Before I begin talking about atomism, I should mention that I am aware of the many definitions of atomism, even from the ethical perspective. I am referring specifically to the concept of “atomistic individualism,” which sees man not as part of society but rather as an isolated organism of which society is something wholly exterior, or as Rothbard defines it:
Individualists have always been accused by their enemies of being “atomistic” — of postulating that each individual lives in a kind of vacuum, thinking and choosing without relation to anyone else in society. This, however, is an authoritarian straw man; few, if any, individualists have ever been “atomists.”
I believe that when other Anarchists berate individualism, they are mostly addressing atomistic individualism, not individualism in general. I don’t say this idly, but rather because what I observe in society, especially in the institutions which all Anarchists detest, is mostly individualism in its most base atomistic form, which results in a complete lack of personal and social responsibility.
Some people may argue that my definition is a straw man, and that no one actually holds such a position. It may be the case that few actually hold such a position explicitly, but many people act as if they do. It is certainly the case that our capital-democratist system strongly encourages such an implicit position (in fact, we can safely associate atomism with the belief in competition prevalent in our system, which creates the “dog eat dog” mentality).
It seems clear that atomism is a consequence of games conditions.
Concepts of solidarity and mutual concern are, in these ultra-capitalist times, considered outmoded in the face of individual and market competition. According to this reasoning, some workers getting fired over trivial offenses is no other worker’s business. All that should concern the individual worker is his own work: whether he is on time, whether he does his job, and whether he is recognized for his accomplishments, everything that will give him more chances for promotion and economic success. The result of this reasoning is that the workers are divided, and no mutual aid is possible.
To accept atomism, one must have a new standard by which some exterior authority can evaluate everyone’s actions. This is the law, the policies, the commandments, the rules and regulations, or whatever other list of orders exists. These laws, policies, commandments, rules and regulations act as a substitute for the individual’s moral responsibility and independent moral evaluation. Whatever the laws, policies, commandments, rules and regulations claim is unethical, is thereby made unethical.
The most critical problem with such a substitute is that the laws, policies, commandments, rules and regulations are written and enforced by those at the top of the hierarchy, and serves the protection and growth of that hierarchy, instead of being written and enforced to protect and help the growth of human beings. Such diktats only coincide with human values insofar as those values are incidentally beneficial to the hierarchy as a whole (e.g. safety from illness as being good both for the individual and for the profits of a corporation or the taxation capacities of a nation).
In this worldview, human values are only relevant insofar as they help fulfill stated objectives within the bounds of the laws, policies, commandments, rules and regulations. Anyone who disobeys these diktats is by definition unethical, and therefore an anti-social element, unless the worldview as a whole shifts as a result of the disobedience, which makes it righteous. The story repeats with every proponent of civil disobedience: at first they are unethical, and then, after their ideas are widely accepted, the ethical validity of what they proposed is seen as obvious beyond disagreement, and becomes part and parcel of diktats everywhere. The targets of official hatred are ever-shifting, because the norm is ever-shifting under social pressures.
The basic principle of the “divide and conquer” atomistic tactic in place in our society is this:
1. That the individual should never concern himself with other people’s misfortune, only with improving his own power. That the highest goal of any individual is to improve his power (status, money, popularity, etc).
2. That because we now (or so the propaganda goes) live in a society where there are no classes and everyone is equal, all their failures are their own fault.
3. That the laws, policies, commandments, rules and regulations put in place are fundamentally fair and necessary for order. That these diktats provide the standard by which our actions should be judged.
The concept of property only compounds the effects of this tactic, insofar as it further isolates the individual from his society. Where commons create a win-win situation (the more I have, the more everyone has), property creates win-lose situations (the more others have, the less I can have). There are only so many jobs, so much money, so many possible sexual partners, so many positions of status and decision-making posts, and so on, at any given time. The individual’s frantic scrambling for them makes him a competitor against his fellows.
In such a society, there cannot be any real freedom, since freedom depends on vigilance against the abuse and leverage of power. In such a society, there cannot be any real equality, since all the power is concentrated in the hierarchies themselves, as well as in their leaders. In such a society, there cannot be security, since security depends on solidarity. In such a society, people cannot understand each other at anything but the most basic level, share common goals (what would be the point when objectives are already imposed on them?), or fight against the ruling class for any sort of social progress (instead having to wait for the victimized groups to protest and stick in in their faces until they decide to just give in). Such a society will see a great deal of “economic progress” (as measured by how much stuff is made and how many services are delivered, no matter how unethical they are), but will see little social progress, and whatever creativity exists to push ideas forward will be extremely limited and contained.
I have mentioned the expression “atomistic individualism” and how atomism is merely a false, oversimplified version of individualism. Individualists hold that man’s standard should be his own values, not any exterior determinism. In this regard, “atomistic individualism” is the exact opposite of individualism. In holding that man’s standard should be his own power and his own power only, it thereby robs man of moral autonomy by surrendering it to the hierarchies providing this power.
If we look at politics, we certainly find this to be true. The only real difference between the collectivism of Marxism and the atomism of capitalism is in the identity of the superiors. The only real difference between the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie” is that the latter has been more successful at adapting and coping with crisis. The Marxist starves his own people; the bourgeois starves foreign people. Both take away people’s rights, although I grant that capitalism leaves its own people the right to complain, which sadly is vastly useless except for people like myself who are stupid enough as to think that talking accomplishes anything at all.
Certainly we believe that we care about other people, and that our individualism is not base. After all, there are charities, government programs, food banks, prisons, and more, all available to “relieve” the other fellow’s suffering. As Scrooge says: “Are there no prisons?… And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?”
The double irony (from our perspective) in this passage is that Scrooge is depicted as a miser for saying this to two active proponents of charity. The fact of the matter is what workhouses, in principle, exist to provide continued sustenance. Charities, on the other hand, are a temporary solution to a permanent problem. The same is true for most of the solutions currently in existence, which exist to make people feel good about themselves and their place in the world, not to end poverty. Ending poverty can only come through a fundamental restructuring of our economic system, something which is obviously wholly unacceptable to its leaders and their highly-paid lackeys.
Therefore, the fact that people still profess to care about others, despite being totally caught up in some games conditions, is more of an indication of their own desire to feel guiltless than any genuine concern. A genuine desire to fight against any widespread social problem must start with a steel-eyed examination of the system in place and how it controls behaviour, redirects resources, and redefines political discourse for its own advantage.