The left’s rejection of individualism

It’s remarkable how individualism has come to be identified with right-wing politics.

By “individualism” I mean: love of individuality; high regard for the freedom and welfare of individuals; respect for the interests of sentient beings rather than for non-sentient political abstractions; and the expectation that we can understand society by looking at how its constituent parts interact (just as we might understand how a car works by looking under the hood). The “constituent parts” of society are individual humans — humans with jobs or without them, with children or without them, in this or that situation, considered as individuals rather than as members of whichever group they happen to belong to (race, sex, whatever).

We might call the opposite of individualism “communitarianism”: love of “community” or the group rather than its members; high regard for group cohesion and group strength; respect for the supposed historical entitlements and culpabilities of groups; and the expectation that to understand society, we have to look at larger historical forces than the interaction of mere individuals.

Communitarians often say things like “Margaret Thatcher said ‘there’s no such thing as society’”, and treat it as the worst thing anyone has ever said, the purest expression yet of Thatcherite depravity. The idea seems to be that weaker individuals are protected by “the cohesion of society”, or “community caring”, or “social structures”, or something of that sort, and so people who “deny the very existence of society” must be prepared to abandon those weaker individuals by the wayside, or exploit them for gain.

But that’s nonsense. Individualists don’t deny the existence of society, they just see it the way engineers tend to see things — as consisting of constituent parts that interact with each other. Car mechanics don’t deny the existence of cars just because they think about engines, wheels and other car parts. The same goes for people who think about society in terms of the individuals who comprise it.

Furthermore, individualists don’t think that weak individuals don’t matter, or that they should be exploited for the benefit of strong individuals. People who care about individuals care about weaker individuals. The welfare of individuals is very much a matter of the welfare of weaker individuals, because one dollar (say) means much more to someone who’s got nothing than it means to someone who already has a million dollars. If we give the same consideration to the interests of weaker and stronger individuals, we accept that a unit of material wealth counts more to the weaker individuals than to the stronger individuals, because it’s a more critical factor to them in their need to live a decent life.

That concern is the basis for an entirely individualistic justification for wealth redistribution — or at least some wealth redistribution: if done reasonably, it hinders stronger individuals less than it helps weaker individuals. This has nothing to do with political abstractions such as “community”, nor does it involve treating “equality” per se as a desideratum. It’s just a concern for the welfare of individuals. And such concern doesn’t just apply to redistribution of wealth. It also applies to other factors that we might regard as essential for living a decent life: education, health care, personal safety.

Used in its strict sense, the word ‘liberal’ refers to people who regard freedom of individuals as the sole political good. So ‘liberalism’ means much the same as ‘individualism’ as I am using the word here. In the past, liberal-minded people were generally found on the left wing of the political spectrum, as they supported better working conditions, affordable education, and similar reforms, at the cost of raising taxes. Liberalism and the left were so closely associated that in its looser — often sneering — usage, the word ‘liberal’ often just meant “left wing”.

Yet nowadays the left distances itself from liberalism. The word ‘neoliberalism’ is used as an up-to-date synonym for ‘Thatcherism’. The left instead wallows in half-baked ideas of “community”, and similar abstractions. This is a tragedy, partly because it makes left-wing parties unelectable, and partly because by embracing mystical abstractions and historical fantasies about group entitlements, the left flirts with Fascism and vicious nonsense about group “destiny”.