Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Illusion of Independence - A Rambleogue

More than ever I am convinced that Marx (and others, including many feminist thinkers) have been right when they remind us that humans are quintessentially social. We require community, in the most robust sense of the word, and human nature can only be understood relationally. Indeed, without living in community, can we even truly be called human?

Thrown out alone in the wilderness, the human individual can only last so long, even though the body might survive (survival is possible, though very difficult without shared resources as a sort of insurance, until the day you get too old, sick, or otherwise weakened to provide food and water for yourself). But in order to express our humanity, do we not need other people? Is this not why solitary confinement is such a harsh punishment?

We tend to forget this, and think of ourselves first and foremost as autonomous individuals, who choose to live in relation with others. Capitalism fosters this illusion, its forces trying to make us into competitive individuals, "free" from societal constraints as much as possible. In this view, freedom follows a consumption model of choice - freedom means choosing how to spend our dollar, or with whom we spend our time. The end result is often shallow relationships, a sense of restlessness, alienation, loneliness and unhappiness. (Despite this, we often do manage to have deep and abiding and satisfying relationships, which is a testament to just how unnatural the absolute individualist model is.)

In fact, I would say the only reason we are able to hold the illusion of our autonomous individuality is because of the protections and comforts our wider society affords. It provides for us many of the things that a small community once might have. So many fundamental shared institutions underwrite our individual activities. Without infrastructure, a measure of security and stability, relative agreement about social norms, regulation of some aspects of industry etc we could not live a life that seems independent and autonomous. And yet precisely because these things are simply there, taken for granted, largely provided by a faceless state or society, we tend to forget how much we depend on them. It is the communal wealth and social capital provided by the state and society that allows us to imagine we are independent, to forget our interdependence.

In some ways, the current financial crisis is driving home this exact point. When faced with an economy in crisis, the myth of the self-made man seems a little silly, doesn't it?


Pal Hal Pall said...

Our society is based on greed. It is one thing to value your own survival or basic well-being over others, but we do not just compete over basic necessities; we compete for luxuries, and have no problem making five people miserable so that one can be materialistically fulfilled. But I do not think that this is something you can blame on capitalism; it is simply human nature, as greed has been with us since the dawn of civilization.

Anonymous said...

Here's a relevant exerpt from a blog post ( -

"Quiet desperation is a good cliche to apply to the situation we face today. We see many people go about their business as if nothing serious were the matter. Yet even the comfortably ensconced middle class are going out to dinner less, shopping at the discount grocery instead of the upscale natural food store, and taking less day trips over the weekend. Here in Massachusetts, we received word from the Attorney General that this winter will be devastating to the low and moderate income populations related to heating and even the middle class will be severely impacted. But typical polite conversation doesn't include these concerns as we continue to talk about the baseball playoffs, the admittedly crucial election, and of course the economic bailout plan. Little consideration is given to the car sleepers in Santa Barbara, the people who use their stoves to heat their homes, abandoned children and pets, and the many who use one credit card to pay another or their mortgage or the baby food.

Of course one problem is the immense pride that most of us have to not be identified as in need or in trouble. How many people are found mummified or frozen in their homes because they were too proud to ask for help and, of course, because they did not have anyone checking on them. I personally wonder how people and families can go homeless if they have a living sibling or parent who could take them in. Even a friend, cousin, or aunt should be considered fair territory in seeking temporary assistance in a life threatening crisis. Certainly personal independence is a hallmark of American identity but in many ways, this is unnecessary individualism and anti-community. It does not build in the resilience needed in a crisis and leads to far greater problems in the end. We will need to reconsider the model of isolated two generation families and reconsider the merits and resilience of extended family households. Concurrently, our concepts of empathy, patience, and understanding will also need to be remolded to facilitate these changes"

"we will be facing a difficult winter but one that will allow us to begin establishing a stronger community. We can use this time to build networks, engage in emergency preparedness, and get to know our neighbors better. We are going to need this network because, as I have previously noted, civility and community will be a vital element in a future that will give new meaning to the term hardship."

Daisy Deadhead said...

Yes, the terror of the market is exacerbated when we are isolated and have no support networks.

Excellent post.

sooey said...

It's telling that we're constantly trying to impose our view of the "right" way to live on other cultures.

michaelkaer said...

I have a few friends here in Chatham-Kent that have got together to teach each things like how to make soap(went to London for that), crochet, canning, candle making, composting with worms and organic gardening. I happen to be the only male of the group and I am the worm farmer and candle maker. Small groups of like minded people can do much to survive a money crisis like we have coming down the pipe.
Good luck all.
Michael J Kaer, survival-list and also

Unknown said...

A recent exhibition at the British Library promoted itself thus, "Imagine an England without tea in china cups without pepper, chintz or chutney; travel back 400 years in time and experience the long and perilous sea voyage from London to Asia in the 1600s and discover how everyday things we now take for granted were once exotic and exciting; and learn how the Asian communities in Britain today first started"
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Romantic Heretic said...

My own observation is that most of the extreme 'free marketers' suffer either from a mental deficiency or a mental illness. Psychosis and sociopathy seem to be the most common.

I've often wondered why we allow ourselves to be lead by these people.

sooey said...

They have the time. Everybody else is busy working.

Red Jenny said...

Michael, that is so cool. I always thought it would be really cool to do something like that. Like a diy school of life skills. Like, I can cook ok, but can barely change a lightbulb. I bet there's people out there who are really good a fixing things, but maybe not so good at fixing dinner.