The overheating engine of progress - RSA

The overheating engine of progress

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  • Economy
  • Poverty and inequality

Over the last seven weeks I have described some of the features and implications of ‘coordination theory’. This is a set of ideas built on the identification of three foundations for human motivation, for organisational and social change, and for political worldviews: individualism, solidarity and hierarchy. In addition, there is a fourth – largely passive – attitude and perspective, which I call fatalism.

In the next four posts I explore each of the four forms in greater depth. What are they, how have they evolved, what are their strengths and weaknesses? I start with individualism: the overheating engine of progress.

Browsing choice of takeaways on smartphone

In relation to the whole human story, individualism was until very recently a weak cultural force. Now it is the motivation, perspective and form of social action most responsible for the nature of the modern world. While it has brought great advances for humanity, it contains myths, contradictions and dangers. Combining with, and being balanced by, other forms of motivation it can be a powerful driver of social progress. But we have seen in recent decades how societies and cultures overly dominated by a particular brand of individualism generate pathologies that lead to the kind of crisis of legitimacy and hope we are seeing unfold across the Western world.

As this series of posts are in large part about how people think and act together (this ‘coordination theory’) it may seem strange to choose individualism as the first form on which to focus. Its view of the world promotes skepticism about the very idea of coordination. A core individualist assumption is that progress is best secured though leaving people to their own devices. Individualists, and we are all individualists sometimes, believe this is the best way of doing things not just for each person but for society as a whole; the good society champions freedom, choice and competition, the good person exhibits self-reliance, ambition and inventiveness. When Margaret Thatcher infamously said ‘there is no such thing as society’ she was pithily summarising a view of order and change that plays down the role of structures and impersonal forces and instead sees outcomes as the reflection of the manifold choices of separate, distinct people pursuing their own aspirations and interests.

From the perspective of individualism, it is the differences between us – in our attitudes, capabilities and ambitions – that make the world go around.

The solidaristic perspective focuses on what group members have in common. Hierarchy looks at people in relation to an overarching vertical structure. Fatalism assumes that our individual qualities and aspirations are largely irrelevant in the face of the intractable forces that determine our destiny. But, from the perspective of individualism, it is the differences between us – in our attitudes, capabilities and ambitions – that make the world go around.

Although, some of its assumptions and methods are now being more deeply questioned, individualism is without doubt the dominant form of social coordination in the Western world. Its influence is pervasive on both the Right and the Left. Individualism is at the heart of business, of consumerism and of neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the last 50 years, but it is just as fundamental to left liberal demands for emancipation, recognition and greater personal agency.

Woman using credit cardsThe market is the institutional embodiment of individualism, a brilliantly efficient allocation system in which any individual with an asset to buy or sell can participate and where our own our preferences are sovereign. Markets have not only been championed for decades as the best way of organising our economic life but have also been used in many countries to organise public services ranging from health to reducing reoffending. Business leaders have replaced professionals as role models and just about every nation emphasises its embrace of entrepreneurialism. Our education system is measured above all by its ability to prepare people to compete in the modern labour market. Meanwhile, many of our collective institutions, particularly those of politics and government, are found wanting according to individualistic criteria, like how responsive they are to personal needs and desires. Despite extensive evidence of the influence of social and cultural factors, public attitudes to the poor often blame misfortune on the individual failings of the disadvantaged.

Individualism is at the heart of business, of consumerism and of neoliberalism…but it is just as fundamental to left liberal demands for emancipation, recognition and greater personal agency.

Advocates of each of the forms of coordination have a tendency to argue that theirs is a way of thinking and acting which is somehow the most natural for human beings. But individualists are perhaps the most prone to say this. It is a tempting but ultimately bogus claim.

For most citizens of the modern world individualism describes how we experience ourselves in the world. The process of differentiation, when as young children we are first aware of the distance between ourselves as subject and everyone and everything else as object, is understood as an awakening to reality. The biggest boundary in our world seems to be between the knowledge we can have of ourselves and the control we can exercise over ourselves and, in contrast, the mediated relationship we have to other things, especially other people.

