As I look to another visit to Germany and France, I recall a long talk with German friends over Spargel and Spätburgunder about our different (but overlapping) cultures, in which it occurred to me that the things I most appreciate and most lament about American culture come down to the same thing: individualism. Americans are obsessed with it, and therein lies their greatest weakness. And their greatest strength.

Individualism will always be part mirage. We are not “thrown” into the world as the existentialists would have it. We emerge organically as part of our parents’ bodies, part of a larger organic chain of parents and children and extended families. Really, it makes more sense to see the species as a single organism, a tree perennially producing new leaves.

This doesn’t mean I am against self-reliance. I believe in the virtue of self-reliance, and believe, probably more overtly than many of my liberal comrades, that this virtue should be an informing principle of any social welfare system. But an obsession with self-reliance can become pathological. Like it or not, we do not live in a state of nature. Like it or not, the world we live in is not just populated by individuals but by very large political and institutional and corporate formations – “collective formations” if you will. We can try to set policies that harness that collective energy for the collective well-being (the tendency of democratic socialism), or we can cling the individualist credo of “every man for himself” and ignore those gigantic formations at our peril. America tends toward the second extreme. The result is the greatest economic disparity of any post-industrial nation. Those at the top of the corporate (“collective”) macro-formations enjoy the profits of middle-class productivity, while middle-class families go bankrupt over health care and education costs at a rate that must be astounding to our more socialized friends across the pond. Our insistence on unlimited individual gun rights is coupled with 11,000 gun homicides a year, compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK. That is individualism in practice.

But naturally my German friends, now imbibing into the night at full throttle, wanted to push the other side, asking what I think GOOD about American individualism. First of all, self-reliance in itself is a virtue, and only becomes pathological when it ignores the actual formations in the cultural landscape. And socialist policies can take a toll on self-reliance if not implemented with care. But more importantly, I do get a sense of freedom in America that is linked to individualism. Not that I share the absurd belief of some of my conservative friends that we are objectively more free than our European neighbors. But there is a subjective tonality that profits from the hyperindividualist ideology of America. In my many hitchhiking romps coast-to-coast in America, and in a lifestyle that has exposed me to a broad demographic spectrum, there is a sense that Americans wake up every day ready to go out and make their own rules. This feeds a kind of creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit, a continual willingness to reboot without looking back, and it does give America a special dynamism. (I suspect it also makes quicker soil for the growth of things like fashion anarchy, although as I have shown in my other excellent blog entries, fashion anarchy must work its way back through German socialism if it ever hopes to arrive at the decentralized freedom that individualists seek.)

So, yes, I love Europe, and I especially love the richness of its cultural history and the way it has harnessed collectivist formations to enhance the commonwealth. But the social and cultural traditions that make Europe fascinating, and make it in my mind capable of dealing in a more mature way with the collective formations of late capitalism, may benefit from the occasional prompt of America’s naïvely free-spirited individualism. I guess that’s why I need to bounce around Europe from time to time and why I need to entertain my European friends back home in New Orleans. I’d like to think that we’re participating in the kind of cross-pollination that keeps the species moving. Now for that German beer.

8 thoughts on “Individualism/Collectivism

  1. Pursuit of “Individualism” is the “right” that originally compelled many of our forefathers to leave their homelands. The freedom to succeed (or fail) is necessary for our system to work. I have also traveled to Europe and appreciate the beauty and history. However, the U.S. system allows easier entry into the “upper” economic class than most other countries. Hardwork and a good idea could still provide the “first class ticket” to success. Our nation, is different than our European counterparts and protection of the 1st, 2nd and 4th admendments to our constitution will always insure those differences.


  2. Pingback: This week’s recommended blogs #4 | Czerulf's Thoughts

  3. The UK sits (geographically and politically) mid-way between the US and mainland Europe. This gives us a useful vantage point where we can see both alternatives.

    I think that you do have more freedom in the US compared with Europe. Perhaps most people don’t notice it. But if you are an entrepreneur, then it is much easier to succeed in the US. Americans should be careful, especially in their seemingly pathological hatred of the “one per cent”, or you will become like Britain where anyone who succeeds at anything (with the exception of football players) becomes an object of hate.


  4. Thanks, Steve. I think there is more entrepreneurial maneuvering space here in the U.S., but in terms of economic mobility in general, Germany, Japan, Australia, and the Scandinavian nations all rank higher in upward mobility, according to a recent U of Ottawa study. In fact, of all advanced countries, only the UK and Italy rank below us in upward mobility. I don’t know what that says about the UK. Here in the U.S., I think that the consolidation of so much wealth at the top (as you probably know, we have far greater economic inequality than in any advanced country) leaves us less wherewithal for mobility at the middle and bottom. In my opinion, only Fox news sees a pathological hatred of the 1% (outrage, however fabricated, drives ratings). The rest of us just think that when 80% of all new wealth since 1980 has gone to the top 1%, we could probably use some policy nudges to ensure that the middle class recovers at least some of the benefits of its own productivity. E.g., it’s no secret here that those years coincide with an enormous drop in top-tier tax rates. Would the world really come to an end if they went back to Clinton-era rates, which were still historically low, and which allowed us to generate a surplus instead of a deficit? Anyway, I will take your point of view under consideration, as it’s always nice to hear an outside voice. And our football players also are mysteriously relieved of scrutiny simply by virtue of being football players.


  5. I essentially spent my time growing up navigating between America and Germany as a French citizen (with some other stuff thrown in for good measure). Wasn’t a fan of Germany, for various reasons, even though – had I chosen to – I woujd have been perfectly integrated. I’d even go out of my way as a teen to speak German with a deliberate American accent. Couldn’t do it in school, where everyone knew me, but it was easy with strangers. Because I’d make damn sure I wouldn’t be taken for a German. There are many factors why Germans embraced or loathed the U.S. and collectivism vs. individualism is definitely one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha. Good story about your fake American-German accent. There are a few things I can poke fun at the Germans about, but overall I love it here and in my hitchhiking rambles through towns large and small, have found much kindness, generosity, and a friendly welcome to Americans. (Or, if I want to recapture your ambivalence despite the universally warm welcome I’ve received, I might say that they “loathe” Trump and some American policies, but embrace the individual Americans they meet on the street.)


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