LM Archives
  6:25 pm GMT
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment LM Search Archives Subject index Links Overview FAQ Toolbar

Communal self sacrifice

The greatest claim of the market system has always been the premium it placed on the freedom of the individual. Yet society today seems uniquely hostile to assertive individualism.

James Heartfield looks into who killed the capitalist spirit of the aggressive, self-assured individual - and why that demise is a problem for those of us who want to change society

Individualism today is in bad odour. Self-interest, self-assertion and self-reliance were once the official values of the 'free world'. Today, any expression of such values is more likely to be denounced as mere selfishness. Once, rich capitalists were the object of envy and emulation. Today they are likely to be denounced as greedy fat cats taking insensitive pay rises. There is without doubt a marked shift in the mood not just in Britain, but throughout the West.

You can judge a society's values by the kind of heroes it embraces. In the eighties the mood of triumphal individualism was caught by the revival of the forties comic book hero Superman. When Joe Shuster and Jerry Seigel first drew Superman comics he was a nerdy guy with glasses called Clark Kent. But once he stepped into a phone booth he tore open his shirt and pulled off his glasses to reveal the man of steel. In retrospect, it is difficult not to see the transformation as one from Jewish immigrant to all-American hero, as if Woody Allen had turned himself into Charles Atlas. His name translates into German as übermensch but, unlike the Nazi fantasy, this was a hero who stood up against injustice to defend the weak. When the Superman films were made, the choice of the strapping, chisel-jawed Christopher Reeve to play the part suited the American mood of standing tall in the world.

In recent months Christopher Reeve has once again become a symbol for his times. This time, however, he presents a very different kind of transformation than that from Clark Kent to Superman. Tragically, Reeve was paralysed from the neck down in a riding accident that snapped his vertebrae and damaged his spinal chord. He speaks with the aid of a microphone and a tracheotomy. He is strapped into a wheelchair. But still, remarkably, he has become a new kind of hero, for a different kind of age. Reeve was the star speaker at the opening of the Democratic Party Convention in the United States, before the president of the world's most powerful nation opened his re-election campaign. Thousands of party delegates cheered Reeve in an extraordinary outpouring of feeling for the wheelchair-bound star.

You do not have to be a cynic to ask why were they cheering? Of course, Reeve's decision to campaign for healthcare for people in his position is laudable, but it is hardly at the centre of the Democratic Party's policy agenda. Indeed, this is a party that has just committed itself to cutting back welfare benefits for single mothers. How does that sit with Reeve's crowd-pleasing claim that America does not turn its back on its needy? The truth is that the convention was cheering Reeve the symbol, not Reeve the man.

Christopher Reeve is a symbol of the values of our age. He represents the disaster that can strike us all. He represents the trans-formation of a Superman into a wheelchair-bound survivor. What the delegates cheered was somebody who had learned the hard way about his own limitations and his own fragility. He is a hero in reverse, of the kind that is all too characteristic of our times. Christopher Reeve has made the transition from the hero-worship of Ronald Reagan's America to the victim-cult of Bill Clinton's USA. Hollywood too reflects the cult of the victim as protagonist. Films of recent years feature lead characters who are autistic (Rain Man), retarded (Forrest Gump), feral (Nell) or disabled (Edward Scissorhands). Even traditional heroes are presented ironically, like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero.

The values that are expressed in Christopher Reeve's reception at the Demo-cratic Party Convention are quite different from the values of self-reliance and assertive individual freedom that were, until quite recently, the official ideology. Today, standing on your own two feet and insisting that you do not need to be protected or counselled is not likely to be celebrated. That is more likely to be seen as a sign of emotional illiteracy and an unwillingness to expose your weaknesses to others.

