Have you ever been told to pull yourself up by your bootstraps? Ever heard someone chastise the poor for making bad decisions, or praise the rich for making good ones? How many times have you heard someone assert that the US is the best country on earth because of our individual freedom? These are all part of the same phenomenon, and, while present in some cultures outside the US, the mindset is particularly intense here. In this episode, we’re going to take a brief look at individualism, and consider why it’s a deeply flawed worldview.
Individualism is in the air we breathe.
We watch movies about individual heroes saving the day, we are taught that history is made by individual great men, and we read think-pieces about how individuals in poverty make good (or bad) choices. Because this ideology is so universally accepted, it has become “common sense.” Even suggesting that individuals may not be primarily, much less entirely, responsible for their circumstances is cause for mockery and dismissal. To blame structures, or systems, or society is seen as childish weakness — as an attempt to shield yourself or others from accountability. The trouble is that individualism is an utterly absurd way of explaining the world.
In 2018, a group of Harvard researchers analyzed data from the US Census and attempted to find correlations between a person’s life story and their current income. They discovered that there was such a strong connection between the place someone is born and their future income that they put together a map called the Opportunity Atlas, which shows the median incomes of people born in each zip code – and even predicts what those incomes will be in the future.
In 2015, another study found a similar link between your future income and your parents’ wealth. The report stated: “The wage gap for people from different backgrounds is significant: The expected income of people raised in well-off families in the 90th percentile — that is, the top 90% of the national median household income — is about 200% larger than the expected income of children raised in poor families (in the 10th percentile) and about 75% larger than that of children raised in middle-class families (in the 50th percentile). What’s more, people raised in middle-class families will earn close to double what children from lower-income families earn in adulthood.”
Put simply – by combining these studies, sociologists are able to predict your lifetime income based on the zipcode you were born in and how much money your parents make. Not based on how hard working you are, not based on your personal qualities or capitalist instincts — no; the circumstances of your birth are the single largest predictors of your financial “success.”
If everyone truly were entirely or even mostly in control of their destiny — if the myth of individualism were true — how could that be possible? The ridiculousness of the “equal opportunity & individual success” story becomes even clearer when we look at the supposedly “self-made people” that individualists point to as proof.
Elon Musk, supposedly an Iron-Man style brain genius, enjoyed family wealth from apartheid businesses which he has translated into two businesses which abuse government subsidies and profit from wasteful non-solutions to climate change.
Bill Gates, the founding father of “self-made” tech moguls was one of the first students in America to have his own computers, and had direct connections to tech corporations through his father. But those are just modern examples — if you’d like a truly telling example, a 2016 study found that, between the years 1427 and 2016, the same families have ruled Florence, Italy. That is a period of 600 years — at least 12 generations — in which the plague, the renaissance, the industrial revolution, two world wars, the creation of capitalism, and modern technology itself has failed to disrupt Florence’s structures of wealth & power.
If the story of individual hard work determining success — or the inverse story of laziness causing failure — were true, surely one child in those ~12 generations of Florentine elites would have been born without the magical ~hard work juice~ which we are told determines success. The world of “equal opportunity” we are constantly being sold on is incompatible with any heritable family wealth, much less 600 years worth of it.
And what about bigotry? How can we claim anyone has enough power over their life path to punish them for “failure,” when we know for a fact that racism, sexism, and discrimination wildly change your opportunities in life. Being a woman drastically affects your likely type of future employment, decreases your future income, and determines whether you spend years of your life doing domestic work (both paid and unpaid). Black Americans are born with roughly 8x less family wealth, are underrepresented in elections (even after votes are counted), and are far more likely to face both hiring and workplace discrimination compared to white Americans.
Race and employment type are deeply linked. In 2019, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that hispanic Americans are nearly twice as likely to work service, construction, or industrial jobs as their white peers – and therefore twice as likely to face the health problems that kind of employment causes.
Health outcomes, including life expectancy and future mental health issues, are connected to your race, your gender identity, and the zipcode you were born in. Black communities, just as one example, are far more likely to have toxic lead paint and unclear water – both of which can cause lifelong illnesses. Transgender people are much more likely to face depression as a result of being unable to transition or because of the bigotry they face from some corners of society. Both groups are more likely to be murdered outright (often by the police) and far less likely to have those murders solved.
