Monday, April 21, 2014

Individualism is the Opium of the Masses

If you’re wondering why, as an Oped commentator wrote recently ‘the left contents itself with sending pathetic “take action!” emails, think about a specific difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world: Following on the revolutionary European tradition, most polities readily take to the streets when their rulers take kleptocracy too far.  In the United States, two traditions inhibit such action.  The first is the opprobrium attached to so-called ‘mob rule’ as opposed to the ‘democratic’ way of doing things, ‘through the ballot box’ (never mind if big money is dictating what people think and therefore who they will vote for).  
But there is another factor that surely plays just as important a role, and that is the cult of individualism.  Ubiquitous advertising promises that certain products will contribute to ‘the full development’ of the consumer’s faculties - or gifts - or abilities.  Whether it’s the latest lipstick or a $40,000 automobile, it’s guaranteed to ‘enhance’ one’s chances of ‘making it’- conquering the most beautiful woman or just simply get a job.  You have to demarcate yourself from the next guy by buying a ‘personalized’ variation of the latest model of whatever.  This is the modern equivalent of ‘divide and conquer’.
While Marx’s ‘opium’ of the masses, religion, supports community, the opium of individualism does the opposite.  How then to hope that Americans will ever ‘rise up’ against anything, or ‘storm’ anything, or ‘take back’ what has been stolen from them?  You have to be inclined toward ‘community’ as in ‘common action’ as in ‘united we stand’ to do that.
Not only do Americans, at 5% of the world’s population, consume 70% of its resources, we are leaving it up to the other 95% to save us from the looming planetary disaster caused by CO2, while spending billions to discover another habitable planet for the 1% to escape to.  As pointed out by Joel Kovel in Francis Goldin’s ‘Imagine Living in a Socialist USA’  without eco-socialism there will be no future.  And yet, instead of a nationwide progressive party that could steer government in that direction, we have a proliferation of separate groups each fighting for their own constituency, whether oil or prison pipelines, while the monster goes about business as usual. Until such a party exists, we will have only cries in the wilderness. 


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, Sandy! Goldin's book was only printed in 8,000 copies and it when I offered to review it for The Nation they were not interested. (They didn't say someone else was reviewing it. Amazing!)