Individualism and the left

“Aggregation… is decentralisation’s paradoxical partner.”

The quote comes from page 11 of Jodi Dean‘s “Crowds and Party” (Dean 2016) paraphrasing the writer James Surowiecki, as part of a discussion of the nature of individualism under modern capitalism.

What Dean  demonstrates is that modern consumer capitalism has a dialectical relationship with ‘the people’ . On the one hand Dean’s analysis makes clear that neoliberalism has done everything it can to separate us from each other, to ensure we remain individuals. Some of this effort is well known such as the assault on unionisation that has taken place since the 1970s, epitomised by the miner’s strike in the mid-80s and leading to a long term decline in unionisation. Just as important though is the progressive ‘individualisation’ of culture and society which has colonised the space vacated by these broken collective structures. We need to be kept separated to ensure the security of the system from collective action.

Capitalism relies on our separation from one another so it does its best to separate and individuate us at every turn.

(Dean 2016, p. 188)

And yet aggregated data collected from large numbers of people is increasingly important to the efficient working of the consumer economy. From Tesco to Amazon understanding how people act in mass is the key to how business operates. The drive to individualise also forms an important component of demand.

Individuality is communicative capitalism’s primary value. We are told that each of us is unique, and enjoined to amplify, advertise, and accelerate this uniqueness. Our media is personalized, and we are encouraged to personalize it even more, for example, with apps and mobile phone cases that meet our singular needs and express our singular brands. Those looking for work are advised to make themselves stand out from the crowd, to distinguish themselves from others by offering that special something that will catch an employer’s eye. Capital accumulation depends on cultivating and monetizing the new and different.

(Dean 2016, p. 140)

The modern world requires us to be both entirely separated individuals acting wholly alone, but also needs to understand how we act together to ensure that the market can operate efficiently. The logical conclusion is that the modern left needs to regain the ability to pursue collective action, to challenge the neoliberal disaggregation of us all into merely an assembly of individuals. To become what Dean calls – in a presumably conscious echo of Zizek’s Less Than Nothing – “more than many” (Dean 2016 p. 166).

What is striking about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 general election campaign is that he seems able to do almost exactly that. To make us feel like a crowd again, rather than merely a collection of individuals.

Dean, Jodi Crowds and Party (Verso, London 2016).


1 thought on “Individualism and the left

  1. Pingback: Corbyn and the crowd | A Very Marx Adventure

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