All too often in recent weeks, I have run across efforts by various political thinkers and activists to discredit individualism. Some argue that the idea of the individual is a myth created by our society. Others press the notion that the individual is a solitary being whose life is awful, lonely, and dangerous, and so nobody ought to champion individualism, the social philosophy that assigns prime importance to human individuals. Others argue that we are just cells in the larger body of society or some community with no independence or will of our own.
At one conference I attended, participants were asked to read a book in which the reality of the individual was flatly denied by a scholar who argued for a new version of Karl Marx’s socialism. The individual, the book’s author maintained, is a mere social construct with no ultimate reality. (Marx, you might recall, maintained that individualism was an ideology invented to serve the ruling class!) And at an opening freshman seminar at my university, one professor read a paper in which he defended the idea that the individual is a figment of our imagination, put into our minds by various social forces that benefit from our believing in such a thing despite its unreality.
Why, you may wonder, is there so much trepidation about individualism, about the notion that individual human beings do in fact exist and are, indeed, the most important element of human communities? This is, in fact, the message of America’s most important philosophical document, the Declaration of Independence. Individual rights—which, if they exist, identify one’s realm of personal authority that may not be undermined—stand at the center of the American political tradition. So if one wishes to undermine American ideas and ideals, admittedly not fully realized in American history, it makes sense to target individualism first and foremost. Those who reject American exceptionalism, the view that there is something novel and uniquely valuable about the ideas that underpin American society, also zero in on individualism. They draw on all kinds of disciplines—sociology, psychology, even neurobiology—in their efforts to demean the American individualist outlook. Often they resort to distorting individualism, caricaturing it, in order to besmirch it and thereby undermine any admiration people might have for American institutions and traditions.
But there’s a crucial problem right at the start. All of this individualism bashing is performed by, you guessed it, individuals. The scholars, political theorists, psychologists, and sociologists who weigh in against individualism are individuals, every one. So what is it they are after with their relentless criticism?
My hypothesis is that the critics want to rob individuals—you, me, and all the rest—of authority over their lives and property. By abolishing the individual person they are then able to dismiss the wants, desires, purposes, goals, and values of other individuals. In other words, individualism-bashing amounts to a quest for power by some individuals over other individuals. Those who say that it is the community that matters most—or, as a recent piece of writing put it, who elevate society over the individual—really have nothing to offer for the purpose of replacing the central role of the individual. After all, communities, societies, countries, and even families are all composed of individuals.
So the most reasonable interpretation of the anti-individualist position, in my view, is that some individuals, by pretending to speak for the group, society, community, or humanity, aim to rule the rest of us. No doubt they are sometimes motivated by a belief that if those individuals had power over us, many problems would be solved and much good would be achieved. No doubt, too, some of the problems of people in various societies do stem from the misconduct of some individuals that others could at times remedy.
Yet, this is not going to be achieved by placing certain other individuals in positions of power. Only when individuals act to invade the lives of their fellows may power be exercised in order to defend against the invaders. As to complaints about how various people think or behave apart from such invasive conduct, they must be dealt with through persuasion and not the wielding of power.
It is always wise to be on guard when people demean individuals and individualism. They are most likely up to no good when they do so. Their claim that we should not take ourselves, individuals all, so seriously but instead serve the group amounts to a plea for the power of some individuals over others, nothing more.