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Capitalism and interdependence: The flaw of American individualism


Interdependence in the Natural World 

Every Spring, the magnolia tree in my backyard comes to life. Bursts of pink and purple appear out of nowhere, hugging the previously bare branches. I smell the ginger petals and cannot help but stand in awe of the tree’s resilience and beauty. Countless winters have worn at its cracked bark, yet it makes its resurgence, year after year.

I look down at my feet and I spot a rotting bird carcass with its wings splayed in an ugly and awkward position. It dawns on me that even in death, this body — a mixture of bone, blood, feathers and dirt — continues to support an entire ecosystem. This bird will soon be in the ground, overtaken by worms and embraced by complex root systems. Shortly after, the bird will be indistinguishable from its former self, yet still feeding and nourishing the magnolia tree that I have long admired. 

There is an unspoken rule in this ecosystem: a mutual awareness that everything is circular and connected, even in death.  

Interdependence Under Capitalism

The bird and the magnolia have been on my mind a lot lately, and I see similar connections everywhere I go. Technically, I am a part of this ecosystem that I describe, but it doesn’t feel like it. The ecosystem that we are a part of consists of gloomy capitalist architecture, clouds of smoke and barriers made of concrete. Our connections are invisible and indistinguishable on the surface.

Even admiring a magnolia tree in my backyard is a privilege only afforded to few.  

I know that the reality of our existence is not one that many of us have chosen. Capitalism is a binding, destructive force — one that must collapse at some point because of its inherent unsustainability. 

Capitalism is commonly viewed as an individualistic economic system, as those who succeed under it theoretically do so upon their own merits – with limited government interference. What needs to be recognized is that the most successful people under this system only own businesses that succeed through the labor of others, invariably in an exploitative way. Moreover, capitalism is not simply about owning businesses; it is also about finding profit in every crack and crevice of society. Much like the magnolia tree in my backyard, capitalism takes root wherever it finds an opportunity. As profit is paramount, capitalism roots itself in areas where it shouldn’t be, like our healthcare system or in access to basic human resources. Unlike my magnolia tree, however, capitalism doesn’t give back; it only takes.  

Especially in American culture, the concept of individualism is connected with capitalism and the American Dream. It is a strange notion which insists that if one can work hard enough, they can achieve anything they desire; that a person can actually make a life for oneself, devoid of external influence. 

Especially under capitalism, this is not accurate. 

After seeing how much every living being in my backyard is connected, I realize the ways in which we are too. Everything that we do, every purchase, every job we have ever worked at has impacted countless lives. For example, making an online purchase is thought of as a routine and simple matter — a normal part of life, especially throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

From the moment that we purchase an item online, we are immediately supporting multiple different industries. For many online products, a simple purchase can support an industry with inhumane business practices, creating items in bulk to meet a business quota. After production, the product needs to be packaged in a fast-paced warehouse environment, being touched by countless workers trying to make ends meet. 

The workers and the consumers are the decomposing birds, killed by unethical working conditions, sustaining the blooming conglomerates as they continue to grow and flourish in an environment where their roots are too deep to be dislodged.  

Now, when I receive a package in the mail, I cannot help but feel simultaneously guilty and used. 

The Paradox of Capitalism and Individualism

What I have really come to gather from these observations is that most individuals have no control over the connections we have with each other, and it becomes increasingly difficult to exist in this world without them. 

To hold down a career, to attend school, to connect with other humans requires a cell phone or a computer; these types of connections are a part of our roots. To try and separate oneself from capitalism is impossible without separating oneself from an overwhelming majority of human society. There are complex and deeply rooted processes that define the existence of most on this planet, making it so that we cannot truly embody individualism. 

The primary ideas of American individualism are self-reliance and exercising and achieving one’s goals without state influence. These ideas have led to the growth of ideas that permeate our society and culture. For example, American individualists typically look down upon those receiving government assistance and view foreign aid as a distraction from American issues. 

This means that individualism exists on a State-wide level and an interpersonal level. We view America as an individual entity that is separated from the rest of the world, and we view ourselves as people that succeed or fail on an individual basis. 

This was especially true under the Trump Administration. Attempting to remove ourselves from the Paris Agreement, the World Health Organization and our trade agreements with China were primary examples of American individualism. What these decisions ultimately did, however, was compromise our national security and position on the global stage. 

This also occurred in the 1930s, during the U.S Isolationist Era. This was a time when the U.S. wasn’t an active participant in global affairs, choosing to instead stay secluded from them – largely because of the atrocities that World War I brought. During this time, the U.S. didn’t necessarily detach itself from previously strong ties; rather, we refrained from making ties. We soon realized that keeping to ourselves wasn’t a sustainable option. Regarding the Trump-era isolationism, our diplomatic influence, our soft power, over the rest of the world, was significantly diminished. Furthermore, destroying our trade relationship with China has negatively impacted our economy, as they are the source of many of our products.  

Ultimately, there is no sustainable way for America to exist under this ideology. World economies are all interdependent, even though many do not like to think so. In a more recent example, vaccination disparities in the U.S. highlight the issue of individual choice. Our “personal freedom” to neglect the vaccines made available to us shows that our choices aren’t independent, as diseases do not work that way. With disease, our interdependence becomes much more apparent. We can either move beyond the pandemic by acting as a society, or we can continue to suffer from the pandemic by acting as individuals. 

In the end, we are still quite similar to the ecosystem in my backyard. We all depend upon one another, as one change or decision has an overarching impact on all other living beings. It is because we are like this — with our complex root systems — that we can never embody American individualism, particularly when capitalism remains as our default economic system. And when the American people stop sacrificing themselves under the foliage of capitalism, the system will no longer flourish, an apt warning to heed.

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About the Contributor
Samuel Weinmann
Samuel Weinmann, Executive Editor
Sam is a junior at the University of New Haven currently studying international affairs. Sam has a passion for international journalism, and is currently interning at Pratosfera, an Italian news publication located in Prato, Italy. Sam is excited to see the magazine grow in its second operational year, and to meet new writers from a variety of different disciplines and backgrounds.
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