How America Fell into Toxic Individualism

Our societal narcissistic streak has led to mass tragedy.

Posted May 25, 2020

            The world pandemic crisis has gravely exposed the nature and limits of how we run our societies today, and the crucial balance at hand between self-interest and cooperation. With the apparent win of capitalism over communism at the end of the 20th century, the last two decades have let capitalism run an overheated victory lap, morphing into mutated variations around the world much like the recent virus. Tempered perhaps by the brutal lessons of the World Wars, most of the European states settled on what Bernie Sanders has termed democratic socialism, where free market economies continue but high tax rates support general public initiatives like universal health care and education and paid child care leave.

Offshoots like New Zealand have declared the need for values married to its economy, that seek the welfare of its citizens above all else. Asia has created its own variations, ranging from massive corporate conglomerates run like mini nation-states in South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, and recent reformed post-communist hybrids in China and Vietnam. Even South America and Africa in recent years had budding new-world economies, seeded by growth from these other places. Older established cultural values and populations have helped to maintain an underlying sense of cohesion to many of these world economies, although socioeconomic polarization and immigrant influxes following jobs and money have led to conflicts and unrest.

America, arguably the mother hen of this new world order, also is the unstable neutron in the midst of it, both foundational and infantile in its increasingly purist version of capitalism. The oligarchic elites have decided that the system is meant to run its “natural” course, to let the winners take all. To grease the gears so that money flows to those who already have it, and the rest be damned. The increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the 1% is considered an inevitable prize for those who dared to possess it, through whatever means necessary. To share anything for the rest is considered an intrusion on manifest destiny; that the fittest survive. American capitalism, after periods of reform and balance brought on by snake oil barons in the Golden Age and the systemic collapse of the Great Depression, has reverted to toxic individualism.

Human nature has always maintained this tension between the interests of the self and of others. Human societies have had to cope with this tension, with dominating leaders and masses vying for either civility or cruelty throughout history. Centuries of inherited royal families ruling over largely fixed social classes were upended in the early 20th century as the nation-state world order established itself and also led to tragic cataclysmic wars and holocausts and the brink of nuclear destruction.

The recent tech revolution and the fall of the Eastern Bloc made it seem that the new capitalist world order would usher in a progressive new era of human cooperation and efficiency. The blip of old-school religiosity and terrorism post 9/11 didn’t do much to throw this new world boom off its course. But increasingly, the money was flowing only in one direction…the illusion that everyone had an equal opportunity with just a keyboard at hand was only that. In reality, the tech boom was rendering the cornerstone of human identity—employment and labor—into a superfluous thing for more and more of the masses. Human labor was expendable for the wealthy corporations, except for a tech elite typing away at home, while exploiting cheaper untapped masses overseas.

The confusion and anger over this agonizing shift was masterfully exploited and distracted onto the wrong scapegoat by particular elites in America. It was diversity that was to blame, they said, via calculated and deceptive smoke and mirrors rooted in racism and xenophobia. Using the novel Wild West of social media, these elites used magnified propaganda to usher masses of restless people into biased narratives. Enter the fantasy of the empowered self-made man, the one who is free to say and do whatever they want, the epitome of a particular American dream, unfettered individualism, beholden to no one. People voted for this childish but alluring fantasy of the fearless cowboy, the suave robber baron, and ignored the real game destroying them from under their feet.

America was founded in part on the cult of the individual, the self-made myth, the will to power. And indeed we cannot ignore the core egotism of human nature, the need to channel that drive to succeed and establish one’s sense of self and identity, against all odds. Capitalism isn’t always inherently evil, when it is coupled to values and reasonable regulations that steer its course away from sheer self-interest. But in its current course, this complete self-interest and narcissism can also be a terrible dead end to human civilization.

A lack of empathy, an indifference to human vulnerability and suffering, to misfortune and lack of opportunity and circumstances, to exploit and ignore these realities can harm everyone. No man is an island as John Donne famously noted.

On this Memorial Day, we remember how numerous Americans easily made the ultimate sacrifice for the good of their fellow citizens, to uphold a land of peacetime and liberty for others. Yet, it feels as though lately the simple act of kindness, of caring for one’s fellow man for the good of the many has become anathema to our American values of late. There were loud voices crowing for the right to own violent weapons that shoot hundreds of bullets in seconds, even as 6-year-old innocents were mowed down in their school hallways. There were people actively decrying the right to provide people with health coverage, when illness can strike anyone blamelessly. Even daring to mention racism and its storied ties to everything mentioned resulted in outraged denial at best, and blatant hatred at worst. The increasing lack of compassion was soul-deadening and tragic even before the pandemic happened.

And then the pandemic happened. It was the tinder that burst the henhouse. Everything that had been stewing in the house of cards has now led to an ongoing free-for-all, a chaotic brew of incompetence and indifference magnifying our society’s worst tendencies. In the wake are unfathomable numbers of deaths and people struggling with financial insolvency. We have reached 100,000 deaths, far more than any other country in the world yet, within a few short months. And instead of feeling that things are improving to solve this crisis, there is a feeling that we are more divided and clueless than ever, as our rudderless, toxic leadership continues the previous doomed, self-centered path to protecting the privileged few against the many, and their disenfranchised cult members continue to spread the propaganda of delusional self-empowerment even at their own expense against a merciless virus.

The simple act of wearing a mask that could potentially curb this epidemic, a simple act of kindness to protect your fellow citizens has become needlessly politicized, mocked, scrutinized. The government’s duty to protect public health has been dismantled, decentralized, disorganized into a scattered, greedy free-for-all with our own federal government fighting its own states.

Even those of us who don’t wish ill on others are forced to comply with a system that exploits vulnerable people desperate for jobs that put their lives on the line, “essential” workers whose employers refuse to provide basic protections. The people who were already ignored and exposed at the margins of our society are the ones dying and sickening at higher rates.

All of this is a heartbreaking, colossal humanitarian crisis, and a mass American tragedy. Those of us with some realization and conscience cling to the remnants of our democracy, desperately hope that the November election will stop the terrible tide of the last 4 years.

But it will be far too late for the hundreds of thousands that die, and the millions that continue to suffer in what has become weaponized selfishness, a cult of me, myself, and I, that will be hard to repair in the years to come, if we can ever get there again. Will we be able to find the other heart to our American values again, that of empathy, of support for a greater communal good that protects its citizens once again?