I think it’s high time we take a long hard look at “individualism” in the western world. I will go ahead and qualify what I mean by “individualism” by rooting that term as we know it in the classic liberal sense. The rights of the individual are paramount in a liberal society. Protecting property rights, and securing transactions within the marketplace, two main tenets of liberalism, only make sense in a societal order grounded in individualism. In fact, many of the political spheres in 21st century western society are reactions to the liberal individualism as it has evolved over the decades and centuries. A more puritan approach to individualism can be found in libertarianism, the philosophy of which eschews even most types of government intervention in order to preserve the status and rights of the individual. Moving to the other end of the spectrum, we have socialism which respects the rights of the individual, but supports a sort of “forced hand” approach to the government to ensure that those unable to actualize their individuality are protected when vulnerable.
A great research paper I return to when thinking of this topic is Origins of WEIRD Psychology. WEIRD in this case means Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Basically the paper can be summarized thusly: during the late middle ages and early Renaissance, the western church outlawed marriage to cousins. This mandate by the church, which horizontally widened family trees and social networks, deconstructed ages-old kinship based institutions and gave rise to impersonal, state or church run institutions. In other words, small, kinship based resource producing engines like the farm, coopery, or smithy, slowly transformed large family conglomerates into more isolated nuclear families, which became ever more dependent on impersonal social institutions like guilds, corporations, and councils.
The outlawing of cousin banging had a great effect on promoting individualism as I mean it here, and helped in part give rise to the liberal order. In the west, and the U.S. in particular, individualism has been the backbone of the American story. Rugged Individualism, Manifest Destiny, and other expressions pulled deep from within Americana, are not about the preservation of kinship and family legacy. These freedom mantras are instead about how one should leave the family nest to go out as an individual and prove your individual merit to the world around you, using only the grit and gumption of your own person. This is a very different experience than humans have known since we gathered into communities several thousands of years ago.
After the bludgeoning of the term “liberal” by the conservative movement in recent years, some on the center and right are looking to reclaim the individualism decreed in the “classic liberal” order. In a recent article by Stephen Davies at AIER, titled Let’s Revive the Term Individualism, Davies provides a tidy summary of the usage of terms like “liberal”, “conservative”, and “libertarian” throughout the past couple hundred years in the U.S. and the U.K. Originally, Davies says, the term “liberalism” carried a positive connotation which meant rationality, optimism, and a generous nature.
Classical liberalism was birthed through the enlightenment era and then bifurgated into liberal vs. conservatism, before further branching into other derivative ideologies like libertarianism. The original tenets of liberalism are now diffused among many political perspectives. Individualism, Davies says, is a term which should be reclaimed by those who value the individual most and prize their rights over larger groups and institutions. In fact, according to Davies, individualism is not only a political viewpoint, but rather a philosophical one, and a person would do well to define their political as well as philosophical views when using terms like “liberal”, “conservative” and “libertarian” so as to not muddy the waters and further dilute their original meanings. I think this is a fair point.
But man is a social creature. This centuries of mounting inertia toward the individualist society we have today has not been without its drawbacks. It seems as though loneliness and depression are on the rise. People from all political leanings and socio-economic strata feel disconnected, isolated, and lost, but has evidently hit the young the hardest. Could this perhaps be due in part to the altar we have built to the individual, the value of whom we have placed above all?
The championing of the individual in the political sphere is fundamentally affecting the way we view ourselves within our social environment. We have an unprecendented ability to sift and sort our social contacts to only those we prefer to engage with. Social media has become a magic wand to bring only the people and content we agree with into our digital fiefdom. This same wand can, however, just as easily banish detractors and people who have fallen out of favor. As mentioned in the previous link, this has had an outsized effect on younger people and has caused not only mental stress but also physical ailments. Speculatively, it would appear that the most fervent users of social media are also experiencing the greatest negative drawbacks of loneliness.
These available tools and symptoms thereto did not always exist. In decentralized, small communities where large family groups relied on each other to satisfy a wider array of basic needs, forced interaction among those you didn’t agree with was not only necessary to your survival, there was simply no other option. There were no inter-familial segregation between liberals and conservatives in rural communities, at least not in any meaningful sense. You couldn’t simply ignore or escape those who you didn’t agree with or didn’t share common values with. You relied on them for vital goods or services to continue living. Families could either develop means to deal with one another, or kill each other. It must have been that the families that were successful in doing so prospered, while others did not (probably because they killed each other). There were perhaps the rudiments of a legal system where a lord would dispense justice within a family dispute, but it seems more likely they would have solved the crisis themselves.
Like the Political Pendulum Theory,could it be that we have moved from primarily family-only interactions to individual-only interactions throughout this period in history, destined to now fall back into a synthesis between the two? What even would that look like? We have grown so accustomed to being able to segregate our preferred people from our non-preferred, that even being forced to spend time with someone who slightly annoys you seems like a herculean task to some people, much less include them in your social group. We have placed such importance on the individual as the ultimate arbiter of human experience, rather than a collective process, that we may one day forget how to bond through shared experience, even with people we really like! Those that champion the individual, like Facebook and Instagram, are simultaneously shaping and cashing in on this trend. Are we really cool with social media constructing and then profiting by the way we experience our social lives?
Don’t get me wrong. Recognizing the agency of an individual is extremely important, and the fact that we as a society sacrifice so much to this alter of “me” is due to the lack of autonomy for individuals throughout most of history. Acknowledging that individuals have rights that cannot be taken away has had monumental impact to the US over the centuries, from the abolishment of slavery to the civil rights movement. That notion of “ownership” of self is of vital importance to form a free society, where other people and the government cannot act upon you without your consent. Taking that all for granted however, we should also acknowledge that the forces of extreme individualization cast out large groups of people who have not quite found their voice within society. This is not a call to neo-primitivism. This is a caution that for every social media “influencer” that exists, there are ten other young people depressed, lonely, and without the social network to overcome challenges. Without the forced contact provided by large familial units and village co-ops, we rely instead on choice and preference. We have yet to replace many of those social hubs with which to develop our own personality, reflect on ourselves through others perceptions, and ultimately define who we are. For many, this absence has led to something worse than being the butt of jokes in a friend group, it has led to being forgotten.