This blog post continues the series on the conspiracies of the powerful, by suggesting that the form of ‘individualism’ encouraged by neoliberalism functions to support corporate dominance, helps to create eco-catastrophy and hinders real and creative ‘individuation’.
The ideal neoliberal individual identifies with their ego. They are lone and autonomous. They have no responsibility towards others, or dependence on others. If they recognise such connection then they work to sever it.
This is clearly difficult for normal humans, so the individual is often allowed to be responsible for their family or towards those who please them, and obey them.
However the individual is still opposed to those who do not please them; ‘sheeple’ who disagree with them, or people of other ‘races’, other political parties, or other genders. These people are seen as non-virtuous in the neoliberal sense; they are protesting the natural hierarchical order, not hard working, not true and independent individuals.
The dependence of neoliberal individuals on being different from these displeasing others, leads to what in the next blog I will call “shadow politics,” in which neoliberal individuals project their denied dependencies and faults on others, and work to expel or obliterate those others. ,
Neoliberal individualism encourages this “shadow politics” by hindering the development of real individuation, and promoting an unreal view of life. It encourages a socialised and homogenous individuality that, directly and indirectly, functions to support neoliberal policy and power by giving the neoliberal class an angry political base. It further helps reinforce the politicisation of knowledge, and hence promotes ignorance. This ignorance can lead to catastrophic social failure.
The reality is that we are mutually interactive and dependent individuals, needing other people and supportive ecologies to exist and flourish. This recognition is the basis of real individuation.
Neoliberal individualism as ideology
The promotion of a particular form of anti, or asocial capitalist “individualism” is part of the information and power structures neoliberalism spreads, even if it is not deliberately engineered.
This should not be too surprising as individualism, of some form or other, has been the ideology of protestant captalism for at least 500 years.
Neoliberal individuality is often said to be under attack from mysterious displeasing others. This is partly because it depends on a contrast between the person expounding it, with those displeasing others. It is a relatively common propaganda strategy to claim something that is largely dominant and popular is under attack. That way the propaganda gets reinforced, and remains unthought about, as people seek to defend it.
Capitalist individualism may have been briefly under threat between 120 to 50 years ago with the rise of communism, but it has come back to dominance with the triumph of the neoliberal elite, functioning as both one of its core persuasive propositions, and as a disciplinary motif which keeps neoliberal power functioning – before eco-collapse.
The political functions of capitalist individualism
Individualism, as it has developed in capitalism, has several political functions. It allows the breaking of community responsibilities and obligations which, in turn, enables:
- the accumulation of capital – rather than having to give capital back to the community in gifts or funeral rituals;
- finding meaning in possessions;
- the breaking of community charity;
- the seeing of salvation in purely individual or egoic terms; and
- the reduction of all relationship to cash and contract.
More recently it argues that anything that is not individualistic is communist and dangerous, when society essentially depends on willing collaborations and interdependencies of various types: human to human, group to group, creature to ecology etc.
Promotion of individualism helps to break up collective collaboration against the dominant regime, and allows such collaboration to be dismissed as juvenile. It makes liberty and advancement an individual, rather than collective, or collaborative, issue. It encourages workers to be individually submissive and dependent upon heroic employers, rather than to take a collective stand which could benefit everyone. It drives consumerism and the idea of reward coming from the accumulation of personal, or individual, property which is not to be shared outside the family. It may even help define the individual by their ownership and consumption. It allows those who are unemployed, unfortunate, sick, or damaged by the neoliberal State, or neoliberal economic policy, to be blamed for individual fault, and dismissed as worthy of any consideration. It allows the removal of the individual person from the context on which they depend, and thus works to encourage, and legitimate, the destruction of land and ecology for personal profit. Land or ecologies held in common are worthless, and should be handed over to those who can afford them, or they are easy to destroy without qualm.
Recognition of necessary and functional, systemic interdependence is severed, unless seen in purely competitive terms (“nature red in tooth and claw”), or in terms of competitive markets regulated in ways neoliberals like, which are then magically supposed to deliver the best possible results irrespective of any player’s intention.
Individualism, as it has arisen and is encouraged in neoliberalism, cultivates no responsibility towards other beings in general, and breaks the sense of working with others and the world. Victory and autonomy are what count.
Neoliberal individualism encourages weakness and ineffectiveness, when people act outside of, or challenge, the neoliberal system.
