In an American social context, individualism is clearly praised as one of the highest of all social values. The American Dream itself is constructed on the notion that an individual, unfettered by anyone but him or herself, can achieve desires, the only limitation being personal weakness and failure to seize the opportunities provided by the country. In popular culture, individualism is portrayed as a way of becoming one’s unique and authentic person, branding oneself in a certain way and doing whatever one feels like, as some assertion of the unique “I” that is our true being. Individualism is thus a type of philosophy that immediately sets it against its opposite, some type of conformity, some type of community ultimately, to which the individual stands against. However, the careful reader will note that, perhaps above all in an American context, individualism is one of the most socially dominated and engineered terms we have. This is because this term itself is used to support a system that is both capitalistic and materialistic: it is a term that ultimately itself becomes part of a larger social context, as the individual, thinking individualism is what matters, really is a sheep perpetuating the greater social system at large, and, in particular a capitalist and consumerist ideology that always measures a society in terms of the “I.”
One of the clearest ways to look at how individualism really works and what it truly means is to look at the social contexts where individualism is elevated to the heights of its own mythology. Individualism, such as it is idolized in the United States, is portrayed as the ultimate form of non-conformity. Thus, some of the archetypical images from the American consciousness, such as the lone Cowboy who goes to the frontiers, or the drugged out rock star, who just does his own thing in violation of social norms, are two typically American and typically individualistic images. Rather, however, these two particular images could be viewed from the exact opposite perspective, as images that are perpetuated as ideals by a particular social system, with its own desires, its own power structures, and its own way of organizing the world. Let us take the image of the raw and rugged individual cowboy who ventures into the Wild West to make a future for himself. Well, at the same time it is important to note, and I hope that we all have not forgotten this yet, but the West, as well as the entire Americas themselves, were populated by an indigenous population. The cowboy who goes out to make his life on his own was really someone who entered an area already inhabited by given social groups for thousands of years. The individual life he made by himself was also the result of basically committing genocide against the native populations. We can see here that the idea of a rugged individualism are used to promote and essentially justify, or perhaps pave over, the clear existence of a colonial social system, based on power, violence as well as systematic racism. The cowboy individual was as much a part of this system as anything else.
The rock star, the individual who does not conform to the standard social roles, is another socially engineered role. What exactly is the rock star standing for in his or her individualism? Usually, it is a representation of an arrested phase of development, as rock music and other forms of music are tied to adolescent dreams. The culture of rock music and the rebellious rock star fits in perfectly with a materialist and self-centered culture. It is the rock music who breaks social taboos, but still remains dependent upon concert ticket sales and music downloads and CD purchases in order to survive. The rock musician also sells his image beyond the actual music product itself, such as the clothes he or she is wearing. These images quickly become a model for other “individuals.” The rock musician furthermore promotes a hedonistic lifestyle, of drugs and sex and rock n roll, which only addresses immediate physical satisfaction, and not a deeper intellectual and critical engagement with life. Instead of let’s say, self-sacrifice for others, critical thinking, breaking past adolescent patterns of behavior, this type of immediate physical satisfaction is perfect for perpetuating the sheep of a capitalist and materialist culture.
And individualism as an ideology is ultimately a great tool for what economists like to call a diverse economy, which is key to success in capitalism. Unsophisticated countries are commonly deemed so from an economic perspective, because they are over reliant on one commodity, such as oil in the Middle East. A culture that supports individualism, however, diversifies its economy by definition: every individual wanting to be like the individual he or she identifies with. Thus, the infamous stereotype now of the hipster, with his dilettante and esoteric tastes, is one of the driving factors of capitalist market diversification. This type of image is one of the keys of a strong capitalist economy.
Thus, when we think of individualism, we should perhaps think of the exact reverse. We need to consider the exact social and economic conditions where individualism came to be valued: the Capitalist West. Then we need to ask ourselves, if individualism became part of this mythology because of the behaviors of individuals themselves, or whether the promotion of this type of ideology had a greater social goal, that is, to promote and perpetuate the workings of a precise social system. These decisions to praise individuality certainly may not be consciously planned and instead unconsciously, but the fact that they are praised itself shows that such a love for the individual is not an individual decision, but the result of a clear social context, a socio-economic system that promotes its own values and its own way of life, a system of which the rugged individual is a part, like the sheep in the herd.