A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

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4 Responses to A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

  1. Tim says:

    How individual are trees? And do you feel social pressure to shed leaves in the autumn? We should be told!

  2. sam says:

    Been studying authoritarianism recently, and the Milgram studies which I presume you know about http://www.stanleymilgram.com/milgram.php

    I mentioned Epicurus to you before, the ‘inventor’ of hedonism. If you reduce his teachings to three principles (on how to be happy/live a good life), one of them would be to have autonomy in your working life.

    But then since when did corporates give a shit about happiness? Of course the interesting thing is the studies which show that increased autonomy increases productivity (which they DO care about). So the authoritarian culture is certainly about more than the corps bottom line.

    • contact says:

      Yes, actually I think it’s important to point out that the authoritarian culture is not just about the bottom line. That would grant to it a fully rational logic. And so much of it really is just about the lust for power, the urge to control. We think too much of the people with power sometimes. They don’t have a grand plan any more than we do.

      • tim says:

        I think there maybe an incorrect assumption here; which is that people controlling these corporations benefit most from high efficiency and profit. This is not necessarily true in my opinion. People controlling large organisations receive benefits in many other ways (for example, wages, benefits-in-kind, social status, job security, etc). Markets naturally functioning to enforce efficiency on organisations has, I believe, now been show by the economics literature to be a myth. In many cases people use business to form cartels and monopolies and use them to deliberately decrease productivity in favour of higher benefits to themselves. For example; a manager may value excluding competitors over increased pay.

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