With the elevation of suffering and victim status comes a denigration of individualistic values in favour of something called 'the community'. Self-centred individualism is decried as something that belongs in the past, as a disease of the eighties. Amitai Etzioni, champion of the community and one-time speech-writer for president Clinton, puts it like this:

'The eighties was a decade in which "I" was writ large, in which the celebration of the self became a virtue. Now is the time to push back the pendulum. The times call for a reconstruction, in which we put a new emphasis on "we", on the values we share, on the spirit of community.' (The Spirit of Community, 1993, p25)

Public service is an exemplar of the spirit of community that Etzioni is hoping to rekindle. Early in his presidency Clinton delivered a speech, written by Etzioni, in which he set out his appeal to America's students to do voluntary work--as 'teachers, law enforcement officers, healthcare workers or peer counsellors'--in exchange for loans to go to college.

'There are those among us who do not believe that young Americans will answer the call to action, who believe that our young people now measure their success merely in the accumulation of material things. They believe this call to service will be unanswered but I believe they are dead wrong. The American Dream will be kept alive if you will answer the call to service.' (3 March 1993)

In fact the nay-sayers appear to have been correct. Not many people did respond to Clinton's call to service. But, as it happens, that was never really the point. The speech is a revision of the values of the American Dream. Once that meant that everyone could make it by their own efforts--by the 'accumulation of material things', in fact. Instead, today the values that politicians and commentators look for are not acquisitiveness, pride, individualism and looking after your own so much as care, duty, selflessness, diligence and modesty.

The backdrop to this kind of appeal is the premise that people have become too selfish. This has become the stock-in-trade of today's gloom-mongers. The terrible inheritance of the greedy eighties, they say, continues to haunt us. It appears that people are pursuing their self-interest at the expense of every other value in society. Love of family, care for the community, neighbourliness and civic duty all appear to have been sacrificed to selfish concerns.

Every event, from juvenile crime to boardroom pay-outs, is taken as confirmation of the same interpretation--that love of self takes precedence over any wider loyalty or altruistic concern. But, like a reflected image in a mirror, this picture is the reverse of the real movement.

What looks to many like an elevation of the individual over the interests of the community today is really something quite different. It is not that individualism has come to the fore, but that all forms of basic social solidarity have been diminished. It is not that people have turned their backs on society in wilful pursuit of their selfish concerns, only that the old collective organisations and institutions hold so little appeal that they cannot garner support and loyalty. What looks like individual self-assertiveness is in reality a disillusionment with collective organisation and a withdrawal from contemporary forms of public life.

There is a real problem here, but it is quite different from the one that is bemoaned by commentators. People have been squeezed out of public life--the diminishing numbers of people participating in political parties, trade unions, churches and all kinds of cultural organisations demonstrates as much. People's lives have as a consequence become much more individuated and privatised. But that does not mean that individuals' sense of themselves has been strengthened. Rather, individuals have become less assertive about their own interests, and have retreated defensively into private life. It would be more accurate to say that today's individualism is a weakened sense of self that is more cautious, vulnerable and self-effacing than before. But that is not the way things are generally seen today.

In Britain, as in America, the changed attitude towards individualism is expressed above all in a retrospective criticism of the excesses of the eighties. Commentators elevate the concerns of community against the foil of the 'greedy eighties', when, it is claimed, Thatcherism and Reaganism swung the pendulum too far in the direction of individual avarice. This caricature of the eighties is so enduring that it is worth briefly looking back to ask whether this really was a time when individualism was let off the leash.

In the eighties, the Conservative govern-ment's stated aim was to set the individual free from the constraints of collectivism. They saw collectivist institutions as the great plague of modern society. Trade unions, the welfare state and comprehensive schools were all bodies that were found guilty of putting the collective above the individual. Higher taxes to pay for welfare, and higher wages won by unions were all supposed to be barriers to individual entrepreneurialism. Welfare provision only led to a dependency culture, undermining individual self-reliance, they said. Collectivism, according to the Tories was choking individual freedom. The obvious remedy was to roll back the welfare state and to smash the trade unions. If that was done then the individual would be set free. At any rate that was the theory. The practice proved to be rather different.

