How Individualism Supports the Underlying Structures of the Power Elite

It seems like there are two conditions that must be met for something to be a lie: there must be a falsehood and that falsehood must be presented with the intent to deceive. Hyperbole, exaggeration and sarcasm may, strictly speaking, can be falsehoods, but the intent is clearly not to deceive. The pandemic exposes the truth: Right-wing “individualism” is being rapidly exposed as not but silly, but meaningless and even dangerous in the age of coronavirus. The Tea Party protests – which began during Obama’s tenure – were fueled by this faith that “society” is merely an illusion and that conservatives are a bunch of rugged individuals who don’t really need anyone else to survive. Certainly, in this far-right mythology, there’s no need to respect the concept of a “social contract,” or any obligations, such as paying one’s fair share of taxes, that flows from it.

Racism has long been the not-so-secret fuel for this cult of individualism. The rise of Barry Goldwater, with his hostility toward federal anti-discrimination legislation and social safety-net programs, was a direct result of white people’s anger at the civil rights movement’s insistence that black people be included in the social contract as full equals. The Tea Party was full of people whose newfound loathing of taxation was directly proportional to their anger that a black man had become the face of the federal government. The “every man for himself” philosophy is why Republicans resisted building up the public health infrastructure that could have responded to the COVID crisis with the kind of mass testing and tracing needed to stop the spread. Alexis de Tocqueville identified America’s apparently extreme partisanship on behalf of the individual as a democratic excess, and claimed it is the theoretical error that threatens the future of humanity.

Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of. The Reaganist rhetoric that has sought to connect economic and political freedom for the past three decades is all the more cause for anger. For if capitalism and democracy were never meant to reinforce one another and democracy is instead perceived as a nuisance to overcome, then neoliberalism’s most vocal proponents were either liars (as they parroted a liberating narrative while simultaneously seeking to curb democratic influence), or stupid (as they really believed what they were saying even as neoliberalism reoriented society in the exact opposite direction).

Citibank, along with Countrywide Financial, was making junk mortgages. These were mortgages called NINJA. They were called liars’ loans, to people with no income, no jobs and no assets. You had this movie, The Big Short, as if some genius on Wall Street discovered that the mortgages were all going to go down – all of Wall Street knew that it was fraud. So, the Federal Reserve has given Wall Street $4.5 trillion. That $4.5 trillion could have been used to write down the debt. And then we wouldn’t have a problem. Then everybody would have a lower cost of living. The $4.5 trillion could have been spent into the economy – they didn’t spend any of it. It’s a fraud. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner slow-walked a direct presidential order to prepare the breakup of Citigroup, instead undertaking other measures to nurse the insolvent bank back to health. Paulson and Geithner then write books to try and rewrite the history of the debacle.

Podesta staffed Obama’s top posts with Clintonite neoliberals, ensuring their ideology predominated in the administration. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, chosen precisely for the Wall Street-friendly credentials that would reassure the finance sector, was almost monomaniacally focused on protecting the interests of banks. Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag was a deficit hawk who wanted to put fiscal policy on a fast track toward a balanced budget. Larry Summers, chair of the National Economic Council, believed too much debt was the country’s economic problem, opposed infrastructure investment, and habitually dialed back proposals based on what he believed could pass Congress. It was they and others like them who systematically scaled down Obama’s ambitions, narrowing the range of possibilities available to the president, and ensuring the road to recovery would be longer, slower, and ultimately incomplete – not so much Republican obstructionism.1

Under neoliberalism the cult of individualism reigns supreme, forced upon us through culture, media and politics, it fatally limits our capacity to escape the current crisis of democratic politics. If we can take care of ourselves, why can’t they? It is in this way that the very wealthy – and unfortunately, many others – justify their behavior morally and politically. They are not going to say they are greedy, selfish, avaricious, unfeeling or racist. Rather are they going to say they are acting on principle, especially the principle of the inherent freedom of individuals to freely pursue their own projects as they wish so long as they respect the similar freedom of all other individuals to do the same. These people are thus only insisting on the right to be left alone, and to dispose of their resources as they see fit. They reject the most basic of social contracts.

Libertarians have attempted to define the proper extent of individual liberty in terms of the notion of property in one’s person, or self-ownership, which entails that each individual is entitled to exclusive control of his choices, his actions, and his body. Libertarians can then extend their moral argument with an economic one: most of them will also claim that in the long run, the overwhelming majority of people will be better off if individual (and corporate, usually) freedom is protected in all areas at all times for all persons not imprisoned, letting the free market reign for the maximally fair distribution of all goods.  Those who don’t prosper will have only themselves to blame; that is what the concept of individual responsibility is all about. In this manner, individual (and corporate) freedom and self-interest will bring about the greatest utility for the society, if one accepts a foundational individualism as grounding ethics.

Modern capitalism societies are built on a dichotomy: in the political space decisions are (to be) made on an equal basis with everybody having the same say and with the structure of power being flat; in the economic space the power is held by the owners of capital, the decisions are dictatorial, and the structure of power is hierarchical. By introducing economic rules into politics, neoliberals have done an enormous harm to the “publicness” of decision-making and to democracy. By extension, Donald Trump is just applying to an area called “politics” the principles that he has learned and used for many years in business. While neoliberal policies created so many people living from pay cheque to pay cheque, now the power elite argue that reopening businesses is a necessary prerequisite to reviving the economy and improving the well-being of the poor and racialized who have been disproportionately harmed by both the lockdowns and the virus itself.

Individualism limits the public space for social movement activism. The challenge is not the amount of democracy rather it has to do with public policies that determine how the resources of the nation are to be distributed among the population. As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. The costs and benefits of individualism vary with economic conditions. In good times, individualism encourages effort and innovation. But in bad times, it can be very costly, because it disincentivizes collective actions that are particularly important when facing challenges. Joanna Redden notes that “mainstream news coverage narrows and limits the way poverty is talked about in a way that reinforces the dominance of neoliberalism and market-based approaches to the issue” – see the 2008 crash.

Donald Trump personifies the indifference toward social externalities and the fake news of neoliberalism – power elites control a narrative in which their greed is kept out of public view for as long as possible. A primary component of individualism is individual responsibility – being accountable for one’s personal choices. It leads to placing the focus of responsibility for one’s health status within the motivations and behaviors of the individual rather than health status being a result of how a society organizes its distribution of a variety of resources, which supports Trump’s response to COVID-19. Neoliberal libertarians claim the only alternative to the system would be worse – socialism where people lose their individual rights – identical to Trump’s criticism of Joe Biden. While cell phones have enabled citizens to document how the cult of individualism supports the use of police brutality to control minorities, concerned citizens now see how individualism reinforces their understanding that something is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system.2

1 Branko Marcetic  (May, 2019) How Obama Failed             https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/05/obama-white-house-financial-crisis-hundt

2 Tim Coles (22 Dec 2018) How Fake News Perpetuates Neoliberalism.             https://renegadeinc.com/fake-news-perpetuates-neoliberalism/

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2 Responses to How Individualism Supports the Underlying Structures of the Power Elite

  1. Fred says:

    Greetings,

    I’m not the best speller but I see the word “Roge” is spelled incorrectly on your website. In the past I’ve used a service like SpellAlerts.com or SiteChecker.com to help keep mistakes off of my websites.

    -Fred

  2. Harry says:

    I was looking at your website and noticed it appears the word “elit” is spelled wrong. I had similar problems on my site until someone mentioned it to me and I also now use software from SpellPerfect.com to keep my site error free.

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