I read John Higg’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine at the end of last year, and I highly recommend it. It’s a cultural history of the 20th Century, looking at different paradigm-shifting ideas that completely changed the way we think, and uses that as a basis to try and grapple with the past century and see what we can carry forward into this new one.
A lot of the ideas, discoveries, movements, etc that Higgs discusses will likely be familiar to anyone with a decent understanding of modern history, but it’s the context that it’s offered in that makes it such an interesting read. By the end of the book he reveals a sort of thesis that he’s been building toward the whole way: that the politics, culture, and economics of the late 20th Century have caused us to shift away from communal concerns to an extreme of individualism. You don’t have to exist online for too long to realise how right Higgs is – see people arguing with artists about the intended meaning of their own art, see people unflinchingly arguing a scientific topic against a person who holds a PhD in that very thing, or even watch the way people try and turn themselves into brands, as though they’re such an important figure they should be a youtube star/instagram influencer/viral sensation. Authorship, expert knowledge, and reality itself mean nothing compared to our individual entitlement. (A lot of people, especially Gen X and Boomers try and say this is a Millennial trait, but if they looked in the mirror they’d see it’s a broadly Western pathology that crosses generational divides.)
Watching the coronavirus situation unfold, I can’t help but come back to Higgs’ thesis. The panic buying, the hoarding, the racketeering – it’s the behaviour of frightened individualists with no concern for the wider community. It’s also exactly the sort of behaviour we should expect from people when the neoliberal hegemony has spent decades decaying social welfare systems and public infrastructure, privatising everything, atomising society, and pushing us into precarious work and predatory financing so that we’re too broke, over-worked, anxious, and stressed out to even be able to think about anything other than our own needs.
So I understand how we got here, I understand people are scared and uncertain. I realise that the worst case scenarios here are genuinely awful and terrifying (and even the medium case scenarios don’t look great). But there’s a very good chance that this situation could last for a long time. We’ve had a few weeks of panic buying and food hoarding, but now it’s time to stop and realise that there is a society – a community – out there, and our best bet at getting through this pandemic is working together and looking after each other.
The age of individualism needs to end. We need to realise that we each aren’t the single most important thing in the universe. And I’m not just talking about the current situation now with the unfolding pandemic – I’m also talking about climate change going forward. Maybe we’re going to have to get used to a little individual discomfort if it means a better chance for a livable planet. Maybe we’re going to have to sweat a little instead of running the aircon, maybe we’re going to have to give up meat, maybe we’re going to have to get a bus instead of driving a car, maybe we’re going to have to take a second to really question whether we really need that random object that our lizard brain is demanding we buy. Maybe all of our selfish actions, however minor they are on their own, are having a massive collective impact, and maybe we already know this, but we’re so caught up in our comfortable lives that we’d simply prefer not to make any changes until we absolutely have to. Maybe that will be too late.
The best thing that could come out of the coronavirus pandemic is the realisation that things can and should change. We can’t continue on the way we’ve been going, not unless we want to irreparably damage our biosphere. We can’t allow medicine to be tied in any way to profit. We need governments that actually work for the people instead of slowly strip-mining the state for parts to sell to private industry (that is, if we need government at all). And more than anything we need to look out for each other. Whether that’s your family, your neighbourhood, your suburb, your state, your country, or our entire world. We need to do better, we need to be better.
Those are just some things that have been on my mind lately. I’m trying not to let the pandemic get the better of me, I’m trying to find some hope in amongst it all, but our only real hope is for a complete overhaul of the status quo toward a society geared towards helping people, rather than increasing GDP…
I’ll stop there. I could keep going, but I won’t. I don’t even know if this all makes sense…
Anyway, while I’m here, I thought I would share a little something for everyone stuck in self-quarantine: the CREEPER ISSUE 1 PDF FREE FOR DOWNLOAD. It contains a personal essay from me, and a whole slew of great fiction, non-fiction, and art from some fantastic contributors.
That’s it for now. Stay well, keep safe, and think about what you can do to make this situation a little better for someone else.
2 thoughts on “Hyper-individualism”
Thank you for the thoughtful essay, Corey.
I have a bit of one, along similar lines:
GREED is truly the most terrible challenge of our times, and capitalism is its tool, its means to power and more greed.
Greed is a (contagious) mental illness, an unfillable hole, a hunger that denies justice, a brutal expression of broken egos.
Greed is having a million times as much as the poor and still feeling you don’t have enough.
Greed consumes the earth without respite, and is a cancer on humanity.
Greed destroys us and our children and their future.
Greed is death.
Thanks for that, William. I couldn’t have said it better myself.