A cult of individualism that's destroying the planet

by: Natasha Chart

Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 08:02

Dave Pollard recently engaged in a conversation on the cult of individualism that's destroying the world, or more more specifically, that's allowing industrial systems to destroy the world. It's good, and you should go read the whole thing. Though I wanted to particularly respond to this point about the tension between the need in our current situation to take collective action and build more cohesive communities and the natural desire to develop an individual identity:

... I think we can be altruistic and collectivist and part-of-all-life-on-Earth while still being "nobody but ourselves". But because we confuse the need to struggle against the loss of our individuality due to cultural indoctrination (a good struggle), with the need to struggle against all government and all collective and cooperative and collaborative work (a bad struggle), we get it exactly backwards: Instead of becoming 'nobody-but-ourselves' we become 'ourselves apart from everybody'.

It takes great self-knowledge and self-confidence, I think, to be truly yourself and think critically, while also committing yourself absolutely to optimizing the collective well-being of the community. ...

I'd guess at least part of the problem is the way our current events storytelling so often focuses on one person's vision and motivation either bringing about great projects (usually wealth) or, after having created great wealth, a brave and filthy rich philanthropist setting out to change the world for the better. This is what's held up for emulation. One brilliant, managerial mind is the thing to look for to solve a crisis; find that and the problems almost solve themselves.

Take Detroit.

Natasha Chart :: A cult of individualism that's destroying the planet
Detroit is a city with issues. It has, as they say, a subscription. CNN finds a hero riding to the rescue:

John Hantz is a wealthy money manager who lives in an older enclave of Detroit where all the houses are grand and not all of them are falling apart. Once a star stockbroker at American Express, he left 13 years ago to found his own firm. Today Hantz Financial Services has 20 offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, more than 500 employees, and $1.3 billion in assets under management. ...

A brilliant idea comes to him by way of his daily time of solitude.

... Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.

Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, ... Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people.  

... Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. "We need scarcity," he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. "We can't create opportunities, but we can create scarcity." And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, "is how I got onto this idea of the farm." ...

It was a private revelation about the hopelessness of creating opportunities. Right. But he's sought out expert advice from a major philanthropic foundation, pish-toshing all along at the people who see his desire to create a whopping 50 acres of urban farming space as a land grab. Then down, way, way down in the article, it mentions who some of these ridiculous, Lilliputian gnats biting at his ankles are.

No less than Detroit's long-standing urban farming community. Tossers. The article notes that these twerps barely even try to make money.

... Some of Hantz's biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who've been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale.  

... That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn't have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. "I'm concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit," says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit's west side.

... Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls "fear-based" criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. ("Someone must pay taxes," he sniffs.) ...

The article mentions that these small scale whiners have at least managed to grow food and keep some of society's throwaways occupied on their 900 little plots. They even ... hmmm. You mean there are already 900 urban farms and community gardens in Detroit? That sounds like kind of a lot. I wonder how much land that is?


They quote Bill Knudson, Michigan State University agriculture economist, saying that Detroit is among the cities showing leadership with urban farming and that 100 years ago, the land beneath the city was fertile farmland. He adds that "Traditional supermarkets have moved out of the inner cities and created a food desert. These farm communities increase access to healthier food and fresh produce to inner-city people ... land around Detroit has an opportunity to be productive."

27% of this land is vacant, says Ashley Atkinson of the Greening of Detroit, a collaborative that includes 320 family and 170 community gardens for a total of 80 acres.

The collaborative, formed in 2003, grows 41 different fruits and vegetables, and has extended its season into the fall so there are multiple harvests. The yield, which last year totaled 120 tons, is sold at farmers' markets and to restaurants and food banks, but the majority ends up on family tables, she said. Many of the volunteers live near the farms they work on. ...

When I first met someone from the Greening of Detroit in 2007, I remember being told they had over 40 acres under cultivation. They've been busy. And if they've got 490 farm and garden plots going (that produce an average of 1.5 tons of food per acre,) out of 900 in the city that have developed through other community efforts, you know, that sounds like a real movement.

It sounds like maybe Hantz' brilliant, singular idea might have 'come to him' on his daily drive through the barren, blasted cityscape when he spotted evidence of people already doing something to better their community. Instead of deciding to help them out, he wants to use his money and influence to buy out the place they've improved on the cheap. Instead of growing affordable food for local consumption, food to replace the missing supermarkets in this urban food desert, he wants to grow high-value crops that will presumably be sold at a premium.

Hantz didn't, by a long shot, try and secure local buy-in for a worker-owned cooperative farming business among the people who were already working in the space, like successful urban sustainability pioneer Majora Carter did, when she came to town.

That's why Hantz is a hero, whose sneering attitude towards the peons who work together for the common good CNN is glad to feature.

