No, I don’t think individualism writ large is the motivating force of capitalism. I would break down capitalism’s motivations this way:
1. Acquisitiveness towards property, wealth and power seems to be a primary driver — especially in order to gain social position and prestige, and to exercise such collected power and wealth independently of government, society, or even moral expectations. In essence, we could say this is “selfish accumulation,” which is a rather ugly facet of individualism, especially when combined with lording it over other people. But individualism has other, more positive aspects — such as freedom of thought, creative freedom, expressive freedom, freedom of choice, etc. — for which capitalism falsely claims to provide advantages. In reality, capitalism deprives most people of most individual freedoms — through coercive marketing, addictive products, titillating groupthink, wage slavery, debt slavery, and so on — so it can’t claim the more positive benefits of individualism at all.
2. A mistaken but widespread belief that capitalist markets provide the best solutions to human challenges. In reality, capitalist markets provide profitable products and services to people by persuading them that those products and services solve certain challenges — even if they really don’t. Think of pharmaceutical products marketed to treat a certain condition that don’t outperform placebo or cheaper treatment options (this happens a lot). In fact, capitalism is quite ingenious at inventing “needs” that never existed, then synthesizing demand for products and services that fulfill those previously nonexistent “needs.”
3. A mistaken belief that wealth itself solves human challenges. Sure, lifting folks out of poverty is great, and capitalism has been pretty good at that. But at what price? This is the faulty reasoning of the capitalist, who tends to ignore the importance of strong civic institutions to sustain society over time; or the need to consider and plan for negative externalities (i.e. pollution, carbon emissions, destruction of ecosystems that support all life, etc.) created by rising standards of living in the industrial age; or how wealth in excess can make people childish, callous and disconnected from others (see Paul Piff’s research on this). In other words, wealth alone doesn’t solve some very important fundamental challenges…and in fact can make them worse.
4. A sort of anthropocentrism and egocentrism — a belief that humans are entitled to do anything they want, both collectively and individually. Again, this isn’t really “individualism,” it’s more akin to a mental illness like Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
My 2 cents.
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