The Myth of Individualism

Production by an isolated individual outside society . . . is as much of an absurdity as is the development of language without individuals living together and talking to each other. —Karl Marx – Location 70

He was not interested in democratic deliberation or the development of common interests. Freedom of choice and self-determination are virtuous principles, but when selfish individual interests threaten to destroy the common good, the limits of individualism are exposed. Location 369

Under capitalism, big business owners and heads of major corporations are not motivated by a desire to employ many people, to make communities healthier, or to make the world a better place. Their first and foremost ambition is to make a profit, which is to say, accumulate capital. If this can be accomplished by moving a factory to another country, then that will be the goal. If there is profit in paying workers less than they might need to live a comfortable life, then so be it. Indeed, if a capitalist could find a way to produce goods and make a profit by substituting all human labor with machines, it would be celebrated. Location 502

Note: Profit means individual self interest helps..whoever it helps while making the owners of the capital profit. The only argument that we are all better off when business does better is low prices. But that doesn’t help if you are unemployed, barely making enough to pay even the low prices, or the low prices in one sector don’t do you any good when rent education and Healthcare cost so much. 

Our capitalist economic system has become so dominant in scope and power that it is difficult for most people to imagine any alternative. Indeed, some people actually believe capitalism to be a natural expression of human nature! But sociologists disagree and emphasize the fact that economic systems are not natural. Indeed, from a historical perspective, capitalism is a very recent invention. It originated in Europe less than five hundred years ago when it gradually replaced feudalism. Most human civilizations have thrived for thousands of years without capitalism, and since there are many different ways to produce and exchange goods in a market, there is no doubt that future societies will likely construct alternatives to capitalism. But for now, capitalism reigns supreme. Location 506

Note: “Wherever there is money and men there are markets.” Even Bar bought into that aphorism. Capitalism is natural. By no means is capitalism natural. We lived 99,500 years of our existence without Capitalism. Most of the world still doesn’t have it. If it’s so natural why is it so rare in history? That doesn’t mean Capitalism isn’t good, it mostly is. But it isn’t natural. Because markets are an invention. They are designed. Markets aren’t just trading apples. From basic trade to commodities to sophisticated financial products, markets are designed. 

Capitalist societies are influenced by greed, but not because greed is a natural and dominant quality of human behavior; rather, it is because capitalism promotes an individualist philosophy where self-interest is rewarded. In societies where capitalism is not the dominant political system, we do not find this same emphasis. Friedman is therefore wrong to assume that greed is the defining quality of human nature. Location 539

In both instances supporters of a radical individualism are committed to the false dichotomy of self versus society. The idea that the person and the group are independent and completely distinct entities is a serious oversimplification of the relationship between one’s self and one’s society. In truth, the social world sustains our individuality as much as individuals sustain society. For this reason, being forced to choose between an individualist or a collectivist orientation is a bogus dilemma. Location 553

Note: Individualism vs society is a poorly framed debate. They, like government and markets, exist as a symbiotic nexus, one evolving off of the other. It’s a false dichotomy. 

Clearly, one person’s freedom can become another person’s oppression. Location 566

Clearly, what is at issue here is not a belief in freedom or a commitment to liberty as a desirable value but rather some very consequential differences in the definition of freedom. Location 588

Note: Important. It it probably a safe bet that no one hates freedom. No one wants to not be able to do what they want to do. The debate comes from the different conceptions of freedom. 

One way to sort through the competing conceptualizations of freedom is to distinguish between negative freedom and positive freedom.[18] Most of us think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we desire without the interference of someone else. For example, if someone locks you in a prison or threatens to kill you for speaking your mind, you are not free. If a government forces you to practice a particular religious faith or makes it illegal to obtain a formal education, you are not free. And we would all agree that someone who is bought and sold as a slave or who is otherwise restricted from participating in the political system is not free. We call this particular understanding of freedom negative because it focuses on the negative barriers that must be removed before a person is able to do what they want or be whatever they desire. This is the understanding of freedom that Governor George Wallace of Alabama was using when he argued against the new civil rights legislation that outlawed racial segregation in his state. It is also the definition of freedom that motivated Ted Kaczynski to physically isolate himself in rural Montana and to write in his “manifesto” that “one does not have freedom if anyone else (especially a large organization) has power over one, no matter how benevolently, tolerantly and permissively that power may be exercised.” The problem with negative freedom, however, is that it is based on the myth of individualism and is therefore incomplete and unbalanced. Positive freedom, in contrast, begins with the assumption that human action is inherently social and that real liberty requires more than the removal of barriers. Under positive freedom there is the additional focus on providing the resources that enable people to achieve or realize their full potential. For example, can we say that people are truly free to vote if there is no polling station within one hundred miles of their home? Are children truly free to receive a formal education if attendance requires unaffordable tuition? Does someone actually have free political speech if they have no access to a media platform? And can we say there is a right to life when health care necessary for survival is denied? Positive freedom emphasizes both the removal of barriers and the creation of a social context necessary for free action. This is the view of freedom that Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating when he criticized communism for its excessive social barriers and critiqued capitalism for its excessive individualism. “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.”[19] Positive freedom reminds us that our individual autonomy is wrapped up with the freedom and autonomy of others. One person’s freedom to smoke can limit another person’s freedom to breathe clean air and live a healthy life. One person’s freedom to sell their house to anyone they please can limit another person’s freedom to live wherever they please. And one person’s right to hire and fire employees can limit someone else’s freedom to work and earn a living. Location 590

