“Me, Inc.” and Autonomy



“You are a brand.” From this simple thesis Tom Peters put forth in a book: Brand Called You, came an article in Fast Company magazine. The personal brand movement started in earnest. It was 1997. I revisited the concept at the The Blog Herald more than ten years on.

Especially for those of us who worked in communications for organizations it was an intriguing thought. They were the times of still substantial budgets, good agency fees and media empires. Agencies were building brands through sheer push: design for recognition, make a big enough media purchase, and talk it up in the press.  

Peters proposed that people were brands as well. The presentation was new, but it was not a new idea. On the personal front, a certain class of professionals have benefited from the idea of “brand” before it became a phenomenon. Aristocrats, captains of industry and celebrities enjoyed instant recognition and distinction.

Exclusive image recognition was the domain of that protected class. Protected because the representation was often the product of an artificial process. Building an icon or a star meant defects and true personalities were swept under the rug, hidden from praying eyes.

People always had a fascination with the unvarnished angle,

the story that contributed to the façade.

With this in mind, the idea was compelling. Because thanks to emergence of social media and self-publishing tools, anyone could potentially become or have one. Of course, if you, like me, view “brand” as the result (not the cause) of the continual accumulation of value, the concept has been around since time immortal: your reputation and credibility. 

But reputation and credibility have become entangled with the idea of freedom. Let's break down the concept to see how it plays out in business, and consequently in life.


The breaking of historical promises

Our ancestors enjoyed flexible, shifting arrangements.* They could move away, disobey, and re-arrange social ties to suit changes in circumstances. These three freedoms allowed individuals and societies to provide mutual aid. Justice was situational in Greek and Latin cities, polis and civitas respectively, which gave rise to politics and civilization.

Under these ancient arrangements, people could develop their capacity to experiment for self-creation. With freedom, imaginative, playful, and intelligent humans had equal capacity to inform decisions of how to live together. But these qualities were latent and driven by context.

Social identity likely changed with the change of seasons. If you think this unlikely, consider that nomads and foragers tended to cultivate and hunt what was necessary, and not more. There was no need to accumulate, store, and tie down. Hard to see things that way, but consider that lack of imagination is not itself an argument.

How did we move away from these arrangements? So much so that some people were able to claim power over others on a permanent basis? Because humans moved a lot, society used to span continents. There was a custom of hospitality for people who traveled from afar. Movement led to cultural porosity.

Then, the historical development of private property gave rise to elementary forms of domination. These are: 1./ control via violence; 2./ control of information; and 3./ individual charisma. Their corresponding institutional forms: 1./ sovereignty; 2./ administration, and 3./ heroic politics.

Permanent power led to

a hardening of cultural boundaries.

“Mine” drove home the idea of “me.” When once there was freedom to move away from one's community knowing you'd find welcome in faraway lands, now place become something to conquer and keep. Out the window started going mutual aid, which is the condition necessary for individual autonomy.

This is interesting, because it means you're on your own. Power is fickle. Protection and providing for others did not follow the loss of flexible social arrangements. The work contract was nonexistent.


Personal brand redux

What the emergence of “Brand You” seemed to say was: “you're your own master.” Fast forward through the agricultural age and industrial revolution to what some called the service economy and you have the further break-down of the work contract brought about by the social contract.

Mind you, the social contract is itself a model that originated during the Age of Enlightenment. Usually it concerns the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual. State atheism was an offshoot of a strong belief in science.

Before the power struggle of the market, we had scientific power-groups, which in turn fought off religious power. The Enlightened believed we must accept experts because they are scientific and objective. Mary Midgley says**:

A central case of this is the behaviourist doctrine that psychology, in order to be scientific, must deal only with people’s outward behaviour, ignoring motives and emotions and regarding them, not just as unknowable but as trivial and causally ineffective.

This led to many bizarre practical policies, such as the advice that J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner gave to parents that they should not hug or kiss their children but should treat them in a detached and distant manner ‘like young adults’. This treatment (they said) was necessary because it was scientific and objective.

Note that these behaviorists had no evidence for their assertion. But perhaps their attitude was to contrast emotion. As if affectionate behavior were harmful. Hence the sciences brought forth this idea of objectivity that excluded feelings. From there, we had scientific management or Taylorism, the philosophy of the production line.

Henry Ford and the rest accepted this scientific progress, as they saw it. The adherence to objective measurement then led to objectifying the things that were being measured. Machines and clockwork opened the way to people as resources. It was the beginning of the end for the work, then the social contract.

Personal brands were a reaction to institutional failure. We've been talking about crowd-sourcing, co-creation and co-working as a viable alternatives to the industrial castle building age of organizing resources and work for 20 years. To be fair, some individuals have been able to spin a personal brand successfully.

In 2009 I asked, are 'personal brands' leveraging friends and colleagues for their own benefit? However, the bigger question then and now remains: are personal brands possible within institutions and companies? Can there be a common outcome? How does community reconcile with personal brand? 


Autonomy as freedom

There's another way of asking the question(s). “Equality” is still a problematic issue. Perhaps thought he problem is with the word and the metaphors we associate with it, more than with the concept. Anthropologist Eleanor Leacock says autonomy is better.

Autonomy stands for substantive freedom. As we're squarely in the struggle of the market, do we have the ability to create personal systems with networked agents that represent our decisions? That's one aspect of autonomy. When the physical infrastructure supports individual agency, rather than taxing it with a thousand fees and a patchwork of products.

Could you work in a company that respects your time? Another way of saying this: are you still on clock time, without a consideration to the replenishment and rest that are vital for knowledge work and intellectual capital? Can you say “when”? Could you be prominent in the industry, and work full time, without being an executive. These are other aspects of autonomy.

Do full time colleagues take their privilege of a paycheck with benefits into account when they expect a free consultation? Has any executive offered to pay you for projects and strategies they requested as part of a lengthy interview process? This is another aspect of autonomy.

Are your co-creators up front about the terms and conditions of your collaboration? Is the manner of agreement thoughtful and thought out? Are words “partner” and “co-creator” meaningful in practical terms? Or are they euphemisms and used in similar ways to “co-worker,” with the assumption that responsibility for making you whole rests somewhere else than with them? This is another aspect of autonomy.

These brief, non exhaustive, examples highlight how far the talk has gotten from the walk. If you're saying technology is the answer, consider how much money goes to the platforms that “create markets” vs. end up in the hands of individual “creators” themselves.

Individuals still shoulder the fees and the energy tax of learning and stringing along these systems. An individual ends up being customer support, tech implementation, creation, pay all the fees, and still do the creative work to build an audience that (hopefully) one day will pay the bills.

Do take a look at the various platforms. 2.9 percent, plus 30 cents per transaction is the minimum fee. Add payment methods to community building of subscription services platform and you're looking at 8 percent or more per transaction. How sustainable is this? It depends on the generosity and fair mindedness of individuals.

There's no more mutual aid where the belief is that this is only fair. Hence, since the answer to many parts of these questions is still “not yet,” “Brand You” is a mere veneer. A scoop of influence a few individuals are able to capitalize on. This has implications for publishing, media, politics, citizenship, communities, and society.

Where winners take all,

the three ancient freedoms humans enjoyed

have yet to re-emerge.

Italian writer Eduardo Galeano says, “We live in a world where the funeral is more important than the dead, marriage more than love, and the body more than the intellect. We live the culture of the container that despises the content."



* David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything (2021, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

** Mary Midgley, The Myths we Live by (2011, Routlege)

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