Neoliberal individualism is collective
The irony of this individualism is that it gains this power as an ideology because it is collective, enforced, felt to be obviously good because it fits in with capitalist lives and power relations, and is shared by many people. It takes as normal the idea that everyone is alone (perhaps apart from a neoliberal God, who rewards capitalist virtues and punishes capitalist sins), and that everything that people suffer depends on completely on themselves. The poor or unfortunate brought their suffering on themselves, and so need to be condemned or told to get on with making themselves better and stop troubling others. On the opposite side, every approved wealthy person, no matter how much they inherited, how much support they received from others of their group, or from government subsidy or from social organisation, gained their wealth through individual talent and effort, and they owe nobody else, or anything else, anything.
Complexity and interconnection
Reality, as usual, is complicated. As suggested earlier, the reality is that we are embedded in systems upon which we depend, and which we help maintain or destroy.
We cannot self-create, or gain independence, to the extent that individualist thinkers often appear to assume. We did not invent the world, and the societies, we live in – although we can shape them. We did not invent the languages with which we think, interpret and explain our experience, although our language use has personal idiosyncracies and sometimes we shape the language of others. We think with sensory images of the world we experience and move around in; we did not create this. We did not originate all our ideas; we borrowed them from our culture, from other people (sometimes without thinking) and from books, just as we gained the language we borrowed and learnt without thinking. We took on, transformed and reacted against the ideas of others. Those borrowed and shifted ideas shape who we are, how we think, and how we live and relate to others – and many of those ideas may be unconscious, unexamined, or promoted by established forces.
Similarly, we depend upon the work, and sacrifice, of many people for our life and existence; farmers, truckers, sewage workers, electricity workers, street cleaners, shop assistants and so on – the list is huge. We all would have died as children without interconnection with others, no matter how cruel or incompetent those others turned out to be. We likewise depend upon the vast interacting webs of nature to survive; from plants and trees, to ants and bees, to the bacteria that help break down our food, to the relative stability of climate, and to the Sun and stars, however indifferent these beings may be to our fate.
Even our bodies seem to be colonies rather than whole individuals. Most of our mass is held in non-genetically related bacteria. Our cells themselves seem to be colonies of small creatures. If this inter-cellular and infra-cellular collaboration stopped, then our ‘I’ (whatever that is) could not function. There is likewise the possibility that our minds are not single factors but organisations which shift in and out of use, and consciousness, depending on the context.
With different formations and patterns around us, and interacting with us and in response to us, we would almost certainly be different, or not exist.
We are not individuals in the neoliberal sense at all. We are dependent upon systems, constituted by systems and have the possibility of influencing systems. Our ‘individual’ psyche spills out into the social and world systems, and the world and social systems spill into us. Boundaries are not clear. We live with, and sometimes against, other beings – but even those beings who appear to threaten us are indelibly part of the same systems to which we belong.
Our sense of our self as an individual is born in and with a collective tradition which it inherits. The individual is born in interaction with others and with the world; we are a process.
In that very real sense, non of us (who can speak) have never been totally lone individuals, separate from others and independent of others. We cannot survive as lone individuals. In the vast empty realms of space we could not live. If we did have a chance of surviving then it would be because of the work and knowledge of others, or the work of nature, as well as ourselves. Our ‘I’ is a ‘we’ as well as an ‘I’. Autonomy is always limited by contexts. Its expression requires us to work with, and alongside, the dynamics of interdependent reality.
Variation is real
Yet, despite all the collectivity that is part of real life no person is completely shaped by the collective. No person is the same as any other. Everyone has their own unique variations of body, history, and context that makes them different. Natural variation is the basis of evolution, and adaptation. There is probably no assumed path, however supposedly superior, that will fit everyone.
Trying to forget, or suppress, these variations, can be a basis of oppression and delusion; as with insisting everyone should be a lone individual, or that everyone is part of an identical collective (if the latter has ever happened outside of individualist fantasy).
Addendum: Solnit on neoliberal individualism and preserving hierarchy
Since the initial version of this blog. Rebecca Solnit has written a short article on the Right’s response to Covid, which makes similar points, much better than I did. So I will quote some of it, before moving on to the topic of “individuation”. My slight modifications are in square brackets.
