Western Individualism

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Liberalism, Business Ethics

A book in the series: Individualism

Individualism is not individuality. Individualism is our new, uniquely Western insistence that people are single, solitary selves: I am just I, you are just you, and he or she is just he or she. Individuality is different tastes, opinions, and so forth we traditionally cherished. Paradoxically, we’ve become much alike.

The author’s memoir of his corporate legal career demonstrates that the only sustainable basis for morality between people has proven to be tribalism of some form, inspiring us to a common good. People in big corporations are like people outside, but with our characters most obvious in tightly confined spaces.

Without tribalism, ethics are just marketing. We might treat our friends and family well, but not people whose paths we cross. If tribalism leaves people without empathy for people of other tribes, then Western individualism produces people without empathy for anyone.

Contents

Preface

Chapters:

  1. Individualism without Individuality
  2. New Soviet Man
  3. New Western Person
  4. The Corporation as Fiefdoms
  5. The Corporation as a Tribe
  6. Commercial Aristocracy
  7. The Rule of Rights
  8. The Rule of Ethics
  9. Subordinated Families
  10. The Right to Stupidity
  11. The Right to Lie
  12. The Right to Suppress the Truth
  13. The Corporation as a Killing Field
  14. The Corporation as Individual Interests
  15. Our Need to Consume
  16. Work without Production
  17. Work as Ego
  18. The Corporation as a Gaol
  19. Economics without End
  20. The Rights of Others
  21. Individualism with a Human Face
  22. The End of Ideology

Bibliography

Chapter 1: Individualism without Individuality

High chandeliers shuffled soft lights onto gold-leafed columns and curtains draped back. From the walls hung old paintings the like of which I studied in castle museums. White-clothed round tables with sterling silver cutlery spread through the dining room, where black-tie waiters served dark-suited members and guests. Looking back on such nights as I write, there are things I miss most when I’m outside my company career, when I’m not one of those guests. I miss the catering.

The night was Thursday, the eleventh day of December 1997. I was thirty-five years old. My work as lawyer more than company secretary for shipping company Hodyman brought me to London, where the chairman of the board Dick invited me to eat with him in the Royal Automobile Club. This was no mere motoring organisation but a private gentlemen’s club on Pall Mall I wouldn’t have known existed but for Dick, fidgeting about in his chair. I could only enter at his invitation.

Dick was a short, nugget of a man, with a rounded, jolly face pleased to meet everyone around him. He was well past what ought to have been retirement age, but people like Dick didn’t normally retire. He moved sprightly, almost hyperactively, with more eagerness than efficiency. Among his plans he confided in me for the company in which I had the good fortune to sail was the chance I would manage the New York ferry business, finally utilising my business degree. Also, the board would soon fire the managing director and finance director.

“Yes, Mister…,” the waiters fawned to Dick, as they fawned to all guests. That was their job.

Dick basked in their attention, while I noticed the night outside. Through the arched windows was much like any night eleven years earlier, when my long-ago girlfriend and I had been backpackers wandering the streets. Ours had been the youth of university graduates exploring the world, when Europe was the world, buying cheap meals from stalls and supermarket shelves. Ours had been the maturity of freshly court-admitted lawyers, expecting to head further into our good lives. That night with Dick, I was a little of the people we’d dreamed we’d be.

Without university education, Dick was proud to have come far in his life. From Lithgow in country New South Wales, he’d eventually joined the highest ranks of businessmen: the chairmen of public companies. He was more wily than clever but could be very wily, in the nicest possible way. I asked Dick, “What do you think are the secrets for success in business?”

He laughed, fobbing away the question he couldn’t immediately answer. Mine was the most important question many of us Australasians, Europeans, and North Americans ask at this time in our histories. Our countries don’t mean much anymore. We don’t dwell upon peoples we no longer are.

Sometime through our meal, before or after a young merchant banker we light-hearted Hodyman employees called Frosty (although not to his face or with Dick) joined us at the table, Dick referred me back to my question. I readied myself to hear Dick’s secrets of business success in our postmodern West. “You need to know one or two good wines that you like,” he told me, “and know why you like them.”

Dick’s words were memorable not because they might seem ridiculous, but because they were true. Whatever we happen to be and however we perceive ourselves to be, we recruit, retain, and reward people like us, in those features we consider important and so far as the law will allow. Through several meals we shared, Dick and Frosty bantered back and forth about wine from Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. Dick considered Frosty a fine young man.

Whatever our work or without it, European races aren’t like other races. All races value conformity, but we had a long history cherishing individuality. All races understood collective familial and tribal rights, but we enjoyed individual rights too.

