, , , , , , , , , , , ,

When I first started reading Charles Taylor on qualitative individualism in my 20s, my Marxist father complained that Taylor paid too little attention to material conditions. I didn’t really get the criticism at the time, but I do now, for reasons that go well beyond reading and writing.

Taylor’s discussion of qualitative individualism (or “expressivism” or the “ethics of authenticity”) takes place largely in the realm of ideas, as mine also has so far. I have tried to trace the history of the ideas of qualitative individualism. But such a history is incomplete.

Why? Well, we don’t see the ideas of qualitative individualism in the premodern world, not even in predecessors like Duns Scotus who provided its metaphysics. And the reason for that is quite simple: the premodern world, Western and otherwise, was not capitalist. (Anthony Woodiwiss once went as far as to say, in Economy and Society 26(1), that we think more clearly if we stop saying “modernity” and instead just say “capitalism”. I think Woodiwiss’s point is far too strong – it denies the possibility of a non-capitalist modernity – but it is a good reminder of just how closely modernity and capitalism are linked.)

What makes capitalism different from premodern economic systems is not just money-based exchange – that existed long before, around the world – but the free labour market, where individuals were not bound by custom and law to the traditional landholdings they grew up on. “Free” can be a misnomer here, in that as many places transitioned to capitalism, farmers were forced off their land, from the Highland Clearances to contemporary Thai peasants evicted for tourist development or unable to farm because of pollution: leaving the traditional economy was often not a choice. Still, the capitalist labour market meant that many people now had flexibility to choose to be a factory worker or a farmer or a miner – and that’s just poor people, let alone the wealthier people who could now choose to be merchants or doctors or lawyers. Even when one had to spend the bulk of one’s waking hours earning money, one often had some choice as to the particular way that that money would be earned and those hours would be spent. (Thus the German proverb Stadtluft macht frei, city air makes you free – the city being the place of the capitalist economy.)

And it is with those possibilities opening up that the idea of living one’s life in a way true to one’s individual nature starts to more sense. In most pre-capitalist worlds, if one didn’t feel suited to living life just as one’s parents did, the only real alternative was to be a monk – and many places didn’t even allow that option. I think that the opportunities capitalism offers generally do represent real progress, and that qualitative individualism represents a truth of human experience that has only come to be seen with the rise of the capitalist world.

Yet what capitalism gives with one hand it takes away with the other. It makes the ideal of qualitative individualism possible – and it also frustrates that ideal at every turn. I certainly could not imagine my potential fulfilled in a life where my available choices were between farming, mining and factory work. I know it was my calling, my Beruf, to be a professor at a research university where I could get paid to do the writing that I am doing here for free – and the option to fulfill that calling was just not available to me in the way it had been to my father’s generation.

But I think it is this very tension between capitalism and qualitative individualism that animates my father’s intellectual hero, Karl Marx. I think Marx is deeply rooted in the qualitative individualist ideal, and does a lot to develop it, in ways that often go unappreciated. (Indeed qualitative individualism is in some ways a commonality between Marx and Nietzsche that I think often goes unremarked.) For all his concern with class divisions in a capitalist economy, Marx’s greatest worry about that economy is not poverty. He refers relatively infrequently to the starvation or other immiseration of the working classes – even though he suffered this deeply himself, losing several children to starvation and lack of medicine. Nor is it even inequality per se, the gap in wealth or opportunity between bourgeois and proletarians, that most worries him. Rather, when he writes about the human experience of the working classes, his fundamental concern is alienation: that they do not have the ability to define or control the product of their work, that it is work for another and not themselves.

Such alienation was felt least by the youth of the 1960s, that time of such bizarre and unprecedented prosperity that many people could imagine “do what you love and the money will follow” to be good advice. Consider the Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society, one of the preeminent organizations of American student radicalism in the 1960s, which is in many ways as clear a statement of qualitative individualism as one can find. It echoes Marx when it says “work should involve incentives worthier than money or survival. It should be educative, not stultifying; creative, not mechanical; self-directed, not manipulated…” But Marx shows considerably more awareness than the authors of the Port Huron Statement that this is not what work is for most people, and that for the vast majority, the incentives of existing economic systems make it unlikely to ever be.

In the ensuing years, the SDS’s view has come to be grotesquely warped into a form where corporations now demand that their workers act as if their work is fulfilling – many job ads specify that the applicant should have a “passion” for the work they are applying for, in a way that discriminates against and disempowers those people who are merely trying to put food on their plates. Likewise the slick branding of the “gig economy” takes the reality of poorly paid shift work with no benefits, and phrases it as a positive because it is compared to the artistic life of a musician – a convenient way to chip away further at the fragile labour protections, so hard-won by the labour movement of the early 20th century, that the ’60s generation never really cared about that much because they didn’t have to. I think it no coincidence that the epicentre of this brutally exploitative economy is that same San Francisco Bay Area where the ideals of the 1960s once flourished most fully. (Jim Wilton described qualitative individualism as “a particularly ‘Left Coast’ idea”, and while it is considerably more widespread than that, it would not be amiss to see it as particularly strong in California.)

The always enjoyable Existential Comics put it beautifully in a tweet: “Remember, always follow your passion. And if your passion doesn’t fit into global capitalism, well, then you are a failure at life.” Capitalism as we know it created the ideal of qualitative individualism – and that ideal itself shows us itself the deep inadequacies of capitalism, even though alternatives to it are hard to even imagine.