Under Margaret Thatcher the Conservative government did attack the trade unions and their supporters. They cut state subsidies to the docks and to the steel, motor and coal industries leading to massive redundancies. They held down benefit entitlements and cut back on local authority spending. They deregulated the City of London and sold off council houses and public utilities in a programme that came to be known as popular capitalism. On the face of things they did everything they could to reduce people's dependency on the state and persuade them to stand on their own feet.

But what was the consequence of these reforms? Instead of liberating people from state regulation, the Conservatives oversaw the greatest extension of state power since 1945. State expenditure rose in real terms from £217 billion in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, to £289 billion in 1994 (adjusted to 1994 money). Regulation of industry has not decreased with privatisation, but has, if anything, increased, as once-public utilities have come under new regulatory bodies like Ofwat and Ofgas. Subsidies to local industry were not suspended, but merely redirected, as money was channelled through unelected quangos and Urban Development Corporations instead of local councils. Clientelism, rather than free enterprise, is the driving force of industry today.

The numbers of individuals dependent on state benefits rose, with millions of people in receipt of welfare payments to supplement their wages. Some five million families are currently dependent on welfare for part of their income. On top of the official unemployed figure of just over 2m must be counted a considerable proportion of the 1.5m in receipt of invalidity benefit, and the thousands studying at colleges and new universities who would have been competing for jobs but for the exponential expansion of higher education.

Any objective assessment of the 17 years of Conservative rule would have to note that the effects of the Thatcherite revolution were seriously at odds with its claims. The Tories have not liberated individuals from the constraints of welfare dependency and state regulation. On the contrary, they have comprehensively undermined people's capacity to organise their own lives and further their own interests. How could this be?

It was always an absurdity to think that it would be possible just to 'roll back' the state and reveal millions of go-getting entrepreneurs underneath. The opportunities for making something of yourself are dependent on a society that is going forward. The great advantage that capitalism used to have over its rivals was its ability to repackage the goals of amassing profits as the goals of individuals seeking their own betterment. But that strategy can only work in a dynamic society with a growing economy. A slump economy has the opposite effect, putting many people's interests more clearly at odds with the market system. Mass unemployment, degrading rates of benefit and conditions of entitlement, and shabby services are hardly the basis of a muscular individualism. More profoundly, tearing up people's collective organisations, their trade unions, their mass political parties and forcing them out of the public sphere of political engagement was a recipe for disillusionment and despair, rather than a growth of the entrepreneurial spirit. The humiliation of the working class move-ment in the eighties was bound to be a degrading experience that would undermine personal self-reliance instead of building it up.

The Conservatives' mistake was to imagine that collectivities were at the opposite end of the scale from self-reliance. They imagined, like a see-saw, that you only had to lower one end to raise the other: you only had to restrain collectivism to set the individual free. The left's view, and the view of the critics of the greedy eighties, is the mirror image of the same Tory prejudice. They too think that community and individual freedom are at odds, only they want to curtail the latter in favour of the former. In fact, the two things are much more directly related. Self-reliance, independence of purpose and organisation are not the opposite of collective organisation, but its complement. The impact of the Conservative revolution was to undermine the basic social solidarities of neighbourhood, workplace and industry. Without these simple elements of collectivity, it is inconceivable that people will be able to stand on their own two feet. Collective experience and purpose is part and parcel of self-reliance and self-assertion, not its opposite.

This is the real story of the eighties. The defeat of collective organisation and the disaggregation of basic social solidarities did not give rise to a new individualism: it was at the same time the defeat of individual self-assertion and independent organisation. In the absence of the basics of social organisation, real individuality could never flourish. Individualism and collectivism were not alternatives in the way that things are usually seen. Rather, individual initiative and self-reliance could only hope to take off in the context of a widespread sense that some sort of social solidarities were in place.

