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Individualism cannot lead to political change

Filmmaker Adam Curtis on Why Self-Expression Is Tearing Society Apart, in an Artspace interview by Loney Abrams:

Adam Curtis:

  • Towards the beginning of HyperNormalisation you talk about a shift that happened in the ‘70s when artists detached from reality and retreated into themselves to mine content for their work. Your argument is that this kind of individualistic self-expression is antithetical to political change. How so?

Individualism is the really big thing of our time, and both left and right have been affected by it. It’s this idea that had been growing since the counterculture of the 1960s that really came to fruition in the 1970s—the idea being that what you as an individual feel and desire are the most important things, and that if you followed anyone who told you what to do you were inauthentic. People don’t believe they should give themselves up to the church or trade unions any longer. They want to be themselves.

It was a wonderful shift because it did stop us from needing to be told what to do by elites and old hierarchies. It freed us of that and that’s really great—we are, to a great extent, free individuals. The problem with individualism is that, whilst it is liberating and exciting and beautiful, when things get difficult you are very weak. If you go into the woods at night, by yourself, it’s frightening, isn’t it? You get scared by the slightest noise, the slightest snap of a twig. If you go into the woods with your friends in a group, it’s incredibly exciting and thrilling because you somehow feel stronger. It’s as simple as that. That’s one point.

The other part of that shift in the early 1970s was that more and more people looked to art as a way of expressing their radicalism in an individual way. Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids makes this very clear. People like her and Robert Mapplethorpe didn’t want to be just a part of radical groups, they wanted to be individuals challenging the system. While that may have dropped away with Mapplethorpe, it remained central to Smith’s belief. But what I was trying to say in the film was that the very idea of self-expression might not have had the radical potential they thought.

What rescued the U.S. economy from the economic crisis of the 1970s was a massive wave of consumer capitalism. And behind it were the forces of finance, because they offered credit to millions of people for the first time. In another series I made called The Century of the Self, I tried to show how the other essential component in that wave of consumerism was the idea of self-expression. People were encouraged to buy all kinds of stuff, not to be like each other as they had in the past, but instead to express themselves as individuals. In this way the very idea of self-expression became central to the modern structure of power.

We look back at past ages and see how things people deeply believed in at the time were actually a rigid conformity that prevented them from seeing important changes that were happening elsewhere. And I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.

This might be quite a difficult one to get over, but I think this is really important: however radical your message is as an artist, you are doing it through self-expression—the central dominant ideology of modern capitalism. And by doing that, you’re actually far from questioning the monster and pulling the monster down. You’re feeding the monster. Because the more people come to believe that self-expression is the end of everything, is the ultimate goal, the more the modern system of power becomes stronger, not weaker." (

Individual liberty as prerequisite of community

by James Livingston:

"Individualism isn’t the antithesis of community or socialism. To think so is to assume that attaining autonomy as an individual requires the denial of all tradition and solidarity, whether inherited or invented, or it is to assume that economic self-assertion through liberty of contract is the path to genuine selfhood. We know better – we know without consulting Aristotle that selfhood is a social construction – but we keep claiming that our interests as individuals are by definition in conflict with larger public goods like social mobility and equal access to justice and opportunity.

We keep urging our fellow Americans to “rise above” a selfish attachment to their own little fiefdoms, whether these appear as neighborhoods or jobs, and their cherished consumer goods. In doing so, we’re asking them to give up their local knowledge, livelihoods, and identities on behalf of an unknown future, a mere abstraction, a canvas stretched to accommodate only the beautiful souls among us: we’re asking them to get religion. Either that or we’ve acceded to the anti-American fallacy cooked up by the neoclassical economists who decided in the 1950s that liberty and equality, or individualism and solidarity – like capitalism and socialism – are the goals of a zero-sum game.

By now we know what the founders did: that equality is the enabling condition of liberty, and vice versa. There were two “cardinal objects of Government,” as James Madison put it to his friend and pupil Thomas Jefferson in 1787: “the rights of persons and the rights of property.” Each constitutional purpose permitted the other, not as an “allowance” but rather as a premise. One is not the price of the other, as in a cost imposed on and subtracted from the benefit of the other. Instead, liberty for all has been enhanced by our belated approach to equality, our better approximations of a more perfect union; for example, by the struggles and victories of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement. By the same token, democratic socialism enhances individuality. By equipping more people with the means by which they can differentiate themselves, if they choose, from their origins – income and education are the crucial requisites here – socialism becomes the solvent of plainclothes uniformity and the medium of unruly, American-style individualism." (