Our desire to conform is crushing the human spirit

The Saturday Essay: The attack on individualism amounts to a project for closing down the innovative vitality of the modern world
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INDIVIDUALISM IS a 19th century word for a 16th century phenomenon: the practice of living in terms of coherent desires under the rule of law, rather than within the graduated rankings Europeans inherited from the middle ages. Individualism unleashed, for better or for worse, everything that makes the modern West dynamic and innovative. It has also created a moral universalism never before seen. Responsible and compassionate about the evils of the world, individualists have seldom been able to free themselves from the taint of selfishness arid egotism. The slide from social description to pejorative moral judgement takes place in the blink of an eye.

This collapse into condemnation happens because the vocabulary of individualism sounds harsh to ears becoming accustomed to the competing moral attitudes found in such terms as "co-operation", "teamwork" and, especially, "community", a term which seldom occurs without a great outpouring of incense. At its most gross, contemporary rhetoric identifies individualism with a stereotype of self-interested rational choice, thought to flourish only in capitalism, alias the economy. To engage in endeavours that, even indirectly, make one better off than one's neighbour is often, in a reprise of Bolshevik sentiment, interpreted as the moral fault of greed.

These attitudes constitute a semantic atmosphere that emerged in the 1980s, along with political correctness, as a vehicle for hostility to libertarian justifications of the public policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This hostility has led almost to a collapse of morality itself. Instead of bold assertions of right and wrong, which can be argued about, we have a sociality in which the wrong is described by using evasive relational terms such as "anti-social" or "unacceptable".

One of the many oddities of this new understanding should be immediately evident. It is the relation between individualism and successful co-operation. Individualists have throughout the modern period exhibited a capacity for intelligent joint action which far exceeds that of more communally organised civilisations. This capacity to respond imaginatively to changing situations is what explains the military and industrial superiority of Western cultures. Yet the communitarian attack on individualism takes the form of arguing that individualists are alienated atoms too selfish to be able to work together. The implication is that effectiveness requires conforming to what the community (alias the state) requires of us. This implication tells us a great deal about the politics of this rising morality.

It is this political question which has in our time given a special bite to the question of social reality. Is the thing we call "society" simply the outcome of the doings of the individuals composing it, or is it something like a Platonic form in which we all, in slightly different ways, participate? At every step in the response to such questions, partisans have their ears cocked in search of rhetorical advantage. For if society does, in fact, involve some common element "above" each individual, then the only way to improve the world is by operating through collectivist policies, and the only candidate for the role of agent of this collective is the state. That is why it has been argued (for example by Karl Popper) that methodological collectivism has political implications, indeed perhaps even leads directly to totalitarianism. If such a thing as Herbert Spencer referred to as a "social sensorium" is real, then society is a single collective feeling and there may well be a case for consciously directing it.

Marx was, of course, one of the main foes of individualism and deplored even postulating such a thing as "society" against the individual, remarking that "the particular individual is only a particular species being and as such mortal." The reality of the individual is thus for Marx nothing else but his immersion in society. Some version of this view has been the immemorial belief of mankind.

Individualism - as the beliefs associated with the exploration of human individuality - challenged this belief and it is in fact what distinguishes the modern Western world from other civilisations. It is the thing that the historian Burckhardt observed Italy "swarming with" in the Renaissance, and during the Reformation it surged into the sphere of religion, and not merely among Protestants. The political philosophy of Hobbes in his Leviathan of 1651 replaced the medieval idea of graduated society by a conception of individuals each pursuing his (and rather later her) own good under laws made by a sovereign power. The French were especially fertile in exploring the psychology of this new creature, who typically appeared in theory as an egotist. Radical critics of individualism often condemned it by contrast with nostalgic ideas of the patriotic virtues of the classical republics and thus interpreted individualism as a symptom of moral corruption.

Some saw the modern world as an arena of alienated and miserable people who were crying out for an enlightenment that would bring order and happiness. Yet individualism not only survived but proved capable of defending itself. Some defences were defiantly paradoxical, such as Mandeville's view that it was precisely the vices of these selfish individuals which made them so prosperous.

Mammon was thus one of the presiding deities of individualism, and it rapidly commercialised society. The growth of the market was something despised by many groups, ranging from poets to aristocrats. Yet Adam Smith and later writers argued that it was the basis of more peaceful and polished manners. With the industrial revolution, increasing numbers migrated from the countryside to the towns, where the individual had long composed a new class of person, soon to be much hated, called the middle class, or the "bourgeoisie" Quite how the vast improvements in human possibility created by this new civilisation came to be so extensively rejected, often by those who had most benefited, is a complicated story, but there is little doubt that the attack on individualism amounts to a project for closing down the innovative vitality of the modern world.

