CURRENT POLITICS - Threat from Individualism

The threat that individualism poses to individual liberties

[Humphrey McQueen, November 13th, 2013, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

Sponsored by Spirit of Eureka, Victorian Trades Hall and Liberty Victoria.]

 ‘Can you hear me?’ is a question often posed by speakers. My question is different: ‘Why can you understand me?’ It is fair to assume that you can understand my words even if, for the moment, you might not understand why I am posing the question. Let’s take a few steps back from the specifics of the previous speakers to ask what makes it possible for us to have this forum on human rights.

One part of the answer is the organising through its sponsors.

The other part is so obvious that it is usually forgotten. We can debate human rights because we learnt to speak. That is, our ability to discuss this topic is not innate. We don’t come from the womb screaming: ‘I want a lawyer’. Almost all human beings are born with the physiological equipment that lets us learn to speak and to understand others. If we are not socialised, those capacities wither and die. It might not be possible to pick them up after a certain age – it’s certainly much harder.

This situation also applies to maths. Four hundred years ago, almost no one could divide four by two. In 1959, it was possible for me to pass calculus in year 12. Our species was not several times more intelligent than we were before Newton and Leibniz. Rather I’d been through a system of compulsory instruction – I won’t say ‘education’. Again, the difference is ‘social’, not a proliferation of ‘individual’  geniuses.

Relating ourselves to what is innate in human beings opens up two interrelated matters. Instead of talking about the rights of animals, we should say other animals. Peter Singer points out that no other animal can have rights in the way we are expressing this evening. Only our species can hold a meeting like this one. Human speech, however, has stimulated acceptance of our responsibility towards other animals.

We are part of nature, but our rights are not innate. Moreover, there’s nothing universal or eternal about our rights. Universal, eternal and natural are useful as rhetoric. We use those terms to suggest that rights should be universal and eternal. But to imply that they are ‘innate’ is to weaken our claims to them by severing our rights from the ceaseless struggle needed to preserve them.

Indeed, human rights are a recent creation. For example, until the mid- 18th century, almost no one opposed slavery as such. Except for the slave revolts - from Spartacus to the West Indies - there was no movement against chattel slavery. Christianity might have begun as the religion of slaves, but it kept a sharp line between body and soul, and found no theological grounds for declaring slavery to be sinful. No social movement arose against chattel slavery until that form of enforced labour ceased to serve the general interest of property-owners. The Masters then switched to wage-slavery and to bonded-labour. The latter gave Gandhi his start as a human-rights lawyer in South Africa. 

Most of the rights we have now came with the organisation of working people. For example, a free press came after a thousand London printers went to prison in the 1820s. Such actions inspired Hobart union official Samuel Champ in 1916 to respond to wartime propaganda about the defence of British liberties:

Our liberties were not won by mining magnates and stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on gallows and rotted in dungeons and are buried in nameless graves. These were the men to whom we owe the liberties we enjoyed today.

Sam’s historical understanding informed the labour movement. When I joined the ALP in 1957, I was given a badge which read ‘The unity of labour is the hope of the world’. Today, the Labor Club in the ACT has a recruitment slogan: ‘It’s all about you.’ No longer “All about US’’. That is just one example of how a debased version of individualism is threatening the rights that working people struggled and died to uphold.

Other examples are ‘Me Medicine’, not vaccination and potable water, those two great preventatives from nineteenth century. Instead, we face a clamour for tax-deductible health insurance. What we need is our social, preventive and community-based wellness programs.

 Three examples will illuminate how the social basis for individualism has been hollowed out.

 1. Art

In relation to ‘art’, we encounter the notion of a golden nugget or a blood diamond of creativity which will shine forth if only other people would get out of one’s light. The cry of ‘I just want to be myself’ is like the scream of teenagers: ‘Keep out of my bedroom’. In truth, art is social labour. Take the example of a sole painter in a solitary studio. How many dig up their own pigments? How many grow the flax and weave it into linen for a canvas? How many nurture seedlings before waiting twenty years for the timber to make the frames?

 Social Labour is everywhere. The Sydney Opera House was built by tradesmen and labourers - not by a lone architect. The shoes we are wearing, the seats we are sitting on, the transport that got us here - all are the products of social labour. Mass Murdoch sidelines the ‘social’ and erases the ‘labour’.

 2. Conspiracy theory

The Encarta dictionary offers this definition: ‘A belief that a particular event is the result of a secret plot rather than the action of an individual or chance.’ If that definition is adequate then we have to assume that Dick Pratt chanced upon a second ‘individual’ corporate executive with whom to fix prices. That is a conspiracy fact.

 3. neo-classical economics.

This key plank in corporate propaganda is constructed on the fantasy that Robinson Crusoe can serve the model for all of economic life. Accordingly, undergraduates are taught that prices are determined by individual choices at the margin of our preferences. Social labour and the wealth of nature go missing in accounting for ‘value added’.

