by Umair Haque
Individualism, Materialism, and Competition
won't Create the
When I consider about our way of thinking about things - maybe even
everything - it appears to me to boil down to three interlocking
And when I think about it
little more, I can't help but observe:
competitive materialism ends with
Donald Trump as its perfect
exemplar and ultimate apotheosis, gilded interiors, bullying,
bluster, and all...
But we'll come back to
First, you be the judge and I'll think out loud.
Our myths and
legends instill the lessons of competition, individualism,
and materialism so powerfully and constantly, we don't even
notice anymore - movies and TV shows about empire-building,
or brave superheroes, or the glittering lives of the
super-rich, or all three.
cultural ideal is something like a Nietzschean superman -
Christian Grey, a
remorseless billionaire tycoon with no emotions, who's
outwitted his way to the top of the heap, and likes to
punish people (smack! ooh).
Isn't that a
little, well, strange? Achilles or Odysseus or Antigone -
or even Oliver Twist and George Bailey - our protagonists
American economy is premised on ultra-individualistic
hyper-competition, so much so that it's become predatory,
antagonistic, and brutalizing, for the lowest, most
laughable kinds of material payoffs - the biggest bonus,
the company AmEx, the VIP table, the car service, a shiny
suit and a pair of Ferragamos.
And so it's
devolved to hedge fund robots raiding pension funds that
poor people worked hard for every day of their lives -
that's not illegal, abnormal, or even ethically
questionable: it's just "strategy".
to take from others what they have rightfully earned, and
justly deserve, is precisely what competitive
individualistic materialism arrives at taken to an extreme
- after all, there have to be losers for there to be winners
in this game.
Well, there is no
society to speak of, really...
There is no such
thing as a social contract in America - much less any red
lines, norms or shared values left. There's only the law of
If you're poor,
you die young. If you don't want to die young, you pay
whatever it is you must for healthcare, education,
transport, and media - all of inferior quality.
What choice is
There is no such
thing as a safety net, really - and so poor Americans,
terrified of falling through the cracks, never really take
vacations, time off, learn about the world (can you tell me
what kind of healthcare Switzerland has? What makes
Germany's economy different and special?), or grow much as
people anymore (sane people don't elect
authoritarians, my friends).
Now, already, you might
be beginning to see the problem.
But let me spell it out
in plain English...
The (North) American
way of thinking about everything - itself, people, human life,
the world - doesn't work anymore.
I think that there was a
time when (North) American thought was more than this, sure - think
Thoreau, MLK, FDR, or William James - but that's about all I see in
And while maybe there was
a time that this way of thinking did work - that's arguable - what
seems to me to be as plain as day is that individualistic
competitive materialism just doesn't work anymore.
It doesn't work as a
philosophy, a way to think about about the world and our place in
it. It doesn't work as a politics, a way to organize a society. It
doesn't work as an economy, a way to organize human possibility.
And it doesn't work as an
ethics, a way to think well about what is best in us, about us, and
Think about the great challenges that we face.
"We," humankind, whether
as a world, or as countries, or as cities, families, and towns.
How to care for
our elderly, who are living longer lives, or our young, who
need more and better education, investment, and care than in
any previous era
In other words,
care, elderly care, education.
Then there's energy and
infrastructure. How are we going to power our societies, and keep
them humming along?
What do all these
challenges have in common?
They can't be solved by
individualistic competitive materialism. Not a single one...
cheapest - and of the highest quality - when it is provided at
a social level: when societies give a national agency of some
kind the power to negotiate drug prices, to share costs, to
invest in hospitals, to define how much doctors are paid, and so
The same is true for
infrastructure, energy, finance, and media, too. At social scale is
when the greatest scale and scope economies are reaped.
Think about this poor guy:
a dentist who has a
million dollars in student debt...
How did he get there?
Well, the poor guy is a
victim of individualistic competitive materialism. He's a tiny
social atom, bouncing around, seeking the highest payoff - in
competition with everybody else.
Student loan rates are
set not at the minimum amount he can bear, but the maximum -
because the idea isn't to support him, but to squeeze him, like any
He says he'd have a
mental breakdown if he thought about it too much - but his stress
and misery don't count, because, remember, emotions and feelings
All that matters is
whether we pay, we perform, we produce - or how much we can bully
people into doing those for us.
And that's why systems of
individualistic competitive materialism end up with Donald Trumps at
the top - and a poor guy with a million dollars somewhere in the
It's not a
He's an outlier today, the million dollar in debt dentist. But he
won't be tomorrow...
Things like healthcare
costs and debt servicing are skyrocketing in (North) America.
They're climbing by
double digits every year. That means they double in cost every seven
years or so. And that means that today's college education, which
costs easily $500k, is going to reach $1 million soon enough.
Kids with a million
dollars of debt, just for a basic education - think about that for
How are we going to
produce the great scientists, innovators, artists, and writers
of tomorrow - if everybody's got to go be a middle manager,
just to pay off their student debt, and they can barely afford a
PhD, which doesn't pay the bills anyways, because we don't
invest in education, so there aren't jobs in research?
You see the problem now,
Individualistic competitive materialism is not a good match for the
challenges of the 21st century.
That is because those
not just about
material stuff, but about how we feel and think and grow and
and supporting each other, not the stone age logic of having
more than and depriving and beating and conquering each
In other words, our great
challenges this decade, century, maybe even millennium, are,
They are about investing
in one another, building great institutions that endow all with the
basic goods of well lived lives:
finance, healthcare, energy, or information.
But see the point and the
idea in that.
There are no winners
anymore if we do not all win, only losers. The idea that if we "win"
some meaningless contest for money, fame, or power, merely by
dragging everyone else down, only leaves us all worse off in the
A society that needs 21st
century goods, like healthcare, education, clean energy, and
research, cannot survive using the logic of the jungle and
the rule of the most predatory, because those will never be
able to create, distribute, or sustain such goods.
The only things that the law of the jungle can really create
and sustain are,
fear and rage
I am above you, and I
must keep you down. I am afraid of you, so I will obey you. I must
have it all - and I will take it from you, by any means...
If those are the rules,
how can the advanced and sophisticated, the beautiful and generous,
the shared and universal things that we need to live better lives
now ever come to be? Such a society can only go backwards, and
that's why (North) America's doing just that.
So the old story of human history - hierarchy, competition,
conquest - must give way to a new one (human
history), if human
beings are to go on doing the difficult work of living side by side,
prospering, and growing.
The old way of thinking
is obsolete because our problems have outgrown it, and it cannot
provide the things that we need now - and so we must grow, too.
If you ask me, we are coming a little closer, in these troubled and
strange times, to the truths of human fragility.
How having more
stuff does not necessarily make us better people.
How outdoing one
another doesn't matter one bit if the direction we are
oriented in is down, not up.
And how if we do
not lift one another up, then we have failed one another in
a profound and lasting way.
The loneliness, mistrust,
despair, and anger of now, the inequalities and deprivations of this
age - they are the result of a way of thinking that is obsolete
It's age is over. That is
alright. Every paradigm has its day, and no way of thinking is meant
to last forever.
The only question is if
the countries which pioneered it will go on clinging to it, or be
brave enough to outgrow it...