It is as a moral theory that individualism is currently most neglected. Individualist moral theory is a rejection of the Platonic idea that the moral life is an athletic struggle in which reason is forever at work subduing disorderly passions. Virtue platonically understood turns out to be fitting into a pattern, and individuality can, in Platonic theory no less than in the case of traditional civilisation, only be the problem constituted by deviance, eccentricity and waywardness. The only real virtue in traditional thought is fitting in. Not to fit in is merely irrational. A common derivation from this line of thought is the idea that the state has the responsibility for articulating and enforcing whatever is thought to be the rational pattern of life.

Individuality is, of course, only one among the possible bases for a social order. It is, in a sense, something that a culture imposes upon the people who share it, and while it has now spread remarkably, it is a unique civilisation creation. The modern West has been a daring adventure in human evolution because a situation in which individuals have the discretion to act on their own judgements seems to be the problem rather than the solution to social order. And it is certainly true that a society constituted in this way requires a strong element of internalisation of the rules that make it possible.

This was how the modern Western world rejected castes, social hierarchies and even automatic respect for elders. It was a remarkable adventure, requiring a great deal of nerve and forever conducted amid the wailing of those who believed, and still believe, that unless we conformed to some ideal pattern of a good society we should inevitably come to grief.

And yet it survived. Nervous passengers caught up in this adventure were forever holding their hands over their eyes as they discerned shipwreck ahead, but eventually the very term "crisis" became a bit of a joke because the ship sailed, not without turbulence but certainly without shipwreck, through so many of them. Economic depressions, revolutions, moral collapse and war - somehow individualist cultures emerged with renewed energy every time. The difficult thing to explain is why these successes seemed merely to feed the appetite for building the perfect society, which, in being necessarily static, would equally necessarily amount to the suppression of the individual.

The reason is, one may suggest, that modern European states have, along with their achievements, also been arenas of spectacular conflict. Further, with advancing technology these conflicts have become immensely destructive. Yet the very technological capacity that causes despair also feeds the hope that our so remarkable civilisation can "construct" a society of perfect harmony.

Individualism has thus become the victim of its own triumphs, and the way in which this has happened is an object lesson in the way in which moral ideas are subverted in our time. The essential precept of individualism as a morality is the belief in responsible choice. Whereas in other civilisations most people find themselves under the tutelage of others, the modern individualist was left to do his prudence for himself. Success and failure are important, but in Christian belief the world to come can be called in to correct the inevitably imperfect outcomes of human life. But such individual moral responsibility, with failure as the risk, was a remarkably bracing discipline.

In advanced modern democratic societies, however, the sufferings of imprudent people become public issues attracting understandable sympathy. The poor and the improvident both lack the means for medical care or welfare in old age. The state steps in and makes at least some sort of basic provision and obviates much avoidable suffering. Admirable, no doubt, but it quite changes the terms of human life. The self-control that a prudent virtue requires is undermined when the prudent end up no better off than the imprudent.

At the same time, the idea of individualism is vulgarised by removing the condition of responsibility. Freedom is left signifying nothing more than having a pleasurable set of options to choose from. Life becomes a supermarket of experience, imagined to be costless, and everyone must have a right to them all. But the moment the idea of responsibility is detached from the idea of choosing, then we begin to create a world in which mere impulse rules.

There is no doubt that such a world is morally shallow. What is perhaps less evident is that it also transforms the political world. The individualist acts and takes the consequences. The impulsivist acts, and is saved from his folly by the welfare state. This looks like a great human advance - happiness on the cheap, as it were. But like most substitutes for virtue, it has hidden costs. Someone has to do the prudence, supply the responsibility and the ordering of social life. This task falls, of course, to government, which increasingly becomes our master - or, to use the Greek world, despot.

Modern politics thus exhibits a fascinating cycle which begins with the enactment of some new right or liberation - the right to a pension, for example, or medical services free at the point of need - a liberation, perhaps, which rejects inherited sexual restraints.

However, in a generation or so, individual vices turn into social problems, and the government steps in. Caring about old age, which in the 19th century led most people, even those who were. very poor, to make some provision for themselves, becomes a legislated duty. Governments now compel what was once a virtue. Free medical care leads to government control over diet and lifestyle. Sexual liberation is more recent, but the emergence of governmentally enforced puritanism is already on the horizon.

The term individualism has itself become one element of this advancing repression. Because its meaning has been corrupted, it can more easily be denigrated. Instead of the real thoughtful individualism on which modern civilisation was built, it now refers to the impulsive and irresponsible satisfaction of desires. And this corrupt sense of individualism is coming to be partnered by an equally corrupt sense of community -- as fitting in with a single pattern of life over which government presides in greater and greater detail.

The writer is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. This article has been adapted by the writer from a review in this week's `Times Literary Supplement'