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+2 votes
Individualism (as I understand it, though I could very well be wrong) is the practice of putting oneself before anything else, benefiting the individual at the expense of others. So aren't capitalism (exploiting others for profit), hierarchy (exercising power over others), and even bigotry (attacking/oppressing/violating others for personal gain/pleasure/pride) all individualist conceptions and practices?
As a sidenote/additional commentary on this question, the phrasing of the subject has made it really clear to me that there is a significant difference between beginning a question with "are" versus "aren't".

2 Answers

+5 votes
I think your basic assumption is wrong, yeah.

I feel like individualism implies putting an emphasis on the self, but I don't think this necessitates that emphasis being at others' expense. I am pretty sure people have argued that acting in your own self-interest is bound to be a collective and mutually beneficial experience to some degree. I'm really bad at remembering the names of theorists and writers so I can't point to anything in particular on this subject other than, generally: egoists, nihilists (who tend to be critical of "community" and the distinction between self and other), and insurrectionists (same as above).

I guess you could say that capitalist relations are a form of individualism for certain people, except I don't think it's a very good expression of self-interest for the average person to support capitalism because that generally means supporting their own wage slavery, alienation, policing, and so on. But then again, things like democracy (the illusion of having the ability to exercise power over your entire country) and the various forms of domination of outsider social groups (racism, sexism, etc) might quality as a sort of shallow expression of self-interest, although obviously deluded or misguided or malicious.
by (8.7k points)
edited by
+4 votes
In capitalism, we have to spend the majority of our lives sacrificing our chance at holistic wellness and fulfillment to produce for those who exploit us, we have to take commands and accept austerity, we have to constantly ignore our own needs to respect the fiction known as private property. These are elements of a coercive altruism, which an anti-authoritarian individualism could help remedy. For what it's worth, one of the core tenets of socialism across different flavors is the notion that workers should retain the full product of their labor, quite an individualist notion actually.
There are certainly hierarchical or anti-social individualist elements of capitalism as well, no doubt about that, I just want to add some complexity to this. The more I've thought about the selfishness/selflessness dichotomy, the more I find it bullshit. Every social system has elements of both, and they can be done in authoritarian or anti-authoritarian ways.

Even if capitalism/hierarchy/bigotry depends on individualism, that's largely irrelevant to the types of individualism that are most relevant to anarchism, such as egoist communism, so the point is kind of moot.

Individualism can encompass hedonism or respecting individual value for each person; one can be motivated by self-interest at others' expense, or toward others' gain, or something else entirely. There are even pro-social and anti-social individualisms, and desirable or undesirable societies to be pro- or anti- to. One person's anti-social individualism (Novatore) contrasts from another's (e.g. a meth addict) in important ways as well. The "individualism" of the US Libertarian Party and pro-capitalists is distinct from the "individualism" of Max Stirner or Benjamin Tucker.

So in short, chalking all of these forms of oppression up to simple "individualism" is reductionist and basically pointless, even if you don't identify in any way as an "individualist".
by (8.9k points)
"The more I've thought about the selfishness/selflessness dichotomy, the more I find it bullshit. Every social system has elements of both, and they can be done in authoritarian or anti-authoritarian ways."

Up-voted because the answer as a whole speaks to many critiques I've encountered of egoism, individualism and post-left @.

I would add a couple of things to the snippet above, though. I'd place the emphasis on individuals, rather than social systems, in terms of selfish/selflessness and, further, I'd say these aren't polar opposites with a chasm of irreconcilability, or which may be reconciled through some dialectical maneuvering. They, like you point out, are an example of the lying of all idealism.

If I were to use these terms, I'd be more inclined to speak of 'selfish' and 'selfless' as a matter of perspective within a *tropical relationship,* each modifies the other in specific contexts, each expressing differing aspects of a 'self.'

Analogously, we don't speak of 'year' as being 'winter' or 'summer,' nor when lightness and darkness are more or less equalized as 'spring' and 'fall.' No season has some idealized 'essence.' We understand by 'year' that each season is a modification of what's come before and will again be modified; it is movement, and that movement 'turns' (trope) is understood only by degree within those turns (tropics). Each season is also dependent upon where we are on the earth. To idealize our summer is to negate another's winter, as well as yet another's equatorial jungle.