Conventional wisdom dictates that individualism is a destructive force which has enraptured and degraded our society. According to leftist orthodoxy it manifested itself in our culture with Thatcherism and rampant consumerism and has infected the “selfish” millennial generation, this being the only reasonable explanation for their worrying right-wing tendencies.
Conventional wisdom is, as is so often the case, quite wrong. I do not recognise this warped image of individualism and contrarily believe that Britain is sadly lacking in this most noble of traits.
The free expression of individual thought and the exercise of individual autonomy is extremely weak in our society. The eccentric, independent minded and assertive individual was once a celebrated part of British culture. The strong willed and fearless individual with a protective barrier of self reliance is resistant to group think and, for me, characterises what individualism is all about.
Now such a trait is attacked from all directions and individualism is repressed and tamed. Society is intolerant of eccentric thoughts that stray too far from conventional wisdom. “You can’t say that” has so rapidly become “you can’t think that”, and now whenever anyone expresses an opinion that goes beyond whatever the sheep are currently bleating a reaction of outrage, bewilderment or total misunderstanding is positively expected.
Autonomy, as exercised by the individual, or the self-reliant family, or the tight-knit community, is increasingly cowed by the state which aggressively cultivates a relationship of dependence.
Individualism is a much criticised and misrepresented principle. Elements of the right dislike it because they see it as a manifestation of selfishness and irresponsibility. Not only is this based on an oversimplified definition, it is wrong because individualism allows us to achieve moral awareness. As we learn from our own experiences, and make our own choices, we become well rounded individuals with a greater sense of ourselves and our responsibilities.
“He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision.” – J.S Mill
Outside influences shape us as people, but it is the exercise of autonomy and the making of our own choices that hones our judgement and helps us to become responsible moral agents.
The whole idea of individualism is a total anathema to the left because they believe it undermines solidarity and violates communitarianism. A central tenet of Communism, Socialism and Fascism is that the state has primacy over the individual whose interest must be sacrificed for (what the state, or the dictator, deem to be) the common good.
In a collectivist society the central authority must be endowed with the power to control social life in order to subordinate the individual and centrally plan the economy. The state considers itself the embodiment of the nation and the people are bound to it, and each other, through involuntary obligation. This leads inevitably to the violation of the individual’s liberty, property and right to the pursuit one’s own goals.
Over-reliance on a distant, monolithic and (supposedly but never actually) morally neutral provider is not conducive to the self-reliance of individuals, families or communities. It undermines the impulse to voluntarily fulfil our relational obligations i.e. the obligations to those around you – family members, neighbours, communities etc.
Critics of individualism argue that dependence is natural and desirable and they portray individualism as an atomisation of society into a Darwinist rat race between competing selfish individual entities. This is nothing more than a leftist caricature, a mythical extremist individualism exemplified by the selectively edited quote from Margaret Thatcher “there’s no such thing as society”.
In response to this straw man argument I would contend that there is an essential difference between the natural and essential interdependence of human beings (which is in no way denied or eroded by individualism) and the dependence on a distant, impersonal central authority.
Interdependence between human beings on a personal level fosters the bonds of family, friends, neighbours and community. It instils self-reliance, personal responsibility, self-restraint, dignity and an independence from government that essentially undermines its authority.
In contrast, dependence on the state provides for our needs without obligation (except financial) and without connecting us to our local networks, thus it actually breaks down relational obligations. It weakens the family and it weakens the community thus the interdependence of human beings on a personal level is severely undermined. This position is constantly undermined by the perpetuation of the aformentioned misquote of Margaret Thatcher. Now is an appropriate time to reveal the full quotation:
“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.”
This has rather a different meaning than that which the left falsely attribute to her. It is not saying that there is no society per se, but is conveying the individualist’s society defined by personal responsibility, family, obligation and voluntary association. It is the antithesis to the collectivist society as embodied by the state, the destroyer of personal responsibility.
Dependence without obligation is corrosive because it gives the illusion of independence from our fellow citizens and weakens our sense of obligation to each other. It fosters the attitude of those who have no moral qualms about cheating the welfare system or shunning work because they see it as an entitlement and justify their actions by believing they are only cheating a faceless, distant authority rather than their fellow citizens.
It is desirable that everyone has enough to eat, somewhere to live and a job to do because this makes for a fair, happy and prosperous society. Dependence on the state turns what is a societal issue of human decency and compassion into a “right” to various “benefits”. It fosters a sense of entitlement and has a pernicious effect on the soul; the response to the granting of such “rights” is generally resentment and demoralisation rather than gratitude. It is not seen as the generosity of the collective but an entitlement handed down by a paternal state that renders them subordinate.
Dependence without obligation, for example, leads to the shameless dropping of litter or fly tipping because those doing it know, and expect, that the council will clear up after them. It leads to the attitude of those who see a street in their neighbourhood besmirched with litter and take no action except complaining that the council really ought to do something. Before you know it, the entire neighbourhood is filthy with litter, and then covered in graffiti, before gradually degrading into squalor. All the while the residents wait for someone else to do something about it.
It weakens associational life; that realm of voluntary institutions established by citizens independently of the state that make up an essential part of “civil society”. The death of civil society would need a nationalised sector to replace it, but it can only ever be a soulless, bureaucratic shadow of a true voluntary sector.
In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville imagines a world in which this element of society has been killed off. It is a depiction of a society infantilised and divided by dependence:
“Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind […] Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood.”
The leftist resentment of individualism and their utopian approach to achieving solidarity and equality is hypocritical and false. It leads to a type of equality in which we are equally dependent on the state as a provider. It breaks apart groups of people – family and communities – because they are freed from obligations to each other, and creates individuals who are equal only in their dependence on the state as provider. So, contrary to the belief that this is an alternative to individualism and a means of creating social solidarity, what it actually does is uses the powerful force of the state to atomise society.
This is the collectivist’s morally neutralising and truly destructive form of individualism that is created as an accidental consequence of their utopian folly. The repression of individualism and the cowing of people into compliant dependents coerced by the “benevolent” state into certain behaviours creates only artificial cohesion. Individual autonomy is far more nurturing of social mindfulness and virtuosity and creates stronger, and naturally occurring, social bonds.
A people who become over reliant on the state are meek, weak, and easy to manipulate and oppress. In a society with a herd mentality, where the individual does not matter, groupthink prevails and free thought dies.
Britain is becoming a conformist society and we are expected to submit to and celebrate that conformity. In a free, individualist society the virtues of self-reliance, independence of thought, individuality and creativity are allowed to thrive. Social solidarity is not forced from above but occurs naturally, not as embodied by the state, but through an organic common culture and shared heritage.
Think for yourself, don’t accept the demonisation of a virtuous personal and societal trait.
Ben is a writer, editor and Brexit campaigner. He advocates a counter-revolution to achieve the restoration of constitutional liberty and national independence. He blogs at The Sceptic Isle. Follow him on Twitter: @TheScepticIsle
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty