“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” – David Harvey
Hyper-individualism is the inevitable byproduct of neoliberal ideology. It is also the primary cultural, political and economic challenge of our time. From New Age spiritual mumbo-jumbo to home detox remedies and advanced yoga practices, many Americans have been duped into spending an inordinate amount of their time and money on individual hobbies and practices — none of which, it should be noted, have resulted in a more just, peaceful or livable world.
Without question, the atomization of American society has produced a disempowered populace, a society in which people no longer entertain their friends for parties,1 or spend significant portions of their time engaged in community events or civic activities.2 As a result, people are confused, addicted, anxious and cynical.
Of course, none of this should come as a great surprise. Capitalism encourages self-serving behavior. Corporate media outlets peddle vapid and sensationalist nonsense. Neoliberal policies that produce economic displacement have fractured communities. The American education system has been gutted. Militarized police murder black, brown and poor white people at will. And U.S. Empire runs amok. And that’s just a snippet of what’s happening in the U.S.
At times, it’s clear that people are simply overwhelmed by the vastness and quantity of our collective problems. Hence, people seek escapist acts. These days, so-called “self help” or “self care” rituals are all the craze. In reality, people are compensating for the loneliness and superficiality manufactured by our modern culture.
In the U.S., people are spending an unprecedented amount of time alone, or even worse, with their multiple electronic gadgets. According to a report from CNN, “adults in the United States devoted about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day to consuming media.” Put differently, the vast majority of Americans now spend half of their 24 hour day with two-dimensional screens.
The negative consequences are too numerous to detail, so I’ll simply list two as they pertain to political activism:
- The inability to properly communicate our thoughts, not only with friends, family and community members, but more importantly with strangers, is perhaps the biggest social crisis in the U.S. Organizing a new society based on collective values requires collective action. Collective action requires intense collective communication. If people are spending less and less time with other human beings, these tasks become quite difficult. Put differently, one of the primary challenges political organizers face is training people to socialize. Yes, simply socializing is now a challenge. I see it at virtually every event I attend or help organize: people wandering around, wondering how to talk to strangers. It’s a problem, and a serious one at that.
- Individualized forms of activism are much easier than collective forms of action, which is why most people avoid collective forms of resistance. It’s true: working with strangers can be quite difficult. Learning each others’ faults, talents, desires and fears is a long and tedious process. That said, it’s also a very worthwhile and fulfilling endeavor. Simply buying locally grown produce will not stop corporate juggernauts like Walmart. Switching to a vegan diet will not stop Monsanto, the world’s largest agricultural terrorist. Dieting and working out will not stop our nation’s health care crisis (only universal health care can do that). And aligning our chakras will not address our alienation, nor will it heal the wounds of 40 years of Neoliberal policies and cultural indoctrination. In order to defeat organized wealth and power, people must collectively organize against powerful institutions and systems of violence and oppression.
Martin Lukacs, writing for the Guardian, recently penned an article entitled, “Neoliberalism Has Conned Us Into Fighting Climate Change as Individuals,” in which he highlights the fundamental issue plaguing climate change activists in the U.S.: namely, their inability to conceptualize resistance outside the scope of individual actions such as recycling, eating a vegetarian diet or shopping at locally owned stores that sell locally grown produce, or what is commonly referred to as “consumer activism.”
Today, “consumer activism” is the dominant form of activism in the U.S. I hear it constantly, “Vince, I just don’t have time to be involved, so I participate on social media and I don’t shop at Walmart.” Aside from the obvious and inherent privilege (and cowardice) contained within such a statement, it’s important to note that people do indeed have the time to be engaged — they simply choose to spend their free time in other ways, such as scanning social media, watching Netflix or playing with their iPhones. Of course, none of this is by accident, nor is it new. As Lukacs notes:
Even before the advent of neoliberalism, the capitalist economy had thrived on people believing that being afflicted by the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfillment – was in fact a personal deficiency.
Neoliberalism has taken this internalized self-blame and turbocharged it. It tells you that you should not merely feel guilt and shame if you can’t secure a good job, are deep in debt, and are too stressed or overworked for time with friends. You are now also responsible for bearing the burden of potential ecological collapse.
Yet individual choices become relevant when the economic system can provide viable, environmental options for everyone—not just an affluent few. If affordable mass transit isn’t available, people will commute with cars. If local organic food is too expensive, they won’t opt out of fossil-intensive super-market chains. If cheap mass produced goods flow endlessly, they will buy and buy and buy. This is the con-job of neoliberalism: to persuade us to address climate change through our pocket-books, rather than through power and politics.
Eco-consumerism may be able to expiate your guilt. But it’s only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis. This requires of us first a resolute mental break from the spell cast by neoliberalism: to stop thinking like individuals.
At the end of the day, the fundamental question is: Are we as individual human beings solely interested in subjective interpretations of the world, or are we inherently interested in collective actions that produce collective benefits? Lukacs, echoing the vast majority of social scientists and evolutionary biologists, reminds us that “the impulse of humans to come together is inextinguishable.” While this may be true, humanity’s “inextinguishable” urge to collectively struggle nevertheless requires intentional work.
And that work is long and difficult. However, that work — communication, collective struggle, grassroots politics, creating culture, popular education — penetrates the very core of what it means to be a human being. The more people participate in social, cultural and political events, the happier they will be.