In practice the Conservatives have promoted the market at the expense of the freedom of the individual. The association of markets and freedom that is so central to Conservative ideology is false. Karl Marx made this point 150 years ago:

'Gentlemen! Do not allow yourselves to be deluded by the abstract word freedom. Whose freedom? It is not the freedom of one individual in relation to another, but the freedom of capital to crush the worker.' ('Speech on the question of free trade', 1848, Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol6, p463)

The only freedom that the Conservatives have truly supported is the freedom of capital to crush the worker. From that standpoint, it made perfect sense to smash working class organisation and put millions out of work. The Tory champions of the capitalist class could not be expected to tell the difference between freedom and the market. In their minds the two things are synonymous. More problematic is the fact that their opponents took this propagandistic account at face value. The critics have read the eighties as a period in which there was too much freedom granted, rather than one in which freedom was aggressively curtailed in the name of the market.

The lessons of the Thatcher experiment ought to have been that the market is hostile to real freedom. The obvious conclusion would be that it is the market that we should get rid of, the better to realise true self-government. Instead the conclusion drawn today is that individuality is suspect and that freedom itself is dangerous. In these circumstances, it seems that it is the goal of individual freedom that we are being told must be sacrificed to the greater good of society and of the community. But what society and whose community are they talking about? Why should anybody subordinate the aspiration to take charge of their own destiny to the interests of a capitalist society?

Once seen in this light, the current unease over 'excessive individualism' becomes clearer. It is less the 'individual' half of the couplet 'individual freedom' that offends nineties sensibilities, but the aspiration to freedom itself. All of the denunciations of excessive individualism are not directed at people's disengagement from society, so much as at their recalcitrant belief that they have the right to decide things for themselves.

This orientation explains one of the more absurd misreadings of contemporary society--that there are too many assertive individuals around. This is far from being the case. In fact the sense of individual self-assertiveness is more precarious today than it has been for 60 years. Today's culture celebrates caution and lowered expectations rather than a brash acquisitiveness. It would be true to say that people are more individuated today, but not that they are acting more as self-confident individuals. This is not a strong sense of individuality, but rather a weak one, through which people are encouraged to see themselves as frail and in need of protection from wider society. The difference turns on the role of subjectivity envisaged.

What is meant by subjectivity is the active sense of self-government, the idea that people should aspire to decide their own fates and control their own circumstances. At the heart of the current anti-individualistic mood is a decline in the idea that subjectivity is a virtue. It is noticeable that self-obsession is seen as laudable today, so long as it is inward-looking and 'sensitive' rather than outward looking and assertive. Healthy individuals are taken to be those who invest time and energy in self-discovery, tending to their physical and psychic well-being. That individuated outlook is celebrated whereas a more aggressive expression of individual interest is frowned upon.

It should be clear that the real debate is not about the relative merits of the individual as against those of the community at all. The 'individual' is just a fall-guy. The real target is subjectivity--the aspiration to take control of affairs and try to determine your own destiny. As it happens, the 'freedom of the individual' was always a peculiarly limited concept of freedom. We were granted a moderate degree of freedom in our private lives on the basis that we foreswore any collective interest in the way that capitalist society was organised. But the present mood of anti-individualism is aimed at disparaging even that modest degree of individual autonomy.

The current climate is not a reversal of the Thatcherite project, but its extension. In the eighties collective forms of organisation were attacked for over-aggressive assertion of people's selfish interests; trade unionists were attacked for their 'I'm all-right Jack' attitude. The trade-off was supposed to be that in return for abandoning trade unions and welfare provision, people would get greater control over their personal lives, through greater property-ownership, like home-ownership and share investments. But now even that deal, one-sided as it proved to be, is being reneged upon.

Basic civil liberties, like the right to raise your family as you see fit or to drive your car where you want, are now seen as dangerously individualistic. Core conservative ideas like 'an Englishman's home is his castle' now strike prying welfare agencies as an unwarranted degree of freedom and a license for abuse within the home. Having been chased off the streets we are now being hunted down in the home as well. The individual is a target because of the lingering belief that his private life is his own, even if autonomous collective organisation is off the agenda.