Conservatives and liberals alike have been repeating for generations that individuals, not structures, are to blame for human suffering. Reagan proclaimed that Government is the problem, never the solution. Thatcher announced that “there is no such thing as society.” But if this is the case — if the story-book protagonist-centered tales we tell are real — how can we possibly explain mountains of statistically significant links between race, poverty, gender, and birth location to future health, wealth, and happiness? How can we explain why some countries (namely, the ones with more socialist policies) have such low rates of poverty and homelessness, while others hop from crisis to crisis every year?
Could it be coincidence? Sheer chance? Or, as argued by the likes of Ben Shapiro, pseudo-scientific debunked bigotry? The most basic facts of modern life utterly contradict anti-systemic, individualist thinking. To highlight that contradiction, let’s try to explain the facts above with individualist logic.
Women and nonwhite people, by sheer coincidence, all individually chose to be paid less for more demanding jobs. Also by coincidence, they chose to work those jobs and be paid less than women and nonwhite people in other similarly “developed” countries. Simultaneously, people born in the same zip codes all just happened to make choices that led them to similar incomes, similar lifespans, and similar rates of disease. Those born to poor families chose, with little or no outside influence, to work lower paying jobs. The rich also chose, of their own accord and without significant systemic advantages, to work higher paying jobs. The huge differences in those inequalities between America and other wealthy nations is also a coincidence caused by Americans choosing to be lazier.
Rather than consider that centuries of enslavement and systemic racism has sabotaged the quality of life of black Americans, individualists insist that black individuals choose to live in poverty more frequently than nonblack people. Rather than consider that society exists, individualists have created a web of absurdities and chosen to live there. They also insist none of those absurdities are racist, sexist, or classist.
We shouldn’t temper our language here. Anyone who claims individual choices rather than systems entirely determine how most people live should be dismissed outright. It’s an embarrassing and absurd worldview, and even the tiniest bit of research should make that clear. I’ve left links to some further reading in the description.
Like many aspects of American capitalism, Individualism is a worldview created not to explain the world, but to control it. It’s designed to fragment strong communities, turn workers against each other, and diminish the power of solidarity among the people. When you see yourself as the morally upright hero and everyone else as competition, you’re turning your back on what it means to be human. There’s plenty to go around, or at least there would be if it weren’t all funneled straight to the top — to the people who manufactured the idea of individualism. Make no mistake, this worldview does not benefit you. We all need to make an attempt at deprogramming ourselves, of casting off decades of toxic individualist propaganda, and rebuild the ideals of unity and solidarity.
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When engaging with history it’s easy to fall into the Great Man mindset, erroneously thinking that history is driven by a handful of superhuman individuals. But figures like Martin Luther King Jr, while certainly important and principled in their own right, are always carried by mass movements. In MLK’s case, he supported and was supported by his fellow black Americans fighting for equal rights. If you’d like to learn more about the Civil Rights movement, I highly recommend you check out King: A Filmed Record on CuriosityStream. It’s a great two-part documentary following MLK on his journey from regional activist to becoming the face of the Civil Rights movement. CuriosityStream is an established streaming platform with a solid track record of caring about great, educational content and the financial security of those who produce it. They’ve got thousands of nonfiction titles from some of the best filmmakers in the game. As you probably know, YouTube doesn’t treat its creators very well. That’s why some of my creator friends and I teamed up to build nebula, so we don’t have to worry about demonetization. As educational creators ourselves, we love curiositystream, so we’ve worked out a deal where if you sign up for curiositystream at the link below, you’ll also get access to Nebula, 100% free. That’s less than fifteen bucks a year for both CuriosityStream and Nebula, which, in my humble opinion, is a pretty great deal. Since we’re all still waiting for the vaccine, why not spend some time learning about fascinating topics on CuriosityStream, or check out Nebula’s exclusive content, including my upcoming series on the resurgence of fascism? You can also watch all my videos as they were intended – ad free. There really is something for everyone, and by signing up at the link below, you’re helping us produce more content without the fear of demonetization. Give CuriosityStream a shot, and get free access to Nebula when you sign up using the link below. It really does help support my channel, and educational creators all across YouTube.
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