People say a lot of stupid things when they’re trying to justify gross social inequality but by far the stupidest has to be hiding behind the trope of “every man for himself.” I remember a red-letter day in my rather wonderful British history course at uni where I nearly threw something at a smug, middle-class white kid from Montana who opined that Margaret Thatcher was a great leader because she got rid of the welfare state that was propping up the deadbeats. Everyone should fend for himself, he thought. He was at university, making something of himself; anyone who didn’t was just lazy.
Fury rarely makes me speechless. I practically shouted: that only works if everyone starts out equal!
I don’t recall him having a rebuttal. Apparently it had simply never occurred to him that not everyone was as privileged as he was. For some baffling reason, this sort of ‘entitlement amnesia’ is common among folk who should know better. Comfortable, well-educated, articulate people who have lived decent, unremarkable lives find it difficult to understand why crooks, bums, wasters, sluts, drop-outs, tearaways, and dole scum can’t get their act together. Born at a pinnacle of privilege, they look disdainfully at those living below and wonder aloud why they don’t simply vault up.
This sophistry is rooted in the basic, evil assumption of the Anglo-American socio-economic system: that people are only entitled to as much as they can grab, and if someone can’t grab enough to survive it’s his/her fault for not trying harder. This is so self-evidently wrong-headed it seems redundant to deconstruct it, but here goes:
The ethos of every person for him/herself cannot result in anything resembling a democratic, equitable society because human beings are all different. Moreover, our society is so fundamentally, systemically unjust it is ridiculous to even pretend that personal initiative is the primary factor in success.
To argue that everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, family background, educational opportunity, race, gender, or origin should be held to the same standard of achievement and “self-reliance” is like arguing that a blind woman who wants to read should first teach herself to see. It’s impossible, laughable, ludicrous, and nothing more than a cheap, nasty justification for maintaining the privileges of the few at the expense of the struggles of the many.