The Problems with Individualism

The modern world is an individualistic one. In democratic and industrialized nations, the individual has never been more empowered. Traditional limitations were stripped away as aged institutions were fractured by skepticism and pluralism. Personal choice has exploded with the dawn of capitalism and mass production. Individualism has burrowed deep into our collective consciousness, as our governments, our bureaucracies, and even our ethics and identities are founded on such assumptions.

Individualism is a powerful thing, and like all powerful things, it is a double-edged sword. As sociologist Peter L. Berger warns in The Homeless Mind, “The experience of ‘alienation’ is the symmetrical correlate of the same individuation. Put simply, ‘alienation’ is the price of individuation.” Our modern individualism can liberate, empower and exhilarate. But it can also weigh us down with crushing anxiety, and isolate us to suffer our failures alone.

In modernity, the  individual shoulders the responsibilities of self-definition and self-direction. British sociologist Anthony Giddens, writes in Modernity and Self-Identity:  “The self is seen as a reflexive project, for which the individual is responsible. We are, not what we are, but what we make of ourselves.” In modernity, we have all become existentialists, “every man in possession of himself as he is, [with] the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”

Yet as our responsibilities grow, our yardsticks have become fuzzy—the traditional structures that had guided us were melted by modernity. The very conditions that precipitated our individual responsibility also caused the guidelines we had lived by to fade. This liberates some, and scares others.

As these external structures become confusingly open-ended, the individual turns inwards to look for direction. But, individual identities, like the rest of the world, have become fluid and fragmented. As Elliot and Lemert write in The New Individualism, “a ‘decentred subject’ – nonlinear, fluid and fractured – is widely seen as having replaced the modernist dream of self-certitude, of identities stable, linear, logical and, above all, self-autonomous.” Little stability from within or without is a ripe breeding ground for identity crises, anxiety and vertigo, especially in a world that innudates us with choice.

Individualism and Hollywood

Beyond identity crises, individualism often infuses a general sense of anomie and meaninglessness in our lives as we fail to reach expectations of individual success.  Hollywood and the mass media are often to blame. As we soak ourselves in our screens, we are bombarded with narratives lead by individual heroes, whose solo actions save the country, the world, and even, in some blockbusters, the universe.

Indeed, individualism is the language of story-telling today, the way we interpret the world around us. The cultural hero of our time is the tech entrepreneur—young, immensely rich and most importantly, self-made, unbeholden to the Man. We credit the successes and failures of the world to individuals—Presidents and Prime-ministers, paying little attention to the behemothic bureaucratic structures that envelope us. And as we consume these heroic stories, we compare ourselves and our lives to the Zuckerbergs, the Obamas, and the Clark Kents of this world.

It is impossible for the majority of us, of course—beyond the plain physical and statistical impossibilities, humanity’s projects have become much too large and complex. Gone are the days of Newtons and Einsteins—now, hundreds of scientists band together to operate skyscraper-wide particle colliders. And for every successful start-up founder, there are millions who toil anonymously in sprawling bureaucracies. In the age of individualism, the individual is more invisible than ever.

And most of us realize this. But these narratives linger in the back of our minds, and the contrast, between these pinnacles of individual success and our own lives, make our mundane lives seem bland and absurd. The heroics of the Avengers on screen and the billions made in Silicon Valley, make our actions seem even more inconsequential and meaningless.

Individualism causes us to take too much credit for our successes and overly blame the unsuccessful for their failures. This stems from one of the most dominant narratives in modern society—meritocracy. We cling fervently to the idea that individuals’ success in our societies depend, not on their born circumstances, but on their individual merits. A 2015 Pew study found that compared to other nationalities, Americans are more likely to agree that success in life is determined by forces within our control. Relatedly, Americans are more likely to believe that it is important to work hard to get ahead in life.

Yet the evidence runs against these beliefs. Rates of social mobility in the U.S. are considerably lower compared to peer countries. Indeed, the income gap in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1970s, with the top 3% of the population holding over half of all wealth. Nevertheless, the idea of meritocracy remains—if you work hard, you will succeed. It is no surprise the Americans overestimate social mobility by a wide margin.

The corollary of meritocracy of course, is that if you are poor or unsuccessful, it’s entirely your own fault. For those who sit at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, this leads to self-blame, despair and a profound sense of shame. This is a problem that especially pervades working class whites in America, who hold onto the principle of individualism particularly strongly. Many of them are isolated and alienated from family and community, even as they titter on the brink of poverty.

