Classic Liberal-Individualism and the Contemporary Western World

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Lecture date: Sun, 15th Jun, 2014
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Firstly, what exactly is classic liberal individualism? I will begin by answering this question, placing the points in historical context. I will then identify what I regard as the defining features of the contemporary Western world. Finally, I will examine the place in that world which I think still remains for the kind of individualism under discussion.

Classic liberal-individualism can be broadly defined as a frame of mind which gradually developed in the West from the Renaissance and Reformation onward; and one which, arguably, reached its apogee in the 19th century. It is an outlook which emphasised, to an unprecedented degree in Western culture, the importance of the individual mental context, the personal intellectual witness.

The first Completely Post-mediaeval Century In this regard, its post-Renaissance and post- Reformation setting needs to be stressed. The Renaissance and Reformation, despite several differences between them, had had the shared effect of radically reducing the intellectual authority of the Catholic Church in Western Europe, and therefore irreversibly weakening the whole mediaeval mindset. This process opened the way for new thinking in philosophy and science. Such thinking was not necessarily or invariably antireligious (some thinkers continued to be Catholics, or were Protestants) but it was definitely opposed to any automatic and unquestioning acceptance of traditionalism in philosophical and scientific thought. Its exponents showed determination to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions on philosophical and scientific matters. Squarely representative of this spirit are Bacon and Descartes, two of the leading Western European thinkers of the 17th century — which was, in an intellectual sense, the first completely postmediaeval century.

All subsequent major advances in Western European thought (and, later, North American thought) were made by such people. As philosophy and science continued to pursue their exploratory and critical paths, their anti-conventional and anti-dogmatic outlook increasingly found new targets: not only traditionally accepted notions of an ontological kind, but also those of an ethical kind. Moral, social and political norms, centuries-old, came more and more under fire. Hence the 17th and 18th centuries were, to an extent never before known, periods of political revolution and social  transformation; the leading instances being the English Civil War (17th century) and the French and American Revolutions (18th).

Revolution, of course, continued in Europe in the 19th century, and in fact became more frequent. But, as the century continued, there took shape another radical development, non-revolutionary, in those Western countries which, by this time, had already achieved a significant measure of the political democracy which most revolutionary movements were seeking to attain: those countries, then, which were the more advanced ones in modern political terms. The main examples were Britain, France and the United States.

The Process of Democratisation

With democratic practice well established, and with more in prospect, these countries were witnessing what a number of thinkers came to regard as a process of democratisation which was actually extra-political and cultural: one that was affecting the society’s total way of life. This was an expanding tendency toward more and more collective thought and action; an amplifying majoritarianism; a spreading mass-conformism. As such, it was seen as threatening the mental sphere of the individual: that personal intellectual context on which postmediaeval Western culture had increasingly focussed, and around which the whole concept of classic liberal-individualism has cumulatively been built.

Three thinkers who objected very strongly to the conformist tendency were John Stuart Mill in Britain, Alexis de Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant in France. (Relevant American thinkers of the 19th century can also be referred to: despite the emphatically democratic context in which they were situated, Hawthorne, Emerson and the later Twain displayed a marked scepticism about the general directions their society was taking.)

It is of course the case that many other 19th century European thinkers and writers (e.g. Schopenhauer, von Humboldt, Nietzsche, Spencer, Ibsen) shared these men’s strongly individualistic outlook; but Mill, Tocqueville and Constant are especially notable for articulating that outlook in a very focussed and systematic manner. Their clearly formulated concern was with the autonomy of the individual, in choice of cultural commitment, of activities and relationships, and of mode of self-expression. Their concern was that the individual make these choices in ways that were un-coerced by institutions or organisations, or by threats of social unpopularity and ostracism. This concern, in Mill and Tocqueville, was combined with anxiety at the possibility of conformist excess in their own countries, and in the United States (then, incidentally, the numerically largest democracy in the world). Mill in particular warned against “the tyranny of the majority”, and spoke, with what can only be described as scorn, of “collective mediocrity” (as contrasting with the superior calibre of individual achievements). Constant insisted that, against majority encroachment, there should be political guarantees for liberty of religion, opinion, expression and ownership of property.

