March 2005: The Suicidal Cult of Individualism

Rich may learn too late that greed is self-destructive
March 1, 2005

The poet Robert Frost speculated on whether the world would be ended by fire or ice, which today could probably be translated into either a nuclear holocaust or an ecological collapse. I’m starting to wonder, however, if perhaps the end of human civilization—if not humanity itself—will instead be caused by rampant individualism.

That’s the core of the dominant ideology of neoliberalism: the notion that each human being should be “free” to pursue “happiness” without government interference and be personally responsible for his or her welfare without government aid.

The neoliberals call it “freedom of choice,” as if any sane person would choose to be poor, hungry, or homeless. The unfortunate majority of the world’s people who fail to succeed in this barbaric free-market jungle are to blame for their own misfortune—too lazy or too dependent on the “nanny-state” to earn a decent living. Or so the neo-libs and neo-cons would have us believe.

How this horribly unjust system will eventually crumble is open to debate. Some economists on the left think its demise will take the form of an even worse depression than the one in the 1930s, triggered when the spread of cheap labour erodes the world’s capacity to consume the products of cheap labour. Others think it will come from a violent mass revolt against the wealthy minority. Still others think the end will occur when the relentless pollution of the environment makes the planet uninhabitable.

Any of these scenarios could eventuate, but probably not for another 50, 60, or hundred years, or even longer. The outbreak of a global nuclear war, of course, could happen at any time, especially with religious terrorists leading both sides of the “war on terror.” But, that unsettling hazard aside, the human species may be able to hang around for another generation or two. Except. . .

Except for another much more imminent danger: the threat of a worldwide plague.

The most deadly “terrorists” menacing humankind are not human; they’re viruses and bacteria, which are mutating into ever more lethal forms, swiftly propagating and proliferating around the world on the wings and hulls of modern transport. We caught a glimpse of a viral doomsday scenario a few years ago when an outbreak of SARS hit Toronto.

What does this have to do, you may ask, with the cult of individualism? Simply that a deadly infectious disease doesn’t discriminate between the poor and the rich, between the hard-working CEO and the “lazy” welfare recipient. No effective response to an epidemic can be mounted by an individual, regardless of the size of his or her bank account. Only a government-funded public system can have a chance of either preventing a deadly outbreak or minimizing the body count once it begins.    

Writing in Harper’s magazine, Dr. Ronald Glasser says bluntly that the financial starvation of the public health-care system in the U.S.—the legacy of a neoliberal attack on anything that’s public and collective instead of private and individualist—has exposed that country to a devastating pandemic. Had the 2003 SARS outbreak occurred in an American city instead of Toronto, he warns, the public staff and facilities to contain it would not have been available and the disease would likely have spread unchecked from coast to coast.

Bitterly denouncing the U.S. government’s cutbacks to public health care, Dr. Glasser notes that its emphasis on “homeland security” omits the most deadly threat facing the American people. “We are afflicted with a government that is waging war all across the globe to avenge the deaths of 3,000 terror victims, far fewer than die of influenza in a mild year; a government that insists on spending $50 billion to build a missile-defence system that doesn’t work. . . We have grown so foolish and incompetent that perhaps we do not deserve to survive.”

He was referring to the American people, but of course a pandemic knows no borders, and if one were allowed to rage unchecked in the U.S., it would soon spread to Canada and ultimately around the world.

Nor can we Canadians afford to be complacent. We managed to cope with the SARS crisis, but only by straining our health care resources to the limit. And we still fall far short on the prevention front, because we continue to tolerate the degrading social conditions that provide viruses and bacteria with their favourite breeding grounds.  

Kathy Hardill, a Toronto street nurse, recently warned that our governments are risking a pandemic by ignoring the serious health problems suffered by the homeless. Weakened by malnutrition, illness and stress, and crammed into overcrowded shelters, these poorest of the poor are the most vulnerable to the new strains of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Indeed, AIDS and tuberculosis outbreaks have already swept homeless shelters in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.

“In Toronto,” writes Hardill, “we have a beleaguered public health department scrambling to locate the TB-infected homeless person who has infected two shelter workers with active TB. What would have happened if SARS had entered the city’s homeless shelters? Where would you quarantine homeless people? Does anyone have a plan for that?”

It would be far better, of course—and ultimately much less costly—to provide homes for the homeless. But, despite enormous surpluses, the federal government still balks at creating a national housing program. “How ironic it will be,” says Hardill, “if the refusal of our governments to improve social conditions ends up fuelling a cataclysmic pandemic.”

In such a horrific plague, the rich might escape for a while, but inexorably they too would become the victims of their own twisted priorities. They would learn, too late, that a failure to “collectivize” wealth will certainly collectivize death.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)