The virtuosity of individualism

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, the only 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.

August-Landmesser-Almanya-1936

Yes. Be this guy.

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.

  10 comments for “The virtuosity of individualism

  1. Paul Marks.
    Feb 19, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Strictly speaking libertarians stand for voluntary cooperation (families, commercial enterprises, churches, atheist clubs – whatever), but voluntary cooperation does indeed depend on individuals.

    Unless human beings exist – unless the individual “I” exists, then libertarianism is meaningless.

    Unless a human being is a PERSON – a reasoning “I” capable of telling moral right from wrong and CHOOSING (really choosing) moral right over the desire to do evil, then libertarianism is meaningless.

    Not just philosophical libertarianism – but political libertarianism also. For if there is no such thing as the individual (the reasoning, choosing, “I”) then freedom is just a hollow word – it has no more moral importance than the “freedom” of water after a dam has been blown up.

    Adopt the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (the denial of the individual moral agent) and you end up with the politics of Thomas Hobbes – tyranny.

  2. Feb 19, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Quite right,

    I completely agree that it is perhaps one of the biggest falsehoods widely believed today, that we are in a ‘golden era of individualism’. When in fact, we are very far away from a society that truly respects individual sovereignty.

    Respecting the individual isn’t just virtuous, it’s the best way that humanity can organise itself. Any coerced, non-voluntary relationships between people can only ever result in long-term instability and conflict.

    Although I do wish more Libertarians were more willing to take the ‘right wing’ to task, as well as the left….

    • Paul Marks
      Feb 19, 2015 at 7:55 pm

      Sadly most self described libertarians, especially in the United States, are obsessive about taking “the right” to task.

      It is as if they are still living in the 1950s – when most government spending was on the military and the main threat to liberty was strong churches not relying on moral argument but trying to use the state to enforce morality.

      There is an inability, at least among many American students, to understand that the world has changed rather radically since say 1960.

      Only a small proportion of government spending is now on the military, regulations do NOT mainly help big business by keeping out competitors (the regs crucify big business also now), conservative Christians have no influence on social policy – indeed are actually the victims of “anti discrimination” regulations and the propaganda of the government education system and the media.

      And on and on.

      Take Mr D. C.(the Prime Minister of a certain country) a gentleman whose main priorities are increasing government health spending, increasing government overseas aid, government “Gay Marriage” (government ceremonies – and “recognise or else”), and “Social Justice”.

      Is this “the right”?

      • Feb 19, 2015 at 9:02 pm

        Indeed Paul, The nature of the state is definitely more complex now, than is was in the 1950s. Certainly more complex and pervasive than it has ever been. Transcending the traditional left- right paradigm.

        However, I must admit that I’m relatively relaxed about the vitriolic attitude of certain American Libertarians. Sure the US state has found plenty of other outlets other than warfare since then. But if I was an American taxpayer, I would also be indignant about the sheer brutality of my government’s foreign policy. No matter what proportion of my government’s GDP was spent on it.

        Yet, the real focus of my remark was the UK Libertarian movement. As it grows, I fervently believe we need define ourselves not simply as ‘anti-socialists’ but a strong movement in our own right!

        • Paul Marks
          Feb 20, 2015 at 3:53 pm

          Jordan – both Britain and the United States look like “bog standard” leftist policy places to me (although Mr Cameron blames the Lib Dems – at least when he is talking to “right wing” Tory folk, when he is talking to other people he may say something rather different…..), so no need for a different paradigm.

          As for complaining about brutality – I think your anger might be better directed to the Islamists rather than the United States (especially as Mr Obama has been President for more than six years – and he has to be pushed, kicking and screaming, before he does anything).

          How 14 centuries of Islamist attacks on the non Muslim world can be blamed on evil American big business (which, supposedly, controls the American government – even though American companies are actually some of the most highly taxes and regulated in the Western world), I do not know.

          But them I am sick of tolerating leftists – including the “libertarian left”, their endless lies irritate me.

          Take the example of the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Supposedly this was not the fault of President Carter stabbing an American ally in the back (yes Iranian Emperor was an economic incompetent, nationalising companies, including American ones, and spending money wildly on “public services” – but all that was carried on by the new regime anyway), but was the fault of the Americans backing an anti Soviet coup – in 1953.

          Supposedly Iran only became radical when the “democratic” government (a “democratic” government that did not allow elections in rural areas of Iran because the locals would vote the “wrong” way) was overthrown – and this was to defend Western oil interests in Iran (even though the Emperor went on the nationalise them anyway) – and not to keep the Soviets from getting the Persian gulf (not even slightly……).

          In reality Shia Islam (like Sunni Islam) has been “radical” (in the sense of persecuting people who do not follow it) from day one. One can argue that Christians who do terrible things (and there have been many) betray Jesus – but it is absurd to argue that followers of Mohammed who do terrible things betray Mohammed (because he did these things himself – repeatedly).

          Mohammed was not Jesus and he was not Buddha either. Mohammed was a military commander and politician – one of genius. His main interest, and the main interest of the leaders of the religion he created (from that day to this) was in conquest.

          But you call resistance (even half hearted resistance) to all this “brutality” – so I think this conversation is over.

          Although, by the way, I was AGAINST “nation building” in Afghanistan (it is pointless) and AGAINST the Iraq war – although my view of the local population was just about the opposite of the view of the “anti war movement”.

          Indeed had I shared the view of the locals that the “anti war movement” hold, that the locals are lovely, I would have been very much in favour of war to overthrow Saddam.

          Ironically the “neo cons” and the “anti war movement” had the same view of the locals – and they were (and are) both wrong.

          • Ken Ferguson
            Feb 20, 2015 at 8:46 pm

            One can argue that Christians who do terrible things (and there have been many) betray Jesus – but it is absurd to argue that followers of Mohammed who do terrible things betray Mohammed (because he did these things himself – repeatedly).

            Sorry, Paul, but this won’t do.

            Whatever Jesus or Mohammed are rumoured to have done is quite irrelevant. Their common legacy is that of inspiring legions of followers to coerce others to follow their beliefs. These adherents have viewed their own faith as absolute (or divine) justification for their appalling actions.

            It could fairly be argued that Muslims are currently wreaking more havoc than Christians however, in principle, the perversion of morality practised is identical. Both are founded in belief systems where superstition perverts the moral code of the individual believer and, in this respect, they are equally to be abhorred by libertarians.

            The fact that you happen to believe in the teachings of one sky fairy and not the other is not particularly relevant to the rational argument.

            • Paul Marks
              Feb 21, 2015 at 2:43 pm

              Sorry Ken – but what I wrote is correct. It is your position, i.e. that what the Founder of a religion taught and DID does not matter, that is absurd.

              Islam without Mohammed is like Hamlet without the Prince – and the traditions of Islam are quite clear about what Mohammed did. For example, when an old blind poet mocked Mohammed the man was murdered (with deceit – men went to his camp claiming to be friends), and when a pregnant female poet protested the murder of the old blind poet – she was murdered also. The “Prophet” personally approved both murders (along with so many other deaths). So when a film maker (or whatever) is cut down in Holland or Denmark (or anywhere else) the people who do it know they are acting as the founder of their religion wished them to act.

              “But Mohammed did not really exist” or “what is said about him did not really happen” – yes and Nelson never went to sea.

              As for wishing away 14 centuries of conflict (pretending it did not happen) – have you considered getting a job with the BBC?

  3. Jess Richards
    Feb 20, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Great article! Will like and share.

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