Monday, June 23, 2014


151. New individualism

In old liberal philosophy, individualism was sought in autonomy and freedom, with self-interest as a guiding principle, as exemplified in mainstream economic theory. However, it also recognized a universal essence of humanity, human dignity and human rights that needed to be protected. There could be quantitative but not qualitative inequality. Here, as in the preceding item in this blog, I follow the analysis by Rosanvallon in his ‘Society of Equals’.

That view provided an ideological basis for equal rights and access to resources of the law, election, education, jobs, culture, … In socialism, it yielded compensation for inequalities of income, housing and opportunity, with redistribution of income and various forms of social security.

But how far should that go? Should children be taken from their families for equal education for all? Should there be compensation for lack of talent?

The regime of ‘social justice’ is now perceived to have gone too far, producing perverse effects of bureaucracy, inefficiency, misuse of social security, and erosion of personal responsibility, yielding an ethics of dependence and passivity.

Middle classes feel caught between cheating among the rich, in remuneration, profiteering and tax evasion, and cheating among the poor, in parasitic misuse of social security. This corrodes their sense of solidarity.

This explains why present populism is rightist in condemning parasitic misuse of social security at the bottom and leftist in condemning capitalist excesses at the top. Social coherence is no longer sought in social arrangements but in nationalism, in identification by exclusion of immigrants.

Rosanvallon noted that this principle of identification by exclusion also applied earlier. In the US, solidarity among whites was achieved by discrimination of blacks. Perhaps that yielded a lesser need for solidarity by socialism, in the US. The principle also applied to 19th century imperialism and protectionism as a basis for national solidarity.

Present individualism is more radical than the old form. Rosanvallon called it singularity. I think it has been engendered by, among other things, Nietzschean philosophy of the will to power, and other existentialist philosophy. The ruling ethos now is one of self-realization and –manifestation, achieving distinction by qualitative difference. The collective is seen as a contemptible ‘herd’, the institutionalization of conformism and mediocrity.

In Nietzschean philosophy pain and hardship are part of life, not to be relieved by the state but to be accepted as an individual challenge to be overcome, in growth and transcendence of the self.

As noted by Rosanvallon, paradoxically this more extreme individualism has called forth a more extreme claim of equality. It has shifted from equal legal and economic rights to equal rights to distinction, in self-manifestation. A right for everyone to be recognized as a unique, valuable individual, on equal standing with stars, experts, artists, and intellectuals.

Frustrated craving for recognition of distinction is perhaps what drives some young people to take revenge in shooting people.

Clearly, not everyone can achieve distinction by old criteria of accomplishment by knowledge, reason, argument, talent, professionalism and creativity. Therefore, those standards are shoved aside as ‘elitist’, and are replaced by a self-congratulatory clamour of opinions, feelings, and emotions, and uninhibited exhibitionism on the Internet, posturing in social media. Distinction by achievement is largely replaced by attention claimed by appealing to emotions and prejudice.

Alternatively, unable to credibly achieve distinction, people seek recognition by proxy, basking in the fame of stars they idolize, in sports, show business, politics and business, which they mirror in supportership and emulation of appearance. Hence the appearance of idols in advertising.

This idolization, in turn, is taken as legitimating exorbitant remuneration of the stars, where the winner takes all, shedding any connection with economic rationale.

All this yields the paradox of Bossuet: people complain about the consequences (capitalist failures and increasing inequality of income, wealth, tax evasion, favouritism, and rule bending) of causes they endorse (individual self-realization, singularity).[1]

Perhaps that explains the current phenomenon of passive submission, the astonishing lack of massive, collective revolt. And in the absence of a real threat of revolt, present institutions and habits of injustice will prevail.

[1] See Rosanvallon, La société des égaux, 2011, Paris: Editions Seuil, p. 17.