by Umair Haque

May 30, 2018

from Eudaimonia Website

Spanish version


why Individualism, Materialism, and Competition

won't Create the Future


When I consider about our way of thinking about things  - maybe even everything - it appears to me to boil down to three interlocking elements:

  • Individualism

  • Competition

  • Materialism (not just as in "having more stuff" but as in "stuff is all there is" or "things we can't see and touch, like feelings, don't really count")

And when I think about it little more, I can't help but observe:

individualistic 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 that.

First, you be the judge and I'll think out loud.


  • Culture?


    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.


    Hence, the 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 aren't.


  • Economics?


    The entire 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".


    But "strategies" 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.


  • Society?


    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 the jungle.


    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?


    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 it now.


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 for us.

Think about the great challenges that we face.


"We," humankind, whether as a world, or as countries, or as cities, families, and towns.

  • Climate change

  • Inequality

  • Polarization and fracture

  • 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

  • or our vulnerable...

In other words,

healthcare, social 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...


Consider healthcare:

Healthcare is 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 on.

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 resource.


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 don't matter.


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 collapsing middle.


It's not a coincidence...

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 a second.

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, perhaps.

Individualistic competitive materialism is not a good match for the challenges of the 21st century.


That is because those challenges are,

  1. shared

  2. not just about material stuff, but about how we feel and think and grow and learn

  3. about nourishing and supporting each other, not the stone age logic of having more than and depriving and beating and conquering each other

In other words, our great challenges this decade, century, maybe even millennium, are,

cooperative, social, and existential.

They are about investing in one another, building great institutions that endow all with the basic goods of well lived lives:

whether education, 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 end.


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,

  1. hierarchy

  2. fear and rage

  3. insatiable greed

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 now:

Individualistic competitive materialism.

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...