Another problem with the myopia of individualist thinking is that it can limit our ability to locate solutions for our most challenging social problems. When we are committed to the myth of individualism, we fail to appreciate the fact that personal troubles are usually tied to social issues. When this happens we typically overemphasize “personal responsibility,” “psychological therapy,” or “individual skill development” as strategies for resolving troubling issues. Location 613

Three friends are walking along a river bank when they notice a body floating downstream. Alarmed and moved by the sight, all three dive into the water to pull the victim to shore. Immediately after resuscitating the poor soul they notice another person floating downriver also in need of help. After saving the second drowning victim they see a third and then a fourth. At about this time one of the friends begins to run up river away from the scene of the growing emergency. Assuming that their colleague has panicked and is quitting on them, the two remaining friends call out in anger and frustration, questioning her self-serving actions: “Where are you going? Can’t you see these people need our help? How can you quit now?” Ignoring the calls to return, the departing friend makes her way up river to a destination point that reveals precisely what she had anticipated. A high-traffic bridge crossing the river has collapsed; vehicles and pedestrians are falling into the swiftly moving current. Without hesitation she quickly erects a barrier that diverts traffic away from the bridge. Location 617

In this story, the friend who ran upriver understood that the solution to the drowning problem was structural and that it required addressing the root cause of the problem. As long as her friends focused on the immediate task of pulling individual bodies from the river, there would be no end to the drowning problem. If the problem continued for some time, individualist solutions to the problem would likely emerge. For example, some people might advocate more swimming lessons in the community. Others might organize a counseling service to assist those who experienced the trauma of falling into the river. Still others would likely stress personal responsibility and a “sink or swim” philosophy that blamed the victims for their carelessness and failure to act with more caution. The point here is that an individualist perspective hinders the identification of structural solutions. Unless a more sociological orientation is achieved, effective resolutions to social problems will escape us. Location 625

but opinion and personal experience cannot settle the issue. Location 693

A truly scientific answer must be based upon empirical evidence collected and analyzed in a systematic process that is publicly transparent and open to critique and revision. Location 694

Note: Evidence 

Some cultural differences in our habits of thinking may be trivial, while others may have important sociological consequences. Consider, for example, the difference between Chinese and American interpretations of deviant behavior. When American newspaper reporters attempt to explain why a murder has occurred, they tend to focus on the personal characteristics and limitations of the individual who committed the act. To most Americans this seems like an obvious approach to interpreting bad behavior. However, Chinese-language newspapers covering the same crime in the United States tend to take a very different approach. Instead of focusing on the qualities of the murderer, they are much more likely to consider the situational factors that may have contributed to the crime—loss of a job, death of a friend, and so on. This difference in what is called the attribution of responsibility is additional evidence that cultural experiences and traditions are sometimes reflected in different styles of perception and interpretation of the social world. American individualism contributes to a much stronger emphasis on personal responsibility while Chinese culture contributes to a more collectivist orientation. Location 1020

Note: Who we blame and who is at fault isn’t an objective mathematical fact. It is based on perception, and those perceptions change depending on society and our interpretations of individual vs collectivist cenceptions. This is important because if the environment matters, you’ll miss that if all you care about doing us blaming the individual.

Like all social constructions, these two historically powerful social identities required hungry hearts and searching minds to maintain their public existence. Location 1143

As we saw in the Robbers Cave study, peace and cooperation can be transformed into anger and violence—and back again—by altering the social conditions under which people act. This was one of the more important points recognized by Karl Marx (1818–1883) more than one hundred years prior to the Sherif study. Marx, however, was focused on the social conditions created by a capitalist economic structure. He argued that the economic individualism of capitalism increases competition among workers and results in social conflict and the exploitation of working people. However, Marx also saw the potential of transforming competition into cooperation. When abused workers communicate and recognize their common fate, they can work together to create a more equitable and democratic economy. This, however, requires the development of a common group identity. Location 1516