I wonder where any of us get the idea that teamwork is a mug's game, aside from at our actual workplaces. Makes banding together to save the planet so challenging.

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key part: (4.00 / 3)
who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work.

of course he is! that's what guys like him do, how they got rich, what they know, etc. and to me, it's the heart of the problem.

as individuals, we're taught to define our lives by how well we've capitalized on some aspect of it. some of us get educations and then high paying jobs. some of us invent new things and bring them to a market. some of us innovate some product or service, increasing profitability. the problem is that of course, not all of us know how to do that, or can, or even want to. and for that, we're penalized.

it's an old story. is a woman's labor less valuable than her husband's, if she raises his children and keeps his home and organizes his social calendar so that he can advance his career? society has said "yes" for decades, and the feminist revolution barely dented that understanding. do community organizers who help the poorest enjoy just the basics of civilization 'waste their time?' look at how the SCLM mocks groups like ACORN. etc.

it is the media narrative that keeps the Philanthropist-Hero at the top of an imaginary hierarchy of socially valuable roles, and like you, it sickens me. no one ever asks, "so if you have all this money and you care about your dying city, why haven't you spent a significant amount on it, on programs that are proven and actually currently helping people? surely there are no shortage of successful programs that at the same time could do so much more but for a slight increase in their budgets." instead, we're expected to be grateful for whatever crumbs the wealthy elite want to toss our way, and only when they choose to, and only in whatever form they decide. socially effective action is never really expected of them. very few dare to take a more socialist or marxist or critical line of questioning about just how the superrich came into their money (did they truly "earn" it, or just manipulate their advantages above those who can only contribute their labor?)

i'm tired of worshipping the wealthy. the banking crisis proves beyond a doubt, many of them are just as "dumb" about money as the poor are supposed to be, proven true by their poverty. Detroit needs help and attention, no doubt. but there have been a lot of these guys over the past couple of decades, shining knights with a plan to save the city that only they can achieve. in every case, they've failed, and most of them left the city not only not better, but in many cases a little bit or a great deal worse.

communal, realistic, community based, comprehensive solutions will fix rust belt cities like Detroit. unless and until elected officials understand this, and stop worshipping wealthy donors as their lords, mentors and to what they aspire, that change will not begin to occur.  

This individualism is a notion that is also, of course, relentlessly promoted (4.00 / 2)
by "liberal" Hollywood. How many American movies DON'T feature our lone hero riding to the rescue, while collective units around him (police, etc.) flail?
        And, as something on the order of a creative person, I would argue that the end result of this relentless promotion of individualism is in fact conformity, conformity bred out of the anxieties that come along with a society devoid of safety nets and of assured communal acceptance. The lifestyle activism that's been discussed here emblematizes this perfectly, in that, while clearly there are strong American impulses towards progressive-type regard for others, for the planet on which we live, etc., they become manifest in highly superficial ways that showily plea for acceptance from others.
So those good impulses are there in our society-the longing for community, the compassion for others- but they have been relentlessly distorted and warped by industries eager to capitalize in on them. Capitalism has been so spectacular at this type of manipulation, it's really incredibly difficult for me to envision a way out of it. There's a line I read somewhere to the effect that, "It's easier now to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism," which rings frighteningly true to me.

Yes, and not just in business (4.00 / 1)
that the end result of this relentless promotion of individualism is in fact conformity, conformity bred out of the anxieties that come along with a society devoid of safety nets and of assured communal acceptance.

Precisely. I'm in medical research science. For all the touting of "innovation" and the talk about exploring novel concepts, when it comes down to the competition for cash (only about 8-10% of the grants get funded), its all about what's feasible and can be correlated with the older work. No innovation, no insight - just big labs getting everybody else to repeat the same old experiments over and over again.

Like they say, "its a feature, not a bug."

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."

[ Parent ]
The heart of the problem (4.00 / 4)
You've nailed it, Natasha. That's what makes these guys special. They have an idea, however cockamamie it might be, then they go looking for wage slaves to implement it. They've already engineered the system as thoroughly as they can to make this the only way to accomplish anything (The Detroit cooperatives have obviously slipped through the cracks. Now that Hantz is aware of them, though....)

We already know how this ends from history, or rather from what history does its best to leave out. No doubt Carnegie libraries were a great boon, and cheap steel made this country great, etc., but we have to ask ourselves how and why the schoolbooks have erased all mention of the Homestead Strike from this cheery tale of risk and invention. Once we have the answer to those questions, we'll also know why the word democracy sounds so empty when spoken by the current generation of American politicians.

