29 January 2014


● The central social problem as perceived by Western cultural elites could be phrased as follows: too much emphasis is (still) given to the individual. Too much weight is given to freedom from state intervention, instead of to the community’s right to deal with matters that concern it. Too much reference is made to the talents and contributions of individuals, rather than to the influence of social groups and movements. There is (still) too widespread an assumption that individuals are capable of exercising autonomy, as opposed to being the products of political forces.
The source of the legacy of philosophical individualism is of course capitalism. It is capitalism which, along with efficient market exchange, gave us the by-product of transferable financial accumulations, i.e. capital. Capital enabled some individuals to act independently of community approval. This in turn gave rise to ideologies in which rights and liberties were demanded against the claims of the community or state.
Capitalist ideologies shaped politics for several centuries, resulting in a kind of de-socialisation of the individual. The claims for independence on which they were based, however, were on shaky ground. There is no obvious reason why the individual should have a right to be free from the demands of his community. In any case, the notion of freedom is nowadays regarded as dubious, given what has supposedly been learnt from the biological and social sciences. The notion is also in fundamental conflict with the basis of pre-capitalist societies. As the philosopher Charles Taylor pointed out in his paper ‘Atomism’,
in earlier eras or other civilisations, arguments about individual rights would have seemed wildly eccentric and implausible. The very idea of starting an argument whose foundation was the rights of the individual would have been strange and puzzling.
Modernism – by which I mean the political and cultural innovations of the first half of the twentieth century – has done much to roll back this allegedly spurious ideal of independence. In the second half of the last century, we saw successful implementation of many of the tenets of modernism, which led to a partial return to social values, particularly in cultural fields.
Nevertheless, a core of the old individualist ideology, resistant to the social perspective, still prevails. In the view of the critics, plenty remains to be done in terms of resocialising Western civilisation.