Opus 16: What Happened to I?

I am done with the monster of "We"

I am done with the monster of "We," the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.

This god, this one word:

"I.”

- Ayn Rand, Anthem

Where did I go? When did I disappear? Why was I banned?

What happened to I?

The Death of The (I)ndividual

In the December 31st, 1971 issue of The New York Times, William Irwin Thompson wrote,

And so capitalism has now become a radical instrument for effecting cultural change. To work for cultural change within H.E.W. or SUNY is to be facing in the wrong historical direction. Universities and Government agencies are filled with experts, and experts are only right about what has been and what can be. Expert mathematicians proved with an elegant formula that no machine could ever fly, but two bicycle repairmen went into the air anyway.

The solution to all our problems, or to any of them, is not going to come from General Motors, the Communist party or M.I.T.; it will come from the changes wrought by the new artistic capitalism of the individual as an institution.

Unbeknownst to him, Thompson was trying to rally the Individual at the start of a 40 year period where the Individual became demonized, and the Group reigned for the next half-century. Since Thompson’s plea, the Individual has been attacked. Groups and their narratives have ruled the lands and stalked down anyone that aims to depart. Politically, culturally, socially, and economically, the idea of “I” has fallen by the wayside.

This eradication of the Individual has even shown itself in our language. The below chart shows the usage of “individual” in English text over the last 220 years:

It is surreal to see the usage of “individual” peak in the early 1970s and then its subsequent exit from our lexicon as postmodernism took over. The world, specifically the Western world, abandoned the Individual’s 100-year bull run launched during the Enlightenment Era.

Similarly, Eric Weinstein shared the following comparison between “diversity and inclusion” vs. “most qualified” over the last 120 years:

We have ended up in a world where we celebrate diversity between groups but not within them, even though the inter-group variance is less than the intra-group variance. We have organized every person based on their recognizable identity and tangible traits. Any departure from the group label and the Individual is exiled into cancel culture, the “outgroup,” as Scott Alexander writes. Alexander was even a victim of this Groupism crusade. The media, specifically the New York Times, could not deal with the fact that Scott was an anonymous individual with such a following. They exposed his identity to make sure he could be bucketed into a group and criticized along with his peers.

As we have celebrated and demanded this group's diversity, we abandoned the true minority: the Individual. Paradoxically, we have come to celebrate the multiplicity of groups but not of individuals. Individual sovereignty and agency have all but vanished.

I do not have an identity of my own. The group (ethnic, cultural, sexual, etc.) I am part of is the identity I must assume. My uniqueness does not cause me to stand out but rather attracts criticism for not fitting into my group. As Andrew Sullivan asserts,

“You have no independent existence outside these power dynamics. I am never just me. I’m a point where the intersecting identities of white, gay, male, Catholic, immigrant, HIV-positive, cis, and English all somehow collide.”

I don’t dare speak my mind. Technology platforms and governments morph into one with their unilateral command on speech, discourse, and expression. Any unpopular opinion immediately has its distribution cut off and is skewed via interpretation to an extreme viewpoint.

I cannot be proud of my accomplishments. Self-celebration is viewed as egotistical and self-centered. “We are drowning in insecurity” has become the norm for many young individuals.

I don’t think or research on my own. Media narratives and my social circles decide that for me. These rehearsed points of view are regurgitated and presented as my acceptable opinion.

I don’t even invest anymore. Passive funds let capital become unconscious in its flow. Individual financial discretion is seen as dangerous and the retail investor is too stupid to control their destiny.

Why The Individual?

The common rebuttal against the Individual is that if the Individual only acts in their best interest, then the common good will be worse off. Therefore, we must have governments, organizations, and groups formed as a cocoon of protection for the common good. Only then will there be enough protection against the irrationality of the Individual. This school of thought ran rampant with Covid as the common good came before any individual choice.

But we reach a paradox: if all individuals are acting in their self-interest, governments are just collections of individuals and they too will act in their best self-interests. It does not take a historian to recognize this pattern throughout mankind. It is natural to act out of self-interest. That trait does not make the Individual subjectively evil, just objectively natural. And the design of these power structures between the governor vs. the governed lead to an unfair standoff of these individuals. If you believe that Individuals are inherently evil because they act out of self-interest, it is improbable that any government structure will be able to hedge against that behavior.

The late Prince Phillip said it best in his 1984 interview:

“Many think the Individual is there for the sake of the state. That seems wrong to me. The state is there for the sake of the Individual.”

The Return of I

There are glimmers of hope for the Individual. Politically, economically, and culturally, a small resurgence can be felt in some corners of our society.