Years ago, when the internet was still in its infancy, tech wizards and futurists insisted that this new form of technology and communication would “change the world.”3 Several decades later, and the jury is still out: Trump is in power. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and many other nations have been destroyed. As a result, the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, and the planet is on the precipice of destruction.
Meanwhile, Alex Jones, an internet creation if there ever was one, hosts one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world (80 million per week). Indeed, over the course of 25 years, the internet has produced more ‘fake news’ and petty charlatans than TV and radio could in a century. The deterioration of rational thought is also a sign of the times. Reactionaries around the world who are dedicated to catapulting society back to the Dark Ages are being hoisted to power in large part due to the power of social media (an internet creation).4
Those who insist that technology (the internet serving as one example) will solve our collective problems are playing within the framework of neoliberal ideology. Their so-called ‘solutions’ to our collective problems almost always include individual pursuits: solar panel roofs, electric vehicles, battery powered water filtration systems, and so on.
They want it both ways: the liberal technologists seek individual freedom, but without the collective struggle necessary to achieve a healthy balance. They seek not to change the very systems and institutions that drive our ecological crises, but to deal with those systems and institutions in a more thoughtful and scientific manner, and with all the latest gadgets (all of which require a fossil fuel infrastructure).
In the meantime, various forms of corporate and state power seek to extinguish not only our impulse for collectivity, but also the very essence of individual freedom and liberty. Paradoxically, the more people identify and behave as hyper-individuals, the more they actually fit into a collective set of non-individuals.
Erich Fromm, the German sociologist and philosopher, once reflected on the difference between the ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’ in his seminal work, Escape From Freedom. As Fromm suggested in 1941, people would be wise to re-conceptualize our ideas of so-called freedom. This, according to Fromm, should be an ongoing process. In other words, our ideas of freedom should change with the times.
As Fromm once wrote,“We forget that, although freedom of speech constitutes an important victory in the battle against old restraints, modern man is in a position where much of what ‘he’ thinks and says are the things that everybody else thinks and says; that he has not acquired the ability to think originally – that is, for himself – which alone gives meaning to his claim that nobody can interfere with the expression of his thoughts.”
My father’s generation used to joke that in Communist countries everyone dresses, acts and speaks the same. For decades, people in the West were told that the very idea of individuality was not only alien in the Soviet Union, but harshly repressed in the most brutal ways imaginable.
Ironically, my father’s generation’s collective nightmare is now true in Capitalist countries, but particularly in the United States, where everyone dresses, acts and talks the same.
1) According to Teddy Wayne of the New York Times, “a nationwide annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, the time high school seniors devoted to partying has slid drastically over the decades. Except for a few years, the number of homebodies who never attended parties as high school seniors has steadily increased, to 41.3 percent in 2014 from 11.6 percent in 1987, and it’s accelerated in the new millennium, more than doubling since 2001. Over a third of Gen X high schoolers fought for their right to party at the tail end of the Reagan administration, spending more than six hours per week at gatherings; just 10.7 percent of the most recent Obama-era high school seniors did.”
2) According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2014, only 2% of Americans have attended a political meeting on local, town, or school affairs; 13% have been an active member of a group that tries to influence the public or government; 10% have attended a political rally or speech; 7% have worked or volunteered for a political party or candidate; and only 6% have attended an organized protest.
3) Technology, especially the internet, without doubt, has changed the world in significant ways. However, the ways in which the internet has changed the world are largely cosmetic and almost always tied to commercialism/consumerism. Governments fundamentally operate and take the same shape as they did in the 1980’s, prior to the creation of the World Wide Web. In some ways, one could argue that governments are less responsive than they were during that period, though the internet can’t be blamed for historical trends, geopolitical events or global financial meltdowns. The internet and various forms of modern technology make it easier for capitalists to operate, but it’s not the sole cause of our collective problems. No longer must governments infiltrate political movements, they simply track our every move via the internet and listen to our conversations via our iPhones or ‘Smart TV’s.’ Sure, our shopping habits have changed (thanks, Amazon), but has our relationship to shopping drastically changed? Collective ownership of grocery stores hasn’t substantially grown since the advent of the internet, nor has the foundational structures of the state, corporations, militaries, etc. To paraphrase the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, it’s easier for people to imagine colonies on Mars and Artificial Intelligence than it is to imagine a new political or economic system. The true triumph of Neoliberalism is the assassination of our collective imagination.
4) Insofar as social media and political activism is concerned, social media platforms can be both useful and destructive, much like any tool or resource. On one level, I’ve found social media to be useful in terms of turning people out for events. That being said, the key factor is prior engagement. In other words, social media works wonders when I already know the people I’m trying to engage. It’s a different story with strangers. I’ve found it to be a decent news source, but only after filtering out 90% of my ‘friends list.’ Obviously, it can also be a destructive medium. Sometimes, it’s difficult to judge tone and intent via social media, hence people end up arguing about things that they probably wouldn’t argue about in person. I would also argue that social media activism has been used as a substitute for real activism. Some people never move from their internet desk to the real world, where politics and activism actually take place. For some, including the disabled, participating on social media is the only option. For others, and that includes the vast majority, participating on social media is no substitute for knocking on doors, calling people on the phone and/or participating in educational events, political protests or direct actions.