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.