Paul keeps mentioning the problem of externalized costs. Of all these costs, from Love Canal, to the 45,000 extra deaths each year from a lack of affordable health care, to global warming itself, the one that bothers me the most is this, that we've all accepted the notion that most of the people in the world can be reduced to exploitable resources for the convenience of a few brilliant assholes, and that this is a good, even an eternal thing.

It's almost enough to turn a person into a Communist.

Thanks for this Natasha (4.00 / 1)
I think race (though of course there are exceptions) and privilege are inseparable from this 'lone hero' brand of entrepreneurship.  As sb indicates when talking about Hollywood's glorification of this myth, look no further than Avatar for the ultimate in White-savior complex.  (Huge EJ problem, what do we do???  Call a white person to save the natives from the white people)

It's almost sad really, because I think in many ways these impulses could actually be good (if they weren't so infected with insecurity), but the thinking is far too simplistic and fear-based.  And so you see Majora Carter taking a truly grassroots approach that favors the nurturing of human resources and potential through empowerment rather than utilization, where Hantz cannot conceive, cannot trust that by letting other people figure things out and develop themselves that "his" idea could be better served.  Going to the stuff that Paul talks about, it's a systems versus single line of causality.

You're dead right that this is the cancer that's killing the planet, and I think it comes down to a lack of trust or faith.  It's all about extraction rather than cultivation. Trusting that by truly, rather than superficially, building, supporting, and empowering others you get a better result is difficult.  But I don't see how this bogus top-down self-aggrandizing thinking is going to get us farther than it already has.

White dudes really gotta chill out and be okay with other people doing stuff for themselves (I say as a white dude).

Figuring out how to be a progressive college graduate transplant to Ohio:  http://citizenobie.wordpress.com/

Yes, (4.00 / 1)
there is too great an emphasis on personal choice, and not enough emphasis on how that choice impacts the weakest among us or the next generation.

I TOTALLY agree.

Food vs. Money (4.00 / 2)
Those 900 plots produce food and feed families.  Hantz is not interested in food or families.  He's interested in making money.  His money and "brains" are valued much more highly than either the land or the labor.  What those 900 plots show is that, in fact, Hantz is basically not needed at all.  The land and the labor are perfectly capable of producing food.

The really fools are not Hantz and his ilk but CNN and those who believe his fairy tale.  Turning the once thriving city of Detroit into an agricultural zone is a sad ending.  I guess Marx was right when he said that the capitalists would make money selling rope for their execution.  That's Hantz.

This country badly needs a serious debate (4.00 / 2)
between those who place the interests of individuals and empowered minorities (e.g. large corporations, the rich) first, and those who place the interests of society as a whole, and of disempowered minorities (e.g. blacks and Latinos, the poor) first, on both an ideological and populist level. The two sides have long since self-selected themselves. It's time that they go head to head in public and finally have it out, and defend their stances for all to see.

More to the point, from the perspective of progressives, we have to go after the Randians (both sincere and opportunistic) on the right who continue to promote their crazy, selfish, destructive, unsustainable, irrational and dishonest ideas about the "rights" of individuals over that of society. It simply makes no sense that a relatively small group of people can lord it over a much larger group of people because they allegedly have the "right" to do this, on either a natural right or constitutional basis. And yet this notion has been the prevailing one in the collective American psyche for the past 30 years, even among many Democrats, and even though the right has lost much political power of late, its ideas, all based on this one fundamental idea, continue to dominate in peoples' minds, to a large extent because they haven't yet been adequately and forcefully shot down. And they need to be.

We will never win the political or policy war unless and until we win the ideological war. We have GOT to get back to the notion that what's best for the nation is what's best for individuals, not vice-versa. Our society is not a collection of disconnected individuals who can do pretty much whatever they please, very loosely joined together by a weak central government that does little more than protect us from enemies abroad and build roads at home, and may the fittest survive and everyone else is on their own. That's not what this country is about. Individual rights are clearly central to its founding principles, but not to the extent that they allow certain individuals to deprive others of their rights. THAT is the central paradox that lies at the core of right-wing individualistic ideology, that renders it incompatible with and unsuited for the kind of country that we live in, and it must be forcefully destroyed as a prevailing ideology.

Shorter version: You CAN do whatever you want in this country, so long as it doesn't prevent others from doing whatever they want, or getting whatever they need, and have a right to. This notion of people having the freedom of thought and action AS WELL AS freedom from others' oppression, is at the core of this country's founding principles. And RW Randian ideology, which has been at the ideological core of the GOP since at least the late 70's, is directly and demonstrably add odds with this founding notion. We just need to remind people of that, and put an end to this "Me me me whatever the consequences" idiocy.

Kill the Randian beast already.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

Interesting comments, thanks! (0.00 / 0)
I'm all fried right now, but really enjoyed reading everyone's responses :)


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