On the Myth, and Extermination, of the American Individual

I've been working on this argument, an argument no doubt grounded in my profound historical ignorance, but I think it's nifty nonetheless. Perhaps this is obvious or wrong. But hear me out.

There is an American myth of the individual. Capitalism, this myth declares, is the system of individualism. So there is somehow a continuous line that runs from the frontier of the American West through to the boardrooms of Halliburton and their kind.

But I see something else entirely. America was settled by a variety of strands of the human species that had developed in Europe. One of these strands was the radical individual, the one who wanted little to do with organization, with law and its policing. These were misfits and loners, lunatics and holy men. And there was another strain (amongst others): the corporate strain and its will to organized anonymity and all that follows in its wake.

The individual was literally pushed farther and farther outside the coalescing nation-state — that will to corporation — that would become the United States. Eventually, the corporate strand would win out, subjugating the individual and turning the American West into commodity, kitsch, a sideshow where someone can earn a buck. The frontier was no longer the frontier: it had become Spectacle.

Capitalism loves the myth of the individual — Anyone can make it! Just work hard! But if that's true of capitalism it is certainly not true of American capitalism which is not premised on the individual but on the corporation. And the corporation is rigorously and mercilessly opposed to the individual; the individual must integrate into the system, become a cog in the profit engine for an entity that has all the legal rights of the individual but is in fact nothing but an anonymous will to profit.

This struggle between the two strands — a struggle no doubt that is not so cleanly delineated, an opposition that is not always an opposition but that bleeds and intertwines — is the first great American Civil War.

This is the subject of Michael Mann's film, "Public Enemies," in which Mann argues that Dillinger and his crew were the last stand of the old West, annihilated by the rise of the police state and its relentless hegemonic will, a will funded and driven quite literally by the demands of Capital: the banks. Dillinger held up banks. The federal government and its police wing, the FBI, acts as a wing of the banks and hunts Dillinger down by exposing the entire nation to a common light of interrogation: the panopticon, surveillance, wire tapping.

The individual is of course a complex term and category. It can, and does, mean many things. We can view it as the source of American greed and selfishness, responsible for destroying the planet. And that is no doubt one thread of the individual, of individualism.

But there is another thread, one not built as much on ego and selfishness as on integrity, peculiarity, self-possession (as distinct from state or corporate possession). This is the individualism of true grit and the Coens' film by that name. The line running from that breed of individualism to the boardrooms of American corporations was severed long ago.

The American state apparatus — its legislation and its military — works for corporations, advances the cause of corporations, usually over and against the individual.

What I'd like to explore is how a society of individuals might look, how it might function, how it might behave. Stay tuned.


Jeff M. said...

I think the particular historical dynamic you are theorizing about is not unique to America or Europe. Let me suggest this book review about the subject:


drwatson said...

I was reminded of Kierkegaard's wonderful little book The Present Age where he talks about the press creating the Public and how that public was antagonistic to an individual. It seems on one hand there are these characters like Beck, Stewart, O'Reilly, Maddow and so forth that congeal a public into a certain mode of discourse, a certain terminology and a certain set of topics that we debate. Now, I'm not suggesting all those characters are created equal but there's a way in which the Public is created by them at the expense of the individual.

I'm wondering if the internet's fragmented nature might do something to turn Public into publics and if that would be more or less conducive to individual thought and so forth. I'm not sure. The web is so complicated it's hard to think about as a monolith.

Also, not sure if you ever look at ZNet, but Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel and others have been talking about alternatives to capitalism that I find interesting. A lot of the articles are long and dry and I'm not sure the cite fully understands how the internet functions as a medium. But I think the problem you're referring to is being addressed by some pretty thoughtful people.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Hey, yeah, The Present Age: a seminal book in my life I'd completely forgotten about. Thanks! The media, which as its plural name suggests, should be a force of multiplication. Alas, it creates, as SK says, 'the public' — a homogeneous mass.

The interweb certainly has the potential to forge multiplicities, zones, peoples rather than a people. To wit, this blog and our discussions.

But there is a grammar to sites like FB that recapitulate the most egregious, insidious components of bourgeois propriety. More on this, soon.

I don't know Znet at all but I like what you describe here. So I'll check it out and thanks again.


I'm wondering if 'true grit' individualism is possible without a frontier where others don't get in the way? What happens when others do get in the way? Rooster Cogburn ends up dying in a traveling circus.

Daniel Coffeen said...

GP: Good question. Is space and density a key factor in determining the ethical posture of the social body? Of course, yes.

But I wonder if all true grit needs space. I wonder if, as we get physically closer, whether there is not a greater call for some form of true grit, of self- possession.

I mean look at the roads: they get more and more crowded and yet people drive like selfish assholes — angry, resentful, filled with road rage. Perhaps a little more self-possession would actually make drivers more generous....


I fear, though, that self-possession is like any other kind and will ultimately need to be protected at any and all costs. The connection between corporate individuals and true grit individuals is much closer than we may want to admit.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ GP: Say more about what you mean — I'm curious: how do you see the connection b/w true grit individuals and corporate individuals (which, in my definition, is an oxymoron: the corporation is rigorously opposed to the individual)?