In the 20th century, the chief philosophical representatives for the liberalindividualistic position have included Russell, Santayana and Isaiah Berlin. Among creative writers, major figures have included Gide, Forster, D.H. Lawrence and Orwell. Focussing on the philosophical advocates: Russell and Santayana, both born in the second half of the 19th century and coming to intellectual maturity around the turn of the 20th, were very much imbued with the spirit we have found in Mill, Tocqueville and Constant. Russell clearly showed this spirit when, in the 1930s, he predicted and lamented the emergence of political super-powerdom: “In the world at large, if civilisation survives, I foresee the domination of either America or Russia, and in either case of a system where a tight organisation subjects the individual to the State so completely that splendid individuals will no longer be possible.” (Autobiography)

Russell’s concern about the predicament of the individual in the world of the 20th century is shared by Santayana when the latter writes, with reference to the growth of social democracy as distinct from liberal democracy, “Social democracy at high pressure would leave no room for liberty. The only free man in it would be one whose whole ideal was to be an average man.” (The Wisdom of Santayana, p. 35)

Russell’s words about the power of the State, and Santayana’s about the pressures of social conformity, are reflected in a series of striking statements made in 1949 by Isaiah Berlin: “We are often told that the present is an age of cynicism and despair, of crumbling values and the dissolution of the fixed standards and landmarks of Western civilisation. But this is neither true nor even plausible. So far from showing the loose texture of a collapsing order, the world today is stiff with rigid rules and codes and ardent, irrational religions. So far from evincing the toleration which springs from cynical disregard of the ancient sanctions, it treats heterodoxy as the supreme danger. Whether in the East or the West, the danger has not been greater since the ages of faith. Conformities are called for much more eagerly today than yesterday; loyalties are tested far more severely; sceptics, liberals, individuals with a taste for private life and their own inner standards of behaviour, if they do not care to identify themselves with an organised movement, are objects of fear or derision and targets for persecution for either side, execrated or despised by all the embattled parties in the great ideological wars of our time……In the world today, individual stupidity and wickedness are forgiven far more easily than failure to be identified with a recognised party or attitude, [or failure] to achieve an approved political or economic or intellectual status.”

(In an article written for the mid-c20 edition of the American journal Foreign Affairs.)

While it is true that Berlin was writing in the context of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, a conflict which ended in 1989, much of what he says about contemporary social attitudes in the West, and in other parts of the world influenced by those attitudes, remained the case for the rest of the 20th century, and still obtains. (In this respect, it is interesting to note that Berlin decided to let his statements of 1949 stand unamended when he re-published them twenty years later in his book Four Essays on Liberty.)

The general “tight organisation” of the individual’s daily life to which Russell referred is powerfully echoed in Berlin’s words. The pressure to conform, to be a member of organisations, to espouse a group outlook, to eschew privacy and a position of social marginality: such requirement remains, in some form or other, a very powerful one. In this regard, incidentally, it is sobering thought to consider how many past persons of genius, especially in the humanities, would have achieved what they did, had they been constantly subject to this obligation.

A like consideration applies to their equivalents today, as the latter confront this all-too-real current obligation, while attempting to inwardly locate, and outwardly express, their own originality. Overall, it can be affirmed that awareness of the threats to individual integrity posed by over-organisation in modern life reminds us of the importance of opposing that excess: an opposition based on the values of the liberalism we have been examining. In turn, it can be observed that this liberalism has, despite the forces ranged against it, played a larger part in Western culture than in any other on record.  Moreover, again despite those forces, it continues to do so. These facts, for all those who value liberalism, point to one of the tremendous contributions the West has made to the course of human progress.

The Kind of world we now Live In

Consideration of the problem of over-organisation now leads us into a larger examination of the defining features of the contemporary Western world. Bearing in mind that the major 20th century voices of liberal-individualism to which we have referred belong mainly to the first half of that century, which is now well over 50 years ago, we need to make further observations about the kind of Western world we currently live in. These observations will be followed by recommendations about the continuing and expanding role which can still be played by liberal-individualism.

In addition to the increasing general institutionalisation of personal life, there has been growth in the power of certain specific institutions: private corporations, industrial and financial. This power entails influence over the policies, domestic as well as foreign, of the governments of the countries where the corporations are based: the governments in question are principally those of the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Such power also involves influence over the governments of the countries in which the corporations have their overseas operations.

Influence over the foreign policy of the government in the home country usually results in that government’s pursuing an imperialistic policy in the interests of the corporations: one in which military means are harnessed — firstly, to acquire control of raw materials needed for corporate industry, and secondly, to gain geo-strategic advantages which go hand in hand with such control. Western corporate power is not, of course, a new phenomenon, but its current magnitude is. The latter is due to enormous advances made in the technology of production, the geographical spread of production, and the techniques for advertising and marketing products.

