Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The "Attractor" Of Individualism And Its Basin Of Attraction

 Lately when I think about individualism in advanced capitalist societies, I find myself latching onto a certain mathematical picture -- something associated with what's called an "attractor."

With the refreshing literality characteristic of mathematics, "attractor" in this context means something like "attractor" -- a spot that attracts. More specifically: "an attractor is a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system."

I'm thinking here of individualism in the sense sometimes associated with liberalism and neo-liberalism. In the basic sense: people are best understood as conceptually and practically independent from one another; they properly get what they need and want in life by negotiating and making deals; there is no such thing as society. In the more advanced sense: we should embrace the entrepreneurial self.

The reason I think of individualism as an attractor is that once you get going on the basic idea, the idea creates the conditions for its own flourishing. It's like an infection where the mechanism creates the environment where the infection can thrive. At the end it's like a cultural Roach Motel: people can get in, but they can't get out.

For example, consider poverty. It used to be possible to think of poverty as a structural problem: we live in a society that's not working for some people. Maybe there could be structural solutions?

But the attractor is close enough to exert its magnetic pull. Through some invisible process, the question gets reframed in terms of helping individuals by giving them a leg up. Characteristic of this phase is the bizarre idea of "education" as some kind of solution. Like: "Engineers make more than baristas. If we could train everyone to be an engineer, no one would have the problem that baristas are poor." Of course this is crazy: as long as we want coffeeshops, someone's going to have the problems of being a barista -- it doesn't matter what kind of education people have.

Now that we're closer to the attractor, though, the pull is even stronger. Having acknowledged that some people are going to be baristas and others are going to be engineers, individualism forces us into the possibility that it's OK that some people are baristas and poor and others are engineers and not. Like: Oh, baristas will be poor, but that's OK, because everyone has the chance to be an engineer. Life is what you make it, yada yada yada.

But of course, life isn't what you make it. People start from massively different starting points. If your parents are poor, or they don't speak English well or whatever, or you live in a crappy area with crappy schools, you are starting from way behind -- it's going to be massively more difficult for you to become an engineer.

Instead of taking this as a reductio of individualism's implications, the attractor moves people toward other ideas. Some of those ideas are things like charter schools, choice, teach character development to small children, whatever. In the end, the simplest way to avoid the cognitive dissonance is to go back to individualism itself, and here we find our way to, "Well, sure, some people are going to be baristas and not engineers, but what I can do about that? I mean, I'm just one person." 

Which -- given the creeping effects of individualism -- is actually more and more true. Because the closer you get to peak individualism, the stronger the magnetic pull toward individualism.

I don't know about you but I feel like I see this dynamic the time. Social problem identified. Solutions canvassed. Collective solutions rejected for being insufficiently individualistic. Possibility of collective power dismantled. Individualist solutions proposed. Individualist solutions rejected, on grounds that they won't make a difference anyway. Which at this point they probably won't. And so on and so on and so on.

In the elegance typical of pure mathematics, there's a concept called the "basin of attraction." Technically: "An attractor's basin of attraction is the region of the phase space, over which iterations are defined, such that any point (any initial condition) in that region will eventually be iterated into the attractor..."

Which is a fancy way of saying: there's some range of starting places from which you can't help but fall into the attractor.

I don't know when, exactly, modern western society went from skirting around the edges to actually falling into the basin of attraction for individualism. Was it Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s? Was it back with colonialism? Did Locke have something to do with it? I have no idea. All I know is, I think we're in it now.

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