Capitalism versus Individualism

It’s often supposed that capitalism is somehow “individualist,” that is to say that it values the individual over the collective. Anticapitalists are interested in the wellbeing of that amorphous blob “society,” but capitalism prioritizes the actual people who comprise this blob.

This is false. Capitalism couldn’t care less about the individual, and it regularly eats individuals alive.

Individualism is an appealing term, even if it’s vague. Look at each person rather than the society, since a society doesn’t actually have sentience (if you’re Margaret Thatcher, this ends up meaning that “there is no such thing” as society.) And after dozens of brutal failed communist experiments, it’s also obvious why we might want to return to prioritizing the actual people that comprise the entity we’re interested in improving.

I agree with this perspective entirely. But taking it doesn’t do much to justify capitalism. Let’s think a moment about the Ayn Rand hypothesis: all that is great and good comes from individual visionaries and innovators, who are at every turn opposed by an ignorant collective that wishes to destroy them because it does not understand them. Rand believes this fact should lead us to support capitalism, which allows individual genius to be recognized, as opposed to socialism, where a Procrustean mediocrity is enforced.

The problem with people who think this is that they are generally only interested in examining the case of business innovation. If they expanded their examination to other spheres, they would see that capitalism and individualism are constantly in tension.

Consider the Beach Boys. From recording sun-n-fun pop in the early 60’s, the Beach Boys became some of the great musical innovators of the mid-60’s. In 1966, Brian Wilson began creating his masterpiece, SMiLE, which was to be a monumental artistic statement, a panorama of American music, or a “teenage symphony to God,” as Wilson called it. Unfortunately for Wilson, lone visionaries do not do especially well in a profit-driven record industry. Nobody quite understood what he was trying to do, and instead of being just left alone and given whatever resources necessary to let his genius flourish, pressure to release an album quickly and to secure a hit helped contribute to his mental breakdown and abandonment of the project. The Beach Boys would ditch their artistically bold aspirations and return to recording million-selling garbage like “Kokomo.” As Carl Wilson later put it:

 “The hard truth is you don’t have forever to tinker around with this stuff. The pressing demands of business sometimes interfere with artistic indulgence. Business-wise, you want to get the goddamn album out when things are gelling. Commerce and art, man, that’s a tough thing.”

Or, as Brian sadly remarked, “Sometimes I feel like a commodity in a stock market.” Such is the fate of the individual genius under capitalism. So long as it sells, he can do quite well. But the moment the public fails to understand what he is trying to do, the individual genius is out on his ear.

In fact, the history of 20th century music is largely the history of parasitic record company executives squeezing as many sales as possible out of geniuses. Buddy Holly was forced to go on his fateful tour because his royalties were being withheld and he couldn’t do what he wanted, which was to sit in the studio writing and recording. Professor Longhair singlehandedly created New Orleans R&B, yet spent most of his life in poverty. (After his death, a court gave his royalties to the record company instead of his heirs.) Berry Gordy of Motown made his label into a “machine,” milking great performers for their talent and leaving them with nothing. In his autobiography, Chuck Berry describes the constant struggle he had to reap the compensation he was due; every incentive of the industry was to maximize his sales and minimize his profit share.

Or look at Orson Welles! Poor, poor Orson Welles. Welles spent almost all of his post-Kane years in desperate negotiations with studios, trying to make the great pictures he envisioned. Even though his first film is widely agreed to be the best ever made, he was never again given free creative rein, with studios hacking off all experimental aspects of his films in order to make sure the paying public wasn’t alienated. Welles had 1000 brilliant ideas floating around his head, yet he spent the 60’s and 70’s trying to hustle foreign investors for cash, and debasing himself in television commercials. We lost countless potential Welles films because the director had to waste his time convincing people that his films could make a profit (a difficult prospect, since many of them probably couldn’t; securing investment in a film that will inevitably be an artistic triumph but a financial catastrophe is all but impossible.)

The same fate has befallen Terry Gilliam, a true innovator whose brain constantly fizzles with fantastical new concepts. Gilliam was J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct the Harry Potter films. Anyone familiar with his work knows he would have created something truly unique from them that captured their spirit perfectly. Alas, the studio adamantly refused. Gilliam’s films are notorious money-losers, and his daring approach to Harry Potter would almost certainly have alienated audiences. Warner Brothers needed someone who could be counted on to bring in the fortune that the franchise promised. So instead of the man who directed Brazil, they hired the man who directed Home Alone. And the resulting Harry Potter films were safe, predictable, and extremely profitable.

When a genius artist comes along, a society that knows what’s good for it will simply give them everything they need to create, and let them go at it. Instead, capitalism forces the genius artist constantly to be catering to the shifting whims of popular taste. Otherwise they starve. Even artists and musicians with some level of success are often poor, gigging constantly to pay the bills. Because Ayn Rand focused entirely on people who build railroads, she didn’t see what happened to those who produce society’s creative output. (This may be explained by the fact that she had terrible taste in music.)

This is why Oscar Wilde said in advocating socialism that “Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism.” Wilde saw that capitalism did not free the artist to be an artist, but made him struggle after his material well-being. Socialism, for Wilde, was the condition under which all people would be free to develop their personalities and capacities to their highest level, to serve their visions rather than profit, and thus socialism was the only true form of individualism.

It would be easy enough to guarantee that artists never starve, by guaranteeing a basic income and standard of living. It’s somewhat harder to devise a system to adequately nourish true genius; if nobody realizes Brian Wilson is a genius, how do we know to give him the time and resources that his genius requires? That’s certainly difficult. But the main point is the idea that capitalism respects the individual creator is nonsense. Capitalism killed Buddy Holly.