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.