Written by LG
Classic individualist thinkers, i.e. Ayn Rand and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were pioneers in constructing political thought that is still existent in contemporary social and political life. The vehemently held beliefs amongst individualist, both of the past and present, hold in incredulously high regard the importance of living for oneself. There is no greater joy in life, and no sweeter satisfaction, than to live for oneself, and no one else. The praise of classic individualist thinkers, like the two previously mentioned, is a testament to how viscerally said ideology resonated with a group of people. However, the ugly truth behind individualism is that is is an ideology that can only be upheld by a person of privilege.
Who Gets to be an Individualist?
In the novel, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, a character’s dialogue is a lengthy testament to the importance of individualism. The character states that, “‘men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created,”(Rand, 1903, pp.408). Throughout the rest of the novel, Rand goes on to say that those who live a life dependent on a creator are equivalent to a parasite. This type of discourse has proven to be problematic. This type of discourse has created in a sense of othering. There are those who do-the productive members of the world, and those who depend-the parasites.
Individualism fails to exercise the understanding of the privileges and resources necessary to be a doer. Marginalized groups are given the bare necessity to survive, nonetheless produce. Furthermore, individualists-specifically Rand, go on to villainize producers who give. How can the playing field be equal for everyone to be doers, if they are prohibited from reaping the benefits of resources produced? Individualism is only plausible for privilege. Individualism is malicious to the marginalized.
Who Does Individualism Hurt?
Individualism has bred the mentality that, as existent in the name, people must live for themselves. The shortcomings of one person/community is, therefore, a failure on their part to “keep up”. Individualism has bred a certain breed of callousness to the suffering of others. The notion that humans cannot be bothered, or slowed down, to help the progression of others, continues the proliferation of suffering amongst women in under-developed countries.
I do not want to sound like a radicalist. The suffering of women is not the product of one factor, one ideology, etc. However, individualism also serves no benefit to women in under-developed countries.
In the book, Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof, the plight of women on a global scale is studied in depth. In India, as per the book, 2 to 3 million women were prostitutes. According to a survey conducted in 2008, half confessed being coerced into the sex work industry (Kristof, 2008, pp. 6). The chapter goes on to document the hardships experienced by one of the brothel workers, in particular, Meena. During her time as a forced sex slave, Meena ended up giving birth to a young girl. The girl was held captive from Meena as an incentive for Meena’s complicity. In an eventual act of desperation, Meena sought out help from local police. The police not only dismissed her desperate cry for help, but mocked her pain (Kristof, 2008, pp. 6-8).
Individualists are not to blame for the misfortunes of women. Individualists are not to blame for the rampant prevalence of women forced into sex slavery. However, this dominant ideology that individuals must live solely for themselves continues to promote selfishness, and a lack of awareness of the livelihood of those without the same level of resources.
What’s Next for Individualism?
In addressing the gendered impacts of poverty, oppression, and violence on a global scale, individualism does not need to be dismantled in its entirety. Classical individualists presented ideas of great merit, that may exist within the revolution to gender equality, and the dismantlement of sexual oppression. In the essay, Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, he describes the power of committing to one’s own thoughts of how to live and act. Emerson states that, “the power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried,”(Emerson, 1841, par.81). Reliance on oneself can breed resilience. Promoting the ideal that there is power in the preservation of individual beliefs will continue to produce fighters for a cause. This is exemplified in those who overcome incredulous hardships. This is manifested in the story of Meena, and her determination to press onwards. But, in order to individualism to promote resilience, the aspect of selfishness must be eroded. Giving towards others should not be synonymous with giving away from oneself.
Rand, A. (2017). The Fountainhead. New York: New American Library.
Emerson, R. W., & Needleman, J. (2008). The Spiritual Emerson: essential works. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
KRISTOF, N. D. (2018). HALF THE SKY: how to change the world. S.l.: VIRAGO PRESS LTD.