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Trevor Hancock: The cult of individualism is toxic

I suggested last week that our society is remarkably immature in its approach to life. Central to this is an exaggerated form of individualism that has achieved a cult-like status.
Ayn Rand, in a photo on the dust jacket of her book The Fountainhead, published in 1943. Via Wikipedia

I suggested last week that our society is remarkably immature in its approach to life. Central to this is an exaggerated form of individualism that has achieved a cult-like status. With that comes an ­acquisitive, greedy and selfish culture that really doesn’t care about other people or about nature. Why should I wear a mask, which inconveniences me, just to protect others — they should just protect themselves by ­staying out of my way! It’s their ­responsibility, not mine.

These values extend to how we then treat disadvantaged and vulnerable people: They are not my responsibility, so why should we have minimum wages or social support systems that I have to pay for through more expensive goods and services or higher taxes.

Of course, this ignores the fact that people usually get rich by exploiting the poor, the environment or both. Industrialists have fought against unions, preferring to keep their workers low-paid, working part-time, with few or no benefits. The resulting insecurity makes them desperate to hold on to what the British call “shit work.”

In recent decades this has also meant shifting jobs to low-wage countries with weaker social, occupational and environmental protections. Buying cheap goods from these companies today is really not very different from buying goods made by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries —indeed, in some cases their workers are in effect slaves, or work in slave-like conditions.

In addition, the cult of individualism, combined with a cult of greed and instant gratification, leads to a disregard for nature and future generations. I want my stuff, I want it now and I want it cheap.

So what if that means the environment is harmed and both current and future generations and other species lack what they need for their survival and quality of life — not my problem!

The modern-day roots of this cult of individualism, selfishness and greed can be traced back to the neoliberal economists and libertarian advocates of the mid-20th century, best personified by Ayn Rand. Her writings on what she called Objectivism from the 1940s through the 1970s helped put greed and selfishness on a pedestal; one of her essay collections was titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

All progress, she argued, depended on the rich and successful, and a person’s worth was only to be measured by their income. So taking money from the rich, in the form of taxes, to assist and support disadvantaged people, was an exploitation of the rich and thus wrong.

In a lengthy 2009 essay/book review Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, summarized Objectivism as “premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavours. Emotion and taste had no place.” This ideology, he argued, not only glorifies selfishness but “holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure, which leads to the conclusion that “when government helps the disadvantaged it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth.”

This is a fundamentally anti-human and anti-community ideology, dismissing emotion and trust as illogical and unworthy, while compassion for others is weakness. It is also, as I noted above, an anti-nature philosophy that sees nature as simply there to be exploited for the wealth it can create.

This cult of individualism, greed and selfishness is, of course, the ideology underlying neoliberal economics which, as Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, puts it, “has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse.” Thus individualism and neoliberal economics are toxic and unfit for purpose in the 21st century.

Sometimes, faced with the selfishness and greed that are part and parcel of the cult of individualism, you just want to say: “Grow up and accept responsibility.” But it is hard to be responsible in a culture, ­society and economy that so often shows that it does not care, that short-term gain is worth ­someone else’s long-term pain.

It is time we grew up as a society, ­discarded rampant individualism and ­neoliberal economics and accepted responsibility for one another, other species and the Earth itself. We need a new, more mature, ecologically and socially aware and ­responsible ideology to guide society if we are to successfully make the transition to becoming a One Planet Region.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of ­Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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