This way of seeing seems completely ‘natural’, but our sense of selfhood is, at least to some extent, socially constructed. Evidence from both prehistory and more contemporary isolated tribes indicates that the hard boundary between inner self and outer world are far from innate. Singular pronouns like ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘mine’ don’t even appear in the languages of some groups. Without getting into irresolvable debates over consciousness and free will, it is clear that much of what influences and motivates us happens beneath our awareness and beyond our control. Individualism may feel like what it is to be human, but it doesn’t accurately represent what actually it is to be human.

Ideological individualists can be heard insisting that the individual instinct to survive and compete is the primary force behind evolution and the triumph of Homo sapiens. One of the most influential books ever written on evolution, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, led many who read the title but not the book mistakenly to believe that this ‘selfishness’ is the predominant, if not the only, evolutionary drive. But Dawkins has since said he never intended to advocate personal selfishness and that he wished he had called his book ‘the immortal gene’. Today we know that there are many evolutionary drivers and that the pursuit of individual self-interest may not even be the most important. Cooperation, for example, has left a considerable imprint through the survival-benefits of altruism. Natural selection advances through mechanisms entirely distinct from deliberate individual action.

For the vast majority of Homo sapiens’ existence individualism has played a minor role. Although the traditional view of prehistoric life is being challenged by new evidence, it is still safe to assume that egalitarian cooperation within bands of hunter-gatherers and basic structures of hierarchical authority in agrarian communities were vital to the survival and spread of the human species. Solidaristic group loyalty and hierarchical relationships are easy to find elsewhere in nature (including among our closest animal relatives) but while other species can be independent and self-reliant, individualism is a unusually pronounced and distinctive human trait.

Equally, those who endorse individualism as a worldview often imply that the social institutions they favour, in particular markets, are natural phenomena. But free markets, however they are defined, do not emerge in vacuums, they require social consent and tacit rules along with generally hierarchical (regulatory) measures to address their internal contradictions and sometimes malign externalities.

In Western societies, individualistic thinking is so ever-present in our perceptions, attitudes, practices and institutions that we can forget that it is only one way of seeing.

Yet the myths of individualism as the natural human way have taken a powerful grip on our imaginations. In Western societies, individualistic thinking is so ever-present in our perceptions, attitudes, practices and institutions that we can forget that it is only one way of seeing. How did this come to pass? 

The ascent of individualism

Arguably individualism as a culturally embedded and endorsed way of thinking and acting only becomes possible with the period roughly 70,000 years ago, often referred to as the Cognitive Revolution. From this point our species shows the first signs of new talents and strategies, like the ability to communicate complex symbolic thought. But as a social force individualism seems to have influenced human affairs only modestly for the next sixty millennia. Individualist attributes like personal ambition and interpersonal competition weren’t much use for societies largely based on nomadic hunting and foraging. Given people were very regularly on the move and owned only basic possessions, there would have been little scope for the accumulation of wealth and only a very limited ladder of esteem or power. There was little point competing when the division of labour was so limited and most jobs shared.

Indeed, given the potentially adverse impact of acquisitiveness, it may well have been frowned upon. Anthropologist James Suzman describes a ritual among Ju/hoansi ‘Bushmen’ of the Kalahari known as ‘insulting the meat’, in which, when a hunter brings back a big kill, the tribespeople are rude about it in order to make clear that the hunter should not claim superiority and upset the tribe’s deeply egalitarian norms. This has a modern equivalent in the Scandinavian idea of ‘janteloven’, a set of injunctions to individuals against being ostentatiously successful.

As archaeologist and historian Ian Morris argues, individualist drives such as autonomy, personal aspiration and acquisitiveness only really become relevant in a society and economy that generates and consumes resources beyond subsistence levels. He describes three major epochs of human development, each based on a predominant energy system. In the first epoch, migratory forager societies of small, family-based bands often lived in situations of precarity, lacking the means to store or easily access plentiful amounts of food. Foragers relied on each person contributing what they could and receiving their fair share of available food, shelter and protection in return. Solidarity governed day-to-day life.

