Why is the United States such an Individualistic Country?

Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. The slogan for practically every American’s way of life and thinking, whether they acknowledge it openly or not. America is enamored with individualism, especially that of the rugged persuasion. Americans don’t want to pay for welfare, they don’t want their money to go to anyone except “those who deserve it”, they want to live their own life without any genuine sense of community. To need to rely on someone else, especially the government, for help is seen as a sign of weakness, something to be embarrassed of. Further beneath the surface, America has never had a true, mass, radical, class conscious movement. We’ve never had a socialist movement to rival Europe or the global South. Americans are fiercely individualistic, even when it harms their interests. American workers see that a market economy forces them, as salespeople of the commodity of their labor-power, to compete with each other. But, unlike their global counterparts, do not decide to cooperate to combat this, and simply embrace this competition. Why have Americans specifically failed to develop mass class consciousness at any point in history? What is the root of American individualism?

The United States, as an institution, has not always existed. It is a settler-colonial society. It displaced pre-existing indigenous societies. This settler-colonial character, wherein European settlers displaced indigenous Americans on their homelands, usually violently, meant that the historical characteristics which had developed into the indigenous societies were almost all wiped away when the settler society was established. Indigenous societies tended to favor cooperative production and were thoroughly communitarian in nature. In the place of these were social characteristics inherited from the societies, and class positions, which the settlers had came from.

In the Northern American colonies, most settlers were Puritans, a religion with roots in Calvinism. Calvinism’s deterministic theology, which states that one’s destiny is pre-determined by God, certainly plays into attitudes of blaming the poor for their conditions. It sees people’s conditions as natural, believing they are pre-determined to poverty and oppression by their own inferiority. In fact, the almost uniformly Protestant nature of the settlers meant that many subscribed to the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic, that hard work was inherently good and that idleness was sinful, a sign of laziness. This idea was put forth by many churches, including the Methodists, during the period of the Enclosure Acts around the 17th century. Farmers who lived off their common lands or small individual landholdings were being supplanted as large landowners seized legal ownership of lands. The dispossession of the smaller farmers, with their means of self-subsistence removed, meant that they now had to sell their labor to the large landowners in order to buy their necessities instead of making them themselves. Those who could not get hired became vagabonds and beggars, and in turn were targeted by harsh laws. This new order of things, with horrible poverty and a every-man-for-himself approach, was justified by the concept of the Protestant Work Ethic. And the Puritans brought the concept with them to America when they settled the colonies. Furthermore, the settlers of the Northern societies tended to rely on the individual produce of individual labor in the form of subsistence farming. The Protestant Work Ethic was perpetuated by this, as it would appear that if one’s farm failed, they had no one to blame but themselves, due to the individualistic nature of production in these colonies. These were the roots of individualism in these colonies.

The Southern American colonies were much more mercantile, with the settlers tending to be merchants or the bourgeoisie arriving from Europe. This society was absolutely a free-for-all, with small individual farm owners competing with a plantation aristocracy. Rather than producing necessities and selling surpluses, like the North, they produced cash crops like tobacco or cotton, and sold them for a profit. Each was a competitor to the other in this market economy, each exploiting their slaves to their benefit, and so the roots of individualism are clear in these colonies.

By virtue of being a settler society, as I mentioned, the U.S. destroyed the history of collective production, and the communalist society which that produced, when it destroyed and displaced the indigenous peoples on their own land. The U.S.’s society has no “memory” of collective production and life because it destroyed the history of that in its character as a settler state. Other regions, like Europe, had a “memory” of collective production. They were not separated from a history of farming the commons, of villages, communes, and towns as the center of peasant life, of cooperating for survival. That history still played a part, was still a current, in their development. The same class which had been dispossessed by the enclosures, by primitive accumulation, was the proletariat in these countries. In America, the class which had been dispossessed by the enclosures was indigenous Americans, and they were cast outside the settler society, and even now remain there, no matter what the Liberal may tell you. The class which engaged in primitive accumulation in the U.S. was the settlers, and they were not the class which had a “memory” of collective production in America. They were not the same class which was dispossessed. Europe’s labor movement is still connected to the movements of the peasants. Their proletariat is far more aware of their place in history, and what came before them. The U.S., as a settler society, has no place in history to look back to except that of the society which it destroyed, which is not within itself. The U.S. was founded as a bourgeois, individualistic, settler society. In being a settler society, it destroyed any connection of the development of modes of production to the societies which existed in America before it. It did not have an aristocracy to hamper the development of capitalism, and was founded as a capitalist country. As a country, its only history is one of capitalism, settler-colonialism, and slavery.

