The Long March of Individualism Comes To A Juddering Halt.

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  • 08/21/2022

Individualism has gone global, but the trend may not hold.

For all its faults, collectivist order may be preferable to individualist chaos.

According to a recent study of 78 countries by Santos, Varnum, and Grossmann, individualism has never been more widespread. Measuring variables such as household size, solitary living, divorce rate, favoring of friends over family, and emphasis on independence and self-expression, the authors attributed this trend to a burgeoning middle class in developing nations.

As education and earning opportunities widen, people eschew traditional religious and cultural strictures in pursuit of meritocratic and materialistic reward. Secularization and social liberalism are features of modern society, but is individualism reaching its peak?

A Hansard Society survey showed that British people, amidst the Brexit impasse, pine for a strong leader who can act decisively in the best interest of the country. Facing an uncertain future, unity may become more important than individual liberty.

The pendulum won’t necessarily swing from liberal globalism to authoritarian nationalism, but like a ship in stormy seas, socially advanced but angst-ridden Western societies will seek a safe harbor.

For all its faults, collectivist order may be preferred to individualist chaos.

[caption id="attachment_178702" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]people seen from top down, individualism Creative Commons[/caption]

A pioneer of scientific investigation on individualism and collectivism was Harry Triandis, psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Raised in a traditional community in Greece, Triandis had a culture shock on moving to the liberal, pluralistic environment of an American university. His research since the 1970s has shown clear differences in the extent of individual autonomy and collective cohesion:

“Within any culture there are people who act more like collectivists or like individualists. The distributions of these attributes, however, are different.”

At societal level, the individualizing process may be traced back to the industrial revolution. Feudal society was tightly-knit and restrictive but had a human scale that was lost in the huge mill towns. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx described the alienation of the working class. The mass labor movement gained rights by strength in number through trade unions and eventually political representation.

Marx, however, did not foresee the emergence of a middle class. White-collar workers and their families could live upwind of the smog, having disposable income to acquire material goods and enjoy recreational activities. While the laboring class lived cheek-by-jowl with grandparents and grandchildren, the middle class created the nuclear family and became geographically dispersed.

Individualism is associated with progress from blind faith to rational humanism

In the nineteenth century, millions escaped from the coalmines and factories by emigrating to America. Far from the privations of the old country, here was a land of opportunity. The Constitution of the Founding Fathers was more influenced by the libertarian ideas of John Locke and the free market espoused by Adam Smith.

Such thinking contrasted with the “social contract” of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whereby individual wants are relinquished for the sake of collective needs. Rousseau’s concept of the “general will” has been exploited by governments of means-to-an-end ideology, as warned by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom.

Socialist parties, which prioritize social progress over individual freedom, were prominent throughout Europe in the twentieth century, with fluctuating electoral success but pervasive influence on governments of whatever hue. However, democratic societies have tended to preserve individual choice and liberty.

The rise of individualism in the late twentieth century is illustrated by names chosen for children. In the past, a first son typically took his father’s name (“Big John” and “Little John”). In Islamic culture, “Mohammed” is ubiquitous. In contemporary society parents often choose unusual or unique names, emphasizing individuality. Another sign is the increasing use of first person in discourse, rather than “we.”

Individualism is associated with progress from blind faith to rational humanism, as conveyed by the title of a Darwinian analysis by Newson and Richerson: “Why do people become modern?”

[caption id="attachment_178698" align="aligncenter" width="1920"] Tabitha Kaylee Hawk / Creative Commons / Flickr[/caption]

The political and cultural establishments of the U.K. and U.S. were profoundly shocked by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president. Numerous commentators in mainstream media and academe fear that liberal democracy is mortally threatened by a regressive, xenophobic backlash.

The social divide exposed by Brexit was conceptualized by David Goodhart’s “Somewheres” and “Anywheres.”

Rising above reactionary rhetoric, Matthew Goodwin at University of Kent has objectively investigated this rejection of normal politics. In the book National Populism, Goodwin described a dealignment of conventional parties and voting patterns. In the U.K. general election in 2017, many working-class voters switched from Labour to Conservative, while Labour gained middle-class support; among seats changing hands were quintessentially Tory Canterbury and the former coal-mining town of Mansfield. A similar socioeconomic inversion is seen with the Republicans and Democrats in the USA.

In recent decades, the social democratic parties that dominated European politics have prioritized minority group interests, protecting the disadvantaged from the “tyranny of the majority.” Consequently, they are perceived as placing ordinary people last in the queue.

The social divide exposed by Brexit was conceptualized by David Goodhart’s “Somewheres” and “Anywheres.” The former type of person is rooted in community, with a strong sense of belonging at several levels from family to country. “Anywheres” express the progressive values that are educationally, professionally and economically rewarded; they think of themselves as “on the right side of history.”

[caption id="attachment_178699" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Muslim Woman Wikimedia Commons[/caption]

Yet populism, which means the will of the people to its supporters, and uninformed mob rule to its detractors, is gaining momentum. The survival of mainstream parties is not guaranteed: French and Italian centrists have been decimated by the surge of anti-establishment parties. While populist parties differ, common interests are a revival of nationhood and resentment of the identity politics of gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

Countries like Britain are becoming more religious, not less.

