The Individual: Isolated and Collective

Illustration for Robinson Crusoe by Joseph Finnemore

When one speaks of the individual, what comes forth in the minds of most is the liberal sense of the word. That is to say, the concept of the individual tinged with individualism. In bourgeois society, the individual is thought of as an isolated individual. One’s qualities which make oneself oneself are defined in a void, as if one exists on a sterilized petri dish.

Inseparable from this conception is the assumption of a basic, fundamental antagonism between the individual and society. Society is taken as limiting to individuals, with greater distance from meaning greater freedom. This manner of thinking is particularly pervasive in the culture of the United States, where individual isolation has been fetishized from the icon of the frontier yeoman, loved both by Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans and utopian Transcendentalists, to contemporary doomsday preppers.

Bourgeois individualism is even taken so far in some cases as to deny that society even exists, and that instead what we call society is in truth composed of many isolated individuals. These bourgeois-brained liberals of course cannot conceive of the fact that the individual’s qualities are defined in relation to others. Not only does one base their conceptions of themselves off how others interact with them, not only do they inherit the manners of thinking, speaking, and living from the society they live in, but they depend on society for their survival.

Bourgeois individualists can only think in terms of inherent, essential qualities independent of society. To take an example famously used by Friedrich Engels, they think they are Robinson Crusoe living by their own isolated labor on an island. Individualism is such a sickness of US society that it has infamously limited attempts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, from the behavior of random civilians to the systemic level.

That is, from ardent “freedom-lovers” refusing to wear masks or social distance, concocting paranoid conspiracy theories about the virus being faked as a means of mind control, to the decaying neoliberal state refusing to aid in the regulation of behavior, such as by closing down schools. On many levels, the state is simply incapable of such social policies, with the healthcare system utterly dominated by powerful private monopolies and the poor priced out of most of its benefits.

This particularly sick individualism, which is completely fine with the death of thousands as long as Euro-American petite bourgeoisie can go have a family dinner at Chili’s, is able to take such powerful hold because it has a fertile ground to grow from. The US has been and continues to be the most thoroughly bourgeois society in the world. The United States is a white republic, once explicitly but now implicitly. It was founded on settler-colonialism, with Euro-Americans growing to be almost uniformly petite-bourgeoisie, landlords, and bourgeoisie. Even the most destitute among Europeans could come to the early Republic as land speculators and frontiersmen, gaining property by participating in genocide. The primary laboring force were African slaves, while Indigenous people were outsiders to be expropriated.

In contrast to other capitalist societies, the US does not have continuity with the communalism that preceded it. Communalist social forms still exist in North America, but they are not allowed a place in the same manner as the ejidos have been in Mexico. In a word, here in the US, capitalism is essentially Euro-American, while communalism is essentially Indigenous and African.

Thus, our individualism is to a unique degree shaded with white supremacy, embodied in the icon of the yeoman. The yeoman is a fantastic encapsulation of how bourgeois liberalism conceives of the individual. The individual is seen as an independent (that is, from society), rights-bearing citizen. To get to the root of the matter of bourgeois individualism, let us refer to Karl Marx’s On the Jewish Question:

“Above all, we note the fact that the so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme as distinct from the droits du citoyen, are nothing but the rights of a member of civil societyi.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community[…] Liberty, therefore, is the right to do everything that harms no one else. The limits within which anyone can act without harming someone else are defined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is determined by a boundary post. It is a question of the liberty of man as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself[…]

But, the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property[…]

The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realization of his own freedom, but the barrier to it[…]

None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society — that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community. In the rights of man, he is far from being conceived as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework external to the individuals, as a restriction of their original independence. The sole bond holding them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and their egoistic selves.”

