Individualism and Western Civilisation

Last week I suggested that the system of thought of Western civilisation is underpinned by the political and moral philosophy of individualism, and that this philosophy has proved so attractive because it justifies the inequality and privilege of the West. In essence, I am saying that if we were to summarise the ideology of Western civilisation in one word it would be individualism, and I therefore need to justify this assertion.

I think it’s undeniable that individual freedom is a defining element of Western civilisation. Throughout the cold war the freedoms of the West were contrasted with both the oppression and also the collectivist nature of so-called “communist” regimes. Indeed, we gloried and revelled in our ‘superiority’ in this respect. More broadly, Western societies see liberal Western democracies as inherently superior to other nations that have not developed this degree of freedom.

But there is a huge leap from this popular notion of freedom in Western society to arguing that the specific ideology of individualism is the hallmark of Western civilisation. So to make that argument, I’m going to turn to Friedrich Hayek and his classic text, The Road to Serfdom. In it he writes:

“Individualism, in contrast to socialism and all other forms of totalitarianism, is based on the respect of Christianity for the individual man and the belief that it is desirable that men should be free to develop their own individual gifts and bents. This philosophy, first fully developed during the Renaissance, grew and spread into what we know as Western civilization.”

Of course, just because Hayek says it, doesn’t make it true (although I am convinced by the case he makes, particularly in The Constitution of Liberty). But Hayek is significant for his wide-ranging influence on others, in particular Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. Nothing need be said about the transformation of the political landscape achieved by the first two. As for Friedman, in case you aren’t aware he was the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th Century, and deeply influential on Thatcher and Reagan in his own right (serving on Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board).

Hayek’s influence on the thinking of Margaret Thatcher is well-known. While these accounts from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation and Centre for Policy Studies carry more weight, I can’t resist repeating the well-known anecdote that as leader of the Conservatives in opposition she attended one meeting of the “Conservative Research Department”, where its members explained that the public were tired of extremes and wanted a politician proposing a middle way. Thatcher became frustrated with what they were saying and slammed Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table, proclaiming, “This is what we believe”. Ignoring the irony that she turned to a book championing individual liberty while at the same time telling everyone else what they believed(!), the influence of Hayek on her thinking is, I think, made clear. “Thatcherism” is widely identified with individualism, something that a quick google search can confirm (in terms of the vast number of references, rather than any specific one to back up this assertion).

As for Friedman, he and Hayek were actually in different schools of economic thought (though both schools ardently promoted free markets and the smallest possible role of government as the answer to everything) but they were united in their political beliefs. They were founding members of the Mont Pelerin Society, whose stated aim was to defend “the position of the individual”, believing that “the central values of civilization are in danger”. The two men expounded their political philosophy with considerable clarity and detail, Hayek in The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty, and the latter in Capitalism and Freedom (amongst other works). We can study these and be clear on the political ideas they were promoting. Indeed, my description of individualism last week was largely based on my study of these books.

We can also then see the links to their economic thought. Friedman was explicit that he believed that economics cannot be separated from politics, and that while he believed that the economic theories he proposed were right, they were also morally right in that the resulting policies correspond to the political philosophy he believed to be true. Indeed, once one understands the political philosophy they both subscribed to, and how fervently they believed in it, it is not difficult to see how this prejudiced their economic thinking. These errors pervade mainstream economic thought, even though most economists may be largely unaware of the political theory.

And this brings us to a vital point. Of the millions of people worldwide who revere Thatcher, Reagan, Hayek, Friedman, or any of the other politicians, economists, or theorists advocating the same principles, I suspect that only a small proportion would identify “individualism” as what they believe in, or be able to define clearly what it means. A slightly larger group would identify with the ideas it encompasses but call it something else, or even not have a name for it. Most formally trained economists who have swallowed what they were taught in University, for example, will have bought into some version of this set of ideas without necessarily seeing themselves as particularly political.

But most often, these ideas are lodged in people’s subconscious in a vague and incoherent way, finding expression in, and thereby being promoted by, media and popular culture. The best way to describe it is that this ideology has permeated society.

Indeed, most people live their lives without developing a well-formed political or moral philosophy – or more broadly a general philosophy of life – that guides their actions. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have such a philosophy, it just means they haven’t consciously reflected on it and decided what that philosophy is. The core values and beliefs guiding them in life are in part unconscious, and thus liable to be full of contradictions. And the fact that their guiding beliefs are unconscious leaves people open to manipulation. A convincing idea by a politician or other public figure may lure us in, even though it actually contradicts a value that we simultaneously believe.

And the ideology of individualism is indeed beguiling. As described last week, it is the composer of the siren song of Western civilisation, convincing everyone that we’re the good guys, that there’s no need for us to change our way of life, and that anyone who criticises these core elements of Western society must be wrong.

But in all this, I am not suggesting that anyone is consciously trying to manipulate or deceive you. I have absolutely no time for conspiracy theories – they are mostly weak-minded and mislead us as to the true reality of what is going on. Those who do consciously promote a philosophy of individualism usually passionately believe it to be correct, and that they are promoting what is just, right and moral. As described last week, for those whose identity is shaped by the psychological need to believe that their own position in life is justified – that they deserve what they have – the philosophy of individualism seems to be self-evidently true. There is almost a nobility in the sincerity of Hayek and others. But ultimately, they had deceived themselves, and as their ideas permeated society in the second half of the 20th Century, society as a whole became likewise deceived.

Indeed, individualism’s pervasive influence is probably more powerful precisely because it is not normally named, because it is not consciously subscribed to. If you were to present to most British people the summary of the key tenets of this philosophy they may well say that this was not fully what they believed, or even outright reject it. And yet, many of their beliefs and actions flow unconsciously from this pernicious set of ideas.

And let us not get hung up on the name. What matters is the philosophy itself, not whether or not we term it “individualism”. Hayek and Friedman struggled with what to call themselves. They both felt that the original meaning of “liberal” would have been the best name, but in the USA this term has come to mean something quite different to its earlier usage in Britain. Hayek ends The Constitution of Liberty by proclaiming himself a “Whig” (a long defunct British political party, that evolved into the Liberal party)! Today, the term neoliberal is often used, but it is a highly contested and ambiguous phrase. It has actually been coined in 3 different continents at 3 different times, with 3 different meanings. One of those places and times was Chile following Pinochet’s coup, where young Chilean economists, trained at Friedman’s Chicago School and known as the “Chicago boys”, were termed “neoliberals” by their critics. In this meaning it pretty much corresponds to individualism, and I believe this is its most common popular usage. But it is only used today by critics and its contentious nature makes it unhelpful as a general label.

I always use the term “individualism” as it is the least contentious and ambiguous. Ultimately, it is the tenets of the philosophy and its influence that matters, although the very fact that it is difficult to name only serves to contributes to its hidden influence on the way people in the West think.

As mentioned last week, there’s an inevitable degree of subjectivity in the last 2 posts. So next week, let’s return to analysis based purely on facts and logic, and examine in detail the flaws in this ideology and how it distorts our perception of reality, enabling the myths that dominate Western national identities.

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