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The Problem with Individualism

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The world became modern when people who met for the first time shifted from asking each other (as they had always done) where they came from — to asking each other what they did

Nicolaes Maes, The Old Lacemaker, c. 1655

To try to position someone by their area of origin is to assume that personal identity is formed primarily by membership of a geographical community; we are where we are from. We’re the person from the town by the lake; we’re from the village between the forest and the estuary. But to want to know our job is to imagine that it’s through our choice of occupation, through our distinctive way of earning money, that we become most fully ourselves; we are what we do.

The difference may seem minor, but it has significant implications for the way we stand to be judged and therefore how pained the question may make us feel. We tend not to be responsible for where we are from. The universe landed us there and we probably stayed. Furthermore, entire communities are seldom viewed as either wholly good or bad; it’s assumed they will contain all sorts of people, about whom blanket judgements would be hard to make. One is unlikely to be condemned simply on the basis of the region or city one hails from.

But we have generally had far more to do with the occupation we are engaged in. We’ll have studied a certain way, gained particular qualifications, and made specific choices in order to end up, perhaps, a dentist or a cleaner, a film producer or a hospital porter. And to such choices, targeted praise or blame can be attached.

It turns out that in being asked what we do, we are not really being asked what we do but what we are worth — and, more precisely, whether or not we are worth knowing. In modernity, there are right and wrong answers; the wrong ones swiftly strip us of the ingredient we crave as much as heat, food or rest: respect. We long to be treated with dignity and kindness, for our existence to matter to others and for our particularity to be noticed and honoured. We may do almost as much damage to a person by ignoring them as by punching them.

Respect will not be available to those who cannot give a sufficiently elevated answer to the question of what they do. The modern world is snobbish. The term is still associated with a quaint aristocratic value system that emphasises bloodlines and castles. But stripped to its essence, snobbery merely indicates any way of judging another human whereby one takes a relatively small section of their identity and uses it to come to a total and fixed judgement on their entire worth. For the music snob, we are what we listen to; for the clothes snob, we are our trousers. And according to the job snobbery at large in the modern world, we are what is on our business card.

Nicolaes Maes, Portrait of Jan de Reus (Burgomaster of Rotterdam and director of the Dutch East India Company), c. 1658

The opposite of a snob might be a parent or lover; someone who cares about who one is, not what one does. But for the majority, our existence is weighed up according to far narrower criteria. We exist in so far as we have performed adequately in the marketplace. Our longing for respect is only satisfied through the right sort of rank. It is easy to accuse modern humans of being materialistic. This seems wrong. We may be interested in possessions and salaries, but we are not on that basis ‘materialistic’. We are simply living in a world where the possession of certain material goods has become the only conduit to the emotional rewards that we crave deep down. It isn’t the objects and titles we are after; it is, more poignantly, the feeling of being ‘seen’ and liked that is only available to us via material means.

Not only does the modern world want to know what we do, it also has some punitive explanations of why we may not have done very well. It promotes the idea of ‘meritocracy’ — a system that should allow each person to rise through classes in order to take up the place they deserve. No longer should tradition or family background limit what one can achieve. But the idea of meritocracy carries with it a nasty sting: if we truly believe in a world in which those who deserve to get to the top do get to the top, by implication, we must also believe in a world in which those who get to the bottom deserve to be at the bottom. In other words, a world that takes itself to be meritocratic will suppose that failure and success in the professional game are not mere accidents, but indications of genuine value.

It has not always felt quite so definitive. Pre-modern societies believed in the intervention of divine forces in human affairs. A successful Roman trader or soldier would have thanked Mercury or Mars for their good fortune. They knew themselves to be only ever partially responsible for what happened to them, for good or ill, and would remember as much when evaluating others. The poor weren’t necessarily indigent or sinful; the gods might never have looked favourably on them. But we have done away with the idea of divine intervention — or of its less directly superstitious cousin, luck. We don’t accept that someone might fail for reasons of mere bad luck. We have little patience for nuanced stories or attenuating facts; narratives that could set the bare bones of a biography in a richer context, that could explain that though someone ended up in a lowly place, they had to deal with an illness, an ailing relative, a stock market crash or a difficult childhood. Winners make their own luck; losers make their own defeat.

No wonder that the consequences of underachievement feel especially punishing. There are fewer explanations and fewer ways of tolerating oneself. A society that assumes that what happens to an individual is the responsibility of the individual is a society that doesn’t want to hear any excuses that would less closely identify a person with elements of their CV. It is a society that may leave some of the losers feeling that they have no right to exist. Suicide rates rise.

In the past, in the era of group identity, we might value ourselves in part for things that we had not done ourselves. We might feel proud that we came from a society that had built a particularly fine cathedral or temple. Our sense of self could be bolstered by belonging to a city or nation that placed great store on athletic prowess or literary talent. Modernity has weakened our ability to lean on such supports. It has tied us punitively closely to what we have personally done — or not done.

Nicolaes Maes, The Virtuous Woman, c. 1658

At the same time, the opportunities for individual achievement have never been greater. Apparently, we are able to do anything. We might amass a fortune, rise to the top of politics, write a hit song. There should be no limits on ambition. Therefore, any failure feels even more of a damning verdict on who we are. It’s one thing to have failed in an era when failure seemed like the norm, quite another to have failed when success has been made to feel like an ongoing and universal possibility.

Even as it raised living standards across the board, the modern world has made the psychological consequences of failure harder to bear. It has eroded our sense that our identity could rest on broader criteria than our professional performance. It has also made it imperative for psychological survival that we try to find a way of escaping the claustrophobia of individualism, that we recall that workplace success and failure are always relative markers, not conclusive judgements, that in reality, no one is ever either a loser or a winner, that we are all bewildering mixtures of the beautiful and the ugly, the impressive and the mediocre, the idiotic and the sharp.

Going forward, in a calculated fight against the spirit of the age, we might do well to ask all new acquaintances not what they do but what they have been thinking or daydreaming about recently.


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