Where did it all go wrong?
The age of the individual could have been a good thing. It was supposed to be a good thing, because the institutions the “individual” was supposed to be fighting against were giant soulless beasts and no one was rooting for them. The machine, the corporation, the oppressive state.
So we all read our Orwell and saw Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and maybe we dabbled in a bit of existentialist philosophy, if we were that way inclined, or wore the clothes and the badges and the hairstyles of freedom, if we weren’t, and we thought that was enough. We’d all agreed. People were better than institutions.
Of course, it turned out that agreeing wasn’t enough. The machine’s never been stronger, the nation state still gets the heart all aflutter when someone has the temerity to insult it, and corporations are protected by human rights laws. But somehow, at the same time, and in the worst possible way, we are living in the age of the individual.
Because the “age of the individual” got corrupted. With apologies to Sartre, who might disagree, although I suspect he and I wouldn’t have got along very well anyway, the “individual” was never supposed to be just “me”. But now it is. It’s not the individual against the machine, it’s the individual against all the other individuals, everyone out for what they can get, and yes, they might extend that to their family, or even their friends, but some stranger in the street? Do me a favour. Don’t care what they’re thinking, don’t care what they want, as long as it doesn’t get in my way.
It’s not that I think people have got more selfish. It’s that they have been told it’s OK to be selfish, necessary, even, that being selfish is the same as standing up for other people who are just like you, and to an extent I suppose it can be, but more than that it’s standing against other people who aren’t like you, which isn’t really the same thing. Individuality is sold wholesale, being French or Allawite or (Alex Salmond would say) Scottish makes you more of an individual than anyone else. And, of course, wearing the right clothes, buying the branded goods, the DVDs and music and consumer electronics, all of that, apparently, makes you an individual, too. The very machines that the age of the individual was supposed to vanquish have co-opted it, turned it into their slave, painted everything else in the world as the machine and the particular product, policy or style of jingoism they’re selling as something unique.
And the result is gangs of so-called individuals, sticking it to everyone else, whoever they might be, because everyone who isn’t in their particular gang isn’t an individual, just an amorphous mass.
On reflection, I think I prefer the machine.
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