The liberal individual, in short, is conceived of as an owner, an owner of a commodity as their property. To understand what this means, we must understand what a commodity is. Commodity production means production for the purpose of market exchange. Capitalism is commodity production generalized, commodity production as the guiding logic for society. The end goal of capitalism’s exchange is the realization of surplus-value, that is, unpaid labor-time added into products by wage-laborers. This is commonly expressed in the terms of capitalism being a market economy based on production for profit. Before we understand how the individual is seen under capitalism, we must define the commodity more specifically. Marx explains in the Grundrisse:

“Capital is by definition money, but not merely money in the simple form of gold and silver, nor merely as money in opposition to circulation, but in the form of all substances — commodities. To that degree, therefore, it does not, as capital, stand in opposition to use value, but exists apart from money precisely only in use values. These, its substances themselves, are thus now transitory ones, which would have no exchange value if they had no use value; but which lose their value as use values and are dissolved by the simple metabolism of nature if they are not actually used, and which disappear even more certainly if they are actually used.

In this regard, the opposite of capital cannot itself be a particular commodity, for as such it would form no opposition to capital, since the substance of capital is itself use value; it is not this commodity or that commodity, but all commodities. The communal substance of all commodities, i.e. their substance not as material stuff, as physical character, but their communal substance as commodities and hence exchange values, is this, that they are objectified labour.

The only thing distinct from objectified labour is non-objectified labour, labour which is still objectifying itself, labour as subjectivity. Or, objectified labour, i.e. labour which is present in space, can also be opposed, as past labour, to labour which is present in time. If it is to be present in time, alive, then it can be present only as the living subject, in which it exists as capacity, as possibility; hence as worker. The only use value, therefore, which can form the opposite pole to capital is labour[…]

The core takeaway for our purposes: a commodity is valued not so much for its particular qualities, but for abstract quantity. That abstract quantity is the amount of socially necessary labor-time embodied in it. With capitalist lenses, things become viewed as abstract qualities, as inseparable from mercantile relations.

Such a logic increasingly pervades all aspects of bourgeois society. Given that the bourgeois individual is conceived of as a commodity-owner, they are constructed in abstract terms. Rather than as nodes in a web of social relations, what particular individuals are, they are understood as a set of rights and properties. When a liberal asserts their love of freedom, what they mean is free trade, free labor, and free citizens. Bourgeois freedom.

In truth, the individual, even in bourgeois society, is a particular within a massive complex of particulars rather than an isolated, abstract thing. The difference between capitalism and other modes of production is that capitalism’s basic mediating form between persons is the exchange of commodities. Production and distribution are not done on the basis of community, mutual obligation, or tribute, but on the basis of market exchange. The medium of social interaction which is the building block of capitalism is exchange of commodities, objects.

Marx means this when he speaks of “objectified labor.” We are not removed from society. Instead, our relationships with society as a whole take the form of commodities to us. They are objectified. As a result, it becomes difficult to see other particular people in these objects. We come to believe value is an inherent quality of things rather than an outcome of them being triangulated within a capitalist society’s relationships. As consumers, we generally do not know the person who produces our clothing, housing, food, and so on.

Laborers do not own the means of production they toil with, thus they do not own their end products. The only property a proletarian owns is their labor-power, labor in the form of a commodity. Those who produce a commodity and those who oversee the final sale of a commodity are rarely the same. They only relate to the others through the form of the commodity. Labor is increasingly specialized, the division of labor deepened. The individual laborer sees less and less of the full commodity, to say nothing of the consumer. Within the borders of capitalist social relations, proletarian identity as individuals lies in abstraction, that of labor-power. In Marx’s terms, they are alienated.

The uniqueness of capitalist individualism, and the truth of it being an alienated and alienating one, is made clear through comparison to other modes of production and social forms. For example, in communalism, social relations are expressed in person-person terms rather than person-object terms. As mentioned earlier, Euro-Americans in the US have no history of communalism as Euro-Americans. The communalist mode of production overthrown by USAmerican capitalism, and the communalist social forms increasingly defended against its encroachment, lays primarily among Indigenous peoples. This is why Vine Deloria Jr. expressed a very similar idea which I have outlined, albeit in the terms of Indigenous versus Euro-American individualism, in We Talk, You Listen:

“Indians have always been the utmost individualists, but American society has failed to absorb them in its mainstream and there has been a continual warfare between the Indian tribes and the rest of society over this question. Yet the extreme individualism of the Indian has made it appear as if he would be suited above all to enter into the American social and political system. People are stunned to find that Indians totally reject American political ideology and concepts of equality, all the while being unable to reach any kind of conclusion within their own tribes as to programs and policies.

