Discourses on pandemic and unemployment keep emphasizing individual responsibility, putting everyone’s fate on their own shoulders. You do not want to get infected or spread it? Decrease your social contacts and wear a mask. Are you unemployed? Recycle and train for what is in demand.
The trap is clear: unless a lockdown is imposed, not going to work is not a real option and as long as there is community transmission public transportation, and workplaces will keep becoming contagion hotspots. If there is unemployment, it is not because of a lack of worker training, but because the general situation does not encourage companies to expand production and hire more people. Even if we all recycle ourselves and gain new skills, it will be useless if there are no new jobs in which to hire them.
And yet, it works. When capital enters a crisis, millions of workers feel useless, perceive themselves as a burden on their families, blame themselves for their situation, and end up destroyed. The WHO estimated in 2019, before the pandemic, that depression would become the main cause of medical leave in Europe by 2020. The suicide epidemic, which is still on the rise, is more of the same. Much of the violence caused by intimate partners and ex-partners is but one side, even more perverse and barbaric, of the same mind-shredder. When the system loses the capacity to exploit us and unemployment and precarization turn into pauperization of large groups of workers, individual responsibility turns into death and misery. Individualism, one of the main ideologies of the system, shows its true face. But what to do? Pushed by almost all works of fiction, education and the official historical narrative, the individualistic conception of society and human experience, with different modifications, seems to have been there forever. It seems to be… natural.
The origin of individualism as a religious theory
There is nothing natural in the conception that people, taken individually, enjoy a wide space of sovereignty allowing them to determine their own future and to shape social reality. Nor is there anything evident in the fact that society is the result of interactions, disputes, and agreements of different kinds between individuals. And, in fact, the idea of the individual is quite recent in historical terms.
The remote origin of the idea of the individual occurred in the religious sphere. For centuries the only great monotheism of the time, Judaism, lacked a personal god. God related to the people of Israel, not to Jews one by one. His communication with the people took place through specialized characters with a particular gift, the prophets. To fulfill a destiny traced by the divinity was a characteristic of the Israelites as a whole vis-à-vis the rest of the peoples. That is why it was the chosen people, not a collection of chosen individuals. The fact that the particular favor of a tribal god who ends up affirming himself as the only real god implies certain opportunities and responsibilities for his chiefs and kings, does not deny but rather reaffirms the collective nature of that relationship.
However, the physical expansion of Judaism throughout the Roman Empire and the logic of its proselytism became increasingly contradictory to the idea of a tribal god. How could one redefine the chosen people when a growing proportion of the faithful came from other groups and lived in other kingdoms?
The overcoming of this contradiction will be at the center of the reflections of the Judaeo-Hellenistic currents (Philo of Alexandria) but they will influence above all a sect that will be at the same time irrationalist and universalist afterwards in a few decades: Christianity. The final response, that of St. Paul, will be to convert the Yahweh’s chosen people into the people formed by those who chose Yahweh. The personal relationship of the members with the divinity comes to the fore. It is so important that it renders unnecessary the rituals of belonging to the people of Israel like circumcision. Henceforth one does not become part of the people of God by being born a Jew. One becomes part of the people of those who have chosen god because one chooses him oneself. What defines Christianity is the relationship of each individual Christian with God. The believer becomes an individual in relation to god and the people become a community of faith mystically united among themselves by the communion of each one with the Christ.
Christianity is also, in its first century, an apocalyptic religion. The people of God live in immediate and permanent expectation of a second coming. Before the imminence, social and class divisions are blurred. All believers are equal in the eyes of God, and that equality, born of the devaluation of all material and social things at the gates of the end of the world, allows a fraternity of brothers in Christ. That is to say, the primitive Christian community is not a community in the strict sense, it is not a concrete whole, it is not a set of interpersonal relationships making things in common and shaping the life of its members. Christianity, on the contrary, is the mystical body of Christ, the aggregation of the believer-god relationships.
But all this has hardly any consequences in Christianity as the social ideology of a new mode of production: feudalism. As the years go by and with them the eschatological, institutional fury wanes, the church will take the central -material, hierarchical- place in Christianity. The people of God, Christianity, will be increasingly defined as the collective beneficiary of the Church’s mediation. The feudal serf, but also the noble and the clergymen, will not have an individualistic conception of themselves. The individual will survive only in theological argumentation – a product for the internal consumption of the ecclesiastical elites – and in the more mystical and sectarian forms, considered heretical, of the margins of Christianity. Most of these had been forcefully persecuted since the conversion of Christianity to a state religion, and we have few traces left of their existence. But not all of them will disappear. One of them will in fact be redirected by the church itself until it is converted into a pillar of European feudalism, a parallel and separate world in which the individual vis-à-vis god will live and which, unexpectedly, will be the incubator of some of the practices and ideological bases that the bourgeoisie will later use in its ascent.
Monasticism was born from the second century onwards as an attempt to redirect the eremitic movement. The hermits, in that exaltation of the personal relationship of the Christian with his god, would abandon the material community to retreat to the wastelands and deserts. Some, the stylites, will even end up on top of the columns of the classical temples destroyed by Christian fanaticism. The aim of such solitude will be to focus on cultivating their relationship with the divinity without distractions. Because for the Christian radical society is nothing but a distraction, a trial or a sacrifice that separates him from the only relationship in which he is an individual by himself, the only one that is oriented to the future and can give meaning to his life.
