The Pathos of Politics (3-1) Individualism


Sociality is not a cultural acquisition. It is instead sewn into the human psyche.

The need to belong is strong. Family forms the core of our sociality. Alas, whatever socialist sentiments extended from familial feelings were dulled during the evolution of civilization as a defense of materialism.

For men, individual well-being, not that of the group, has been the dominant drive. There were, as aforementioned, exceptions in the Far East as agriculture arose. But even there, communal spirit eroded as politics evolved. The hoary civilizations of China and Vietnam exemplify states that are communist in name but totalitarian elitist in practice.

To materialist mankind, cooperation always seemed a compromise. The notion of sharing everything is confined to the nuclear family, and even there, material conflicts arise. Hence, by dint of physical strength and propensity to use it, paternalism came to dominate.

The biologically based impetuses to cooperative behavior are kinship and reciprocal altruism. Like other mammals, people prize their offspring (mothers especially). Familial feelings are the evolutionary outgrowth necessary for rearing offspring. In a broader realm, we only give to those whom we feel compassion.

Reciprocal altruism is the ability to cooperate with those who are not family. Social cooperation depends upon an individual’s ability to repeatedly solve what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma: that serving self-interest results in a suboptimal outcome compared to cooperation.

This dilemma dissolves with reputation: knowing how an individual behaved in the past. Reputation evolved early on. Even microbes acquire reputations.

American political scientist Robert Axelrod showed that morality evolves spontaneously as rational decision makers interact, even though motivated by nothing more than self-interest. Self-interest drives both individualism and voluntary cooperation – but the later only when potential gain is perceived at some foreseeable point. When blatant self-interest becomes socially acceptable (as it has), society becomes individualistic, and societal well-being suffers.

With preserving their status as the paramount goal, ruling elites cast economic and political institutions toward individualism. In modern times, that corporations are legally treated as individuals is a profound example.

Obligation to society is an abstraction only realized by coercion or a delusional identification with the state: whence nationalism as a political ideal as an instance of the latter, and the military draft illustrating the former.

Most people think of a political state not in terms of community, but instead a supra-individual authority: a force of imposition, not sociability. Polity as societal adhesive does not come to mind. Instead, the state ostensibly enforces the limits of accepted behavioral norms, and acts to preserve itself as an epitome of individualism.

Individualism is a mind-set not easily set aside, especially when it is a norm reinforced by reward for self-initiative. Community spirit cannot find fertile soil in a ground sown with self-interest. Such is the state of the world of men.