Individualism fascinates me.
Any politically aware or socially concerned person will, very early on in their life, come across Marx’s proletariat and Bourgeois. They will look around their society and see, be it subtly or blatantly, that the disparity Marx attempted to qualify is most definitely real. This is the first reason as to why it’s a very compelling idea. The second reason is it’s a very human idea; the Us vs. Them, the Have’s vs. the Have-not’s. The laws of Mathematics tell us most people will be in that latter category – the Have-not’s – and so there is perhaps a third reason why Marx’s simple idea becomes so compelling so quickly; more often than not you benefit.
Though right now we should stop and consider something – that Marx’s great social equalisation and macro-communalism is powered primarily by divide. First we see our own perspective and those whose wealth is distinguished from ours; next we see our enemy and our allies in the economic game; finally, we see what we The Individual gain out of this conflict. Individualism still plaques Marx’s idea.
Of course Adam Smith would not describe individualism as a plaque but as a force for good. The much discussed invisible hand over the market often generating net benefit for all is proclaimed by many capitalists as a call to individuals to work and to create and to innovate – not for the system, but for themselves. The theory extends that The Individual, be them philanthropic or consumerist or both, will spread the wealth throughout the economy – trickledown economics.
So which is it? Is individualism a force for good or a mark on the mantra of egalitarianism? Well I would think the Marxist would scream at the Smithsonian that their model does not work, that trickledown economics does not work, that the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer. I would then suggest the Smithsonian, riled at the thought that they are the bad guy, would point out that the forces that drive the will of the capitalist entrepreneur are the same forces that drive the riotous factory worker – individualism and self-betterment – and to describe the capitalist as a wolf amongst sheep is to ignore the fact that those sheep are merely wolves in disguise. Indeed, the Smithsonian may suggest that the only difference between the proletariat and the Bourgeois is that the latter built their ivory towers, and the former wish only to tear them down.
At this point the Marxist is pissed.
The issue is that the concept of The Individual is not straightforward, and at any moment a person may be good or bad, selfish or generous, concerned or nihilistic. And their perspective, from the inside looking out, may be completely different to those on the outside looking in. And that’s the issue both the aforementioned models have – they both try to define what an individual is, intentionally or not, and proclaim to know how they operate. I think this is flawed.
For the record, all I would suggest to the warring Marxist and Smithsonian is this; do not forget all coins have two sides.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket the lead protagonist can be seen wearing a peace symbol on his lapel and the words ‘Born to Kill’ on his helmet. When questioned as to the contrary nature of his outfit by a senior officer Kubrick’s protagonist is flustered for a moment before stating, ‘it is meant to say something about the duality of man.’ The colonel seems satisfied with the soldier’s reply.
Thematically the film is a critique on hive-mindedness; of the dehumanisation of the individual so as to create a reproducible, indistinguishable killing machine. Consider the words rank and file – to rank and store, to categorise and analysis and quantify. To consolidate an idea – a person – into something tangible and fixed. Kubrick’s ‘duality of man’ line exists, in my opinion, to draw fallacy to the idea that people can exist as a singular; indeed, did I not say before a person may be good or bad, selfish or generous – where is the ‘and’ in this statement? Where is the duality? It seems abstract or merely a mistake to misclassify people as or’s instead of and’s – that we don’t actually mean people are singular – but far too often we place our fellow man into linear identities.
Turn on any news channel and observe the divides we place between each other. Right or Left. Domestic or foreign. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian. Listen to the rhetoric of politicians on the subject of immigration or terror. Who are the terrorists that threaten our way of life? Who are the undesirables that are stealing our jobs? Indeed, what is ours, but something that is not someone else’s?
Why do we draw these divides? Or perhaps, why do we construct boxes into which we place others? I have offered several suggestions already. Allow me to offer another – because it’s easy.
David Foster Wallace wrote in his speech ‘This is Water’ that “There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute centre of.” I think this is important to remember when we consider individualism, not to remind us that we are all innately self-centred and narcissistic – though we are – but instead to remind us that we all have a singular perspective. When you look in the mirror you see a face that you are totally familiar with. It’s yours. It’s the picture you place in your brain, the physical moniker with which you now use to define You. Yet when you look at a photograph of yourself, for the slightest of seconds, the face you see is not yours. It is a haunting similarity that falls into the uncanny valley until your brain pieces it all together and tosses the free falling doppelganger a rope. It is also you. It is what others see that you do not. Reflection vs. reality. You may become uncomfortable seeing something so similar but yet not quite familiar, and for a moment you might realise that the faces you see in the street that you ignore because they’re all so simple and numerous might just be as complex as you, if only you could see how similar you are.
It’s all a matter of perspective. It is easy for us to forget that other people, be them our parents or our friends or complete strangers, have a different perspective from us. This perspective can be as subtle as the angle at which they are standing in a room, the way they interpret the word naughty, or the way they vote. Consider that right now there are people you have never met and will never meet being born, dying, or participating in an innumerable number of menial tasks they love or hate or don’t care either way for. Right now there are people falling in love and falling apart, having sex or doing heroin or both, marching against injustice or martyring themselves for their own One True God.
We restrict our perception of our world to that which conforms to the rules and borders we cannot escape – those experiences we are at the absolute centre of – whilst allowing ourselves to forget the hidden lives of our fellow man.
To appreciate these hidden lives and comparatively abstract perspectives alongside our own is not easy. To consider others to be just as complex as ourselves is to admit to ourselves that we are not complexly special but complexly ordinary. To destroy our own paradigm of self and accept that we are not an island surrounded by an ocean but rather a singular droplet occupying space in a river that flows to the sea is terrifying. It is hard.
What is easy is to ignore this fact. What is easy is to deny your soul the consideration of others’ complexities, to say with an absolute rite that yours is the correct outlook, that you are the protagonist in this tale, whatever the tale may be. What’s easy is to stereotype, to trivialise and demean and certainly to disrespect. To divide and categorise and rank and file. To seek comfort in the blank statement that you are an individual, and everyone else is everyone else. To decide that you are a giant whose shoulders other people occupy.
But of course that statement is only partially true. Yes, you are a giant. But so am I, and so is every human being you will ever or indeed never meet. To decide that others occupy space on our shoulders is to assume the apparent value of another. So do not ask yourself how may I walk with others on my back; instead question how may I stand amongst giants whose size and complexity and individual potential I cannot understand. The answer will be simple – side by side.