The pandemic [and the ecological crisis, have] focused and intensified the need to recognize the interconnectedness of all things—in this case the way that viruses spread and the responsibility of those in power and each of us to do what we can to limit that spread, and to recognize the consequences that could break our educational system, our economy, and our daily lives… if we did not take care, of ourselves, each other, and the whole…. [I]nseparability is a basis for making decisions on behalf of the common good. But Republicans have long denied this reality.
The contemporary right has one central principle: nothing is really connected to anything else, so no one has any responsibility for anything else, and any attempt to, say, prevent a factory from poisoning a river is an infringement on freedom… Freedom as they uphold it is the right [for the already privileged] to do anything [they] want with utter disregard for others…
Despite the rhetoric of freedom and equality of opportunity, [neoliberal individualism has] always been about preserving… a hierarchyRebecca Solnit “Trump’s response to the pandemic has always been dishonest and cruel”. The Guardian, 8 October 2020
This problem of immersion and variation, and the reality that it represents, is what, it seems to me, Jung points to through the term ‘individuation.’
As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (CW 6: #758).
Individuation is a:
separation and differentiation from the general and a building up of the particular – not a particular that is sought out, but one that is already ingrained in the psychic constitution (CW 6: #761).
It involves a transcendence of capitalist ideas of individualism and of overcoming the real but denied attachment to, or identification with, a group and group ideology. Becoming a real individual is not a pre-existent state, it is difficult and built.
If the individuality is unconscious, there is no psychological individual, but merely a collective psychology of consciousness (CW 6: #755).
Individuation is a relational movement, a paradoxical movement aimed both towards what seems most internal and what seems most external. It involves becoming aware of unconscious dynamics and attachments, both creative and destructive.
In Jungian work becoming aware of personal and collective unconscious forces, and coming to a relationship with them, can involve: suspending certainty of knowledge, dialogue, listening, attention to dreams, active imagination, art work, spiritual experience, and even free association.
This path of coming to oneself, within the collective, has patterns. It is not uniquely individual, but it depends upon being human, the person and the context they live within.
The relations between person and context is not always a relationship of harmony. In becoming a person, we may have to break with families and with social ideologies – but the paradox is always that we often break with our social ideologies, myths and symbols, through other ideologies, myths and symbols, hoping that our internal creativity can use the devices and people around us, to further that process of coming into our variant being, and adapting to, and with, reality – perhaps partly changing that reality if necessary.
One danger is that these ‘new’ collective ideologies we can use to attempt to break free, may simply be social tools for pathology or mere restatements of ‘individualism’, rather than wisdom welling up from unconscious processes.
Individuation is not simply a breaking of ties to everything but our ego, or our conscious self, as with neoliberal individuality.
Indeed the ego is found not to be the central part of the self around which everything orbits. The individuated person, learns to consult with the unconscious world of which they are a part, to gain wisdom from the hidden, and from the perception of useful pattern – some of which may be preserved in neglected traditions. (This is why Jungians like fairy tales). Certainly the ego has the function of evaluating the patterns, but if the ego is not humble, or does not recognise its limits, it can be captured by the perceived patterns – such as shadow projection. Individuation is a reassertion of our real ties to the world, while taking our individual and creative place within that world.
Individuation also involves a cultivation of ethical responsibility. Almost the first step in individuation is becoming aware that most of what we call the evil we see in the world is present in ourselves and largely projected onto the world in an attempt to avoid or suppress recognition of that ‘evil’ in our selves and become ‘virtuous’.
Recognition of our own ‘evil’ is difficult. Our un-individuated ‘collective ego’ is largely built upon suppressing and denying our evil and projecting it on to others, in an attempt to become a good socially, or personally, approved individual.
The socialised individual casts a shadow, and some of what it can perceive as bad are actually:
good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses etc.
For example religions have, in some forms, denied our bodies and natural desires completely.
If the role of the shadow is not recognised in our personal and social lives then the individual is not only impoverished in the potentials of their true self, and their connections with others, but they become more easily manipulated by proponents of their form of individuality, into hatred of those on whom they are encouraged to project their shadow. Individuality becomes simply a compliant social role, or an attempt to dominate others and keep up shadow projection on ‘the inferior’. Overcoming this shadow projection, not only requires self-knowledge, but some level of ethical refinement and experimentation.
