Discover more from An Appeal to Reason
The Toxic Myth of Individualism
Rags to Riches and Bootstraps
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops. - Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb
The myth of individualism is a common myth that is ingrained into United States culture and society. Anyone can name Neil Armstrong, but few people know Margaret Hamilton. And even fewer know anyone else on the team that provided the means to reach the moon. There was an incredible amount of communal labor power that was involved in giving Armstrong the opportunity to make that first step, but that is glossed over in most accounts.
From the earliest history lessons, the US education system subscribes to the great man theory of history. According to this theory, it was individuals who created history, not the material conditions which produced them. Historical materialism disproves this concept, but it is not taught in schools. It is not individuals that make history, but the actions of the collective. Leadership is nothing without the people behind them.
Rags to Riches
A common variant of this myth is the rags to riches story. This is somehow meant to prove that anyone can succeed in the capitalist system. But it is the exception to the rule and has rarely actually happened. This is closely related to the phrase “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It is a testament to the failures of the US education system that the origin of the phrase came from the impossibility of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. But it has evolved to mean the opposite, “implying that socioeconomic advancement is something that everyone should be able to do—albeit something difficult.” This is impossible for the masses under capitalism as the system requires a working class and an ownership class. If everyone was able to advance from the working class to the ownership class we would have a socialist society where the workers controlled the means of production.
The rule of individualism which has governed society since the days of primitive communism has effectually restrained the moral and spiritual development of the race. It has brought out the baser side of men's nature and set them against each other as if the plan of creation had designed them to be mortal enemies. - Eugene V. Debs, The Social Spirit
It is far easier to control a working class that is divided into individuals rather than united. This is why capitalists break strikes and unions. This is why they focus on the culture war rather than the class war. The working class united is their greatest fear and the one thing that can overthrow their rule.
In the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, based on the book of the same name by Walter Tevit, a female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, makes her way from the orphanage to facing the world number one chess player. It is entirely fiction, though like Chess the Musical, it is also inspired by the real life example of Bobby Fischer. At first glance, Bobby Fischer does fit into the rags to riches paradigm. His mother was homeless when he was born and he was raised in poverty in New York. There is no doubt that Bobby Fischer was a genius as he would overcome these humble beginnings to become the only World Champion from the US. But this is not something just anyone can do - excellence at chess or any other sport is not a form of emancipation for the proletariat that is accessible to everyone.
The fictional tale of Beth Harmon and the real history of Bobby Fischer are tied into this myth of individualism. It makes a good story, but the truth of the matter is that in the United States, it took great genius to create a single world champion in spite of the obstacles of poverty. In the Soviet Union, all they did was produce world champions. Before the great revolution of 1917, chess was a game that was primarily reserved for the aristocracy. This all changed and soon “Chess to the Masses” became the slogan of the Soviet chess movement. Soviet men held the World Champion title from 1948-1972 and 1975-1991. And Soviet women fared even better being champions from 1948-1991.
"The USSR considered chess a way to promote the superiority of the Communist system, and I benefited from that emphasis, as did every Soviet player. We had conditions for training and competition that were unmatched elsewhere. Mostly, though, it was that chess was everywhere and so the top talents were discovered and promoted efficiently. There's talent everywhere, but not opportunity." - Gary Kasparov, World Champion 1985-2000
Where in the US, individuals had to overcome every obstacle and required great genius to make it to the top, in the Soviet Union they were given every opportunity to display their talent. It is certain there are and were many others in the US with the potential to compete at the highest level that were never given that opportunity. But the US subscribes to the bootstraps mentality and does not provide opportunities to the masses. It was only through luck that Bobby Fischer was ever introduced to chess.
Even though Bobby Fischer achieved such success and was lauded for his victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship, he was soon forgotten by the US after he resigned his status as champion in 1975 over a rules dispute. Later the US issued a warrant for his arrest after he broke US sanctions on Yugoslavia to play a rematch of his world championship there in 1992. After being arrested in Japan in 2004, Fischer barely avoided deportation to the US and fled to Iceland. The one chess world champion from the US died in exile. The US government came after his estate for what they claimed were unpaid taxes. This rags to riches fairytale does not have a happy ending.
In our propaganda, in the discussion of our tactical and other differences and in all our other activities, the larger faith that true comradeship inspires should prevail between us. We need to be more patient, more kindly, more tolerant, more sympathetic, helpful and encouraging to one another, and less suspicious, less envious, and less contentious, if we are to educate and impress the people by our example, and by the effect of our teachings upon ourselves win them to our movement, and realize our dream of universal freedom and social righteousness. - Eugene V. Debs, Social Spirit
Human beings are social creatures and live in communities. The alienation forced upon them by the capitalist system is not natural. Capitalism rewards the few at the expense of the many. Only by changing the economic system can we return to a more natural order, a society where labor is rewarded, not exploited. Where everyone is given opportunities and not forced to do the impossible and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The old African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is based in communism even though it would be later desecrated by Hillary Clinton.
It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
There can be no freedom without economic freedom. Capitalism requires a class that is detached from the means of production and forced to sell their labor power to survive. This is not freedom for the individual. The surplus extracted from the working class is used to provide freedom for the privileged few, while the masses slave away for a wage that may not even cover the basic needs to survive. It will require the collective effort of this class to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism on the road to communism.