Friday, December 13, 2013

Socialism must reclaim the language of individualism

 I tweeted a link to Sara Salem's excellent Marxist feminism as a critique of intersectionality. In a following conversation, Jeremiah Aviles suggested individualism and neoliberal capitalism are essentially the same thing, and Ms. Salem agreed with him, and I think, for twitter purposes, they're right.

But.

They're right because right-libertarianism and neoliberalism both cast the conflict between socialism and capitalism as a conflict between the group and the individual. To capitalists, people under socialism are cogs, robots, disposable parts, interchangeable elements of a system designed to benefit only a few....

Which is to say, what they are under capitalism.

The first socialists and most socialists today are individualists in the casual sense of the word. The goal of socialism is to free individuals from economic desperation so everyone may enjoy the promise of the US Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man under Socialism:
Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.
(Irrelevant factoid: "Individualism" appears 50 times in that short essay.)

The capitalist philosophy called individualism would be better called robberbaronism, slaverism, or oppressorism, because the individual's power it celebrates is the power to exploit.

Socialist individualism takes a different form. In The Soul of Man, Wilde said:
Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.
Wilde could not have known that he sensed what Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, a then-unpublished book:
...as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.
Wilde's individualism is the individualism I love. Marx's society in which we all may pursue happiness is the society I want for everyone.