Individuality connoted each person’s particular thoughts and feelings, likes and dislikes, beliefs and opinions. They were variations among peoples: tastes, manner, behaviour, and character that distinguished a person from the people around, not that we needed distinction. He might’ve recognised the name of her favourite writer, but never read books anyway. Her favourite composer might’ve been one he’d never before heard. She might’ve licked her fingers preparing to turn a new page. He might’ve donned leather gloves before holding a car steering wheel.

Individuality isn’t individualism. Colonial Europeans considered individualism a brave, individual self-reliance against alien and physically hostile frontiers. We rarely needed anyone’s help, but stood together as nations and races when we did: nationalistic individualism.

Developed since World War II, the new and also uniquely Western ideology of individualism is altogether different. Not merely the differences among people around us, it’s our assertion, above all else, that we aren’t the people around us. We’ve become individuals: each person distinct from everyone else. Other people we denote individuals too. A person’s identity is only that person, without reference to anyone else. I am just I. You are just you. He is just he. She is just she.

Whether other people are close or far away, we are, and remain, single, solitary selves. Ours are single-person economics, politics, arts, and lifestyles. (Single-person histories we call résumés.) Rights are for individuals alone.

Isolation doesn’t breed uniqueness. A great paradox of Western individualism has been that it pushes aside individuality.

By the time I’d joined the huge TMT group of transport companies (my induction to company life) the first Monday in November 1988, the law firms I’d left behind seemed ultimately similar. Sometime since then, the whole of capitalist Western Europe and communist Eastern Europe through which we two backpackers travelled in 1986 came to seem vastly different and ultimately similar.

Dick was much like the senior partner to whom I’d reported in the second law firm at which I worked after admission as a solicitor, a founder of the firm. Peter W was also short, plucky, and pugnacious, working much longer in life than money required, with cleverness to match his wiliness. I mentioned a newspaper notice of his death to the Hodyman finance manager, another man named Peter, the week before Peter finished his time at Hodyman and only a few weeks before I would too, describing Peter W as having been like Dick. “Then,” said my friend Peter, “you’ll be glad that he’s dead.”

Add to them, the chairman at Badger Gold Mines at which I worked after Hodyman. They could have been triplets separated at birth. Tony was a chartered accountant and financial consultant, with offices near the tiny Auckland registered office where the company secretary (also called Peter) sat almost alone. Peter L complained at the nearly endless litany of charges that Tony, already a rich man, invoiced through his firm to Badger, including Badger’s directors sitting in Tony’s offices for rare board meetings in Auckland. Greed was a reason Tony was chairman, while Peter L remained company secretary. Grudgingly, Peter L approved payment.

We individuals became more alike. The Hodyman directors that replaced the retiring Roly and Ted were more comfortably like Dick and his fellow director Rob. Yet another Peter was a boorish and bombastic version of Rob. Norm was a more urbane version of Dick. Even less than their knowledge of employees was their interest in our well-being, or ours in theirs.

The characters between companies became familiar, and not simply for being called Peter, even if their roles didn’t coincide. Denham was Badger’s equivalent to the obsequious Ted, and even more successful for being so. He became chairman of the board.

Chairmen of the board at manufacturing company Cement National (for which I worked after Badger) were much like Dick at Hodyman and Tony at Badger although, like Denham, they happened to be taller. Most senior executives at Cement were like James (the last Hodyman chief executive) without James’ beard, or like the chief financial officer Phil at Badger with better marketing than Phil’s temper could be.

After Cement, I worked for a fund management business Babcown & Black, where few people differed from Frosty. They dined as he dined.

Aside from rare employer logos on satchels or shirts, employees of one business in the building in which Babcown kept its Sydney head office were indistinguishable from those of another. If I didn’t recognise the face, I didn’t know who was a colleague or not. We’d become solitary swimmers in seas of our stolid sameness: an incredible likeness of being.

Every trait I’ve seen in businesspeople, I’ve seen in people with no thoughts of business. Companies are seamless, small fragments of the people from which they’re drawn. We’re each of us everyman, everyone of our race, but with our characters most obvious in tightly confined spaces. Business and political leaders don’t come from the moon.

What had been a myriad of countries and cultures had become the almost uniform West. By the West, I mean Europe and countries outside Europe colonised and still economically and politically dominated by Europeans, most obviously including America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand along with Latin American countries like Argentina and Uruguay. The West doesn’t encompass Japan for being economically developed, democratic, and having low birth rates. Arab emirates aren’t Western for being rich. Copying portions of our legal, political, and economic institutions doesn’t make countries Western. The West is racially European.

Our individualism replaced any corpus of people with numbers of persons. I can’t recall seeing a sign that spoke of numbers of people. Persons, not people, sit or stand in a bus.

We never noticed individualism replace individuality. Transfixed with both, we’ve lost sight of how much we’re like other Western peoples and different from other races.

