A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The High Cost Of Going It Alone

The unitizing of the individual or the family, not only as the genetic unit, but also as the economic unit has been a major force in driving our economic dysfunction. The natural economic unit is really the mixed community in which demi-specialists perform various community functions along with the basic activities of supplying basic needs. This is not only a structural design, but is, as importantly, a subjective and perceptual meta-space from which the world is viewed.

If the community is viewed as the primary source of identification, then the condition of the members of the community take on an importance and a claim to empathy not recognized in a ‘society’ of isolated individual and family economic units. When individual and family units must fend for themselves, all activities are forced into a “monetized” form [1], and safety is attained by accumulating as much raw economic power as possible. This can only be done by living in relationships that ultimately challenge all others for gain and the opportunities for gain.

While there are emotional and social costs, there are also high economic costs – losses from failing to benefit from the savings based in sharing of resources and economies of scale; and huge losses from the costs of protecting individual wealth (think military budget). Unlike individuals, a community can adjust its material consumption to a ‘most efficient use model.’ Three hundred people in a community of trust and relationship don’t require 250 cars and trucks (about the ratio in America today). The actual conditions of need can be decided and adapted to. It might be that no cars are needed at all, or 20 cars and 10 trucks; it would all depend on circumstance that the community itself would evaluate.

Of course, the car dealer, assuming that he or she comes to the situation from our present model of individualism, would be hell-bend to get everyone to want, or think that they needed, a car. It would be useful to the car dealer (and other unitized economic agents) if people didn’t get along, if they began to be uncomfortable in the carpool or began to feel injustice from the car sharing arrangements. But the ‘car dealer’ who was part of the community would be performing a part-time service of arranging the acquisition of cars for the community needs. His or her income would be only in part from commercial activity, the rest in significant part from primary productive and community activities: gardening and husbandry, building and maintaining, communicating and sharing management. The most basic experiences of life would support the concepts of community as the economic unit.

It is true that such concepts are inherently limiting; individuals and families must function within community expectations and values, and it can be put even more bluntly: actions must finally be limited by Reality. Individuals function in groups, groups function in communities, communities function (are supposed to function) in ecosystems. The force of Reality must find its way to individuals through these connections. The failure of environmental reality to filter down to individual action and the refusal of individuals to respond to such information are serious disorders of process.

It is often stated in what has come to be called libertarian philosophy that individual humans should only be limited by the intrusions that they might make on the space of other humans; free of that limitation nothing should be denied. This view of the individual is pure pathology at both the individual and community level. The most singular measure of “growing up” is the wise inclusion of others (including the surrounding ecosystems) into the sphere of one’s own actions. Grasping selfishness was once the sign of an infant or an unacceptably infantilized adult; today it is often the basis of what is called success.

That communities are the basis for human organization is suggested by a number of different lines of evidence and reasoning: all higher primates – monkeys and more – live in community social and economic units. In fact, many animals live in community economic units of one form or another and have evolved behaviors that control resource depletion and distribution of resources. Not even dogs are ‘dog eat dog;’ that is purely a human occupation. There is a no more community unit structure than a wolf pack! Not that the detailed behaviors that have evolved as functional for wolves should be the model for humans, we have many more options for how to arrange our conserving and distributing.

It is obvious that individual human beings do not have much of a (if any) chance of survival if, by individual, one means operating without the support of other human beings. If we are generous and a person is allowed to be taught by others a language, other primary skills and given minimum tools like clothing, still such a person would need several thousand calories a day of food and energy, protection from dangers and some guiding designs to give direction to actions. Only a community can supply these needs. No one is ‘self-made;’ we are all “hecho en comunidad.” The claim of individual accomplishment untempered by the practical and functional compensation for deep and essential community origins is nothing more than ignorance and infantilized selfishness.

This is even more true today than it was in the past when people seemed to understand it better. The social, knowledge, technological, physical, economic and political infrastructure required for all action from the ordinary to the seeming exceptional is very often ignored. The “I owe no one for my success and therefore all that I have arranged to gather to me is mine without exception and the use of it by any others is theft plain and simple” idea is delusional, and if actually believed, rather than just cynically argued, is quite mad. Such a view is impossible in a community where the source of accomplishment is clearly from the structure and support of the members.

