Modern governments and industries work in collusion to control the individual. But ironically, they were only able to grow powerful by exploiting the desire to be an individual.
According to Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, governments started out as simple gangs, collecting protection money.
Many kingdoms and empires were in truth little more than large protection rackets. The king was the capo di tutti capi who collected protection money, and in return made sure that neighbouring crime syndicates and local small fry did not harm those under his protection. He did little else.
Governments needed to rebrand if they wanted to expand into family and community affairs. This is how the great partnership of government and industry was born. They needed each other, they fed off one another.
Governments marketed themselves to the people by appealing to the desire to be an individual. Governments said they would liberate the people from the oppressive regimes of the family and community.
This all happened during a time when you couldn’t simply hop on the internet and find your own “tribe.” It wasn’t so easy to move away, and start fresh.
For social outcasts or the black sheep of the family, life must have been hell. Governments and industry gave them a way out. They could become an individual, but still have the safety net of government. They could join a company to earn money, instead of depending on working on the family farm.
When technology developed to the point where there was excess wealth, governments wanted a bigger cut, and industry wanted more profits. So they found a way to work together to make sure they could receive the extra wealth being created.
The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’
Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, social security steps in.
As much as I hate to admit it, Harari is largely right. Society doesn’t inherently need the state or corporations, but right now, an indoctrinated society does. And we cannot hope to limit their power without understanding this.
[Listen to Sapiens with a free trial of Audible]
Most people are not even close to being in a position to simply throw off the government and be true individuals. People originally gave the government more control because the government offered them an alternative to family and community.
But the government’s product, individualism, was never actually good. It was false advertising. Instead of becoming an individual and making your own choices, you were constricted by the government. They lured people in with the promise of independence, and then created dependence to control the people, and take their wealth. The government promised but never delivered.
Individualism doesn’t truly mean doing everything on your own. It means being free to choose which institutions you are a part of.
You are born into a family and community you do not choose. You are born under a government, and their cronies in industry, that you do not choose.
Individualism simply means not being forced under the control of any of these institutions. When we have a choice, individuals are able to shape these institutions. Individualism doesn’t mean rejecting all groups and partnerships. It means being free to choose who you associate with. It means being able to walk away when you don’t like the terms.
It is wrong to say that government and industry created the individual. Rather they offered products and services that fulfilled a market demand for individualism. Punk Rock didn’t create punks, it gave a certain demographic an outlet for their angst. Punk Rock offered a community to people who felt marginalized.
But that doesn’t mean people can’t be individuals without the government and industry. We have seen the pendulum swing to extremes. For countless years, an individual had no alternative to the family and community. Think about the Amish, who enforce strict social rules, with the only alternative being to leave the entire community and your whole family behind.
Government and industry gave people an alternative. But now government and industry have become too powerful. There is little alternative if you don’t government’s their rules. It erased some of the benefits of family and community but failed to substantially replace them.
The modern age gives humans an unprecedented opportunity to take the best of each institution, and do away with the oppressive parts. The reason is choice and competition. The more options available, the less one institution holds power over the individual.
Yes, the government was able to secure power by luring individuals away from the family. But now the individual hardly has any options besides falling back on the government safety net.
But we are entering an age where you can find a real or virtual community for almost anything. You have never had more freedom to choose who to work for, or simply create a product or service yourself. You can love who you want and move where you want.
I would argue that the one main holdout against meaningful reform is the government. There are still only 195 products (countries). And some of them are off limits, or just so terrible that they basically are not even options.
Some products, like the United States, China, and Russia, dominate the other products so they cannot offer a new and improved a product. For instance, the European Union has pushed back against Estonia’s plan for a decentralized nation powered by a cryptocurrency.
But all signs point to the liberation of the individual. Things are getting better for humanity. Options are flourishing. And never has an individual had more power to build the life of his or her dreams.