Individualism, Vulgar and Otherwise

In the public arena individualism as an ethical and ontological stance is often murky and ill-defined one, often appropriated by those who’d use it towards reactionary ends. This mainly comes in the form of those who see the relative gains in individual liberty we’ve made in society as a weapon to wield over those they either despise or disagree with. The most common form of this today is the self-styled classical liberal who gets their political and ethical philosophy from YouTubers who haven’t actually read liberal texts. These are the sort who believe its possible for African-Americans to bootstrap themselves out of poverty through free will but that anyone caught taking hormones and dressing like the opposite sex is mentally ill - an obvious contradiction. Less common but more troubling is this sort of attitude taken by those with actual power. Politicians who call for austerity measures to discipline the poor while they subsidize industry. Business leaders who uphold democracy one second but crush workers organizing the next. Individuals who sing the praises of liberty, of being able to live without interference only to decry the sheer nerve of women, minorities or queers to ask for something better.

This sort of individualism I term vulgar individualism. This form of individualism is one that wishes to impose limits on others without negotiation, usually through an overwhelming force like the state or a state-like entity. This can be differentiated from what I will call for this essay consistent individualism (really just individualism!), which instead seeks to resolve such conflicts through negotiation.

Vulgar individualists do not just believe that they have a right to protect their individual view of the world through violence, however. It usually also comes with the assumption that those unworthy of fully expressing themselves as individuals are deficient. The most common example today being the notion that capitalism is “meritocratic” - despite the overwhelming evidence of state intervention protecting the highest paying CEOs from competition - and as such that those at the bottom are deficient in some regard. Furthermore, vulgar individualists tend to dismiss the idea that those at the bottom have anything to contribute to society. There is a tendency among vulgar individualists to assume that only elites can contribute to the forward progress of society and that deviations from this trend are the norm.

Ironically enough, however, these very same vulgar individualists balk at the idea of anyone centrally planning an economy. The anti-communist propaganda built up as a result of the Cold War makes it certainly socially acceptable to signal this way. But one gets the feeling their support for markets is less to do with the decentralized complexity management and spontaneity they bring and more rather the clearly defined organizational rationality they impose on society.

This notion is articulated most clearly by vulgar right-libertarians who wish for a society in which corporate capitalism remains but the few restraints and safety nets put in place by the state are removed. Kevin Carson describes the assumptions made by Ludwig von Mises about how the bureaucratic problems he described as plaguing state socialism could be waved away thanks to the existence of double-entry bookkeeping. He writes:

Mises viewed the separation of ownership from control, and the agency problems resulting from it, as largely non-existent. The invention of double-entry bookkeeping, which made possible the separate calculation of profit and loss in each division of an enterprise, “reliev[ed] the entrepreneur of involvement in too much detail.” The only thing necessary to transform every single employee of a corporation, from CEO on down, into a perfect instrument of his will was the ability to monitor the balance sheet of any division or office and fire the functionary responsible for red ink.[1]

Mises likewise saw economic progress as arising from elite individuals. In a revealing letter he wrote to Ayn Rand after the publication of Atlas Shrugged he writes “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better then you.”[2]

Certainly, the improvements in quality of life seen as a result of the industrial revolution were partially due to wealth seeking robber barons (who, unlike the protagonists in Atlas Shrugged, relied on state privilege to secure their fortunes).[3] But while the industrialists who may have created large-scale industry to the economic benefit of all, they were not the sole originator of the economic shift. Consider the fact that the scientific knowledge that underpinned the industrial revolution in the United Kingdom was found not by ruthless robber barons but rather by oddball country clergymen. The anthropologist David Graeber sees the scientific success at the time resulting from giving space to eccentric individuals. He writes:

Giovanni Arrighi has noted that after the South Sea Bubble, British capitalism largely abandoned the corporate form. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Britain had instead come to rely on a combination of high finance and small family firms—a pattern that held throughout the next century, the period of maximum scientific and technological innovation. (Britain at that time was also notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. A common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries.) [4]

Such breakthroughs weren't just the domain of industrial age eccentrics however. Qualified scientists were responsible for breakthroughs in quantum mechanics in the 70s but their culture of those who worked on it were strongly influenced by the wave of counterculture that had gripped America in the past decade. David Kaiser describes the milleau in his introduction to How the Hippies Saved Physics:

Lost from view in today’s hoopla is a story, equal parts inspiring and bizarre, of scientific striving in the face of long odds. The intellectual bedrock of quantum information science—the ideas that undergird today’s quantum-encrypted bank transfers and electronic voting—took form in a setting that couldn’t have been more different from the ivory tower of academe or the citadels of business and politics. In fact, the breakthroughs in Vienna and Geneva ultimately owe their origins to the hazy, bong-filled excesses of the 1970s New Age movement. Many of the ideas that now occupy the core of quantum information science once found their home amid an anything-goes counterculture frenzy, a mishmash of spoon-bending psychics, Eastern mysticism, LSD trips, CIA spooks chasing mind-reading dreams, and comparable “Age of Aquarius” enthusiasms. For the better part of a decade, the concepts that would blossom into developments like quantum encryption were bandied about in late-night bull sessions and hawked by proponents of a burgeoning self-help movement—more snake oil than stock option.[5]

Scientific breakthroughs coming from unexpected areas is just one example of where vulgar individualism and reality diverge. Culture is of course another. For example, Jazz in the 20s was met with scorn from the cultural elite, despite being enormously successful and also setting the foundation for all popular music from rock to rap. Such a cultural shift was not driven by intrepid entrepreneurship or by superior individuals (although certainly profit motivates and talent helped) but by grassroots movements that occurred spontaneously.

