South Africa is a place of contradictions. On the one hand, Dutch and English settlers who occupied and annexed large tracts of land, brought along with them various Western traditions, including the not-always-consistent respect for individuality. On the other hand, indigenous African society had always been communitarian and lived according to the doctrine of uBuntu, which can be described as “I am because we are”.
The descendants of the Dutch and English have remained in South Africa and by so doing have allowed Western values to become part of the South African story. While there was a deviation in the form of brutal oppressive Apartheid, individualism and reason spread throughout most of the Southern African region. In the late nineteenth century many black individuals had already adopted the Western style of living and were out-competing the whites in economic sectors the whites had themselves established. This eventually culminated in Apartheid: the State keeping blacks out of the formal economy, denying them property rights and generally dehumanizing them at every turn.
But due to the fact that these values of freedom, individualism, and reason initially came from white Europe, and because the framers and supporters of Apartheid were white, the values themselves were associated with that racist authoritarian system. Today, 21 years after the end of Apartheid, a self-described individualist in South Africa will be considered a racist if he’s white, or a ‘mentally colonized victim’ if he’s black. Any talk of individual rights will be met with accusations that you do not subscribe to sacrosanct uBuntu and that you want to see the majority of South Africans suffer while you live well.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela at the two year anniversary of his death, we hear from ultra-collectivist quarters that he ‘sold out’ the black majority by allowing a property rights provision (section 25(1)) in the South African Constitution. They believe Mandela abandoned the collectivist ideals of uBuntu which were apparently codified in the Marxist manifesto adopted in 1955 errantly called the ‘Freedom Charter’. His legacy, they say, is one of increased white dominance and perpetual black poverty, both in the mental and economic sense. Individualism in South Africa does not exist in media, it is disappearing in business and law, and among the people themselves, there’s a perception of shame for being an individualist.
I have noticed that in 2015 – the Year of the Social Justice Warrior (as my colleague at South African Libertarian, Nicolai Haussamer, describes it) in South Africa – many American colleges and societal places have, too, become victims of this kind of anti-individualism. Marxism, which rejects individualism as a matter of course in pursuit of economic and social liberation of the underclasses, has seen a great resurgence. It is not only overt, as in the case of platforms like Salon and Buzzfeed which write many ‘open letters to white people’ to remind them how nothing they have ever done or can ever do will amount to a legitimate achievement. But it is also very covert, seeping into ideological positions one would not expect to find it. Some libertarians have embraced the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement as a necessary anti-authoritarian campaign. Conservatives have even in some cases acknowledged that ‘something must be done’ to curb economic inequality in the United States.
What they fail to appreciate is the underlying ideology embedded in these positions. This applies from Everyday Feminism to Black Lives Matter to a local university’s ‘center for social research’, to any talk of inequality being a problem in and of itself. This underlying ideology is officially known as ‘Critical Theory’. What this is essentially Marxist theories translated into the social and cultural arena. The notion of ‘social inequality’ is central to this. White (especially male) Americans or, whites generally, have according to these people certain ‘privileges’ in everyday life which persons of other races do not have, and this is an unjust state of affairs which must be set right – usually by using the machinery of the State.
I encourage Americans to gain an understanding of Critical Theory and its associated schools of thought: Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, second and third wave feminism, post-colonialism, deconstructivism, etc. This understanding will be central to defending individualism in the United States because, contrary to what many nay-sayers would have you believe, the U.S. is still the most important stronghold of Western individualism in the world. But the understanding is more important for individuals to identify when they are unwittingly supporting the demise (albeit gradually) of said individualism.
Reject the notion that racial or sexual ‘victimhood’ can exist. Whatever the contributing characteristics or elements, the only kind of victimhood which can logically exist, is individual victimhood. ‘Black people’ cannot suffer from disproportionate incarceration. They are not attached to a collective hivemind (proponents of ‘Black Consciousness’ will have you believe otherwise). Indeed, there may be a racist tendency of police to target persons who are black, or, indeed, drug laws may affect blacks more than they do whites who use narcotics at essentially the same rate. But it is fundamentally counter-individualist to support the notion of ‘black victimhood’ as a result. There are black individuals, both rich and poor, who may never have a run-in with law enforcement over these unjust laws. There are similarly black individuals, usually who are wealthy, who never experience ‘social inequality’ in relation to whites. A common narrative is that the poorest white person is more ‘privileged’ than the richest black person, but this is patent nonsense based in ‘problematic’ postmodernist reasoning. But it is nonetheless an extreme of the very tame acceptance by individualists of group victimhood.
Individualism will not die in a final blaze of glory where individualists fight bravely against the overwhelming collectivist assault. Individualism has been dying a slow death and will eventually simply disappear (as it has in many respects here in South Africa) unless individualists themselves become conscious, firstly, of the assault, and secondly, of their own contribution to its demise. Granted, this refers mostly to unconscious individualists who simply are individualists, but do not know why, but even self-described individualists have fallen into this trap.
America, in my opinion, will be the last country in the world (unless some great intervening event occurs) to have substantive individualism as a bedrock whereupon its institutions rest. It is therefore imperative to individualists and individuality as a recognized element of being human that individualism not suffer defeat in the United States. Resist the Black Lives Matter and Salon crowd (which does not include all progressives) not for their overt statements but for their underlying philosophy. Continuing to take them on ad hoc without speaking to that which their whole campaign is fundamentally based on is a senseless battle to fight.
Author: Martin is a third year LL.B law student and libertarian activist at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Being Libertarian, the Southern African Regional Director of Students For Liberty, and a Co-Founder of South African Libertarian. He interns for the Free Market Foundation. As a libertarian his focus is on social philosophy (mainly opposition to Frankfurtian Critical Theory) and the development of Libertarian Legal Theory. His particular legal interest is media law.
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