From the beginning, eremitism will be a problem both for the church and for the hermits themselves. A cloud of more or less wandering mystics without strict ideological control was not at all comfortable for the church, being treated as saints by quite a few of their faithful and preaching prophetic inconveniences too often. That is, when they were not mere madmen or bandits. For the hermits, on the other hand, solitude could be very desirable, but extreme isolation in wild areas tended to require a considerable effort to obtain the basic provisions of life, and was accompanied by a permanent danger of assault.
The solution, which would soon appear, would be the construction of hermitages and monasteries. The interesting thing is that the monastery will be a real community in the terms of Christian theology, that is, it will not be a community at all. Its very name monastery, from the Greek monakhós (solitary, unique), reveals that the aim of monastic communities is to provide and organize solitude, the isolation of the individual in his relationship to God. The monastic community is a group of individuals united not by their relationships or a collective endeavor, but by the superposition of individual actions that only make sense in the relationship of each person with god. The Christian society projecting itself under the monastic ideal is not a society, it is a mass of individuals linked by a centralizing relationship.
In order to develop this antisocial, individualistic principle, time itself was separated from Nature. As the orders advance, from the Visigothic to St. Isidore’s or the Celtic and from these to St. Benedict’s, monastic time will be more regulated. Alienation of human life from Nature experiments in the medieval monastery a completely new level: the radical separation of human time from both solar time and seasons. Factory time is being prefigured, marked by arbitrary shifts and hours rather than by sunlight or the cycle of harvests. It is not by chance that the first mechanical clocks, so important for the birth of capitalist morality, were developed in monasteries. And it is precisely because individualism is a form of denying society to the persons living in it, it cannot assert itself without also denying the very Nature of which human society is a part.
St. Benedict’s rule renders the monk’s hours independent from those of the sun; it makes the time he dedicates to work independent from the needs of his community; and it teaches him that his true realization does not exist in his productive and collective activity but in the contemplative isolation he carries out together with the other monks and at the same time, but not together with them, because in reality this is his time alone with God.
Cradle of the individual, the monastery will be the first model, the first sketch of the great social automaton that the bourgeoisie will take as an ideal form -antithesis in reality- of human society. Because, if we think about it, life under capitalism is not so different from life under the rule. We live in an abstract time -that is, a time that is both abstract and abstracted out of natural time– centered on producing according to a system whose goal is not the satisfaction of human needs. And for the immense majority of people, work -reduced to wage work- is conceived as a mere instrument, as a way of gaining means and time to realize ourselves, that is to say, to develop our individuality and be ourselves, usually by consuming in solitude something that takes us somewhere else, transcends us, that is, alienates and isolates us even more.
Beyond the automaton
Capitalism is not a mere heir to individualism. It is not just any cultural form. It is not simply a legacy of previous systems of exploitation. Individualism is at the very heart of bourgeois religion.
The whole ideological framework of the system is based on the fact that voluntary exchanges are free and that, by definition, when two people exchange something, that exchange is between equal values. Abstracted from all the conditioning factors of real persons, the abstract individual exchanging his labor power does so freely. Moreover, if we let the market balance itself through competition, he will receive a salary equal to his labor power’s value, a fair salary. And so, wealth would be magically created, simply by the succession of cycles of exchange. The faster these cycles run, we are told every day, the more wealth will be created. Who creates wealth? Those who possess capital and use it to buy labor power for the purpose of selling their product, because the higher the number of exchanges and products, the higher the dynamics of commodity circulation.
In the narrative of this mythology, the reason why the majority of society, the proletariat, can only exchange their labor power in the market is invisible. Nor will it tell us that for such a class to exist in society, the largest part of society had to be dispossessed of the means of production. But the goal is achieved, thanks to that abstraction called the individual, the fact that the growth of wealth is nothing but an increase of unpaid labor disappears completely from the narrative. The concept of the individual is the foundation of the argument that makes it possible to deny exploitation.
That is why the system wants us not only to accept the existence of the individual, but to consider ourselves individuals. Let us change the monastic god for the economy -that is for accumulation- and we will see what it really means. The individual is the perfect form for the meat grinder. Just as the medieval monk turned into guilt the disasters that his god permitted and ended up thinking that his own sins were the origin of all evils, we will be responsible for the disasters that the system produces, from environmental destruction to the pillage of past centuries, from the infinite forms of discrimination that it creates and recreates continuously to our own unemployment. Moreover, we will be as incapable as the monk to be part of what is really communal and collective, thus renouncing both to the ability to resist and to the ability to transform anything. Like the monk, we will be unable to imagine work as anything other than a curse, and that universal and concrete human needs can take precedence over abstractions. And our own life will become, like his, the experience of being an individual, a meaningless transit to nothingness.
To protect ourselves from the meat grinder, to contribute to our emancipation from it at last, requires dismantling individualism. But that is far from being a theoretical activity. It is an exercise. It is, above all, fighting as part of a class fighting for universal needs and which, little by little, is being set in motion again all over the world.