Generalisations teach us something to learn. I don’t applaud or denigrate the people I cite in my non-fiction writing. I offer them because I believe they represent our new norms (or, sometimes, what I suggest be our norms). Were their actions and attitudes unusual, there’d be no purpose in writing about them. Individualism breeds conformity.

Nationalism bred individuality, in the West. They’re no longer the norm.

I’d been introduced to Roly, the deputy chairman of Hodyman, in 1988 when he was managing director of TMT Shipping and Development Limited. His big office in the corner enjoyed views to two sides and a massive great desk. If his chair facing the door was meant to make him and his office seem a little more welcoming then perhaps it did, but it couldn’t deny he was our divisional boss.

His age was hard to discern, but I imagine he was already more than fifty years old, as men of such seniority were. He was a little taller than were most men, but with bearing taller than that. His face was fulsome with the broad smile of a man who enjoyed more than his job. English born and accented from the streets more than schools, he’d begun work as a tally clerk at an old English wharf. Charming and interesting, I never saw him angry or tempered. Nor did I see him weak or indecisive. He was strong, determined, and calm, with determination that never closed his mind from information well argued.

He was also the best dressed man in the office. Men all wore suits and ties then. Senior and professional men wore dark, trim-lined suits. Lesser and older men wore greys and browns. In the mode of mere businessmen, Roly wore silver-grey suits that shone without shining, making them stylish as they’d not seemed in law firms. The finest dark suits were Roly’s when he wanted formality: never more dapper than when he stood in a dark, soft pinstriped suit, with a triangle of gold folded handkerchief protruding from his jacket chest pocket.

In the mode of a man and his wife, he and Jean came to each staff Christmas party. To the Sydney Aquarium with its sharks and stingrays, for which the theme was pirates and prizes dressed in full costume, Roly came dressed as a pirate. Churchgoing Jean came dressed as a prize.

Roly retained kindly nationalism, while others brought individualism to the fore. Late in 1991, the Liberal Party proposed reducing income taxes and imposing a goods and services tax. The proposal would help Roly, he knew, being as rich as he was, but he feared its effect on poor Australians. Whether his fears were well founded or not, he didn’t want Australia following New Zealand into creating classes of working poor people. With his self-interest was compassion for compatriots he’d never met; business leaders know only people like them.

Forgoing personal gain for the sake of our citizenry is only a sacrifice to people assuming we’re solely individuals. For millennia beforehand we believed, as the rest of the world still believes, in collective rights and interests too. People shared possessions with their families, nations, races, and religious brethren because they were families, nations, races, and religious brethren.

Without collective identities of our own, we’re individuals. All that survive are our individual selves and ideals, with grand expectations of what that can mean. Our postmodern West is premised upon each of us choosing what moves us. Some people are extraordinarily kind without a collective identity or religious faith to inspire them. Most grow weary of people not so generous taking advantage of them.

We consider any delineation of the human species into peoples to be divisive, but individualism is no less divisive. Without peoples, we treat everyone as individuals, but can’t possibly know everyone. So we dwell upon our own lives without the distractions other people can be. Barely noticing them, we see only our individual selves. Somewhere else is the ephemeral rest. If identifying with a group creates a sense of them and us, then not identifying with a group leaves just them and me, however fortunate we are to grab moments of just you and me.

Individualism is more than merely not fighting a war alongside our compatriots. It’s not having to help them, nor them having to help us. We might help our families or friends, if doing so doesn’t impose upon us, but not people whose paths we cross. Without societies or God to interfere, we have the right to neglect them as much as they have the right to neglect us. Ours isn’t just the individualism we make for ourselves. It’s the individualism to which others confine us.

Empathy requires tribalism. The only enduring motivation inspiring people around the world to be good to each other has proven to be tribalism of some form or another, such as nationalism or collective religion; well, some nations and religions anyway. Collective identities protect and defend us, most of all from each other. If tribalism leaves people without empathy for people of other tribes, then individualism produces people without empathy for anyone.

The rise of individualism has been among the most destructive events in Western history: taking the good and making us awful, the kind and leaving us cruel. We keep moving on, putting bad experiences behind us, extraordinarily accepting of our lots in lives and the people around us: their selfishness and horribleness. With so much happening and too few thoughts of the past, we soon forget most experiences once ours. Being so much the individual, we know little of lives beyond those portrayed in television series and the late evening news.

There’s thus no end of irony to hear people lambaste the last remnants of Western nationalism for being narrow-minded. Tribes being just that, nationalism arose centuries ago when our regions, city states, and villages (not to mention aristocratic self-interest) seemed narrow-minded. We came together in nations and races, with national and popular interests supplementing individual interests. Through the twentieth century, the West replaced nationalism with the narrowest of all mindedness: individualism.