Monday, February 3, 2014

The delusion of the individual

How come that in this point in human history, individualism thrives and the myth of that everybody needs to work for his or her own interest has taken such strong hold?

All facts on the ground suggest the opposite.

No other time before have the individuals on this planet been so utterly dependent of millions of other people and of nature resources from all over the globe.  It has always been a myth that each person is the “smith of his own happiness” (a Swedish proverb), i.e. is responsible for him or herself.  Already as hunter and gatherers we lived in bands of people helping each other, taking care of each other, foster children, get food, protect each other. And in agrarian societies, the idea of the self-sufficient individual peasant has little ground in reality, mostly people were dependent on their kin, villages etc. if not enslaved by lords or masters.

So, we have always been dependent. But with increasing division of labour and with global networks we are utterly helpless if that context is taken away. Also in science, all progress builds on the accumulated mass of knowledge from previous generations, so regardless which discovery render a Nobel prize, it will always be a team work, with a team of living or dead people.  Even our dependency on nature is as strong as before, or in a sense even stronger as we need much bigger parts of nature to satisfy our demands today, than before.

Therefore, it is flabbergasting how this idea of the individual has taken over our thinking.

Is it because our dependence of other people is faceless, we don’t know those people we need? That our dependence of nature is not linked to a particular field or farm or lake or forest, but to the abstraction “nature”?  

Or is it, on the contrary, a kind of sub-conscious protest to all this dependency? 


  1. possibly its the diversity of roles that people have that promotes individualism, as a community is a group of distinct individuals.

  2. I agree with the intent of your post, but I think you chose the wrong proverb to illustrate it. I am not an expert on Danish or Swedish proverbs, but I doubt that it means "responsible for him or herself" in the sense you describe.

    From birth, everyone is dependent on others for support in life. Despite that support fate will lead us through many twists and turns, but whatever happens to us we can control (to some extent) our own emotional reactions to events. We can't rely on others to make us happy, therefore "Enhver er sin egen lykkes smed" ("Everybody is the smith of his own happiness").

  3. Might be that you are right there Joe, I thought about it when I wrote it. I looked around and noted that there is something similar said by Aristotle. One could argue that this could also apply to the expression "pursuit of happiness". That could also be seen as being about our own reactions to events rather than what we actually do. I still believe that the origins of the proverb is more about what we do in life in order to be happy than how we approach events and life. It fits better with what I believe was the mentality of society when it developed. But as I said I am not sure.

  4. From my book in process....
    "Danger lurks in a solitary world. “You have my back and I’ll have yours” is a sentiment as old as the wooly mammoth. This, too, a metaphor for our need to be safe and connected. Unfortunately this desire was challenged by another. Tales of conquest, invasions, empires, enclosures, genocide, land grabs, speculation, migrations and displacements have challenged us at every turn. Our exodus is ancient and repeated until today when by force or hope we seek our promised lands. As the children of a modern diaspora we seek what we do not know or simply do not remember. This is our predicament."