are mental constructions that are used as a means of interacting with the lived world.  They appear to be real because they are consistent with our experience and help guide our actions.  But our experience may also be constrained by those illusions – that’s where we get into trouble.  For tribal peoples who have lived in a particular stable ecological context for many generations, the social illusions they use work for them, or else the group would have died out.  Today, in our far more complex societies – really, our complex world financial and industrial system – social illusions that are so abstracted from our experience and observations, and are controlled by powerful institutions, can get us into very serious trouble.

If our ideas conflict with the environmental conditions under which we live, then the result can be detrimental to our survival.  Think of the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Norse in Greenland, or the collapse of other societies that Jared Diamond so presciently described in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.   The Mayan “chronic emphasis on war and erecting monuments rather than on solving underlying problems,” is more prophetic than recent speculations about the meaning of their calendar.  While the ecology could sustain it, Mayan illusions worked well as the abstractions around which the society was organized.  The economic illusions of our waning industrial age worked rather well until growth got out of hand; now they confront contrary conditions of planetary ecology.

Certain groups in the deep jungles of the Amazon hold complex views of the nature and uses of certain plants.  These ideas have been worked out over many generations and result in an indigenous pharmacology that works because it is precisely integrated with the conditions of jungle life and the properties of those plants.  But for the university trained pharmacology researcher, the native conceptualization of such plants may be considered misguided (unscientific) illusions.  Through laboratory research the western professional can isolate certain molecular compounds key to the medicinal benefit of the plants.  Oh, boy!  It’s patentable-profitable!  The abstractions each believes best represent reality may or may not work depending on the environmental context – the jungle or the economics of Big Pharma.

So, who is right?  Both illusions work for their respective adherents within the right context.  What?  Yes, the pharmacologist’s ideas are illusions too.  In this sense, I am using the word to indicate that illusions can be defined as particular conceptual packages that represent our experiences in the world and that what’s an illusion within one framework is a fact within another.  So, let’s just call them all illusions for simplicity and examine their usefulness and veracity separately.  We can thus state that all human imaginations regarding reality are illusions, because none are reality, they merely represent reality in the abstract.  Seriously.  If we can make that leap and recognize that all images and concepts we have about reality are not reality but illusions that represent reality well or poorly, it will be easier to evaluate each one on, dare I say it, a realistic basis.

Now, that is where ideology comes in.  All illusions reflect in some way the interests people have in their reality, or more accurately, in those aspects of reality that interest them.  So, we are not so surprised to find that the executives of the giant multinational oil and gas companies are not so interested in the fact that peak oil production has already occurred (2005) and that world production has flat-lined ever since – except to the extent that they can temporarily use “fracking” to forestall the inevitable decline in supplies – which raises society’s obvious need to contemplate energy-source substitution.  Their financial interests lie in keeping the focus of energy policy on more exploration and production – not on the catastrophic effects of climate disruption on the rest of us – even as the fruits of exploration rapidly diminish.  The seriousness of their illusion is to be found in its effects on survival of our species on the planet.

Nor do we really expect the Big Banksters to give up their control of the real economy they so handily manipulate by using the money system, or to give up the continued promotion of their illusion that the vastly expanded abstract debt-driven system of financial expansion is somehow the core driver of the real economy.  The seriously damaging illusions promoted by financial, petro-chemical, and industrial-military elites all merge into the political-economic illusions of permanent prosperity through imperial expansion and endless economic growth in a finite world of rapidly diminishing environmental resources.  Sometimes it’s too easy to believe in magic, especially when the prestidigitators so totally control the illusions.