Have we become conditioned to celebrate selfish behaviour?
Have we lost our will for collective sacrifice toward communal wellbeing?
Are all the crises we now face now, from climate emergency, to economic recession, to pandemic response, the consequence of a cult of individuality?
The very idea of a cult of individuality is of course, an over simplification, no society on Earth is a single homogenous being with universally shared beliefs and values, but as a rough short hand, I think there is a noticeable pattern between societies that drag their feet solving problems and societies that have an obsession with championing individual rights, even when they don’t face any discernible threats.
Moreover I would argue that the essence of the selfishness in our community is artificial.
It is not something we are born with, but that we have become conditioned to,
a form of engineered selfishness.
But who would want to condition a society to become selfish, how could that possibly benefit anyone?
Well, it benefits capitalism enormously. In fact, the very essence of capitalism is rooted in selfishness, the existence of the entire billionaire class, for example, would be impossible without it.
The very core of this idea comes from deep within the philosophy of corporations, which unlike, companies, do not serve any purpose beyond ducking accountability like a champion limbo-er.
Corporations are merely legal entities whose entire purpose is to avoid legal responsibility for anything they do, and to avoid all the taxes they possibly can. Ever notice that oil corporations can devastate entire continental coastlines with oil spills and not only will no one see jail for it, the corporation won’t pay extra (or any) tax to clean it up.
It takes a profound level of selfishness for somebody to abandon their duty of care, yet corporations are specifically designed to never have any, and more importantly, somehow the societies these corporations devastate never seem to rise up in revolt. How do you make a society so placid that outrages like this go completely unanswered?
This is where Engineered Selfishness comes in. Our entire culture is centered around selfishness. Every advertisement is about making YOU better, about improving YOUR life, every politician is telling you what YOU get by voting for them, and why YOU will suffer if you vote for the other guy.
It is never about collective gain or collective responsibility. It is only ever about what is in it for YOU, personally.
This idea expands into many parts of our society. Our culture for example, primarily revolves around competitive sport, to win trophies, and tv is completely overrun by vapid reality shows about competition for personal glory. All of this is saying to you, that your goal in life is to be better than everyone else around you. This mentality is 100% artificial and you are absolutely being conditioned to believe it.
This is all set up to enable and reinforce the idea of the rat-race. Capitalism absolutely depends on it. Have you ever noticed that whenever people talk about the rat-race they are talking about how to escape it?
It is interesting that we are so conditioned to the idea of escaping the rat-race that we rarely stop to consider why it even exists? Afterall if everyone in the system is trying to ESCAPE the system, doesn’t that mean the system itself is broken? This is an obvious observation, so why is it not something we, as a society, talk about more often?
The key to the rat-race and why it is able to exist completely unfettered, is in the idea of escaping it. Because, we are told, escaping the rat-race isn’t just the promise of life being easier, it is the glowing promise of wealth and freedom and fame beyond your wildest dreams.
But in order for people to believe that their goal in life is to reach levels of wealth and fame that proves they are better than everyone else, the system must ensure that there are plenty of examples available, of people doing exactly that.
The idea of exceptionalism permeates through our society for this very reason. Exceptionalism is about believing you are better than everyone else, it is a way to justify selfish behaviour, after all, if you are better than everyone else, don’t you deserve to be selfish? Haven’t you earned it?
It is this emotion, subconscious or otherwise, that consumerism is designed to both target and sustain, the commodification of our bodies and lifestyles is ultimately about making money for corporations, and it is through advertising that the market is created and regulated.
Why is TV and social media buried in an endless molasses of reality shows and influencer content? Why are formally hard-hitting news shows focusing on celebrity and sport star family drama? Why and how, did everything in the mainstream become so painfully vapid and shallow? Why does every movie have the same actors doing the same roles over and over and over again?
There is a word for this, branding, and it is exactly what we are seeing in our media, ALL of our media, turning into. When everything in our society becomes commodified, then everything in its media turns into advertising.
Even examples of philanthropy, charity and activism are often just cleverly disguised branding. Benevolent acts are frequently used to hide malevolent behaviour, the best example of this is of course billionaire philanthropy, where charities set up by billionaires, are just tax loopholes used to launder both money and reputations, it is after all, impossible to be a billionaire and a good person.
In fact billionaires in general are a perfect example of how engineered selfishness works. Every billionaire on the planet has fantastic branding (they can, after all, afford it) where by the image of their egregious wealth hoarding is held up as an example to follow, not a horror to be condemned, they are presented to us as exceptional people, who managed to become wealthy paragons through hard work and laser focused vision, as opposed to the reality, where their inherited wealth was used to create a company that exploits workers, consumers and the earth itself, for profit.
Capitalist advertising is the one the most insidious things ever created, because it goes far deeper than simply informing consumers about a product. No, capitalist advertising isn’t about fulfilling demand, it is about creating demand, and it discovered that the best way to create that demand is by targeting people’s insecurity.
It is deeply psychological and manipulative, from influencers, to celebrities, to entire industries around fashion, movies, and music. Everything that can be commodified in our society has been, and it has intentionally created a society centred around intense competitiveness and manipulative envy. It is engineered selfishness.
And all of it, for the same core point we began this essay on, which is corporate profit. None of this is natural, none of it evolved out of society, none of it is human nature. Our selfishness is engineered, we are conditioned to see the world in the most competitive, toxic, commodified state, because this mentality is what makes us perpetual consumers, our insecurities are hacked at by malevolent corporations in order to drain every cent possible out of us.
It made us stop working toward improving society and communities, we focus not on trying to fix the rat-race, but on escaping it, to break free from this quagmire of selfishness. But it is a trap, the whole thing, there is no escape from this system. Because this game was rigged from the start, like a snare that only tightens if one tries to struggle or break free from it.
There is an answer though, one that will take a lot of collective will and determination from all of us to enact. But it can be summarised succinctly in the saying ‘if the game is rigged, break the rules.’
This establishment demands we be selfish, we are not supposed to cooperate and help each other.
So in these dark days of neo-liberal hellscape, the most revolutionary act we can do…
Is to care for, lookout for, and work for, each other.
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