With the arrival of agrarian societies around 12,000 years ago people could generate and consume more energy. From here on, as the division of labour developed with systems of social stratification becoming the norm, societies become more hierarchical, divided on the basis of clan, class, gender and ethnicity. From antiquity until roughly the 17th century in the West, traces of individualism can be seen in the thought of some philosophers and theologians, among certain wealthy elites and in a few places, such as the trading centres along the silk road of central Europe and, according to Alan McFarlane, in the distinctive agrarian economy of England. But individualism was neither a developed worldview nor was it relevant to most people in a world characterised by economic scarcity, religious conformity and political autocracy.

It is the growth in population and wealth in Europe and North America following industrialisation… that sees individualism grow as a day-to-day force in the lives of ordinary citizens.

It is the growth in population and wealth in Europe and North America following industrialisation, Morris’s third epoch, that sees individualism grow as a day-to-day force in the lives of ordinary citizens. While this suggests an entirely materialist account of the rise of this form, there were undoubtedly other factors in play. Economic development hastened the rise of individualism but itself also relied upon ideas which predate mass industrialisation.

It is conventional to see the intellectual origins of Western liberal individualism as residing in the Renaissance and subsequent Enlightenment, but a number of historians and theologians have challenged this view. As the English theologian C.F.D. Moule put it in The Individualism of the Fourth Gospel, Christianity contains deep within it the “approach of a single soul to God,” which, by extension, opened the door for the “personal appropriation of salvation”.

In ancient civilisations the extended family was the key unit of social organisation and faith. Roles within both were demarcated by gender and birth order, defining hierarchies that reflected the broader idea of the universe as a single system, with Gods at the top and slaves at the bottom. In the ancient and pre-industrial world, a recurrent issue of contention is the relationship between religious and secular authority, but in both, to a large degree, birth set the parameters of individual destiny. In the spiritual realm, the relationship of mortals to the celestial sphere was determined not by individual choices but by the fulfilment of duties and roles accorded by birth status.

The Christian tenet of moral equality, drawing on Judaic monotheism, contained two revolutionary ideas. First, the relationship at the heart of faith – between God and the individual – was direct not intermediated by human hierarchy. Second, at a time when the ideas of heaven and hell were taken very literally, Christianity argued that God would judge people not by their social or familial status but by their beliefs, decisions and actions. Therefore, for us to be judged by God we must be assumed to be able to make our own decisions. The primacy of the individual as the object of God’s gaze and the idea of human autonomy are inextricably entwined.

Early Christianity in the West did not lead to the triumph of ideas like rights and autonomy, perhaps because they had such revolutionary implications or, as Morris argues, because, in the absence of economic surplus, the choices implied by individualism were simply irrelevant to most people. For a millennium the Christian church forcefully obscured these ideas behind the reassertion of hierarchy and order. Just as peasants were led to believe that their lowly position in feudal societies reflected the natural order of things, so Christians were required to mediate their relationship with God through a church hierarchy. Those higher up the theological ladder claimed a better understanding of God’s will, and indeed to be closer to God, largely by dint of being literate, male and able to access the limited number of hand-written religious texts.

The Protestant Reformation involved a reaffirmation of the revolutionary potential of Christianity. Martin Luther forcefully reasserted individual moral equality in the eyes of God by attacking the corruption of the organised church and its claim to stand between individuals and their creator. Luther, and others like John Calvin, told believers they could engage directly with God, through His word as set out in the Bible. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century enabled the laity to do exactly that.

One of the founders of the discipline of sociology, Max Weber, analysed of the Reformation in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and identified the link between Puritanism’s ideals of moral equality and individual autonomy and the rise of modern industry. Protestantism meant people had a worldly purpose, rather than a primarily transcendent one. According to Weber, the Puritans’ “only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfillment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world”. A new individualism had been born, one that celebrated enterprise and trade as moral virtues.

