Individual responsibility is a big fat lie. We are told that the problems in our lives are solvable mostly by individual action. This lie has been repeated so often that it has soaked down into the cultural bedrock of much of the western world and so is almost an inescapable starting proposition.
It is a beguiling notion which might, partially, explain its longevity; that we can just apply ourselves to a problem and solve it with nothing more than pure grit and gumption and individual ingenuity. It rarely matters what the problem actually is, the answer will invariably centre the individual at the heart of the solution, regardless of whether the problem is at the micro-level (e.g. “I lost my job”) or the macro-level (e.g. “Climate changes will cause food shortages”).
To be clear, individual agency is important to a point. Yet modern individualism stretches this responsibility from our self-care to broader systemic issues. Individual action is rarely, if ever, meaningful at the macro-level and is often not even meaningful at the micro-level, as we shall see. The focus on individualism is dangerous because it seeks to shift blame and responsibility for action from power structures and onto individuals. It can also serve as a barrier to necessary collective and communal action to problems.
Here are three examples—from the macro to the micro—that illustrate the limits and dangers of the focus on individualism.
One of the most egregious examples of how the concept of individualism has been used to shift responsibility for issues is the environment and specifically how we respond to climate change.
Fingers are often, and rightfully so, pointed at BP for their pioneering work in shifting blame from themselves and their peer companies onto the shoulders of individual consumers. Although they were not the first mass polluter to do this, they were extraordinarily successful.
Their concept of the [individual] carbon footprint calculator, created by an advertising firm in 2004 and then successfully sold to the world is an especially telling example of the misuse of individualism. The lie goes that we (as individuals) can meaningfully tackle climate change if only we make environmentally conscious decisions like turning off lights, avoiding plastic, and recycling our endless plastic water bottles. Definitely keep buying those plastic water bottles, though! But just be e n v i r o n m e n t a l l y c o n s c i o u s in how you dispose of the six bottles a day.
It is beguiling because it appeals to our inherent unease and sense of powerlessness. I certainly have tried to make decisions to lessen the impact of my life on the planet, especially in response to this sort of eco-bullying. And yet, there is essentially nothing one can do as an individual in terms of specific decisions or behaviour that come within a million lightyears of affecting climate change.
The drivers of climate change are not individuals. Instead, it is industrial and commercial uses that overwhelmingly generate the emissions that are driving anthropogenic climate change. The UN estimates that use of fossil fuels accounts for 90% of all CO2 emissions. Almost every part of industrial and commercial activity involves using fossil fuels: from the power plants that keep our lights running to the trucks and planes and ships conveying our food, to the manufacturing plants creating the myriad of consumer goods that make up our lives.
In essence, heavy polluters—such as BP—like to make us think it is purely a demand-side problem, as opposed to a collective action problem. If only consumers stop using power or fuel and then all shall be right with the environment. This approach is naive and unrealistic, especially for something that poses such an existential threat as climate change.
Instead, what is truly needed are supply-side measures to address climate change. Regulation, laws and enforcement are the only real levers of addressing climate change in a meaningful and effective manner.
The role of individuals is not, then, to shoulder the burden, or believe one is making a difference just because one buys fruit that comes in a paper instead of a plastic bag. Instead, individuals must act collectively and demand politicians create strong laws and policies that give industry no choice but to take immediate steps to protect the environment and limit further damage. Don’t blame or shame fellow people trying their best for the choices they make; but do blame the politician that approves a new coal power plant or the company that refuses to switch to renewable energy.
We are in the middle of a slow revolution in how we think about health. Or, more concretely, who we blame for poor health. Historically, individuals were seen as being entirely in control of their health. Sickness was—and far too often still is—blamed on poor individual choices rather than acknowledging the significant and crucial impact of the social determinants of health (that is, things such as education, economic status, environment, childhood and so on). An estimate from the WHO is that the social determinants of health account for up to 55% of health outcomes.
The notion of health is complex, reflecting that our understanding of our biology is still uncertain and evolving: the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. Even the idea of ‘healthy’ as a concept is vague, subjective and almost impossible to usefully define. It is a concept that is so heavily influenced by and dependent on the social determinants of health that it cannot be understood in isolation to those things.
Yet despite this complexity, society by and large has taken a reductive approach and positioned the individual as being almost solely responsible for their health. This ignores the reality that one cannot control, modify or even impact so many of the things that will determine our levels of health throughout our lives. And so when ill-health inevitably crosses our path, the starting internal belief and assumption from others is that we are to blame and that we must solve the problem ourselves.
And unsurprisingly this belief and assumption is problematic—caring for oneself is hard. It requires resources (time, money, executive function, mental bandwidth) and specialist knowledge (what percentage of knowledge broadly in the domain of health in my head is even close to being accurate? 5%? Lower? Quite likely). These resources are not equally distributed. And even if you happen to have some access to resources, much of modern medicine deeply fails anyone who is not a white, middle-class cisgendered hetrosexual chap. And, honestly, likely even fails this hypothetical most middle-of-the-road guy, too.
The treatment of fat people—and here I consciously use the language of fat activism—is a very telling example of the dangers, limits and harm that is caused by focusing overly on individual responsibility and action in response to a health concern. The traditional rhetoric, which is about as deeply hateful as most traditional rhetorics, is that fat people are the way they are because they are weak, lazy people. Hence the still extant culture of bullying and of shaming people who are fat, especially if they show the sheer audacity of not seeming apologetic about their weight.
