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In defence of individualism

We need more individualism – not less

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

22 June 2013

9:00 AM

It’s the funniest scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A parable-seeking mob gathers outside Brian’s home. They think he’s the messiah and will dispense some wisdom they might live their lives by. Instead he tells them to think for themselves, because ‘You are all individuals’. ‘We are all individuals,’ the mob intones, robotically. ‘I’m not,’ pipes up a lone, individualist voice, only to be shushed by the unthinking crowd.

Observing the current political debate about individualism, I often feel like that dissenting bloke in Life of Brian. Today, we’re surrounded by politicians, thinkers and hacks who chant that, for the worse, we are all individuals now; that we live under a ‘cult of the individual’, which has elbowed aside communitarian values and replaced them with a secular religion of self-satisfaction. I want to cry, ‘No we don’t!’ We are not all individuals, sadly. In fact, individualism, the exercise of individual autonomy and the expression of individual thought, has never been weaker than it is today. And that is a very bad thing. We live in a society not beset by individualism, but bereft of it.

The belief that individualism is rampant, and is a highly destructive force, unites politicos of every stripe. From the right, David Cameron says ‘selfishness and individualism’ are the big scourges of our age. On the left, Labour leader Ed Miliband has recently snuggled up to a new intellectual guru: Michael Sandel. A prof, author and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Sandel is best known for chucking intellectual hand grenades at the modern West’s worshipping of aggressive individualism. He fulminates against the ‘unencumbered self’ of our age, against the idea that the individual should be left alone by states and do-gooders to ‘choose his own values and ends’. Apparently it would be better if the self were encumbered, ideally by the values of his -betters.

Nostalgic leftist Owen Jones complains about the ‘rugged individualism’ and ‘dog-eat-dog individualism’ of our age, which, he says, has made the working classes obsessed with ‘climbing the social ladder’. On the far right, the BNP leader Nick Griffin wrings his hands over the ‘rootless individualism’ of modern Britain, where ‘community identity’ is on the wane and we have all become self-interested consumers, pursuers of what Griffin calls ‘Coca-Cola culture’.

Railing against materialism is a close cousin of moaning about the cult of individualism. Apparently, all that today’s masses care about is the satisfaction of their inner lust for stuff. And it’s Thatcher’s fault, of course. Her death gave rise to a tsunami of commentary about how her ‘no such thing as society’ quote, and her promotion of go-getting individualism, pretty much destroyed the decent Blighty of old. Thatcher, that ‘icon of individualism’, as Russell Brand called her, ‘implanted the gene of greed in the British soul’, according to the Independent.

That anti-individualism can unite everyone from rabble-rousing leftists to nonsense-spouting neo-fascists suggests that a herdlike thoughtlessness is a far bigger problem right now. It speaks to the absence of one of the key components of any meaningful culture of individualism: eccentricity of thought, a willingness to challenge the dominant narrative of the age. It is once again a case of life imitating Life of Brian.


The truth is that the risk-taking, self-reliant, self-asserting individual that was once the celebrated centrepiece of the free world is only notable by his absence today. If true individualism means being self-willed, autonomous, maintaining some resistance to the groupthink of the times one finds oneself in, then it’s pretty clear we’re experiencing a -crisis.

Far from bowing and scraping before the individual, modern society constantly tames him, wrapping him in red tape and gagging his more eccentric thoughts. A massive amount of political energy is now devoted to circumventing the exercise of autonomy and cultivating a craven dependence of the individual upon the state.

Consider the rise of state nannying and nudging. These modern forms of authoritarianism call into question the very ability of the individual to make good and sensible decisions. The nudging industry, so beloved of Cameron that he brought it into Downing Street and gave it free rein to set up the Orwellian-sounding Behavioural Insight Team, seeks to relieve individuals entirely of the apparently stressful task of making life choices. Through fiddling with what it calls society’s ‘choice architecture’ — the environments in which we make choices about how to go about our daily lives — these nudgers want to make the exercise of autonomy a thing of the past. Indeed, according to a scarily sci-fi-sounding report produced by the Cabinet Office, Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public -Policy, the government should become the ‘surrogate willpower’ of the people. That is, it should exercise willpower on our behalf and make choices for us. What a terrifying, individualism-nuking idea.

The key new ideologies of our age are remarkably hostile to the very idea that individuals are capable of using free will to improve their characters and determine their destinies. The rise of neuro-politics — what the philosopher Raymond Tallis calls ‘neuro-bollocks’ — has nurtured the belief that everything from a person’s sexuality to his political leanings is genetically determined, a gift of the accidental shape of his brain rather than something he can choose or cultivate or command. New addiction theories, which claim individuals can get hooked on everything from Dairy Milk to TV shopping, similarly promote the idea that the individual is not an assertive creature but more like an amoeba in a Petri dish, being reshaped by all sorts of forces beyond his control. Meanwhile, ‘early years’ theory — the increasingly influential notion that what happens to a child in the first five years of life determines his future fortunes — rehabilitates the pre-modern idea of fate, the idea that we are sealed by past experience rather than determined by thought and action.

Even individual instincts are restrained. Risk-taking is frowned upon. We sneer at ‘have-a-go heroes’. This might go some way to explaining why in Woolwich last month, a group of 60 to 70 people stood and watched a brutal hacking. That chilling spectacle spoke, not to a cult of individualism, but to an era of neutered individuals, trained to conceive of themselves as observers rather than shapers of society.

Modern society is hostile to the expression of individual thought, too. We’ve pathologised certain ways of thinking, adopting that old Soviet tactic of depicting thoughts that fall outside of the mainstream as mental illnesses. Hence the rise of the term phobia (an irrational fear) to brand intellectual outliers. Hate Brussels? You’re Europhobic. Unsure about gay marriage? You’re homophobic. Don’t think Islam is the greatest thing since sliced bread? You’re Islamophobic.

Twitter is held up by some as evidence of our creepily individualistic society with its morass of bedroom-bound typists talking about themselves and their views to no one in particular. In truth, Twitter also speaks to the emaciation of individualism: say something daring or untoward in that forum and watch the Twitch-hunters come running, demanding you recant and -conform.

The individual is under assault. The right fears individualism because it thinks it makes people irresponsible, thinking more about themselves than their neighbours. And lefties hate it because they think it undermines social solidarity and communal considerations. Both are spectacularly wrong.

Far from encouraging irresponsibility, as Cameron and co. believe, true individualism makes people more morally aware and conscious of their behaviour. As that greatest of liberals, John Stuart Mill, argued, it’s only through being free to exercise his autonomy and determine his life’s destiny that an individual can become a fully rounded, morally responsible being, since ‘the human faculties of perception, judgement, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice’. In contrast, the individual who is denied the right to choose his course in life, and to express and conduct himself as he sees fit, is merely an ‘ape-like imitator’ of what others have decreed to be ‘right’.

The left is wrong to depict individualism as the killer of social bonds. Here, too, Mill is instructive. Society itself benefits from giving free rein to individual autonomy, he said, because ‘the same strong susceptibilities which make the personal impulses vivid and powerful, are also the source from whence are generated the most passionate love of virtue’. That is, in encouraging individualism, society both ‘does its duty and protects its interests’, said Mill, because strong-willed, capable individuals are far more likely to think socially and virtuously than are meek, pathetic folk cajoled by their betters into slavishly behaving and thinking ‘correctly’.

What individualism seeks to disturb, said Oscar Wilde, is ‘monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine’. In response to today’s deeply conformist, autonomy–stifling, fatalistic society, I can think of nothing better than disturbing absolutely everything by unleashing the individual and his true urges, instincts and thoughts.


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