The corollary of the tendency to understate the importance of religion in underpinning individualism is the emphasis given to the Western Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. As historian Tzvetan Todorov laid out in his book In Defence of The Enlightenment, the three foundational ideas of the era were ‘autonomy’, ‘humanity’ and ‘universality’. In essence, autonomy is the principle that every person should form their own judgements, based on reason, rather than having their thoughts and opinions constrained by religious doctrine or hierarchical authority.

Autonomy, as Todorov outlines “opens the way to objective information and offers the tools that allow people to put their reason to good use”. Todorov quotes Montesquieu’s assertion that “every man who is supposed a free agent ought to be his own governor”. Rousseau, whose conception of autonomy as a principle virtue, described the good citizen as one who knows how to “act according to the maxims of his own judgement”. Emmanuel Kant’s own ode to autonomy, as presented in his essay What is Enlightenment? was the dramatic command, “Dare to Know!” Kant continued his order – “Have the courage to use your own understanding” – a phrase that he went so far as to call “the motto of the Enlightenment”.

Because individualist assumptions are now so ingrained in us, the idea that every person can and should form their own judgment may seem obvious. But from the limited perspective of 18th century – a time of rigid stratification, doctrinal rules and deep, slow moving cultural assumptions and expectations – it was a revolutionary principle, even if most radicals assumed autonomy to be irrelevant or even dangerous when it came to the great mass of ordinary people.

It has been consumption that has been the engine of the individualism that we know today.

The impulse for enlightenment individualism to permeate mass culture was both intellectual and economic. Part of the reason Western Europe was the cradle for these revolutionary changes, in contrast to other parts of the world like China, was that hierarchical power was either subject to more constraints, as in England, or to more competition between different geographical levels and centres of authority, as in mainland Europe. Over time, and despite great misery and oppression, the combination of economic growth resulting from technological change and the mass migration to cities, broke up old binds and norms while simultaneously making the freedoms and choices extoled by individualism relevant to ordinary people. This is the beginning of Morris’s third epoch, the fossil fuel period. As time went on, the levels of energy production and consumption went through a step-change, expanding at an incredible pace. New means of transport meant that networks of trade spread across and between entire nations, while – at the same time – economic surpluses and population booms meant that the ideological individualism of the enlightenment found a habitat in which to flourish.

Since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, individualism as a form of social and economic behaviour and a self-affirming ideology has gone hand-in-hand. Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps found that the dominance of individualism as a worldview, and even the prevalence of the term itself, mapped neatly against innovation, entrepreneurialism and economic development in the Western world. This was also true for autonomy’s associated values of ‘vitalism’ and ‘self-expression’.

While Weber and Phelps focus primarily on the relationship between individualism and production, it has been consumption that has been the engine of the individualism that we know today. Indeed, a number of commentators, most notably American sociologist Daniel Bell, have persuasively argued that the shift from production to consumption as the focus of identity is the point at which individualism moves from a benign to a malign social force.

Woman in supermarket with lots of items on shelvesThe proliferation of consumer choice is something we all recognize: in 1909 Henry Ford famously – although probably light-heartedly – said, ”Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black”. Today’s consumers can choose between not just an array of colours for their car, but an ever-changing range of models and a continuously developing set of additional features. But the shift is, of course, more profound. From clothes to holidays, from furniture to food, from financial products to alternative therapies, from mobile gadgets to TV channels, a characteristic feeling amongst all but the poorest citizens of advanced economies is an over-abundance of choice. Most of these choices are communicated by a massive advertising industry, which has the core message that each of us deserves to have whatever it is that we individually want, and to have it now: ‘Just do it’, ‘because you’re worth it’. The power of consumerism is self-reinforcing; it enables us to make more choices while these choices further distinguish us as unique individuals with our own identities and tastes.