 Worse follows when choice theory is applied to political and personal behaviour. In the public sphere, we are told to vote for the party that opposes a GST on book imports over the one that proposes to use that extra revenue to und libraries. In the private realm. Parents are told to behave like consumers and choose the colour of their baby’s eyes to match the wall-paper.

 4. corporate persons

Corporations became persons thanks to the US Supreme Court in the 1880s when the judges twisted the Fourteenth Amendment which had been adopted to free chattel slaves. Now corporations in the US of A have free speech rights. In Australia, they want the right to sue for libel. It used to be said that a corporation as a legal person had ‘No soul to damn and no arse to kick’. That is still true, but there is no shortage of arse-holes running them and lying on their behalf.

 Examples from the topics of the other two speakers will help us to recognize how individual rights are grounded in social relations.

 Trade unions

S. W. Griffith drafted the Constitution in 1891. He became first Chief Justice in 1903. Constitutional Monarchists named their society after him. But they don’t like to be reminded of his 1889 article on the ‘Distribution of Wealth’. That principle underpins the Common-Wealth of Australia. Griffith wrote that it is

notorious that there is not any equality of contract between the employer and the employed. ‘ To the extent that ‘a measure of freedom of contract exists, it has been obtained by combination on the part of labourers.

Griffith’s insight is in contrast to the individual contracts today promoted by the Constitutional Monarchists. What a farce it is to suggest that BHP Billiton and a casual cleaner can negotiate as equals. The corporates holler for lawyers such as Freehills. As Griffith said, it is ‘notorious’ that no equality exists in labour contracts. Only collective action – ‘combination’ - ensures individual choice.

 Pacific Partnership

We see the mass murderers in the tobacco corporations relying on free-trade treaties to prevent plain packaging of cigarettes. Their paid liars say that a nanny state is BAD but are silent on the nagging market. Just compare the size of their marketing budgets with government spending on wellness messages. When Transfats were banned a few weeks back, a US libertarian protested that the state should not tell him what to eat. Rather, food should be the free choice of each individual. This argument ignores marketing – which is more than the adverts. Super-market shelves are the most expensive real estate in the world. That explains why chocolates and not apples are at the checkout.

That everyday encounter in supermarkets is an instance of market totalitarianism. Here we need to distinguish totalitarian from authoritarian. Authoritarian involves physical force. Totalitarian means total penetration of the social order and the psyche. We live in a supersaturated solution of signals to BUY BUY BUY. Where there is no outside the market, we have totalitarianism. How did we get to this impoverishment? How has individualism been hollowed out? From creativity, to use, to mere possession and now to our being defined our the latest purchase. If the ‘Me Generation’ is a threat to our liberties, that threat is not the fault of individuals. The danger comes through the nagging market.

Fear of the state is well grounded. The state is not our friend since it operates in partnership with the marketers. At best, the state is a site for conflict in which rights can be won and defended.

Let’s contrast how leadership on two issues resulted in opposite responses among large sections of the public. During the recent long drought, all voices of authority supported water restrictions. The public welcomed the need to limit their household needs as part of a social connectedness. How different has been the situation with refugees arriving by boat. From 1993, the ALP locked them up. That decision told the casual observer that these people must be dangerous. Why else would you put them behind razor wire?

Despite the pollution of ideas by corporates and the state, most people are still more than capable of being ‘social’ in a responsible way. The reason is because we have been socialised since birth.

Thatcher is notorious for saying ‘there is no such thing as ‘society’. That much of what she claimed is right. There is no such ‘thing’. There are social relationships. But she went on to claim that there are only families and individuals. Well, there are families, households, and they contribute to the creation of individualism - as we saw about learning to speak. But she was wrong to say there are ‘only’ families and individuals. There is also the state, as she well knew as its chief executive for Britain. And there are corporates, whose interests she was promoting through the British state. But there is much more besides. For instance, there was the Miners’ Union against which she used the state to smash, and there were the communities that defeated her Poll Tax.


How are we to overcome the threat that corporatised individualism poses to individual liberties? In brief we have to enrich individualism. That aim is not a matter of ever more connections. The threat will not be vanquished by having 10,000 Facebook friends instead of a mere 1,100. Quality tells. Whatever is peculiar to our personalities is the outcome of our relationships with other people and with the rest of nature. From these facts of life, we can recognise that it is the quality of relationships that enriches individuality.

Our task therefore is to advance the social relationships we value, personal and political, by joining the Spirit of Eureka, Refugee Action and one’s union. More importantly, once we join we have to provide our active support. Our individuality is guaranteed through engagement with others on a basis of social justice and social equality. That is why it is appropriate to conclude with the Eureka Oath

We swear by the Southern Cross, to stand truly by each other, and fight to defend our rights and liberties.