The vital difference between Indians in their individualism and the traditional individualism of Anglo-Saxon America is that the two understandings of man are built on entirely different premises. White America speaks of individualism on an economic basis. Indians speak of individualism on a social basis. While the rest of America is devoted to private property, Indians prefer to hold their lands in tribal estate, sharing the resources in common with each other. Where Americans conform to social norms of behavior and set up strata for social recognition, Indians have a free-flowing concept of social prestige that acts as a leveling device against the building of social pyramids.

Thus the two kinds of individualism are diametrically opposed to each other, and it would appear impossible to reconcile one with the other. Where the rich are admired in white society, they are not particularly welcome in Indian society. The success in economic wars is not nearly as important for Indians as it is for whites, since the sociability of individuals with each other acts as a binding tie in Indian society.”

The final sentence of the excerpt is particularly insightful into the antagonistic individualism of capitalism. Because one is conceived of as a commodity-owner, the individual is always in competition with others. That is, relationships with others take the form of a market logic. As a result, bourgeois individualism sees the basic nature of humanity as war of all against all.

Deloria Jr. identifies certain continuities of communalism as social forms rather than modes of production among contemporary Indigenous people, notably tribal ownership of enterprises on reservations. Such a social order, that living and flowing history, is not present among Euro-Americans. In a broad sense, Indigenous people understand their individual identities as rooted in their relationships with others, as a person-person dynamic, whereas Euro-Americans understand theirs as an isolated person-object dynamic. Even while the petite-bourgeoisie, particularly the Euro-American ones, live in suburban neighborhoods, they lack the community connections observed among others. Their only common quality is quantity, prestige in ownership of capital.

The paradigm of individual vs. society holds a foundational basis in a combination of capitalist competition and the mediation of social relations through objects. The capitalist division of labor, which creates universal dependency of all on all, at the same time transforms the society which one is dependent on into an alien mass. This is not, however, the only foundation for capitalist individualism. Because the bourgeoisie has the greatest access to the capital which can control media, hire intellectuals, and pay for an education to become an intellectual, the majority of social discourse speaks the language of the bourgeois dominant ideology.

Whether a person is or isn’t bourgeois, when they are situated within capitalist society, they find themselves with a tendency to think like one. Freedom becomes the freedom to own private property and accumulate capital. Equality becomes the equality of abstract citizenship rights, but not the abolition of class distinctions. Fraternity becomes the community of goods, relating to others with the logic of the market. One evaluates others on the basis of abstracted qualities, especially in attraction, rather than as particular people. The tendency of bourgeois-brain is particularly strong in the US among Euro-Americans. In the present, they have the best standard of living in income, division of labor, housing, healthcare, and legal standing relative to other racial groups. That is, the wages of whiteness. In terms of history and citizenship, they have the icon of the independent, petite-bourgeois yeoman-citizen encapsulating their minds in their love for Americanism.

Individualist ideology, with the eyes of the bourgeois, sees itself as antagonistic to society because the core internal contradiction of capitalist society is that of socialized production and private appropriation. Production increasingly encompasses all of society, making everyone dependent on it, while those who own of the means of production appropriate society’s surplus for themselves. The bourgeois becomes frustrated by this contradiction, as it represents the irreconcilability of capitalism. It is the origin of the antagonism of bourgeoisie and proletariat.