Similarly, the cultural successes of the United Kingdom post-war were driven not by elites or even the middle class, but by lower class experimentation as a result of having free time. Again I quote Graeber:

They [Blarites] naively assumed creativity was basically a middle-class phenomenon, the product of people like themselves. In fact, almost everything worthwhile that has come out of British culture for the last century, from music hall, to street kebabs, to standup comedy, rock ‘n’ roll, and the rave scene, has been primarily a working-class phenomenon. Essentially, these were the things the working class created when they weren’t actually working. The sprouting of British popular culture in the sixties was entirely a product of the United Kingdom’s then very generous welfare state. There is a reason that in Cockney rhyming slang, the word for “dole” is “rock ‘n’ roll”(“he got the sack, he’s on the rock ‘n’ roll again”): a surprising proportion of major bands later to sweep the world spent at least some of their formative years on unemployment relief. Blairites were stupid enough to combine their promotion of “Cool Britannia” with massive welfare reforms, which effectively guaranteed the entire project would crash and burn, since they ensured that pretty much everyone with the potential to become the next John Lennon would instead spend the rest of their lives stacking boxes in their local Tesco as part of the new welfare conditionality.[6]

It is here that vulgar individualism comes most clearly in contradiction with its purported beliefs. The notion that highly talented individuals are necessary for the progression of society comes into contradiction with its pretense for the desire for individual freedom, usually justified as a result of insurmountable complexity. The argument simplified significantly, is that each individual is a fountainhead of feedbacking complexity and subjectivity and as such nearly impossible (developments in quantum computation notwithstanding) to model and as such they should be left to their own devices as much as possible. Vulgar individualists see this as something that absolutely applies to them and to their tribe. But to extend this assumption to others whose identities they see as unnecessary or invalid is beyond those who claim to be individualists. This largely comes in various forms of normativity, cis, het, etc, in which certain forms of behavioral expression are seen as invalid – usually without consideration of arguments made by those claiming the validity of other forms of expression. Likewise, it makes assumptions about how people should act, ignoring the basic biological and cognitive realities that may make it impossible for that person to see how the vulgar individualist sees the world at that moment.

Of course, all is this is instantly familiar to anyone who engages in politics in the age of social media. Notions of privilege, intersectionality, and allyship all come from the wellspring of individualism. Certainly, as it stands right now they are commonly expressed in a collectivistic manner but the epistemological realities they describe are those that lead to consistent individualism. The parallels between Hayekian knowledge problems and intersectionality only seem odd because of the artificial distance that enforced through arbitrary political camps, not conceptual incompatibility.

As such vulgar individualism fails utterly to liberate the individual because it only considers the individual to be relevant for solving the most basic of economic problems. The promise of queer politics is not that individuals will be able to undergo therapy to appear as the opposite gender but to liberate us from such categories entirely. The promise of radical economic justice is not to make us all the collective boss of a factory or entrepreneurs of the self under stifling neoliberal capitalism but to democratize the process through abundance and meaningful choice to the point where wage labor becomes a rare exception. It does not retreat to fragile collectivism but realizes that relying on static relations and lockstep uniformity were historically contingent strategies that have become outdated in efficacy.

The stifling air of state socialism or the enforced markets of capitalism are hardly victories for any meaningful individualism. Truly liberated individualism is built on the subjective complex individual and its ethics and solutions to collective action problems flow from this starting point. Consistent individualism, as described by Robert Anton Wilson recognizes that meaningful communication can only occur between equals and that communication between one individual with authority over another (be it through the state or granted by the state) is inherently flawed.[7] It is through the existence of meaningful communication that long-term solutions to collective action can be reached. Certainly, the state may be able to momentarily solve the problem, but the basic epistemic problems it faces in implementing the solution mean that such solutions lack the granularity to be successful. Indeed the psychosis of power and the nature of bureaucracies means that solutions tend to not even be based in evidence – just see the utter failure of America’s various wars: in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, on drugs, on cancer, on terrorism, on poverty and so on. Cognitive biases and the damage they can cause in the average person on the street to others around them are amplified a hundred, a thousand or a million times by someone in charge of people with the authority to utilize violence.

Consistent individualism, on the other hand, puts a million and one checks and balances on such a system. It calls for a polycentric network of regulatory bodies, resolution agencies, mutual aid networks, common property, a plethora of educational and credentialization systems and more. The problems presented by subjectivity require a plethora of alternatives to manage the dynamics and ever-changing nature of individuals. The entropy created by individual agency unleashed will necessitate diversity in institutions to keep society running. And it is here that vulgar individualists will be unmasked as the conservatives that they are. Where they treat the agency of people as a problem to be solved, consistent individualism treats it as an asset to be utilized. And that, most of all, is why it’ll win.

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  1. Kevin Carson, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, pg 207 ↩︎

  2. To What Extent was Rand a Misesian, Bettina Bien Greaves, Ludwig von Mises Institute ↩︎

  3. For a brief summary of how the state assisted industrialists see: The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand by Kevin Carson ↩︎

  4. Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, David Graeber, The Baffler ↩︎

  5. How the Hippies Saved Physics, David Kaiser, Introduction (EPUB) ↩︎

  6. Despair Fatigue, David Graeber, The Baffler ↩︎

  7. Thirteen Choruses for the Divine Marquis, Robert Anton Wilson ↩︎