Suburban Individualism

In the U.S., this sense of alienation and anomie is exacerbated by the increasing atomistic nature of society that had accompanied the rise of individualism. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam describes in Bowling Alone, the unraveling of American communities over the decades, affected by steep declines in memberships in traditional organizations, such as unions and religious groups.

Atomism has increasingly patterned American life. The cloistering of communities into suburbs has shrunk the sphere of interaction to the nuclear family. The transient nature of the modern career, and the corresponding transience of the modern individual, has become prohibitive to the formation of close relationships and communities. Even if Americans overcome the narrative of complete self-reliance, as social networks weaken, they have less and less people they can reach out for help.

Of course, these double-edged effects of individualism are experienced unequally by different people. The dichotomy between liberation and alienation is mediated by the individual’s resources. The well-off, the highly educated, and those with more cultural capital, have more agency to navigate and succeed in a complex and fast-paced world. Those born of situations without these privileges, nonetheless consume the same individualistic ideology, and are often frustrated and angered as their ideals remain unreachable.

It is too late for us to turn the clock back on individualism. The ideology has been embedded too deeply in our institutions and in our collective consciousness. Nor do we want to. While I have overwhelmingly focused on the negative parts of individualism so far, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Upon the idea of individualism are built some of the greatest achievements of modernity—human rights, liberalism, and individual freedom. As our perspectives narrowed from the collective to the individual, we have come to embrace the notion that all are equal, despite any affiliation to broader social identities—religion, culture, class or up-bringing.

On a personal level, too, individualism, when it works, is liberating and enlivening—life becomes an adventure that we can create, instead of a prescription to follow.

We should not discard individualism, but we can soften the alienating effects of individualism. To do so, individualism must first be decoupled from atomism. The fact is, the existence of the individual as a free, creative agent of her life, is not incompatible with embedment in supportive, nurturing communities.

Finding such a community does not necessitate relocation to a rural commune—close friendships, whatever form they may take, are what matters. The famous Harvard longitudinal study which followed 268 men over 75 years, found that warm relationships were the most important factor towards personal well-being. Other studies have found that close relationships have huge impacts on health, work engagement, and stress.

Of course, all this assumes a certain kind of community—one that is accepting, open-minded and supportive—one that celebrates differences instead of demanding conformity. One that would encourage individuality instead of suppressing it. With the resulting social and psychological safety nets, the individual will be free to explore higher and further. Such communities catalyzes creativity and growth—as creative individuals gather, creativity begets more creativity.

C. Wright Mills (1916 - 1962)

C. Wright Mills (1916 – 1962)

The second weapon that blunts individualism is the Sociological Imagination. C. Wright Mills, the father of the term, describes the sociological imagination as the ability to relate “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure.” He explains its necessity: “What we experience in various and specific milieux, I have noted, is often caused by structural changes. Accordingly, to understand the changes of many personal milieux we are required to look beyond them.”

Our lives are enveloped and shaped by overarching structures—bureaucratic structures, social and community structures, and most insidiously, mental structures and ways of thought. But in an individualistic society, these structures are often ignored, and individual agency ends up getting too much credit. As we learn to situate the individual within the broader structures that have created her, we realize that individualism and meritocracy are, in the end, half-truths. Our choices, our lives, and even our thoughts  are contained by the society that surrounds us and the history that created us.

Gaining such awareness, we will learn to be gentler towards the errors and flaws of others, and of ourselves. Instead of placing the entire weight of our lives on the individual, we displace some onto history. The poor are not lazy, but grew up in impoverished neighborhoods without good schools. Criminals are not evil, but suffered difficult childhoods and economic desperation. Confused and directionless millennials aren’t failures, but grew up in a pluralized world with overwhelming choices and faint guidelines. We learn to place more weight on the circumstances, instead of putting all responsibility on the individual.

One might argue that developing such an understanding traps or limits us, causing us to surrender our individuality. But we do not create these structures by becoming aware of them—they were already there.

Instead, by becoming aware of them, we are aiding our liberation—with awareness of the structures that surround and shape us, we are better able to navigate, even challenge them.

By discarding our worldview of a society made out of isolated and separate individuals, we regain our individuality.

By giving up the illusion of freedom, we reclaim it.