The growth of choice is not limited to shopping. Models of public service reform over recent decades have emphasised giving individual service users more choice and control. Furthermore, the post-war rise of modern consumerism feeds off and into the modern religion of personal authenticity. This implicitly encourages us to disregard the solidaristic conformism of social norms and expectations and the hierarchical command of authority figures ranging from parents to governments. It also involves a claim about social change made as strongly by the champions of entrepreneurship as of social justice; that it starts in the awakening of the individual or as Gandhi put it, “be the change you want to see in the world”.

In our own time the internet and social media have also massively increased consumption choice, whilst simultaneously giving people unending scope to express their individual creativity and opinions. The nature of much of the online world, its diversity, creativity and self-indulgence, bear the imprint of the libertarian individualism of many of the internet’s pioneers.

The growth of choice is not limited to shopping. Models of public service reform over recent decades have emphasised giving individual service users more choice and control.

But, from the perspective of individualism as a theory of change, the benefits of consumer power do not stop with the individual. Pursuing our own wants and needs is fundamental to the improvement of society at large.

Free market economics, tracing its origins to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, relies on the assumption that markets are made up of purely self-interested individuals. In the 20th century this idea segued into the notion of homo economicus, which explained individuals as perfectly informed maximisers of personal utility. Although, for thoughtful economists, homo economicus was primarily a heuristic, its simplicity and ideological power saw it turn from a theoretical model of methodological individualism into a claim about the nature of reality, and ultimately an ethical stance about the best way for people to think and act.

These economic ideas were hardened into an all-encompassing worldview and a powerful ideological movement in the second half of the 20th century by a group of thinkers sometimes referred to as the ‘New Right’. Following the economic crises of the 1970s and the ideological triumph of the New Right, individualism saw its expression in the political economy of neoliberalism and the growing power of global finance. In the terms of coordination theory, neoliberalism represents an unbalanced coalition between the individualist dynamism of markets and the hierarchical state’s monopoly on the use of legitimate force. The US-based French sociologist Loic Wacquant describes neo-liberalism as an “articulation of the state, market and citizenship that harnesses the first to impose the stamp of the second onto the third”.

Workers in financeThis did not mean that everything the neoliberal state did was about expanding the sphere of markets and the scope for profits. So long as financial globalisation delivered growth it was possible for governments to use some of the money generated to maintain public consent through investing in welfare and public services and compensating for the impact of markets (for example, through the expansion of in-work benefits). Equally, the economic liberalism of the market was entirely compatible with a social liberalism, which enabled more people to express themselves and chose their lifestyle, and a growing intolerance of various forms of bigotry and prejudice.

However, the corollary of the triumph of economic neoliberalism and social liberalism is a systematic and profound indifference towards solidarity. As I will argue in the next post, solidarity has both a social democratic strand, which emphasises universalism, social justice and inclusion, and a conservative/nativist form, which privileges tradition, belonging and tribalism. Neoliberalism was destructive of both. It was not only that its advocates were unconcerned by rising inequality, precariousness and alienation, they saw these phenomena as signs of dynamism for an economy in which, ultimately, the rising tide would lift all boats. Too few noticed that behind the aggregate measures of growth, various social groups and geographical areas were falling behind. Conversely, a socially liberal and increasingly footloose global elite was not only blind to the discomfort many people and communities felt about the pace of social change, particularly in relation to increasing migration and the growing diversity of populations, but often portrayed those articulating this discomfort as reactionary. The triumph of neoliberalism created in its wake a ‘solidarity deficit’ but one interpreted and articulated very differently on the Left and Right. This helps explain modern phenomena including political polarisation and the appeal of populism.

The accelerating rise of individualism as a worldview, from its marginal cultural significance in the preindustrial world to its current dominance of our social systems and lives, is the single most important trend in modern history.

The accelerating rise of individualism as a worldview, from its marginal cultural significance in the preindustrial world to its current dominance of our social systems and lives, is the single most important trend in modern history. It is an ascent that reflects the legacy of Christian monotheism, enlightenment philosophy, economic development, and the rise of consumerism furthered by the politics of the personal, free market economics and the ideology of neoliberalism.