As our understanding of the body evolves, bit by bit, we learn that our traditional understanding of why people have the weight they do is quite wrong. Our understanding of the health results of being fat are also evolving from the simplistic view that being fat causes poor health. And with this increased awareness hopefully comes the understanding that health is not just a question of individual responsibility but is something more complex.
Again, the practical way forward is to acknowledge that it is the state who bears the onus for the promotion of health of its people. The state must provide not only equal access to healthcare, but also invest in public health and health research AND acknowledge the complex interconnection between health and the environment. Attitudes that seek to blame individuals for their health are deeply counterproductive and distract from a state’s duty to care for its people.
We need, as collective individuals, to demand a broader and more nuanced understanding of health. Health is not something that exists as either an absolute or in isolation from the other parts of our lives. We should resist being shamed or punished for health outcomes that are largely out of out control.
The above topics are largely at the macro-level, where the limits of individual responsibility are more apparent. Making the case at the micro-level is perhaps harder, but I think we cannot fully understand the misuse of the concept of individualism until we explore it at even this level.
2023 is the year of the layoff, reflecting continued tough economic headwinds. One site puts the number of layoffs in the tech sector alone at over 216,000. Countless others have been fired in other parts of the economy. If we accept a strict view of individualism, most (all?) of those individuals could have kept their jobs if only they tried harder, worked longer, and were a little bit hungrier. Even typing that sentence makes me feel vaguely nauseous because of how perverse such a belief is. We know that everyday people are fired for reasons that have zero relation to their individual circumstances or performance. By and large, job security simply does not exist any more, and yet we act—and are expected to act—as if the traditional employment bargain still exists: if you are loyal, hard working, then you’ll be given a job for life.
The dark unspoken truth underpinning our economy is that companies care about one thing: profit, glorious profit. Individuals are purely (part of) the means in securing more and more profit. To put it simply and directly: your employer does not care about you. Just let that truth settle in for a moment. It is perhaps hard to accept that one is essentially a fungible widget in a broader economic system, but to believe otherwise feels harmful.
A particularly insidious form of institutional gaslighting goes on in workplaces. You are told you are valued! You are a part of a big team/family/something special! You matter! Wooooo! And because such sweet lies are perfectly calibrated, and indeed intended, to emotionally affect us, we believe this manipulation. We work harder, we give more of ourselves, we might even flatter ourselves that we matter, even if the old-timer next to us doesn’t. We continue to feel this way until reality rudely intrudes. And when the company hits a speed bump in its growth or the economy tanks or some bright spark in finance realises they can secure their promotion if they pitch layoffs, and then one is not only no longer desired but they are actually declared as being redundant and shown the door. And in such cases we are told it is nothing personal and that we shouldn’t get upset or sad.1I recently read Ahona Guha’s book on trauma, so I’m inclined to think of the modern employer through the lens as someone who perpetuates trauma, that is, as an abuser.
Simply put, the modern workplace is not structured to value or respect individuals. Individuals are useful to a company only to a point. Aside from layoffs, there are countless case studies of the way employers mistreat and abuse their employees, regardless of that employee’s individual behaviour and actions. Take the star performer who gets a serious illness and is suddenly managed out, or the new parent who needs to take more time off to care for their new child than the meagre amount afforded by most modern employment agreements.
Where does this leave us as individuals in the workplace? This will be a matter of personal introspection, with everyone landing in a slightly different place in relation to the reality of employers not caring about their employees.
I currently think that we should still make a reasonable effort to perform well; however, we should always acknowledge that all things—even one’s employment and hence financial security—are temporary, and that it is rarely, if ever, worth sacrificing one’s happiness or health simply to do well at work or as insurance against mistreatment by the employer.
We should be aware of the subtle and insidious ways modern workplaces manipulate us: Take, for example, the way the word resilience is thrown around in the workplace these days. This has become a shortcut phrase for the process of shifting the responsibility for caring and supporting workers from the employer on to individuals themselves, ignoring the massive power and resource differential at play. Individuals who may struggle with change are told they should build their resiliency, when in reality the employer needs to fulfil their duty of care.
You vs the world
Capitalism and individualism have quite the twisted, parasitic relationship with each other. Capitalism has encouraged us to believe that we as individuals can achieve anything (and if for some reason we cannot achieve our goals then that is entirely on us, rather than a reflection of any systemic issue). The reality is quite different: we are but small peas rolling around boulders. There will always be value in trying, but we should not allow ourselves to get discouraged, or feel guilty, when we alone cannot push the boulders in the right direction.
Instead, we should take comfort from the fact that there are others that feel the same way as us about issues—we have only to find them and then work together to force politicians and CEOs to make the changes we demand. Instead of taking responsibility for fixing the problem, individual responsibility becomes more nuanced: we can share, inform, inspire others. We can find actions that are sustainable for us, reflecting our individual circumstances and the limits of being an individual human being in a busy, chaotic world.
Being realistic about individual agency is an important step in our understanding of and relationship with the world. It helps us focus on the things that we can control and helps us, perhaps, not tilt at windmills quite so much.
- 1I recently read Ahona Guha’s book on trauma, so I’m inclined to think of the modern employer through the lens as someone who perpetuates trauma, that is, as an abuser.