There is a peculiar kind of delusion which seems particularly common with ardent capitalists and right-wingers, although it can be held by pretty much anyone, which is of the type “fuck society!”. You may have heard this kind of nonsense before. Here is a good example, which I have chosen because it is more descriptive than most I’ve encountered:
Fuck society because I owe “society” nothing. I owe no other man a single thing. The individual, the self, must come before everything else. My support for rights and a free society is born of self interest. Fuck society comes from attempts to place others before the self.
What you will find is that it will invariably be this emotional. They have equated politics and collectivism with society, you see, and politicians tell people that they owe “society,” which is really themselves and their own class interests, everything (ask what you can do for your “country,” i.e. Kennedy himself). So they see themselves as being very much against authority, very noble, when they say such things.
Despite what the communists might tell you, individualism is not a greedy “every man for himself” sort of thing, it is mostly a reaction to this sort of “business as usual.” This is not to say that there aren’t “every man for himself” individualists, but that is mainly a capitalist, mainstream sort of thought, not particularly individualistic. This sort of “fuck society” reaction, however, is not individualism as much as it is atomistic individualism. This is a condition where the individual sees himself as being apart from society, as existing in a vacuum. This is exactly what’s going on here.
Now let’s examine exactly what this means. Is it true that one owes nothing to anyone? Sure, as long as one has no debt or agreement to honor. But owing someone else is not the sole basis for dependence. There is a very large step from “I owe nothing” to “the individual must come before everyone else.” We live in society precisely because society, in theory, permits us to unite our labour to that of others without struggling against each other. Living in society alone implies that the individual inscribes himself within some larger context.
What does this mean in practice? Look at the process of labour. In his labour, a man uses tools, techniques, buildings, and ways to interact with others. All of these things are predicated on the accumulation of knowledge which led to the understanding of scientific laws, of nature. A person also consumes a great number of things for himself, including shelter, food, drink, communication devices, etc. Each and every person who works to produce these things is subject to the same conditions I just listed. If we look at the exponential spread of who produces the tools and personal goods that someone else uses, and who produces their tools and personal goods, and who produces their tools and personal goods, on and on like this, we end up with the inevitable fact that the whole society is involved in any given person’s production.
Indeed, this is not a controversial fact even for Misesians: see for example I, Pencil, by Leonard Read, which is unwittingly the best argument for socialism ever written (bold mine):
Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. Now, you may say that I go too far in relating the picker of a coffee berry in far off Brazil and food growers elsewhere to my creation; that this is an extreme position. I shall stand by my claim. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how… Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field—paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.
We can apply this reasoning to every single good, of course, not just pencils; we should rather apply it to labor, not commodities, but it is natural that Leonard Read, as a capitalist, would fetishize commodities.
The conclusion we must draw from all this is that an individual’s production is only a small margin added to everyone else’s production. One hour of your work is one hour added to millions of hours distributed amongst all the workers in your society (as well as masses of underpaid people in the colonies as well). Add to this the trillion of hours needed for the accumulation and preservation of knowledge (not just back to Newton and Galileo, but all the way back to the first human-made tools) necessary to build all the tools used by the millions of people whose labor you depend on, as well as the trillions of hours needed to build the cities, towns, and their infrastructures, which house those millions of people and make your labor desirable, and each individual’s labor really does become infinitesimally small, both in terms of the present labor network and in terms of the sum total of history that led to that labor network being possible. Not only in terms of labor but, as I, Pencil illustrated, also in terms of knowledge, as I really have no idea how all these people do what they do, or how the result of their labor interfaces with anyone else’s (think of how complex the relations are between all the parts of a car, for instance), nor do I know much about the scientific laws and theories underlining any of this. And finally, we cannot forget the fact that every single of these human beings were raised and educated by a mass of people (including their parents), and that without this labor production would also not have been possible.
At the end of this, I think we go from an egocentric “fuck society, the individual must come before everything else” to a more reasonable “the individual depends on ‘everything else,’ and cannot ‘come before’ that which he depends on.” Anyone who still denies that society is essential for his own production, or his standard of living for that matter, at this point is holding on to some misguided belief at the expense of the truth.
Certainly it is true that someone can become a hermit and live without any input whatsoever from others, although obviously his survival techniques would have been learned, and thus the result of the accumulation of knowledge on that topic. But a hermit is not free. A hermit has liberty, that is to say he is not imposed upon by any exterior determinism, but freedom requires viable possibilities as well. A hermit has very few of those because he does not have access to society.