I have so far defined individualism in terms of some of its core ideas: the individual is the most important unit of social action; the boundary between the individual and other individuals and the outside world is real and significant; individuals determine their own actions; and individuals, each pursuing their own goals, will collectively generate social progress. In his short and brilliant book, called simply Individualism, the philosopher Stephen Lukes describes political, economic, religious, ethical, epistemological and methodological versions of the concept. Ethical and rights individualism stress the intrinsic worth of every person, regardless of status and identity. Romantic, expressive individualism stresses that everyone has creative capacity, the right to express it, and that education should help develop it in every person. Moral and aesthetic individualism urges us to make our own standards and live our own lives.

The great strengths of these ‘individualisms’ lie in their varying forms of idealism, adaptiveness and dynamism. Individualism is both cause and effect of the transformation of Western living standards over the last two centuries. Whatever the discontents of modern consumer society, few of us would want to return to a time when economic scarcity, cloying social norms, and hierarchical control meant most people had very limited scope for choice and self-expression. It is hard to argue against the idea that we should seek to be the authors of our own lives, developing and growing along the paths of our own choosing. Most of us can similarly sign up to the ideal of a world of greater personal agency, autonomy, identity and chosen responsibility, assuming such a world would not only be a place of individual flourishing, but a more successful society for all. Social theorist Roberto Unger, who has urged progressives to reaffirm the romantic tradition of modern thought, has referred to this ideal as “giving the ordinary man and woman a better opportunity to live a larger life, with greater intensity, broader scope, and stronger capabilities’. Jesus got there first with “a life more abundant”.

Young person on social mediaIndividualism can be presented as selfish, but it is also inherently less exclusionary than the other active forms. Hierarchical thinking advocates more power to those with expertise or in positions of authority, while solidarity favours the in-group. In contrast, there is no principled reason, although lots of practical ones, why we cannot live in a world that provides all citizens with greater scope for agency and self-expression.  Indeed, there can be little question that across the world, in aggregate, people today have more freedom and agency than ever before.

If progress can be secured by people making their own choices, and if that progress lifts living standards and expands the range of choices on offer, then individualism can create a dynamic, self-developing system. In other words, freedom begets more freedom. Moreover, if our circumstances or preferences change in an individualistic society, we don’t need to wait for the heavy-handed intervention of hierarchy or the slow, resistant shift of solidaristic norms; the market will simply adjust to those changes quickly and proportionately through millions of individual choices and actions made by independent free agents. These are powerful virtues. Any system or solution that fails to tap into the idealism and dynamism of individualism will be severely underpowered. As I argued in post six, even authoritarian regimes recognise this, incorporating some aspects of the form while actively suppressing those that threaten their control.

Any system or solution that fails to tap into the idealism and dynamism of individualism will be severely underpowered

What about individualism’s flaws and excesses? We can start with its account of who we are. First, it is clear that the simplest individualistic impulse, the voice in our head telling us to pursue what we want here and now, often fails to align with our own broader account of what it is to be a successful individual. Countless studies in social psychology and behavioural economics have shown that our short-term judgements are not only often wrong, irrational and contradictory, but they do not lead to us being the people we say on deeper reflection we want to be.

These are not merely personal idiosyncrasies but systematic cognitive biases that reflect the problems of negotiating a modern and fast-changing world, using brains that evolved in those long and relatively unchanging ages of prehistory when individualist imagination was of little or no relevance. We tend, for example, to put greater value on immediate tangible gains and losses than longer-term more gradual and substantial changes to our benefit.

In the face of the evidence of our irrationality the advocates of individualism might argue that such personal outcomes do not rule out the possibility that unfettered individualism works at the aggregate level. It doesn’t matter why we make choices, and it doesn’t even matter if some of us make bad choices, because overall our aggregate choices lead to better outcomes.