Individualism is a pathology. This is evident in the distrust, hostility, secretiveness, isolation of both person and impulse, delusion and rejection of others that manifest in its various forms. This pathological ideology ruins the lives of both the true believer and all those significantly impacted by it. Perverting the communal nature of the human species with this ideology is like trying to make a tiger eat broccoli – it will fail to create the conditions of health and just make the tiger sick.

As an additional cost, the individualism pathology also costs too much in all the ways: too much stuff, too much demand on the environment, too much misinformation and disinformation, too much conflict and just plain too much of too much. It has only one value and that is the accumulation of excess in the control of madmen and madwomen. And this is enough to cause all the trouble that we see arise from it.

[1] I am using monetized in a very broad sense. There is a great pressure on individualized people to collect to themselves non-perishable forms of wealth against times of want; a fully individualized society doesn’t offer support to others and so the ‘individuals’ must look out for themselves. Communities most often function on mutual support through mutual obligation relationships mediated by societal expectations; individuals look out for the other and in the process are looked out for by others which allows wealth to be social wealth that is constantly being gathered, created, used and spread and need not have a monetized form except for special purposes. The most important wealth is in the community’s readiness and capacity to act collectively for its own benefit.


Michael Dawson said...

This is brilliant and deep. I am generally convinced that much of our atomization has been part of the drive to commodification.

Still, a question: Is all individualism a disease? I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that. Isn't a mature, socially-informed individualism possible?

dADDo said...

I haven't even completed reading the article as my mind has wandered off thinking as to why you (James) are always using sculptural 3D type images images to compliment your articles while talking about community and inclusiveness which even though 4D conceives itself in 2D.
Sculpture/reality is revealed by taking away, not adding.
Hhhhmmm...more later?

James Keye said...


I think this is a nomenclatural matter once the conceptual ducks are properly in rows. Informed repair and removal of the body’s organs and the effects of an antipersonnel land mine share certain common features, so it is fortunate and useful that we have clear language differences for describing them. The sophists have largely avoided this arena.

They have, however, devoted great attention to the muddying of our understanding and language around the issues of community, individualism, wealth, responsibility, obligation, etc., all those concepts that would function to organize community control over and inhibit sociopathic greed and power.

In the medical example there is most often a clear distinction between ‘incision’ and ‘mutilation’, where as ‘individualism’ can refer to making a conceptual difference between one’s self and other beings, but also might refer to the absolute separation of one body from all others in terms of rights, responsibilities, obligations and all other forms of relationship (including reality). This native ambiguity has been thoroughly exploited.

I agree completely that a mature adult of the species has a healthy sense of distinction from other humans as well as other species and objects, but is also deeply aware of interpenetrating relationships that form her or him. We could/should be even more aware of these Buddhist like continuities and paradoxes today in this world of information plenty – we could be – but it is not the information that has failed us, it is that somehow we are not maturing into adults.

I try to limit, in my own thinking, the word ‘individualism’ to the concepts of Lockean liberalism and the Christian based notions of individuals as specially created. Healthy self-recognition and distinction forming out of the absolute connectedness of physical, living and consciousness systems is something quite different and finds its best ‘understandings’ from Zen Buddhism and other such practices.

James Keye said...


I admit to a certain confusion regards your comment. Rereading the essay I recognized my habit of using biological references – this is natural since we are living things and comparisons with other living things are the closest currently available. But other than the photographic image of the man making himself, which I saw as representing absurdity (a cartoon Koan), I didn’t see in the essay a great dependence on 3D imagery.

That said, I liked very much your assertion of sculptural metaphor as a process of revealing the underlying form as opposed to the fabricating of form from isolated pieces. I am insufficiently hubristic to take much credit for that accomplishment if it exists, though it is definitely a goal that I have absorbed from my personal community.

I hope that I have understood you correctly.