Individualism even came to be used by the ruling class to justify America’s genocide and slavery, especially in the form of Social Darwinism. It was said that black people and indigenous Americans were simply inferior races, and, through the process of the survival of the fittest, white people had proven themselves worthy of enslaving both and replacing the latter. The poverty of these communities was justified with claims of individual failure, natural laziness, inferiority, and so on, rather than perhaps the more realistic explanation of their dispossession by the settlers depriving them of any means of success. This myth of individual failure still lives on today, and is the dominant narrative which white America and those who subscribe to its dominant ideas believe in with regards to the poverty of the black community. The ruling class had successfully manufactured an image of authenticity through the beneficial worldview of individualism.

America’s individualism today finds its roots in both this history and presently existing material conditions. After outright slavery was outlawed, the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic began to be applied to blame the poverty of the free black laborers on themselves, and is still employed against them today. With an individualistic worldview, the failures of one is the result of their own misguidance or laziness. Ironic, considering the extremely socialized character of production under capitalism, with hundreds of workers playing a part in the production of commodities, while that character conflicts with the private ownership of and appropriation of the benefits of that production by the capitalist. Individualism under capitalism presumed individual production of the means of subsistence, while under capitalism the means of subsistence are produced cooperatively. Cooperative production cannot be compatible with individualism. Cooperative production is better for the individual anyways, because it ensures a greater output of labor and, therefore, a greater ease of providing for the means to subsistence for the individual. And yet, American workers don’t seem to want to socially control the product of their cooperative labor. Why? American workers do not develop class consciousness because they do not see themselves as a collective class, but as individuals competing on the market. They react to this with harsher competition, not collaboration among themselves. The American working class has inherited the individualism of the early settlers. Americans occupy land which was taken through settler-colonialism. Americans further benefit from the imperialism of the U.S. state. It secures exploitable labor and free flow of capital, which ensures cheaper commodities for American markets and, in turn, a better quality of life. American individualism is to look the other way when something abysmal benefits you.

But what’s so bad about individualism? an unconvinced Liberal may ask. Doesn’t individualism guarantee freedom? No, certainly not in practice. The analytic lenses of individualism sees the conditions of each person’s life as the result of their own actions, failing to realize that a variety of social factors not only shape people as individuals, but their conditions as well. If one is born, say, black and poor, then they are less likely to be hired for well-paying jobs. Further, an individualistic mindset among society is extremely harmful. Individualism encourages competition, and discourages cooperation. Individualism would rather let people pull themselves up by the bootstraps, blaming them for their own poverty, than aid them. Individualism would rather create a dog-eat-dog society, where those who are born or come into advantage by virtue of their class position, their race, gender, etc. are given an unfair advantage in winning. Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, is a myth in human society. Capitalism is no meritocracy, it allows the capitalists to accumulate profit, value created by the labor of others.

Further, individualism is incompatible with the cooperative nature of production, and human society as a whole. Homo sapiens outlived Neanderthals largely because we were better at cooperating and expressing altruism. Human beings, as a social species, function best in a cooperative society. Further, capitalism relies on socialized, cooperative production, where many hands play a part in the production of one item. To support an individualistic mindset within such an interconnected society is harmful. It’s ridiculous. It hinders rather than expands freedom. Would not a society which implemented cooperative production for social wellbeing better suit the individual? Where the working class controlled production and put it in motion to meet their own social needs? How can freedom truly exist in a capitalist society, where only the rich can afford to live their lives the way they want to, while the workers live paycheck-to-paycheck, and spend their entire lives toiling away in misery? Is this freedom? Some abstract ideal? No, true freedom is no ideal, it must be a social reality. Freedom, the development of the individual, cannot be realized except within a society with a Social character, where the needs of all are taken into account and production is managed accordingly. If one’s needs are met, if one is connected to a community, they no longer have to worry about basic survival, and can direct their focus toward their own development as individuals. No longer held back by poverty and desperation, their individual freedom would thrive.

Building class consciousness in America will be no easy task. We must show the working class how it has benefitted from settler-colonialism and imperialism, and convince them to reject it. We can perhaps do this by pointing out how, if they were to acknowledge themselves as a global class, they could not be pitted against other workers who are willing to accept cheaper wages, who will always exist as long as they are not united. We must teach them the value of collective action through labor action, not to simply improve living conditions under capitalism as an end in itself, as to reform this system is an impossible goal, but to show American workers their place as a class, and to hone their skills in organizing. We must further emphasize the illegitimacy of individualism in a material, practical sense. How can each person be responsible for their fate if production is so socialized, if all of society relies on it and if production is a cooperative affair? Further, how can this be true if some appropriate the value created in this production for themselves without performing the labor? Is there not an irreconcilable contradiction between this socialized production and private appropriation? American socialists have a heavy task upon our shoulders, and the first steps of our movement ought to always keep the looming phantoms of settler-colonialism and imperialism in mind. We must destroy American individualism if we want to get anywhere closer to a socialist society.




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

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

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