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. …