National populism is one of three forces driving society from individualism to collectivism. It may be the least important, due to demographic destiny. Brexit and Trump were an electoral success for a declining sector of the populace: white, older and lower-class folk.

Indeed, the second and more potent force is mass immigration, which is transforming Western culture. The intelligentsia continue to assume the demise of religion, despite the steady growth of Islam and African Christianity resulting from the influx and high birth rates of Pakistani, Somali and Nigerian diaspora. Countries like Britain are becoming more religious, not less.

While Protestant Europe privatized faith, and the Church of England has emptying pews, collective worship thrives in communities of African and Asian background. For Muslims, Allah is all-knowing and all-powerful, while the Book of Revelation prophesizes that God will destroy the corrupt authorities that turned people away from him. Obviously not all black and Asian-origin people are devoutly religious, but their cultures are more collectively-orientated, with faith as a firm foundation.

[caption id="attachment_178700" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]young people using computers Creative Commons[/caption]

The third force for collectivism is the insecurity of the hyper-connected younger generations. Online social media is a tremendous asset for communication, but research shows correlation with mental health problems in adolescents.

Cyberspace may have encouraged individualism, but politicians and campaigners are demanding regulation of a perceived “wild west.”

Psychologist Jean Twenge believes that the internet has produced a narcissistic and miserable generation. Society appears to have lurched from stigma to normalization of mental illness, as celebrities openly divulge their psychological problems. A mental health crisis in younger people is an urgent concern, with increasing incidence of self-harm among girls.

Following a spate of student suicides, mental health services have been introduced on campus; effectively, universities have become locus parentis. As discussed by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, students have learnt that they are fragile. Cyberspace may have encouraged individualism, but politicians and campaigners are demanding regulation of a perceived “wild west.”

Meanwhile, idealistic younger people are hungry for political change, often channeled into ecological or moral causes. Socialism, previously a bad word in the U.S., is no longer a passing student fad, but endorsed by Democrat politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jeremy Corbyn, the Trotsky-inspired leader of the opposition party in Westminster, is very popular with the young.

Collectivist ideology is a comfort to younger people in a complex and competitive environment.

Patriots, millennials versed in progressive values, and diverse migrant communities may not appear to have much in common beyond their shared existence in a particular setting. Yet there is convergence between these disparate forces. As the younger generations are increasingly multicultural, the white middle-class is a declining element in student cohorts. Entrants to the electoral register are more religious, and more collectivist.

Furthermore, the assumption that younger people find populist parties distasteful is refutable. More important than age is social class.

In Turkey, dictatorial leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan draws support from all ages in the vast interior, while educated voters on the cosmopolitan coast fear reversal of Atatürk’s modernization. Despite demonizing of Marine le Pen’s National Rally as “far right,” some of its policies are in tune with the old Left, including nationalization of utilities and workers’ rights. In Italy, a coalition of La Liga and Five Star, parties from opposite political poles, was eased by similarities in their agenda.

[caption id="attachment_178701" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]library Creative Commons[/caption]

To appeal to a changing electorate, political parties must understand that more of the same won’t work. From the perspectives of “Somewheres” worried about their country and culture, students anxious about their financial prospects, and migrant communities wary of secularist impositions on their religious beliefs, security is needed.

The “long march through the institutions” of postmodern ideology, and the unholy alliance between our political masters and global capitalists, may be coming to an end.

Social liberalism has led to troubling schisms and rising crime. British justice minister David Gauke plans to abolish short prison sentences, but he doesn’t live in an area rampaged by gangs. The murder toll in London, where middle-class virtue-signalers decry stop-and-search as institutional racism, briefly surpassed that of New York City. The impetus for the election of authoritarian Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro was escalating violence, with the highest recorded total of 63880 homicides in 2017.

With reluctance rather than relish, fractured liberal societies will turn to strong leaders. Voters may abhor the boorish style of Trump, but they will seek reassuringly decisive politicians who will protect them from internal conflict and the challenges of globalization. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the higher existential pursuit of self-fulfillment is irrelevant if basic needs are threatened. Safety, both physical and psychological, comes first.

The “long march through the institutions” of postmodern ideology, and the unholy alliance between our political masters and global capitalists, may be coming to an end.

As governments fear revolt at the ballot box or in demonstrations by gilets jaunes, they will be tempted to act illiberally. Indeed, Enlightenment values are more likely to be suppressed by supposedly liberal leaders than by protesters, whose right to expression has become a libertarian cause. States are collaborating with global technology firms to quash politically incorrect opinion on Twitter and Facebook, and the British parliament has been defying the EU referendum verdict despite promises to the electorate. Yet power cannot suppress truth for long: people want their countries back.

Overcoming the current “them versus us” mentality, societies must develop a distinct and inclusive identity – with shared pride of place.

Dr. Niall McCrae is an author and senior lecturer in mental health at King’s College London.



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