Individualism: ideology that affirms that people, considered one by one, have a large degree of sovereignty that allows them to determine their own future and shape their social reality through their relationship with other individuals. The individual would therefore be ultimately responsible for his or her social situation and society would be explained as the result of the aggregation of individual behaviors, not of contradictions between social classes.

The origins of individualism

Christian ideology and individualism

There is nothing natural in the conception that individuals, considered one by one, have a broad space of sovereignty that allows them to determine their own future and to shape social reality. Neither is it self-evident that society is the result of interactions, disputes, and agreements of various kinds between individuals. In fact, the idea of the individual is quite recent in historical terms.

The remote origin of individualism is in the religious sphere. For centuries the only great monotheism of the time, Judaism, lacked a personal god. God related to the people of Israel, not to the Jews one on one. His communication with the people was through specialized characters with a particular gift, the prophets. Having a divinely charted destiny was a characteristic of the Israelites as a whole vis-à-vis the rest of the people. Individualism? None.

That is why they were the chosen people, not a collection of chosen ones. That the particular favor of a tribal god who ends up asserting himself as the only real god, implied certain opportunities and responsibilities for their chiefs and kings, did not deny but rather reaffirmed the collective nature of that relationship.

However, the physical expansion of Judaism throughout the Roman empire and the logic of its proselytizing began to be increasingly contradictory to the idea of a tribal god. How to redefine the chosen people when an increasing proportion of the faithful came from other groups and lived in other kingdoms?

The overcoming of this contradiction will be at the center of the reflections of the Judeo-Hellenistic currents (Philo of Alexandria) but will mark above all a sect at the same time irrationalist and universalist later in a few decades: Christianity. The final answer, that of St. Paul, will be to convert the people chosen by Yahweh into the people formed by those who chose Yahweh.

The personal relationship of the members with the divinity comes to the forefront. It is so important that it makes the rituals of belonging to the people of Israel, such as circumcision, unnecessary. From now on one is not part of the people of God by being born a Jew. One is part of the people of those who chose because one chooses oneself. What defines Christianity ideology is the relationship of each Christian with God. The believer becomes an individual in relation to god and the people a community of faith mystically united among themselves by the communion of each one with Christ.

Christianity is also, in its first century, an apocalyptic religion. The people of God live in the immediate and permanent expectation of a second coming. Before the coming, social and class divisions are blurred. All believers are equal in the eyes of God and this equality, born of the devaluation of all that is material and social at the gates of the end of the world, allows for a fraternity of brothers in Christ.

That is to say, the primitive Christian community is not a community in the strict sense. It is not a concrete whole. It is not a set of interpersonal relationships that does things in common and shapes the life of its members. Christendom, on the contrary, is the mystical body of Christ, the aggregation of relationships between individual believers and God. This is the backbone of the first theoretical conception of individualism... and the mold in which capitalist individualism, centuries later, will take shape as the core of bourgeois ideology.

But all this has hardly any consequences for Christianity as the social ideology of the new mode of production then taking shape: feudalism. As the years and apocalyptic fevers went by, the institution, the church as hierarchical and material organization, played a central role in Christian ideology.

The people of God, Christendom, will be defined more and more as a collective beneficiary of the mediation of the Church. The feudal serf, as well as the nobleman and the ecclesiastic, were far from possessing an individualistic conception of themselves or of promoting individualism as an ideology.

The individual would survive only in theological argumentation - a product for the internal consumption of the ecclesiastical elites - and in the most mystical and sectarian forms of Christianity that were condemned as heretical. Most of these had been roundly persecuted since the conversion of Christianity into a state religion, and few traces of their existence remain.

But not all of them would disappear. One of them would in fact be harnessed by the church itself to become a pillar of European feudalism, a parallel and separate world in which the individual for god would live and which, unexpectedly, would be the incubator of some of the practices and ideological bases that would later be used by the bourgeoisie in its ascendance.

The monastic individualism

Monasticism was born in the second century as an attempt to redirect the eremitical movement. The hermits, extolling the personal relationship of the Christian with his god, abandoned the material community to retire to the moors and deserts. Some of them, the Stylites, even ended up on the top of the columns of the classical temples destroyed by Christian fanaticism. The goal of such solitude would be to focus on cultivating their relationship with the divinity without distractions.

Because for the radical Christian, society is nothing more than a distraction, a test or a sacrifice that separates him from the only relationship in which he is an individual in his own right, the only one that is oriented towards the future and can give meaning to his life. The life of the hermit is individualism in god.

