I was watching a sneaker ad on TV the other day, one reminiscent of most ads geared towards young demographics. It featured a montage of different twenty-somethings doing different activities–deejaying, playing ball, running, skateboarding–each one in a different pair of this company’s shoes. The slogan was something like, “Don’t be an imitator,” or, “Don’t follow the pack. Be an original.” I’d seen the same message in alcohol spreads, McDonald’s commercials, car ads and everything in between. I was struck, as I always am, by the seductive idea being proffered that originality can be purchased–that we can become our own persons if we buy the right things, choose the right accessories to set ourselves apart. This relatively unquestioned notion is at the core of much of my own culture, and may be the most central marketing ploy in all of advertising. Yet what makes the idea so interesting to me, and what really hit me in relation to this sneaker ad, is that this concept of buying originality is perhaps the perfect place to begin unraveling a whole host of capitalist myths, and to make concrete the contradictions we as consumers are forced to swallow every day.
One of the biggest fears I have encountered in attempting to challenge current social, political and economic orders is that of the loss of individual rights and freedoms. Without terms like ‘capitalism,’ ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ ever entering into a conversation, I’ve been rebuffed in countless discussions and arguments by parties who worry that my hopes for the world will result in the erasure of the individual. From reparations to funding public education with something other than local taxes, from community organizing to collectively controlled businesses, the common conception seems to be that any form of governance, resource distribution or social setup which places collectives at the fore will destroy the identities, needs and desires of the individuals who comprise those collectives. “It’s one thing to talk about the group, but what if one person in that group wants something different for themselves? What happens then?” The tacit assumption, which many of us seem to hold, is that anything done on behalf of community, instead of carried out by individuals in the name of their own interests and desires, must be forced, something arrived at only as the result of external pressure. The other assumption, which goes hand in hand with the first, is that anything done in the name of the individual is an inherently “free” decision, and never the result of outside coercion, or a limited number of options.
These two core capitalist assumptions, I believe, are the greatest barriers to radical change and our ability to imagine it. They work together to force us to believe that the only way our individual voices can ever be heard is if we continue to support individualism as it stands–continue to imagine ourselves solely as consumers, wage laborers, who become bound when we are made to envision ourselves as connected to bigger structures, and members of larger groups. This myth is oppressive for so many reasons–it makes invisible the people who produce the products that true ‘individuals’ are able to consume, and denigrates those who must identify in collectives as a means of survival, for starters. But perhaps most ironically of all, it creates precisely what it claims to be most afraid of: a citizenry which is politically unconscious, socially unaware, and comprised of exact replicas, consuming whatever they are collectively told to consume. Aren’t the “brainwashing,” “groupthink,” and “carbon copying” so often feared as the result of political and economic alternatives created almost perfectly in a system of consumer capitalism?
In my experience, I have grown most and learned most about myself when I have been a member of a dedicated movement with a common creative and political vision. It is when I claim community–be it Black, Brown, queer, family, neighborhood, radical, or spiritual–that I find the most purpose and meaning in my individual identity. It is when I am engaged in relationships, looking to and asking questions of larger collectives, that I have found out the most about my own desires and needs, and how to align them with others to find the support we each require to achieve our individual goals. It amazes me that we continue to fear what a focus on the needs of communities might do to the rights of individuals, for only in community have I ever found my individual self, learned to recognize my own voice, and to locate my place in significant and self-empowering ways. It is what is found in community, in human contact and interaction, which generates real fear–the fear that our true power is inherent, within us, and not in our ability to purchase; Fear that the responsibility for a better world lies with our imaginations, our visions for new ways of being, and our ability to forge meaningful bonds with one another.
Somewhere, even now, there are warehouses full of K Swiss sneakers, of Forever 21 Dresses, American Apparel tank tops, Sephora makeup, frozen meat patties, and Payless heels. They were made by cheated workers, and they will be vended by poorly-paid employees. They are ravaging our environment, and destroying our spirits. Why do we continue to believe that our individual rights and freedoms are manifested in them? When will we realize that only we can manifest those freedoms when we raise our voices together?