One of the biggest hallmarks of the American psyche is the idea of individualism. From Alexis de Tocqueville to John Locke to Immanuel Kant, individualism has had a variety of definitions and frameworks that have changed throughout the years since its introduction and rise to prominence during the 19th century.
As we move through the 21st century, individualism continues to be pervasive, but there is also another trend in American society — the individual has become extremely self-deprecating and engaged in an intense amount of self-directed negative thoughts.
The norm of self-perception has skewed deeply toward harshness about oneself that proves hard to overcome, even with all the self-help methods that have come forward.
While the implications of individualism have long been debated amongst political theorists, what is perhaps less understood is the connection between American individualism and the modern relationship of the individual with themselves, especially their self-perception.
Where does a system of societal interaction connect with the relationship one has with themselves? Karl Marx may have an answer.
One of the most prominent features of Marx’s framework for understanding society was the relationship between what is called the base and superstructure. Simply put, the base refers to the structure of production — including the relations between all people involved in production, the work they do, the materials and processes of production, exchange and other elements; the superstructure refers to the structure of the rest of society, including culture, ideology and so on.
Marx argues the structure of an economic system provides the basis in which society itself grows. The patterns that develop through the course of economic structures begin to bleed into things such as law, media, family and religion. This societal structuring then acts to affirm or justify the economic system it grew from; thus, the cycle continues as the system of economy and society becomes more entrenched.
To understand the connection between societal psyche and personal perception in America, we must peel it back to the capitalism that lies underneath.
One of the largest emphases of the American thread of individualism is of the individual inside the capitalist system. One has the choice of products to buy, positions to work in and so on. Many praise the free market as the logical and sole companion to individualism, even going as far as to say it is necessary for a society to truly empower the individual.
Competition is an integral component to the mechanisms of capitalism. The goal of a corporation — in which one organization owns the means to produce goods — is to create as much profit as possible.
A method of doing this is to both take labor from an individual at a price lower than it is worth, and then in efforts to reduce that price even more, put that person’s labor in competition with another’s, as described by Economics Online.
Marx describes the process of pitting laborers against each other as an element of alienation. Through pitting themselves against each other for work, laborers become isolated from each other. In economic terms, this process is also repeated with one’s connection to their labor and to their essence as a laborer.
This cycle of alienation is replicated until the worker is essentially stripped of their understanding of their own worth in the production process. They see themselves as only as valuable as someone is willing to buy their labor, not as immensely necessary to production itself.
Where this bleeds into society is how individualism interacts with self-worth. American society is insistent about the importance of individual but only accepts an individual as good if they contribute to expected standards.
We feel forced to compete with each other over things like beauty and popularity. Many individuals are dissatisfied because they do not feel as though they comply with the expected standards and thus begin to view themselves as unworthy.
In the landscape of American Individualism, we are so separated and in competition with others that we begin to lose confidence in ourselves. We have learned to evaluate ourselves for our contributions and worth to other people and not our inherent value as human beings.
While there are some remedies to the seemingly insurmountable problem that accompanies American individualism — such as eastern lifestyles — there is an underlying system of behavior that makes it difficult for one to exist both in a capitalist system and free from the burdens of its emphasis on competition.