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.

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