From the beginning hermeticism will be a problem both for the church and for the hermits themselves. For the church it was not at all comfortable to have a cloud of more or less wandering mystics and without strict ideological control, receiving the treatment of saints by not a few of its faithful and preaching inconvenient prophecies too often. That is, when they were not mere madmen or bandits. For the hermits, on the other hand, solitude could be highly desirable but extreme seclusion in the wilderness tended to require a more than considerable effort to obtain basic vital provisions and was accompanied by the permanent threat of assault.

The solution, which would soon appear, would be the construction of hermitages and monasteries. The interesting thing is that the monastery would be only a community in the terms of Christian theology, that is, it would not be a community at all. The purpose of the monastery is none other than to create the conditions so that the individualism of the hermit can be lived by many in a single space.

Its very name monastery, from the Greek monajós (solitary, unique), reveals that the aim of monastic communities is to provide and organize solitude, the isolation of the individual in his relationship to god. The monastic community is a group of individuals united not by their relationships or a collective action, but by the superimposition of individual actions that only make sense in the relationship of each one with God. The Christian society that is projected under the monastic ideal is not a society, it is a mass of individuals bound by a centralizing relationship.

In order to develop this antisocial principle, which is the foundation of individualism, time itself needed to separate from Nature. The further that the rules advance, from the Visigothic to those of St. Isidore or the Celtic and from these to that of St. Benedict, the more regulated monastic time would become. The alienation of human life with respect to Nature reaches in the medieval monastery a completely new level: the radical separation of human time from both solar time and the seasons.

Factory time, marked by shifts and arbitrary hours rather than by sunlight or the cycle of harvests, was being foreshadowed. It is no coincidence that the first mechanical clocks, so important for the birth of capitalist morality and the normalization of individualism, were developed in monasteries. Precisely because individualism is a way of denying society to the people who live in it, it cannot be affirmed without also denying Nature of which human society is a part.

The rule of St. Benedict makes the monk's hours independent of those of the sun; it makes the time he devotes to work independent of the needs of his community; and it teaches him that his true realization does not exist in his productive and collective activity but in the contemplative isolation he carries out together with the other monks and at the same time, but not with them, because in reality it is his time alone with god.

Individual and time under capitalism

Cradle of the individual and individualism, the monastery will be the first model, the first sketch of the great social automaton that the bourgeoisie will take as the ideal form -antithesis in reality- of human society. Because, if we think about it, life under capitalism is not so different from life under the rule. We live in an abstract time - that is arbitrary and abstracted from natural time - focused on producing according to a system whose objective is not the satisfaction of human needs.

The vast majority conceive of work-reduced to wage labor- as a mere instrument, as a way of gaining means and time to realize ourselves, that is, to develop our individuality and be ourselves, generally by consuming in solitude something that moves us elsewhere, transcends us, that is, alienates and isolates us even more. Individualism is at the very core of bourgeois religion.

The whole ideological framework of the system is based on the assumption that voluntary exchanges are free and that, by definition, when two people exchange something, that exchange is between equals in value. Abstracted from all the conditioning factors of real persons, the abstract individual who exchanges his labor power does so freely.

Moreover, if we let the market balance itself through competition, the individual will receive a wage equal to his value, a fair wage. As a result, wealth would be created magically, simply by the succession of exchange cycles. We are constantly told that the faster these cycles are, the greater the wealth that is created. Who creates wealth? Those who have capital and use it to buy labor power with the aim of then selling their product, because the more exchanges and products there are, the more dynamic the circulation of commodities.

This narrative thus makes invisible the reason why the proletariat, which makes up the majority of society, can only exchange its labor power in the market. Nor does it reveal that for such a class to exist, the majority of society had to be dispossessed of the means of production. But, thanks to that abstraction called "individualism ", the reality that the growth of wealth is nothing other than the growth of unpaid labor is also completely erased in the story. Individualism and the very concept of the individual is the foundation of the argument that denies exploitation.

The necessity for capitalism to promote individualism.

So the system wants us not only to accept the existence of the individual, but to consider ourselves individuals and to accept individualism as the natural form of human behavior.

Let us exchange the monastic god for economics - i.e. for accumulation- and we will see what individualism really means. The individual is made for the shredder. Just as the medieval monk turned into guilt the disasters he did not understand why his god allowed and ended up thinking that his own sins were the origin of all evils, we will be blamed for the disasters the system produces: from the environmental wreckage to the rapacity of past centuries, from the infinite forms of discrimination it continually creates and recreates to our own unemployment.

Moreover, we will be as incapable as the monk is of being part of the truly communal and collective, thus renouncing both the power to resist and the power to transform anything. Like the monk, it would be hard for us to imagine work not being a curse and that it is possible for concrete and universal human needs to take precedence over abstractions. Our own life, like his, would thus turn into individualism: the experience of being individual, a meaningless passage to nothingness.