Entrepreneurship is becoming a focus once again. With all of its dark times, 2020 was a bumper crop year for new companies. An Entrepreneur is a form of Individual who can will a product, team, and organization into existence. The “creator economy” has shown the power of the Individual and the following they can create just from a similarity of interests, passions, or hobbies. The engagement of just a few hundred devout followers can financially support one person without the need for a corporate day job. Corporate power tides have started to slow their rise.

Similarly, crypto has allowed both ends of the political spectrum to celebrate and cross the aisle in some agreement. The self-sovereignty of Bitcoin in its creation, storage, and transaction, has shown the world that the Individual can create a somewhat stable money system. While it has its fair share of issues, the movement is a positive sign.

While the Covid story is continuing to unravel itself, people are starting to tire of the permanence of these temporary laws. Oregon is contemplating keeping the mask mandate with no specific goals. The Canadian police “refused” to conduct random searches and stops of people as part of their Covid response.

Removing the political heat from both, Trump and AOC have shown that the Individual can rise beyond the party and build a brand of their own. I would argue that much of the hate both of these figures attracted was not for their views but their departure from their party and norms.

The Preservation of I

How do we fool-proof our future to make sure we can always find and support the next great Individual? All great discoveries in both the pre-modern and modern era have been made by the Individual, almost always immediately dismissed and then realized after some time, often posthumously. How do we shorten this realization period? How do we support this small resurgence in the Individual?

I propose we focus on our neighborhood, both literally and figuratively. Individuals must feel empowered by the change they work towards.

For all of its benefits, the Internet era has disillusioned many into thinking they can change the world before changing their neighborhood and, most of all, themselves. This is the core theme behind Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of The Public, where he argues that the internet, social media, and frictionless connection have led to the last decade of destabilization. The thin veil of actual authority has been ripped away and underneath there is little to see. Similarly, while the Information Age has armed the Individual, the arms dealers - a.k.a. the big tech companies of today - have made much of the usage predetermined, as Tom Chatfield argues.

While they capture the world's attention, these large-scale revolts driven by the Internet Age have had less success, structure, and unified goals than many assume. Gurri counts:

As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.

Most of these countries have the same power structures today as they did before their large-scale revolts.

Bari Weiss adds,

“The most important events of my life, and your life, will always take place more or less within a 25-foot radius of wherever we are standing.”

We have all come to post on social media about the issues beyond our own street. Social media participation rates are higher than political participation rates and it is comical that many think a reposting of an Instagram story about injustice will spark change. Change requires proof of work.

I am not diminishing the importance of these grander events - they are a net positive by any measure. Rather, I am arguing that the power of the Individual degrades quickly as it moves beyond your Dunbar group. The ROI of instigating change amongst family, friends, and coworkers is much higher than that of people you don’t know. This is where the Individual can shine.

We have allowed our own local communities to erode while arguing about those communities thousands of miles away from us, the ones we will never interact with. We are quick to point out the injustice committed by those we do not know while we allow the issues close to home to proliferate. Local political participation is much worse than federal, even while the latter has been ~50% historically. But, as Richard Hanania presents, even voter turnout is a poor measure of true political participation.

Taleb explained it better than anyone,

“I am, at the Fed level, libertarian; at the state level, Republican; at the local level, Democrat; and at the family and friends level, a socialist. If that saying doesn’t convince you of the fatuousness of left vs. right labels, nothing will.”

We need a renaissance of the true Individual. We need to celebrate the dissenter.

In the spirit of Scott Alexander-esque anonymity, I leave you with a quote from a friend much smarter than I on how they think the battle of the Individual will run its course:

What I expect will happen in Western society, however, is that eventually, the prizing of individuality (a Western notion which obviously jives with his virtue ethic) above almost all else will win out against the technological monopolies that garner ever greater influence over and knowledge of people’s lives. Facebook, Google, etc. will be broken up or greatly curtailed; imperfect products will slowly be refined to reflect the standards of society; and humanity will ultimately adapt to prosper as a result of the affordances which this new paradigm offers. This isn't a question of ethics, just of arbitrary cultural values restraining new forces that seek to tear apart the fragile fabric of the society that necessarily restrains the irrationality against which most are incapable of fighting. Sadly this all takes a long time, but I will bet it is how it will all come out.

Homework Reading

Reflection of An Individual Researcher - A fitting read for this Opus.

What is Investment Banking? - A great run-through on all the different things investment banks do.

Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier? - Written in 2005 and largely ignored. The paper even specifically calls out MBS’s and their off-balance-sheet risk issues. What papers today are being ignored but are providing justified caution?

99 Bits of Unsolicited Advice