The bourgeoisie needs the proletariat for any new surplus-value to be produced and for it to be realized through consumption, but it also fears them. The proletariat, because it owns nothing but its labor-power, generally has no investment in the continuity of the system. As a class, they have greater interest in its abolition, and have the capacity to do so. In the terms of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, they have nothing to lose but their chains, and they have a world to win. They can abolish the bourgeoisie in particular and class society in general. They have the opportunity to socialize appropriation of social production, which has been developed on local and international bases in a manner totally unprecedented in history. As a result, the bourgeoisie fears them as a dangerous class, but cannot separate themselves from them due to their dependency. Thus, they view “society,” the unwashed masses, the mob, as a dangerous, monstrous thing.

On top of the individualism of the a competitive market, the proletariat adopts this dominant ideological individualism. It colors competition with other labor-power salespeople in the vision of particular proletarians, meaning that class solidarity cannot be an automatic thing. Instead, the possibility for class consciousness lies in collective action toward common class interests, the most well-known example being trade union struggles, but another being tenant rights struggles. Class struggles are part of a process of realizing that the individual is part of a general, a class. That the individual is defined in relation to others. Isolationist, bourgeois individualism, which defines itself against others, is harmful to that end.

For these reasons, politics of “doing what you want as long as you don’t hurt others” are harmful. They refuse to see the individual as part of a whole, but instead conceive of them as an isolated thing. They see one’s desires and tastes as simply innate, beyond question, and as exercised against the grain so to speak. Desire is not uncaused. As all human individuals are part of society, their desires, qualities in general, are inseparable from where they are situated in that particular society. Desire can express and reflect reactionary currents in a society, such as patriarchy, racism, and class exploitation. To assert that individual desire ought not be subject to criticism with an eye to the general movement is to take on a bourgeois mindset. Marxism does not shy away from critique of all that exists, and desire should not be held as sacred.

The contradictions of capitalism, most importantly that of social production and private appropriation, ultimately create a need for socialist transformation if society is to avoid disintegration. Mutual dependence at the same time creates the need for mutual synthesis, co-operation, instead of competition. In complement with social production stands socialized appropriation. The victory of socialization realizes the basic principles of communalism, but on a higher scale. While communalism is confined to the members of a typically kin-ordered community, communism includes all. This is enabled by a greater development of forces of production, and thus a greater product. A greater product can support a greater scope of belonging for a society.

Socialization, the development toward communism, does not abolish particular people in favor of a hivemind, as many bourgeois ideologues imagine. Rather, it abolishes the bourgeois individual with the abolition of class distinctions. The individual is no longer defined on a person-object basis, but, with the means of production as social property, on a person-person basis. Social relations will no longer be mediated by objects, but by relations with particular people. The individual will be clearly visible as a node in a web of social relations. While bourgeois freedom is abolished, along with it the division of labor, a new freedom, one which can apply to the general instead of the few, is born. The socialization of developed forces of production ensures the satisfaction of means of subsistence, which opens up new vistas of individual development heretofore only realized in part throughout history. Through recognizable relations with others, the self can be developed on a basis beyond the one-sidedness of the bourgeois self. From Marx and Engels’ The German Ideology:

“In history up to the present it is certainly likewise an empirical fact that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure which they have conceived as dirty trick on the part of the so-called world spirit, etc.), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market. But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow the existing state of society by the communist revolution (of which more below) and the abolition of private property, which identical with it, this power, which so baffles the German theoreticians, will be dissolved; and that then the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished in the measure in which history becomes wholly transformed into world history.

From the above it is clear that the real intellectual wealth of the individual depends entirely on the weaIth of his real connections. Only this will liberate the separate individuals from the various national and local barriers, bring them into practical connection with the production (including intellectual production) of the whole world and make it possible for them to acquire the capacity to enjoy this all-sided production of the whole earth (the creations of man) All-round dependence, this primary natural form of the world-historical co-operation of individuals, will be transformed by this communist revolution into the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and ruled men as powers completely alien to them.”



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Influenced by Marxism-Leninism, the Frankfurt School, Third World Marxism, and social reproduction theory.