Institutional power of this kind directly shapes the lives of only a small number of people: those who actually work for the corporations; and this point applies to financial companies as well as industrial ones. However, in an indirect sense, the power impacts on the lives of millions of people, both in the home countries and overseas. Such impact comes from the sheer fact of economic dominance. To have the giant shadow of this dominance cast over one’s entire life, most obviously over the adult part of it, is to have one’s own integrity as an individual seriously compromised.

The problem of corporate power, as it existed in a lesser form, was recognised by Russell, especially in his 1930s book Power: A New Social Analysis, and has since then been scrutinised by a number of leading writers, including Chomsky. Viewed from the standpoint of the liberal-individualist, it has to be seen as a challenge which, at all costs, must be met by society as a whole. Unless this power is either drastically reduced or completely dismantled, liberal values are in grave danger of being driven to the farthest edge of the social periphery, or even over that edge.

The ‘Job-ocratic’ mentality

Another difficulty related to economic pressure on the individual is to do with the limits imposed on personal development by the parameters of occupation. People, of course, must work, and one of the reasons they have to is economic need. But a job is a fixed set of activities, and unfortunately many jobs do not provide anything like a full outlet for the individual’s capacities. To be added now is the point that contemporary Western society generally views the individual too much in terms of occupational function, and not enough in other, more informal, elastic and imaginative terms. (In passing, we should note that this tendency to ‘pigeon-hole’ the individual is strongly criticised in the existentialist thinking of Sartre and others. It also attacked by Marcuse in his opposition to social processes which produce what he calls ‘one-dimensional man’.)

Liberal-individualist thought, at its high tide in the 19th century, favoured the Renaissance concept of the multiple possibilities of individual behaviour — see especially Mill and von Humboldt — and this concept remained strong in the 20th century among people such as Russell and Santayana. But, more and more, as society has moved toward and into the 21st century, the emphasis has been on job-status and job-hierarchy (‘job-ocracy’, as some have called it) as the main reference points for defining the individual. This attitude clearly overlooks the fact that so many great achievements, especially in the humanities, have been attained outside the sphere of job requirements and remuneration. Profound originality has rarely been part of a job description, or been met with enthusiasm by most employers. Thus liberal-individualism needs to oppose the ‘job-ocratic’ mentality, at least its ungenerous and unimaginative elements.

Linked with the above issue is that of the general role of intellect in everyday life. A social system which, in various ways, militates against the expansive and panoramic play of mind in day to day activity is the enemy of mental energy and spontaneity. In the face of this enemy, liberal-individualists should at all times seek to maximise the outlets for mental vitality in the daily round. Let us now move to a conclusion. As said in the introduction, classic liberalindividualism has always focussed on the individual mental context, the personal intellectual witness. This focus has faced many problems, even and especially during its heyday in the 19th century. The talk has outlined what these problems have been and remain, but has also referred to various ways of combatting them.

These ways imply that a considerable degree of compatibility between liberalindividualism and contemporary Western society is in fact possible. Implementing them does not mean turning the clock back to some pre- contemporary social order; what it does mean is making the current order more flexible, elastic, accommodating to personal idiosyncrasy, tolerant of exceptions to rules. Such changes would allow the individual to feel more at ease within social formations, less threatened by organisational structures, less fearful of personal mental context being eroded. The circumspect person clearly sees that, in the contemporary Western world, certain kinds of large-scale organisation, and inclusion in them, are objectively necessary. Reference has already been made to the need to combat the power of industrial and financial corporations. This task clearly calls for participation in large-scale political movements; it otherwise has no chance of success. A further context in which a person is required to put his/her individuality in second place is in relation to the benefits of extensive health and social services provided by central and local government.

These benefits are available only if the individual agrees to become a name on a long list; each person duly has to wait his/her turn before receiving attention. This public-service context — which of course was virtually non-existent for much of that 19th century in which classic liberal-individualism reached its high water mark — is one that every sensible person should accept and adjust to. A similar point can be made about social and national emergencies (eg. Natural disasters, wars) in which the individual is required to contribute to the general welfare. S/he ought to acquiesce with willingness in a practically requisite degree of public organisation and authority: one which is certainly reconcilable with an equally requisite degree of private autonomy and integrity.

Moral Philosophy & Ethics, Philosophy

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Tom Rubens is a semi-retired teacher of English and Philosophy. He has worked as a university and college lecturer, and as a private tutor, and is still active in the latter field. Linked to his teaching work is his writing activity: he has produced eight books on philosophy (seven published so…