Western Individualism and Spirituality
What is Individualism?
Individualism is a social theory or pattern that consists of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives, favoring the interests of the individual over that of the collective.
Individualism frequently shows up as a set of cultural values and beliefs. American culture is highly individualistic, as many Americans believe the choices and freedoms of the individual and the principle of being independent and self-reliant are paramount, and in many instances, synonymous with a person’s worth to society.
Individualistic cultures emphasize the needs and desires of individuals over those of the group and the relationships of individuals with respect to other individuals. These cultures expect individuals to learn and discover what their values and interests are independent of the group’s social structures.
Why is individualism so problematic?
Highly individualistic belief systems often sacrifice the greater good in favor of individual preference. Some individual belief systems (like Libertarianism) assert that if given the freedom of choice, most individuals will choose the greater good, regardless. The American public’s reaction to wearing masks showed us that this is, in fact, often not the case with individualism and like never before, the pandemic has exposed how a heavily individualistic culture can self-destruct under pressure.
Because individualistic cultures tend to be very focused on the rights and freedoms of the individual, they also tend to be highly narcissistic. Because of this, you’ll see a higher correlation between individualism, right-wing ideology, and narcissistic traits.
As I’ve discussed before, higher narcissistic tendencies generally mean lower ability to empathize with others, and a more self-centered outlook on life. When this social theory gets applied to capitalism, it creates a mentality that values profits over people and the environment. Additionally, the higher the level of individualism/narcissism, the greater the tendency toward tribalism and “othering,” which in spirituality we would call separation consciousness.
Because individualism strongly favors a survivalist mentality and measures a person by their ability to take care of themselves, individualistic cultures frequently ignore systemic inequality and are steeped in various types of ableism, classism, and other social prejudices that contribute to it.
In a lot of ways, individualist attitudes result in passing the responsibility for fixing the problems it creates to the next generation because it assumes that all problems are the result of someone’s personal failings rather than a systemic issue.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
The opposing social theory to individualism is collectivism, which has its own set of pitfalls.
Collectivism is a social theory or pattern that is characterized by an emphasis on cohesiveness among individuals and prioritization of the group over the self. It stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person.
Upon first glance, this seems like the spiritual ideal, but collectivist cultures have their own issues. In a collectivist culture, individuals are more likely to avoid rocking the boat, which means there’s a lot of what we would classify as codependent and people-pleasing behavior. People are less likely to be honest about their true feelings, and more likely to sacrifice their own happiness and follow a herd mentality. It makes these cultures cooperative, but still distrustful of one another and feeling unfulfilled on a personal level.
Enlightened Anarchy, Healthy Interdependence, and the Aquarian Vibe
In astrology, Aquarius is where the strengths of the individual are harnessed for humanitarian purposes and the greater good of the collective. Everyone’s uniqueness is valued, but that uniqueness doesn’t override the desire to cooperate for the good of the whole. This is the theory behind Libertarianism, but it’s not the practice of it.
In truth, this kind of enlightened anarchy requires that each individual has done deep shadow work to overcome the trauma which may be detrimental to their ability to trust and cooperate with others for the greater good.
Humanity on the whole is a long way from this ideal. What might this look like? And how did we fuck it up so much?
The Origins of the Selfish Species
This video had a profound effect on me when I first saw it several years ago. It does well to describe how individualism became cemented into Western culture and how that culture may be different had history taken a different turn.
Have a watch:
Think about the implications this has on society as a whole. Darwin’s mentality –– survival of the fittest –– is a fundamental driver of individualism.
What was the difference between Wallace and Darwin? Darwin emphasized competition between individuals of the same species to survive and reproduce, whereas Wallace emphasized environmental pressures on varieties and species forcing them to become adapted to their local conditions, leading populations in different locations to diverge.
Darwin’s theory was applied by Western academics to all sorts of other theories, including economic theory. Darwin himself was as classist as they come:
[Darwin’s] wealth allowed him, too, to assist younger naturalists who, in their turn, helped him when the going got rough later on. In particular, he used his influence to assist both Thomas Henry Huxley and Joseph Hooker in obtaining positions, and they both reciprocated by lending him crucial support when he needed professionals to stand by his side.
But what is most significant is the way his blue-blooded view of life shaped his theory. He differed sharply from social egalitarians of his era, and from people of humbler social origins (Desmond and Moore 1991, p. 267), in accepting the principles of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus claimed that societal improvements only result in population growth which, he argued, sooner or later results in famine and widespread mortality. For this reason, Malthus denounced charity for the poor. Not surprisingly, this view was well-received by the capitalist-industrialist class to which Darwin-Wedgwoods belonged. It was a view that allowed the wealthy to maintain a firm grasp on their riches without suffering qualms of conscience.[This is also the basic belief behind ecofascism]
But Malthus also provided the foundation of Darwin’s theory. Thus, in the Origin (1859, p. 65) Darwin claims that:
“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms.”
Positing this universal Malthusian struggle among all the individual organisms of the earth, permitted Darwin, as Desmond and Moore (1991, p. 267) put it, to “appeal to a better class of audience” — the class of industrialists and capitalists to which he and his family belonged. Of course, it also provided him with an arena of individual competition in which natural selection could act. But he probably would not have chosen such an axiom for his theory if he had not been a member of the upper class. –– A Gentleman Naturalist, Macroevolution.net
By contrast, Wallace was a radical social activist who was critical of what he considered to be an unjust social and economic system in 19th-century Britain. His interest in natural history resulted in his being one of the first prominent scientists to raise concerns over the environmental impact of human activity.
Survival of the Fittest
Because Western values are ingrained with social darwinism, our capitalist society has a strong belief that competition is part and parcel to survival, and those who survive –– and thrive –– are indeed the fittest. As a result, we have a tendency to measure success based on who is doing the best, the most, being outstanding, or exceptional. This inherently lends itself toward using society’s most privileged as the yardstick.
Imagine what society might look like if we had embraced Wallace’s mechanism of evolution instead of Darwin’s? If we then only measured our success based on how well our most vulnerable were doing?
This is one of the fundamental shifts in our mentality and values that we need to make if we want to move toward a more conscious paradigm of living. We can start by understanding how individualism and social Darwinism has infiltrated not only our social systems and mentalities around business, but also how it’s infiltrated our values and belief systems.
Spirituality teaches us that we are co-creators in a collective and that separation is an illusion. Our belief that we are somehow independent of the rest of the world is part of the “delusion” I wrote about last week. In that post, you can see how individualism may color the Western view of spirituality by shifting our understandings of the concepts themselves. That’s the “pop” spirituality that the health and wellness industry preaches, and naturally, true to form, it’s riddled with ableism and racism, and its end goal is manifesting material wealth and status, just like the culture of those who practice it.
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