Over the past twenty-five years we have seen a hardening of the class structure. The river that used to move boats from a lower class to an upper social class is freezing up. This is especially true at the top and the bottom where the children of the poorest Americans are more likely to stay poor and the children of the richest Americans are even more likely to remain rich. The inheritance of wealth, income, and education is more common today than it was for previous generations, and the gap between the poorest and the richest has been growing. This means that the distance needed to travel before one can “get ahead” has also increased. Moreover, contrary to popular perception, the chances of “moving on up” are not any better in the United States than in other industrialized nations; countries such as Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway actually have higher rates of social class mobility. Location 1762

Note: Social Mobility 

Consider, for example, the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It is true that not every regular smoker will develop cancer. My own grandmother, for example, smoked for fifty years before she quit, and today at the age of ninety-nine she is cancer free. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to conclude on the basis of individual exceptions that smoking is not a cause of cancer. When we look at the historical evidence, across a large sample of smokers, we find that smokers do indeed have a much higher probability of contracting the disease—as much as twenty times higher than nonsmokers. The same logic of probability holds true for the transmission of class. Not everyone born into a poor family is destined to remain poor, and there are examples of children born into upper-class families who end up living working-class lives as adults. But the most likely result, the one with the greatest chance of occurring, is for children to end up in the same class position as their parents. Location 1840

Doctors, preachers, teachers, politicians, and other representative leaders of the ruling class were instrumental in reaffirming, justifying, and legitimating an exploitative class system. As members of the ruling class, they benefited from the status quo and stood to lose if “the rules of the game” were to suddenly change. The economics of slavery were supported by a set of racist beliefs that favored the ruling class. By today’s standards, the culture of slavery is viewed as illogical, unreasonable, and immoral, and we can clearly see the exploitative nature of this particular class relationship. But it is important to recognize that we still live in a society structured by class, and more importantly, a dominant ruling class continues to justify and legitimate its position of authority with a set of cultural beliefs. Location 1911

In contrast to economic capital, cultural capital is much more difficult to recognize and quantify. When sociologists talk about cultural capital, they are referring to a range of different skills, habits, preferences, types of knowledge, and lifestyle that come to be associated with people who share different class positions in society. For example, Tyrec and Alexander will inherit more than different amounts of economic capital from their parents; they will also inherit different ways of speaking, different accents, different vocabularies, and different tastes for food, music, and art. Location 1935

Unlike economic capital, everyone possesses cultural capital. We all have skills, tastes, accents, habits, and forms of knowledge. But even though cultural capital is evenly distributed across different social classes, some types of cultural capital are valued more than others. Location 1962

The different value attached to a student’s cultural capital is significant because a teacher’s expectations influence student success. An important line of research has demonstrated that when teachers expect students to succeed, they have a greater chance at success; and when teachers expect students to perform poorly, they are more likely to fail. This influence of teacher expectations, called the self-fulfilling prophecy, was first exposed in 1968 when Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published the results of their famous experiment. Location 1976

It would be wrong to conclude that something called “society” determines our behavior. This is an unsophisticated and oversimplified interpretation of human action. Nevertheless, in the complex and often unpredictable dynamic of social interaction, consistent, observable patterns do emerge. Social forces may not determine our unique qualities, but social forces do shape the context within which specific differences are given value over others. Think of society as a game or a sport with a set of rules and objectives. Different societies have different rules in the same way that different games or sports have different rules. The sport of American football, for example, is structured in such a way that physically powerful individuals have an advantage. Someone who weighs three hundred pounds and can run forty yards in 4.9 seconds is more likely to succeed in football than someone who weighs 125 pounds no matter what his or her speed. Size matters in football because the rules of the sport are “rigged” in favor of large bodies.[9] Outside of football, in a game with a different set of rules, a large body may be a disadvantage. In the sport of cross-country, or in a marathon race, for example, the athlete who weighs 125 pounds will have a greater chance at success. In other words, the value of a particular attribute or skill is dependent upon the rules that govern a game or a society. In this regard, it is very important to recognize that rules are neither random nor natural. They are socially constructed and enforced by those in society who have more power. In a game organized by physically powerful people, the rules of the game will likely be set to favor physically powerful people. In the same way, in a society ruled by those with more economic capital, the rules of the game will be set to favor those with more economic capital. Location 2004

Children don’t select either their parents or their family’s social class position; both are “socially inherited.” Being born into a wealthy family provides access to economic capital and all of the material advantages associated with having more money. Children in upper-class families are more likely to attend private schools with smaller class sizes. They will live in safer neighborhoods and have easy and regular access to superior nutrition and health care. Private music lessons, educational summer camps, and elite sport teams will be a regular part of their childhood. Acceptance at a top university will seem natural and expected. The cost of tuition will not be a factor. Because summer employment or part-time work will not be necessary, upper-class students will have more time for international travel and professional internships. If they make a youthful mistake and get into trouble with the law, they will have the assistance of an experienced team of lawyers and favors from friends in power. Family connections and friendships developed in college will be an important resource for getting a job, while family trust funds and financial inheritance will help kick-start business ventures and investment portfolios. Location 2066

