- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The philsophy of individualism in consumer society

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on April 12, 1999 at 19:03:06:

Western individualism, today, buttresses the "freedom" that is promised (for instance) in today's ads for sport utility vehicles, the Marlboro Man, the true individual (see Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool for more on this), interrupting our sense of "having a relationship" to others within such a society. As Stephanie Coontz, a family historian, observes:

"Fantasies are not the best basis on which to construct family relationships and personal ties. Western individualism has always fed daydreams about escaping external constraints and family obligations, but prior to the era of mass consumption, most people had no doubt that the real world imposed limits on self-aggrandizement. They knew that the only sure source of self-identity and security lay in relationships with others. Consumer society has increasingly broken down our sense that we depend on others, that we have to live with tradeoffs or accept a package deal in order to maintain social networks."

-Stephanie Coontz, from The Way We Never Were p. 176

We can recognize that, even though in earlier eras of society, people may not have enjoyed life as we do today (and life in fact may have been much more hazardous for them than life is today for us), they could understand their relations to others without as much interference from consumerist capitalism. Reading the above paragraph, it might be good to remember that this freedom promised by Western individualism is as illusory as the "individual identity" of the individual himself (as distinguished from the material existence of the individual, an unquestionably real thing) under the conditions of consumer society:

"The peculiarity of the self is a monopoly commodity determined by society; it is falsely represented as natural. It is no more than the moustache, the French accent, the deep voice of the woman of the world, the Lubitsch touch: finger prints on identity cards which are otherwise exactly the same, and into which the lives and faces of every single person are transformed by the power of the generality...only because individuals have ceased to be themselves and are now merely centers where the general tendencies meet, is it possible to receive them again, whole and entire, into the generality. In this way mass culture discloses the fictitious character of the 'individual' in the bourgeois era, and is merely unjust in boasting on account of this dreary harmony of general and particular. The principle of individuality was always full of contradiction. Individuation has never really been achieved. Self-preservation in the shape of class has kept everyone at the stage of a mere species being. Every bourgeois characteristic, in spite of its deviation and indeed because of it, expressed the same thing; the harshness of the competitive society. The individual who supported society bore its disfiguring mark; seemingly free, he was actually the product of its economic and social apparatus."

-Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, from Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp. 154-155

or, more simply;

A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before. Young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, a person is always located at "nodal points" of specific communication circuits, however tiny these may be."

-Jean-François Lyotard, from The Postmodern Condition, p. 15

One can recognize that each of the above authors tries to place a critique of consumerist individualism as a position of the individual's trivial dwelling upon his or her own "identity," from a perspective that looks down upon society from above. Of course, one can accuse all of this diminution of the "self" as "communist," since Marx said in The German Ideology (p. 15) that:

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life

Let's be clear about what is said here; Marx is arguing that there's a real experience (which he calls "life") that determines what consciousness is, that solipsism, the claim that one's consciousness is the only "existent" thing, is false and that realism, the "conception that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind" according to the dictionary definition, is true. This itself isn't a purely Marxist thing, since many non-Marxist philosophers have adopted the same perspective. Furthermore, one need not believe dogmatically in Marx's other statements about individuality to accept the truth of the one quoted above. Marx continues in the same vein on p. 19, more strongly:

Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness, as it exists for other men, and for that reason is really beginning to exist for me personally as well; for language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal has no "relations" with anything, cannot have any. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is therefore from the very beginning a social product, and remains so long as men exist at all.

and, more strongly, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 19-20:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage of the development of their material forces of production... it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

Let's be clear about this even stronger claim. Marx is claiming that the agency of the world is not merely the "men" themselves, the ones who "make their own history" (as in the oft-quoted passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), but rather their "relations," which exist "independent of their will." This is an argument for the primacy of the processes of socialization in the creation of society, which might be the typical observation of a sociologist. In reality, individuals can choose to be what they want to be, but their range of choices is limited to the range permitted by physical reality, and the individual human apprehension of physical reality is limited by the limits of the technologies accessible to each individual, and by the individual's embeddedness in a society of people. The individual's range of possible wants, furthermore, is directed by the (somewhat but not entirely open-ended) process of conditioning that starts with the childhoods of each individual.

Back to Marx: individuals, for Marx, thus possess consciousness and language, yet it is the relation between individuals that can claim agency over the world. This is echoed in the above quotes of Coontz, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Lyotard, yet it's clear that none of the above three authors agrees with Marx about the nature of the relationship between individuals in consumer society. Thus this is a good place to take the opportunity to point up how Marx is both too vague, and too specific, about what it really is that constitutes this relation between individuals.

Marx saw the relations between individuals as relationships of "production" according to his theory of history, where society progressed as "material forces of production" progressed. If we look at all relationships as relationships of production, however, then we have to look at consciousness, at culture, at the personality of the individual, as a material product, as an outcome of the expenditure of human labor-power. This perspective is read into capitalist by neo-Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre. The relationships between people under capitalism, in short, become commodities too -- selling the promise of such relationships is of course what public relations firms do. Relationship as a commodity also takes the form of the skills we need to pass interviews or to be efficient sales reps or to have the social skills to belong to the societies of the rich and famous.

It's unclear, though, how society would ever reach the rational stage promised by Marx under the name of "socialism" if the individuals constituting such a society were nothing more than the products of labor-power under capitalist society, if they were (as Horkheimer and Adorno expressed it) merely "centers where the general tendencies meet". This is why Jurgen Habermas wanted to add a "paradigm of action oriented toward mutual understanding" to the "paradigm of production." (For a clearer outline of this dilemma, see Habermas' Excursus on the Obsolescence of the Production Paradigm, pp. 75-82 of the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.)

If people are to be able to get together to decide how they will live together, especially in a post-capitalist socialist society, they will need a social process, and if philosophers are to discuss it, they can't be caught lagging behind on the learning curve.

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