A refutation of this argument was provided some years ago by Avner Offer in The Challenge of Affluence. He explored why it is that beyond a certain point, higher incomes and the associated increase in individual choice become more tenuously linked to greater aggregate happiness. For Offer, the explanation lies in the social consequences of what he terms “myopia”: the psychological inability to distinguish between short-term gratification and our long-term interests. Offer developed the idea of “commitment devices”: social norms and institutions such as lifelong marriage, limits of credit, and religious observance, which developed to counter human frailties. But decades of unprecedented mass affluence and the individualist ideology of consumerism have led us to abandon these devices leading to higher rates of divorce and debt, and a deeper sense of emptiness.

Offer’s is one of a whole number of studies exploring the attenuated correlation between affluence and wellbeing in richer nations. Research shows that societies where individualism is dominant can be worse at dealing with long-term issues, partly because of the prioritisation of the present. Jared Finnegan found that nations whose “institutional forms [...] encourage competition” have been significantly less likely to create stable, lasting and effective climate policy than those characterised by “negotiation, bargaining and consensus”.

Politicians negotiating in chamberThe individualist emphasis on the power and sovereignty of personal preferences must be doubly tempered. First, we need to distinguish between unwise and wise instinctive preferences. Second, we need social devices to help us make wise choices. The individualist worldview underestimates the first problem and resists credible solutions to the second.

Underlying these issues is a deeper sociological, and arguable biological, flaw in the individualist worldview; it is simply wrong about what it is to be a human being and to be among other human beings. Obviously, who we are is in large part not who we choose or have chosen to be. Our genes, our upbringing and our social context define our characteristics and life chances as much as the choices we consciously make. To argue otherwise ignores centuries of work in the fields of natural science, sociology and psychology and would require denying the existence of fundamental concepts like the unconscious mind.

The hard boundary that we tend to think separates us from the world outside is in reality fuzzy and porous. Both human history and multiple research experiments have shown the degree to which our attitudes and behaviours are determined by our social context. ‘No man is an island’; we are not separate entities marked out against a social background, but instead nodes floating in a complex network of social forces.

Social movements reflect a complex and unpredictable interplay of personal decisions. As social analysis and former White House advisor, Cass Sunstein, argues that such movements often involve an event or act which starts to release a pent-up social demand. As those most willing to be pioneers express themselves, they lower the barriers to the next wave of people demanding change and so on. But a tipping point is not inevitable. A lack of groundswell, poor leadership within the movement and effective resistance from the establishment can all lead to momentum being lost and a counter-reaction. As much as there is Rosa Parks, whose refusal in 1955 to give up her bus seat in Montgomery sparked the civil rights movement, there is Jan Palach, whose public self-immolation in Prague in 1969 in protest at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was courageous but futile.

This raises the question of how society changes. An individualist view of history will tend to trace economic, social and technological shifts to the role of heroes and pioneers. In reality, the significance of famous figures whether they be Emily Pankhurst, Martin Luther King or Albert Einstein is hard to distinguish from the historical circumstances in which they made their contribution. Change is often less singular than we might expect. Generally, we have a bias toward ‘great men’ theories of history. Historians of science and innovation, for example, have shown that most of the great breakthroughs attributed to single individuals were in fact small leaps of imagination, or strokes of luck. These put them slightly ahead of a larger wave of discovery that would almost certainly have landed anyway.

Individualism’s other flaws concern its moral and political philosophy. Each of the forms of coordination tends to privilege certain types of moral claim and, equally, to offer rationalisations for ignoring other such claims. Individualism is sometimes portrayed as immoral, but its worldview reinforces important values such as autonomy and tolerance. But, in modern liberal societies, individualism’s ethical get-out clauses are also the most powerful and prevalent. The free market idea of the hidden hand enables the pursuit of self-interest to be disguised as a social contribution, while giving primacy to individual judgment facilitates moral relativism in which we can all choose our own account of right and wrong.