Note: Privilege of class

There is no denying the rewards that come with individual persistence, effort, and hard work. But individual perseverance alone cannot explain the existence of social classes. Nor can it explain the continuation of class position from one generation to the next. We live our entire lives deeply embedded in a complex web of social connections where economic and cultural forces advantage some and disadvantage others. And as we will see in the following chapter, the extent of our social relationships now reaches well beyond our family and neighborhood to include a historically unprecedented network of global connections. Location 2087

See, for example, Emily Beller and Michael Hout, “Intergenerational Social Mobility: The United States in Comparative Perspective,” Future of Children 16, no. 2 (2006): 19–36. Location 2094

For a detailed overview of wealth distribution in the United States, see Lisa A. Keister, Getting Rich: A Study of Wealth Mobility in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Location 2099

For an excellent introductory analysis of inequality that employs this same game metaphor, see Michael Schwalbe, Rigging the Game: How Inequality Is Reproduced in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Location 2107

See, for example, Class and Conformity: A Study in Values (Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press, 1969); Location 2109

One cannot look at the issues of unemployment, crime, divorce, lack of education, and poor health and conclude that it simply reflects individual limitations or personal weakness. Individual troubles, such as those experienced by Tim Dewey and his family, are part of a much larger pattern of social problems. A radically individualist approach to social problems ignores the power of social forces that have worked to produce a legacy of injustice and inequality. Tim Dewey may not understand that his emotional roller coaster and financial free fall is the result of large-scale shifts in economic forces outside of his individual control. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the new capitalism is eroding the foundation of social life for the Deweys and other American families. Location 2304

Note: Blame the victim

How was it possible for a poor street vendor to inspire uprisings in city streets more than three thousand miles from his own hometown? The answer is complex and involves many factors. But we do know that this region has some of the least democratic governments in the world and was already at a tipping point for social change. Location 2898

Note: Bad government is bad, but democratic government is one of the most effective engines for prosperity the world has ever seen

The Montgomery bus boycott is often depicted as an emotional reaction ignited by Rosa Parks’s arrest. But this explanation ignores the political context, organizational strategy, and collective action that prepared and propelled the boycott. As we saw in chapter 1, the culture of American individualism celebrates the power of individual people and deemphasizes the power of social forces. And when the Rosa Parks story is removed from its larger social context, we are seduced into believing that positive social change is dependent upon heroic figures. This is not true. Real change demands group solidarity, a shared consciousness, and a common, coordinated effort on the part of oppressed people acting together. Location 3046

Note: It’s never one person. It’s a movement.

The important point here is that if we are to fully understand the story of Rosa Parks, we need to recognize that she was part of a much larger network of organized community activists with a long history in the African American community. This system of interlinked organizations and leaders included civil rights lawyers, labor unions, church ministers, students, educators, politicians, and poor people committed to changing their community. In sum, Rosa Parks was part of what sociologists call a “social movement.” Location 3063

A social movement is a particular type of collective action wherein ordinary people come together to challenge a dominant power structure. Location 3068

The shared values of democracy, social justice, equality, and human dignity do not cause revolutions or instigate positive social change on their own. Location 3368

Note: Core values of Democrats

Sociological theories and evidence offer similar challenges to conventional ways of explaining human social behavior. A sociological perspective represents a shift in perception away from the dominant individualistic point of view and toward an orientation that sees social relationships and social forces as primary and fundamental. Location 3466

Throughout this book we have identified some of the diverse social forces that have the power to limit and shape our individual life choices. While it may be true that social forces rarely have complete control over us, it also true that no single individual is ever completely “free to choose.” In fact, we are almost always faced with a limited set of life options, and, more often than not, these options are determined by social forces outside of our own personal control. The fact that we may not recognize or perceive these forces does not alter their power. Location 3472

Finally, a sociological orientation warns against simple explanations that fail to consider the complexity of social life. Thus, when contemplating the pervasive influence of social forces, it can be tempting to think of society as a giant puppet master that secretly controls our movements from behind a curtain. This would be a mistake. Social forces do not have complete control over our behavior, and society does not exist independent of our own actions. We inherit social conditions from generations before us, but these conditions are never permanent. The patterns of social action that produce harm, reinforce economic inequality, and sustain discrimination can be altered. Removing the blinders of individualism is a first step toward achieving this change. Location 3499