Consequently, individuation should not be taken to mean that we become ‘supermen’ or that we should embrace ego inflation – that is becoming what the ego already thinks it should be, or is, or coming to think that we are somehow above the rest of humanity. These are dangers on the path of individuation leading to delusion and possibly psychosis. This is why a guide who has started on the process, and dialogue with them , can be useful on the path.
Figuratively we can think of individuation as involving a descent into ‘the unconscious’, or ‘the depths’ and a surfacing with new wisdoms. However, there is always the risk that we can ascend with new pathologies, hence the need for ethical growth at the same time, to evaluate the actions we now engage with.
The main message is that, wherever we should be on the path of individuation, we are still humans and still interdependent with others and still working with the world. Hopefully we can reach some level of freedom and satisfaction amongst those others, perceive ourselves more accurately and contribute to to the lives of others. Even if we end up residing in a mountain cave by ourselves we got there through living with others, and this may need to be acknowledged.
If the individuation is constructive, and the context of that individuation is right for development, then individual persons can change the world – even if they do not wish to. Some of those people are visible, like Confucius, Laotzu, Plato, Aristotle, Paul of Tarsus, Mohammed, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Newton etc. Sometimes it is just ordinary people whose names are lost to history, who by a simple action encouraged something momentous to happen, that may not have happened without them.
Sometimes the change that the context allows seems clearly for the worse, as when the person does not emerge cleanly from the depths and encourages attacks on their shadow, as with Hitler and Stalin, or Pol Pot etc.
A different politics?
We all face a number of problems which probably cannot be solved by neoliberal individualism.
Immediately there is the issue of Covid. At the moment we have two solutions, the Trump solution and Lock Down.
The Trump solution seems to be: Get back to work, be positive and pretend there is no problem and hope that a vaccine arrives quickly. The secondary parts of this seem to be – do not encourage the vaccine manufacturers to do the proper testing to make sure the vaccine has no dangers, and indemnify the manufacturers should it prove to have dangers.
Apart from ignoring the problems of a vaccine, the Trump solution seems to have no thought that we could work together on solving, or diminishing, this problem, and indeed Trump attacks people for wearing masks, and encourages people to be neoliberal individuals with no care about their effects on others -running meetings without distancing and so on. He also cheers armed protests against lock-downs and against people protesting in the Streets. The Trump Solution also downplays any information that suggests Covid is more harmful than we might think, with long term effects on people who have caught it, frequent need for massive medical care, high levels of contagion, and low levels of anti-body preservation. This form of individualism only seems to seek the information which confirms it.
The Lock-down solution similarly does not really see the possibilities of people collaborating, or the problems that lock-downs only work for a short while. People have to know that other actions are people taken. Neoliberal individualists are also likely to resist lock downs as them see them as an imposition on their individual right to do whatever they want, whenever they want, and so Lockdowns are inherently vulnerable to neoliberal attacks, from those who don’t ‘want’ to support others in times of danger, or only see the issue in terms of competition.
Neoliberal individualism, does not encourage the idea that sometimes we have to suffer some loss in order for the system to survive or prosper. Given we are not connected, other than in competition, why should we risk any loss for an uncertain advantage for others? Without empathy there is no connection to others. They are just things that attack us.
Likewise with climate change. We cannot solve this individually. Neoliberal individualism separates us from nature, it makes nature an object to be exploited, and ultimately leads to social death.
Individuation on the other hand can lead to an awareness of connection, because you don’t have to engage in separation in order to find yourself. You do have to find your connection to the greater you, the fields of unconscious process, the place you occupy in the system that sustains you.
An individuated person can also realise that solutions may be as complex as the problems, and pay attention to material that others ignore. Even if it is only by withdrawing their shadow projections.
That the ideology of individualism is unreal and possibly destructive, does not mean individuals are not important, or that the collective is necessarily good. The process of emerging from the collective, and listening to the wider self and the wider world is a process we can call individuation.
Individuation is difficult. There is almost never a resting place of certainty, or of perfect autonomy.
Any vision which sees the future in terms of individuals alone, or families alone in secure buildings, or people as an always harmonious single willed collective, is doomed to failure in the long term as it does not recognise reality.
Individuation is particularly difficult when there is a collective individualism which suggests that we are already there, and can proceed by strengthening the ego and accepting the collective idea of individualism without tackling what we, as a collective, are unconscious of, or refrain from being conscious of.
In neoliberalism, individualism tends to enable what we might call shadow politics, and this is the subject of the next post in this series….