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Philip Pilkington: Debt and the Decay of the Myth of Liberal Individualism

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JAQO Posted: Tue, Oct 9 2012 12:25 PM

The myth of the unbounded individual, the lone merchant with the devil-may-care attitude toward his fellow men allowed Smith to conceive of a society in which men might live without close ties to one another and yet a society which would not descend into barbarism. Emotional distance, a lack of love or compassion, need not descend into violence and murder, according to Smith, because of the principles of disinterested commerce and exchange which he thought that he had uncovered in Man.

This is the legacy that Smith has left us today. Not just in the field of economics, but also as a sort of moral or mythic code by which we arrange our social intercourse in mass society. When we step into a shop and purchase a good or a service we are acting as Smithian individuals. We see ourselves as unbounded to those around us and free to make whatever decisions we please. And we believe that once the transaction is complete we can wash our hands of it.

The problem is that this is not true and it probably never has been. Today, instead, we see all too clearly the importance of debt. Debt is what ties us together. We may be in the position of creditor or in the position of debtor – or we may even be in the position of neither – but debt affects all of us. Even those of us that balance our books perfectly and do not engage in any form of lending nevertheless rely on banking systems and systems of government founded on the simple and timeless principles of debt. And it is these principles that bind us together.

We are not, in any way, “men who owe no obligation to one another”. Our entire social system is founded on obligation and interconnectedness. This was likely true even in Smith’s time, but his genius was to have hidden it from view and in doing so to construct the founding myth of liberal individualism as it exists in modern times.

 
Is this article yet another example of beating the proverbial strawman to death?
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Anenome replied on Tue, Oct 9 2012 12:44 PM

"Debt is what ties us together."

That's the most awful thing I've heard in a long time. Not to mention silly on its face.

Autarchy: rule of the self by the self; the act of self ruling.
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