individualism

For the past hundred years or so, we have had a vast multifarious culture industry devoted to the critique of individualism. Individualism, we have been told over and over again, is the acid bath in which all previous forms of social attachment have been dissolved.

Take — as just one example among a thousand possible ones — Allan Bloom’s famous diatribe The Closing of the American Mind (1987): 

Tocqueville describes the tip of the iceberg of advanced egalitarianism when he discusses the difficulty that a man without family lands, or a family tradition for whose continuation he is responsible, will have in avoiding individualism and seeing himself as an integral part of a past and a future, rather than as an anonymous atom in a merely changing continuum. The modern economic principle that private vice makes public virtue has penetrated all aspects of daily life in such a way that there seems to be no reason to be a conscious part of civic existence.

And:

They know the truth of Tocqueville’s dictum that “in democratic societies, each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself,” a contemplation now intensified by a greater indifference to the past and the loss of a national view of the future. The only common project engaging the youthful imagination is the exploration of space, which everyone knows to be empty. The resulting inevitable individualism, endemic to our regime, has been reinforced by another unintended and unexpected development, the decline of the family, which was the intermediary between individual and society, providing quasi-natural attachments beyond the individual, that gave men and women unqualified concern for at least some others and created an entirely different relation to society from that which the isolated individual has. 

And:

The question is whether reasonings really take the place of instincts, whether arguments about the value of tradition or roots can substitute for immediate passions, whether this whole interpretation is not just a reaction unequal to the task of stemming a tide of egalitarian, calculating individualism, which the critics themselves share, and the privileges of which they would be loath to renounce.

Bloom’s diagnosis describes a now-vanished world. Has any dominant social ethos, any regnant model of the self-in-the-world, ever died as quickly as individualism has? For indeed it is gone with the wind. 

The self as monad — the self “lost in the cosmos,” as Walker Percy described it — was blown far away by the derecho of social media. What remained was not, Lord knows, an identification with humanity or even with a body of belief, but rather merger with some amorphous body of people with the same sexual orientation, or gender identity, or race, or ethnicity, or designation as a “deplorable.” Think of how many sentences now begin with “As a [fill in the blank]” — sentences spoken and written by people who do not know how to express ideas of their own but only to begin by attaching themselves to a group and claiming the authority they perceive intrinsic to that group. 

In this environment, John Danaher and Steve Petersen’s forthcoming essay “In Defence of the Hivemind Society” was inevitable. It’s an articulation in philosophical form of what has already become a felt reality, the dominant felt reality for at least a billion people.  

The question, for me, is whether this increasingly widespread abandonment of individualism in favor of group identities can be leveraged to argue on behalf of the kinds of group identities that individualism discarded, especially the ties of family and membership in religious communities. I have my doubts, but I can’t think of anything more essential for those of a conservative disposition or of Christian faith to think about. 

So long, individualism. It wasn’t all that nice knowing you.