In an individualistic paradise no person would be able to exert sustained power over another. The problem is that the use of individualistic means does not lead to these individualistic ends. In practical terms the two philosophical ideas from which individualism draws its intellectual and moral authority – autonomy (freedom) and universalism (rights) – systematically conflict. The consequences of absolute autonomy and lack of constraints have long been acknowledged. As Isaiah Berlin warned, “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”.

How can we square ideas of universal human rights and dignity with the actual consequences of a society based on the individualist form of coordination? Unbridled freedom, through a combination of genetic endowment, luck, effort and market dynamics, inevitably leads to a world where some persons have more usable rights and more real opportunities than others.      

Individualists have various ways of trying to deal with this problem. One is to accept the idea of negative liberty (freedom from being constrained by others) but reject that of positive liberty (the capacity to exercise autonomy). From such a perspective policing is legitimate but redistribution problematic. But this distinction neither stands up to close scrutiny in the real world, nor does it reflect people’s common-sense idea of basic welfare entitlement as the foundation of meaningful social citizenship.

Social mobility

More successful – at least ideologically – has been the appeal to a concept that seems to offer a way of reconciling freedom and fairness: social mobility. Apart from egalitarian socialists, it seems that everyone signs up to the idea that a good society is one in which, on the one hand, people start out with similar life chances while, on the other, people are rewarded for skill, merit and hard work. This is an individualistic account of justice. As long as everyone has the same starting point then every person deserves the rewards gained by their own efforts. But on closer examination, the idea is shot through with problems.

Politically, the barrier to increasing relative mobility is less about the poor’s ability to ascend and more about the resistance of the well-off to descending. It seems that the best way to create a meritocracy is to pursue the solidaristic goal of greater egalitarianism. This is partly because the rungs in the mobility ladder are closer together in more equal societies and also because middle-class people have less reason to be terrified of the consequences of downward mobility.

It is the excesses of individualism and the failure of hierarchical authority to keep these in check that have led to the solidarity deficit, which now threatens the very idea of social progress.

But the biggest objection is that voiced 50 years ago by sociologist Michael Young, one of the authors of the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto. He maintained that a meritocracy is not only a society where many people experience inequality but also one in which the poor are blamed for their plight, while the rich feel their success is justified. This is how our own society often feels. Life chances do differ substantially depending on background; we do not all start at the same point and this shows little sign of improvement. People’s prospects are primarily shaped not only by gender, race, and social class, but also, as Robert Frank showed in his book The Myth of Meritocracy, a range of other elements of fortune including exactly where and when you were born. Yet, despite the evidence, the ideology of meritocracy and social mobility are used to justify the advantages of the rich and disdain for the poor. Indeed, people often use the language of individualism such as ‘just deserts’ or ‘freedom of choice’ to resist those policy measures such as higher inheritance tax or restrictions on private education that would be necessary to deliver on the individualist ideal of a perfect meritocracy.

In essence, the story of individualism as a form of social coordination is simple. Its relative weakness for most of human existence, and its triumphant and accelerating ascent over the last 300 years, tracks the pace of social change and human development. But, like all the forms we are concerned with, once it is strong, it has the impulsion to dominate and, in doing so, its flaws – unchecked by the other forms – turn into social problems and these ultimately undermine the health and resilience of the social system as whole. It is the excesses of individualism and the failure of hierarchical authority to keep these in check that have led to the solidarity deficit, which now threatens the very idea of social progress.

As we turn toward solidarity, hierarchy and fatalism, it is important to bear in mind how the other forms of coordination might mitigate individualism’s destructive tendencies while drawing on its powerful qualities.

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  • The author has argued that individuals, each pursuing their own goals, will collectively generate social progress. This may be true at present where individuals are still influenced by some form of solidarity and ‘social’ values; it may fail after some time as the social influence decrease. Without the inculcation of ‘duties’ in individuals in some form, the concept of social progress and the dream of the economic divide is likely to fail.

  • Nice write-up. Looking forward to the segways, to read them in relative context.

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