by Danny Haiphong
Capitalists hoodwink the masses into belief in an ideal of individualism, which “places sole blame for the misery of capitalism on the individual person experiencing it.” The U.S. Founding Fathers – a group of very rich white men – created a political infrastructure in which “the oppressed are coerced into competing among themselves for the crumbs the capitalist class has stolen from them.”
The Historic Plague of Individualism Continues Under Present Day US Capitalism
by Danny Haiphong
“The drafters of the constitution envisioned a federal state that would socially control exploited populations.”
Individualism is a founding ideology of American capitalism. American capitalism is rooted in the colonial policy of the British Empire. Racism and "individual liberty" was a modification of the feudal "divine right," which to the English colonialists, more suitably justified the enslavement and murder of hundreds of millions Black Africans and Indigenous nations. The emerging profitability of the agricultural and merchant capitalist economy in the British colonies of North America created conflict between the interests of the British aristocracy and the growing colonial bourgeoisie. Individualism united the colonial bourgeoisie in opposition to the Crown’s demand to abolish slavery and pay outstanding debt (“taxation without representation”). What the English colonialists in North America meant by "individual freedom" was the ability of the American capitalist class to profit from African slavery and stolen land without having to politically or financially answer to the Crown. This conflict of capitalist interests led to the war of "independence" and the eventual formation of the United States of America.
Individualism flourished following the establishment of the American capitalist state. The "Founding Fathers," or more correctly the first “American” capitalists, primarily concerned themselves with a problem they deemed the "tyranny of the majority" while drafting the US Constitution. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and the propertied interests they represented, feared popular revolt from indebted whites, African slaves, indigenous people, and women. The drafters of the constitution envisioned a federal state that would socially control exploited populations. In its early years, the US government was used to smoke out slave rebellions and create unfair treaties for indigenous land robbed directly from tribes and Nations. American individualism was never about "freedom" and "liberty” for just any individual, but rather an ideological weapon the capitalist class wielded to maintain and further the exploitation of the “tyrannical majority.”
“What the English colonialists in North America meant by ‘individual freedom’ was the ability of the American capitalist class to profit from African slavery and stolen land without having to politically or financially answer to the Crown.”
Today, individualism makes just as little sense for the oppressed majority as it did during the early period of American capitalism. Most poor and working class people do not own property or wealth of any kind. Austerity and privatization threaten what little safety net exists. Unemployment is permanent and chronic. Most of the working class is mired in some form of debt. Basic needs like healthcare, housing, and food are only accessible for those who can afford it. Individualism is useful in these conditions, for it places sole blame for the misery of capitalism on the individual person experiencing it. Yet, the dogma that individuals should "pull themselves up by their boot-straps" is outright deception and holds little substantive weight in the real world of last-stage, neo-liberal American capitalism.
However, because individualism exists in, and is a crucial part of, the capitalist order of US empire, its influence remains strong. Capitalist social relations produced from corporate and state power condition the exploited into an individualistic culture. The corporate media glamorizes bourgeois values and practices, manufacturing consent to capitalist rule through deception and distraction. The oppressed are coerced into competing among themselves for the crumbs the capitalist class has stolen from them. Failure to achieve "the American Dream" or live up to the standards of white capitalist individualism creates conditions of internal violence, self-hatred, and many of the psychological "disorders" plaguing the oppressed majority. Thus, Individualism aids in the reproduction of capitalist exploitation through self-annihilation.
In the liberal book Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam traces the dissolution of social capital in US society. What Putnam doesn't emphasize enough is how "social capital," or collective structures that unite people of common interest, is intricately tied to the present political crisis of US capitalism. Labor unions, Black independent organizations, and social movements created a new culture of resistance that has been beaten back since the 1970's. As a result, oppression and exploitation has deepened without consequence. Our task is to build new organizations for the development of collective power that addresses the particular challenges of this historical moment. We need to come together, take care of each other, and fight the forces of racism and capitalism that promote the dead-end ideology of individualism.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and case manager in the Greater Boston area. You can contact Danny at: firstname.lastname@example.org.