Chris Harman


Would socialism kill individuality?

(22 June 2002)

Socialism from below, Socialist Worker, No.1805, 22 June 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CHRIS HARMAN on capitalism, conformity and freedom

ONE WAY the defenders of capitalism try to discredit socialism is by claiming it would destroy individuality and reduce everything to a dull conformity. By contrast they give the impression that capitalism provides people with varied, exciting lives.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Capitalism proclaims individuality as the highest virtue. It talks of “freedom of choice”, of people being able to buy whatever products they wish.

This is an illusion. The choice it offers us is to buy the similar products of the multinationals that dominate the world – McDonald’s or Burger King, Levi’s or Wrangler, Pepsi or Coke. The high street in almost every medium sized town or city in Britain is virtually identical to every other, offering the same goods.

The great mass of people wear similar kinds of clothes, eat similar foods, shop in the same places, drive virtually identical cars, and live in similar houses or flats. This is a process that is happening across the world as the global corporations come to control more and more.

It is also based on how much “freedom of choice” people can afford to buy. Individuality is reserved for the very few – the minority who own the massive firms which dominate the economy. The rest are expected to work for these firms, doing humdrum jobs on assembly lines or in offices, from which as much individuality as possible has been removed.

Indeed, capitalism could only develop in the first place by deliberately setting out to destroy the individuality of its workers. When the first factories developed in Britain, the capitalist class deliberately set out to make its workers as much like one another as possible. The workers were forced to regard work as their only aim in life, to sacrifice their small personal pleasures to endless toil.

Under modern capitalism this process has been carried through with ever higher intensity. In schools what matters most is not how a child learns to develop his or her own individual abilities.

Instead, children are measured against one another in more and more exams. These exams are always taken along a single scale, as if human beings were no different to potatoes, differing only in weight.

Interestingly, the most outspoken opponents of socialist “conformity” are usually the same people who insist that children dress the same in school uniforms and have the same “disciplined” behaviour. In factories and call centres people are specially employed to try to make sure that people do their job efficiently and uphold company policy.

Massive resources have been poured into developing fake sciences of work measurement and industrial relations in an effort to destroy workers’ individuality ever more perfectly.

Things are not all that different for most of the middle classes. The typical Daily Mail reader may rage about the need to protect the individual, but their lifestyle is likely to be identical to that of hundreds of thousands of other people. They will live in similar suburban houses, express the same ideas, work in similar offices, and travel to work in almost the same kind of cars or trains. If this monotony and conformity is what characterises capitalism, how did people get hold of the idea that it is a feature of socialism?

A stultifying cramping of individual development marked the countries that used to claim to be socialist, like the USSR or China. The popular image of socialism as everybody wearing similar clothes comes from the practices of the undemocratic Stalinist regimes. All of this was not because these countries were, or are, socialist. They were not.

It is because the bureaucratic ruling groups that ran those societies were trying to do what capitalists did in the West. They wanted to develop their economies at maximum speed by holding down workers’ living standards, so they could compete with the West and one another. Real individuality, the full and complete development of the distinct capacities of the individual, will only be possible in a completely different sort of society.

It would be a world in which the individual and society would no longer be opposed to one another. People would no longer compete with one another, and would not be under relentless pressure to work ever harder. Massive wealth is created in the modern world.

It is wasted in the blind competition between rival firms and rival states. In their attempts to beat one another these firms and states demand ever tighter control over and ever greater efforts from their workers. Real human individuality will only be possible when workers internationally have combined together.

They must use their collective power to overturn the capitalist classes and reorganise society so that it is based upon satisfying human need, and not the demands of competition.

Last updated on 11 December 2009