Analysing individualism as a capricious way of life

“It is no coincidence, by no means, that virtual hyper-communication, the obsession with personal and individual success and the pursuit of pseudo-achievements reign in our times to the detriment of abysmally more important aspects of our lives…”

By Opazo

Today I would like to invite you to reflect on a way of life, much reviled on the outside, but the chosen and preferred way of life in everyday, personal and community practice, namely individualism.

And we are not going to analyse it simply as a cold concept, but as what it is: a whim that has become a vital preference to think that we can act independently of the society that shelters us, under the fiction of believing that we are not subject to community rules and norms.

In philosophical terms, it is nothing more than the preponderant tendency to think that our rights are worth more than those of others, to such an extent that we justify a pathetic supremacy of our selfish personal “freedom” over the forgotten common good.

But we are not going to enter into the rift that usually arises when one speaks of individual liberties and collective rights, because it spills out that we would then enter into unnecessary polemics with those who confuse right with whim, guarantee with reward, obligations with harassment.

No, let’s bend these false dichotomies and get to the heart of the matter: there is no doubt that individualism is the characteristic par excellence that could adjectivise the behaviour patterns of our current society.

However, we need to ask ourselves for a moment why such a reign? The reasons are varied, so we will focus on just a few, the most common and commonplace ones, those that we even embrace with force on a daily basis and perhaps we do not even realise it.

Apparently, we live in a world in which autonomy and “personal freedom” are valued above all else, turning a selfish fantasy into a FORCE that determines the ways in which we relate to the totality of human beings around us, and even the way we conceive our own lives: you may have heard enough of politically correct slogans like “this is my time, my body, my personal space” or simply “I do this for my personal development”, when in reality, as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues, we do nothing but self-exploit ourselves under the ideal of progressing or fulfilling ourselves.

Of course, the role we all play in a community is valuable and it is necessary that, as the political animals that we are, we must contribute from our individuality to the potential betterment of all the units that make up our society.

As Aristotle rightly pointed out, it is a matter of not losing sight of the importance of individual virtue in contributing to the wellbeing of the community as a whole. Although the Stagirite never theorised on individualism, which is a rather modern concept, he always stressed the importance we have as embedded in an inseparable bond with others, with and without whom it is virtually impossible to envisage any semblance of general wellbeing.

The radical changes in family structures (exponential increase of single-person households and drastic decrease of extended families); the radical changes in the structure of work, which has generated naturalised (and legalised) precariousness and turned its condition into a sadistic permanent temporariness (constant insecurity to project); a disproportionate and intentional increase in consumerism of goods and services that promise satisfaction and incline us to an alienating unhappiness that seeks to romanticise lack and disguise it as a goal as personal motivation and, without a doubt, the cultural changes transversal to almost all nations that permanently challenge us to live in a desperate search for an ideal of independence and personal identity that tries to distance itself as far as possible from anything that may smell of “common” and always tends to “mine”.

We see mothers and fathers every day who know perfectly well what we are referring to above: to give life, and for that life to prosper in a society in which it is their turn to live, requires a tremendous temporal investment, which in the last century has been sold as a “sacrifice”, but which in reality is the only thing that gives real meaning to the existence of those who have decided to bring human life into the world. For when one has decided to raise a child in a more or less responsible way, one knows perfectly well that one’s time is not one’s all the time, and that the time one takes for oneself, one is inexorably taking it away from that which one was given the expectation of projecting.

Basic Mandarin Chinese what I have just stated for postmodern ethics, which does nothing but renege on its “obligations” and demonise and victimise those who choose to share their existential temporality with those it deeply loves, without this being for themselves any kind of subjugation or punishment.

All this is understandable in this way precisely because we have been sold the romantic “positive” idea that individualism as a rule of life is nothing more than a methodological tool that serves to empower and self-realise us through a search for happiness that is really truncated beforehand: just as no one is saved alone, no one sinks alone, no one suffers alone and no one develops any talent in complete solitude, happiness in individuality is nothing more than a pleasurable fiction of a consumerism that demands that we be as separate as possible from our fellow man.

A simple example of this is what no more than fifty years ago (or even less) was called the “Sunday lunch”: a ritual that brought together grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, etc., at a large table where, apart from sharing a meal, a very close community bond was forged, a mini-society in which everyone, being different from each other, felt part of the same thing. How fruitful it was, from a strictly economic and material point of view, that those five or six families now all have lunch on their own, if they are lucky.

It is that if we stop for a second to think, and see the toxicity and harmfulness of the atomisation produced by the individualistic ideal, we will easily notice how people have completely lost sight of the needs and concerns of others (and when I say “others”, I am not talking about the “stranger” who shares territory with me, but about “my others”, those who used to be part of my constituent social nucleus and have become complete strangers).

This lack of empathy and intentional emotional disconnection with “them” has achieved nothing other than to create unsociable, fragmented and strongly unequal societies (unnecessarily from a human point of view, but essential from an economic one).

It is no coincidence, by no means, that in our times, virtual hyper-communication, the obsession for personal and individual success and the pursuit of pseudo-achievements reign to the detriment of abysmally more important aspects of our lives, such as the real committed loving bond with those we have decided to share our existence with (be it a partner, children, parents, flesh and blood friends, etc.).

Inexorably, this cool and pleasurable way of life is submerging us in a permanent feeling of alienation fed by a void of illusions that, far from giving us happiness, injects us with a false satisfaction for things that are not really worthwhile.

In short, it is crucial that we do not confuse the necessary valuation of ourselves, and that we never lose sight of the fact that the richness of our individuality must always be based on the contribution that it makes and has an impact on the inextricably intertwined links (for now) with our social members, whom we must stop seeing as a source of input for my personal gain, but as the essential way to build a more just, equitable and less capricious and insensitive “world” as a community.

Opazo, Journalist, literary editor and radio broadcaster. Worked at El Ciudadano, Ediciones Periféricas y Revista Cavila!

El Ciudadano