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Austin Cline

Individualism in America: a Positive or Negative Ideology?

By July 14, 2006

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The contemporary notion [of individualism] actually began as a term of abuse, observes [Wilfred M.] McClay... Joseph de Maistre employed it in the 19th century to describe the most reprehensible aspects of the French Revolution, including a doctrine of natural rights that allowed any individual to be his own moral arbiter. A few years later, Tocqueville described individualism as a new social philosophy that "disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends." It was, in other words, a deliberate withdrawal from the responsibilities of citizenship.

The above appears in the Winter 2002 Wilson Quarterly, which discusses “Individualism and Its Discontents” by Wilfred M. McClay, in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2001).

Obviously, this notion of individualism as a negative label never took root in America — indeed, individualism in America is hardly ever thought of as even having negative aspects to it. For Americans, individualism is part of what it means to be an American. Though there are negative critiques of the degree to which individualism can be taken in America, it still tends to be assumed to be a positive value at its base.

“If anything,” argues McClay, “the language of individual rights, and the tendency to regard individual men and women as self-contained, contract-making, utility-maximizing and values-creating actors, who accept only those duties and obligations they elect to accept, grew steadily more powerful and pervasive in the latter part of the 20th century.” [...]

McClay believes that liberals and conservatives alike have been unwilling to “accept the need for an authority, a tradition, an institutional nexus that is capable of superseding individual liberty in the name of social cohesion and the public interest.” The idea of individual dignity needs to be rescued from postmodernist subjectivity and the psychology of the self and returned to the public realm. There, the core meaning of individualism — an insistence on the transcendent value of the person — and the core insight of communitarianism — “the recognition that the self is made in culture, and the richest forms of individuality can only be achieved in the sustained company of others” — could both be newly affirmed.

Even McClay here isn’t abandoning individualism; instead he’s seeking to redefine or at least reframe it, claiming that his proposal is actually a return to the “core meaning” of individualism. Granted, there’s a lot to be said for the idea that, at its core, individualism should be about the “transcendent value” of the human person, but we can’t ignore the fact that even in an ostensible critique of individualism, the critic feels compelled to insist that he isn’t really abandoning individualism.

As the first passage above makes clear, there was a time when anti-individualist ideology was credible. People could argue publicly and forthrightly against individualism without being looked at as if they came from outer space. Clearly that’s no longer the case — but is it because the truth and value of individualism have been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt, or is it because our conceptions of what human society can look like have become impoverished?

I’m not trying to insist that there is something fundamentally awful about individualism, but I do find criticisms interesting and wonder if unquestioning assumptions about the value of individualism don’t ultimately harm it in the end. After all, if serious criticisms aren’t entertained, then the role of individualism can’t be improved upon — or modified to take other values into account.

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