Today's popular causes, like environmental protection or the anti-roads campaign, make a virtue of austerity and self-limitation. Their message is directed less against the powers that be, than against other people. Their demands are not for more resources from the authorities, but for a restriction of people's excessive consumption habits. Challenged to show where anti-roads protests had succeeded one campaigner boasted that the government's road programme had been radically slashed. This kind of protest the government can live with. They must be wishing that campaigners would lobby to reduce other areas of public expenditure as well. Why not a campaign to reduce family sizes, taking the strain off Child Benefit payments, or for that matter, another against high wages? But, then again, a demand for us all to settle for less is the logical conclusion of the protests against fat cat salaries.

More sophisticated champions of the anti-roads and anti-car protests claim that their target is not any one particular stretch of motorway, but the 'car-culture' itself. Instead of favouring the self-contained bubble of the car we should embrace public transport. The car culture, according to this argument is inherently aggressive and individualistic, while buses and trains are communal and cooperative, as well as being friendlier to the environment. The advantage of this argument is that it makes it clear that the real target of the anti-roads protests is not roads or cars as such, but a way of living, the 'car culture'. And what is offensive about this way of life is that it is, within the confines of the road network, relatively free. Theirs is a point of view that prefers timetables and queues to cruising. The idea that somebody should just go out for a drive is inconceivable to this kind of austerity politics.

The principal intellectual expression of the climate of self-effacement and limitation is the cult of 'the Other' in academic life. In literature, sociology and even law the project of 'de-centring the self' is at the top of the agenda. According to this theory the traditional Western viewpoint privileges the self over 'the Other'--no longer a Carry On film euphemism for sex, but a catch-all term for any excluded section of society, whether it be women or people of colour, or those in the post-colonial world. The very promiscuity with which the term 'Other' is applied indicates that it is not a particular grievance that is being aired. Instead, any standpoint which offers a critical vantage-point on the despised 'self' of Western discourse recommends itself in the cult of the Other.

It is pointed that these theorists do not aim to grant the excluded Other the status of equality with 'the self', but to knock the individual off of his privileged position in the dominant ideology. The goal of mutual recognition of other people as persons in their own right is an anathema to the cult of 'the Other' because that would only reproduce the centrality of the self. These theorists aim instead to 'de-centre the self', so that we all become 'the Other'. This is the project that literary critic Paul Ricouer announces in his book Oneself as Another. Last year the late Emmanual Levinas published his rewrite of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, as 'The Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Other' (see Outside the Subject, 1995). The compelling thing about these various attempts to rationalise the climate of self-effacement is their implicitly religious message: that we should subordinate ourselves to an essentially unknowable force outside of us, the Other. You could not ask for a more perfect expression of the alienated condition of modern society than that we are now all to think of ourselves as 'Others' instead of people in our own right, with our own concerns and interests.

The real tragedy of the climate of self-effacement is that it is the principle barrier to building any kind of collective solution to our problems today. For all the talk of community, nothing could be better designed to frustrate collective solutions than the prejudice that we should hold self-interest in such low esteem. It is not possible to make a commun-ity out of people without a sense of self and self-respect. Acquisitiveness, ambition and combativity will prove to be preconditions of any forceful assertion of collective interests in the future.

Any movement for social change will not come through self-effacement, but through self-assertion. It is futile to think that you could make a collective force out of individuals who were not prepared to stand on their own two feet and stick up for what they believe in. Before we can talk about the New Jerusalem to come, we need aggressive individuals in the here and now. Modesty in aspiration does not make for social harmony, but for a withdrawal from society and an increasingly privatised outlook. Agency, not self-effacement, is the basis of an association of equals. Rejecting the anti-individualism of today's moralising critics in favour of a confident sense of self is the precondition for an enduring fraternity.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 94, October 1996



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk