The rise of individualism (& the slow death of society?)


We had our first Common Weal Fife book group on Facebook on Wednesday (you can find the various discussions here) and the discussion got me thinking…

One of the many issues that were raised was the increasingly individualised nature of our ‘society’ (if there is such a thing, Maggie!). Where once there was collective action, trade unions, church groups and we’d all know our neighbours, now we drift through life with fewer connections, moving jobs and homes much more frequently than in the past and less likely to make those bonds which underpin a sense of community.

A major impact of all of this is that we are finding it more difficult to see the structural factors which still shape our lives. In the last blog, Mary Herdman touched on the issue of our food. With obesity ever on the rise amongst the lower and middle-income members of our society, it’s often the case that they are blamed for being overweight. This completely ignores the systematic societal barriers which play a massive part in how this social phenomenon has been created and continues. If we are truly serious about tackling this issue it will require a plan for systemic cultural change (starting, I’d suggest, with the advertising industry). The Common Weal has put together just such a thing.  But these factors are rarely discussed – much easier to blame over-worked, over-stressed and impoverished individuals for their lack of self-control.

This is just one example. A second that we can all relate to is unemployment. With unemployment (and underemployment) ever rising, this again gets pinned on individual failings. A subtle change in the language of how we think of this has happened (from unemployment – a structural issue, to employability – an individual issue) and it is essential that we are aware of this. With employability it’s up to all of us as individuals to ensure we are employable. But this creates a competition where we are all out to be better than the person next to us, to be more employable, have better qualifications, better work experience. This breeds the ‘me-first’ culture discussed by the Common Weal, perpetuating the individualised culture so favoured by neo-liberalism and, again, hindering the possibility of any sense of community or co-operation. The way I think about this is that employment has become a sort of ‘arms race’ as we all fight with one another to ensure we’re better equipped than our rivals, to secure the ever reducing number of long-term, decently paid and secure jobs.. And again, rather than unemployment being seen as a structural issue, it is the unemployed who are held responsible for their perceived ‘failing’ – not the fault of successive governments who have been utterly unable to find solutions to the issue of mass unemployment (particularly for our young people).

It is essential to understand these factors – as the government and societal institutions pile more responsibility on our shoulders to ensure we are ‘effective economic contributors’ it is still the case that most of us will end up in the social class where we began. Class, gender and social reproduction still play a huge part in our life chances. But the individualised nature of our society means that we often overlook this fact and hold ourselves accountable if we’re not ‘making the grade.’  While the rich get richer, the rest of us have to just get on with it. But worse, by losing sight of the nature of class and shared interests, we end up blaming each other – the unemployed, the foreign, young people or old people rather than uniting as a collective to tackle the 1% and the massive inequalities which blight our society.

If we are to re-boot democracy it is (I think) essential that we take individualism into account. This change from the collective hasn’t happened by accident but is an inherent fact of capitalism. The consumer culture is driven by the need for us all to express our individual selves – to buy more products which tell the world about who we are. This isn’t all bad, of course, but the risk is that any sense of common humanity is being eroded. We need to remind ourselves that despite the fact we are all individuals, with our own stories to tell and our own experiences – we share much in common. It is paying attention to this that will help us move forward, together, in order to tackle the issues important to us.

Alan Mackie


About Alan Mackie

I'm a Research Associate and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh - completing early 2018. Sociology, education, youth studies and research methods are my areas of interest and this is primarily what you'll find on the blog. Thanks for reading and all feedback welcome.
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3 Responses to The rise of individualism (& the slow death of society?)

  1. This reminds me of the Hobbesian notion of the natural state of nations as being at war but in microcosm at an individual level. The analysis of being in constant competition is a good one and you point to the language that is use to create the subtle shifts of how we think. Our governments are very good at using language to disguise their intentions and whilst the word ’employability’ sounds benign, in this context it can became dog eat dog in the race for jobs/opportunities exploiting our human capacity for greed (the human failure hypothesis of capitalism). The thing that most struck me when I first came across Common Weal was the use of language. Linguistic theory/social construction theory can tell us a lot about how language is used to create our sense of reality . I was struck by Common Weal’s use of words to create a workmanlike sense of co-operation, inclusion, equality etc without making it sound easy or just pie-in-the-sky idealism.

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  2. Great post Alan. I think the heart of this centres around the parmeters within which people see themselves. To quote Chomsky, “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” People need to break out or be drawn out of this mindset to rediscover the common, what we are together and what we can achieve together.

    Liked by 1 person

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