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Ed Driscoll

A Century of Anti-Individualism

June 17th, 2012 - 4:02 pm

Do a search on the word “individual” in the Kindle edition of Jonah Goldberg’s 2008 book Liberal Fascism, and you’ll quickly find a slew of quotes from early 20th century “progressives” who thought that the idea of the sovereign individual was just much primitive bunkum:

[Herbert Croly, the founder of the New Republic magazine] was an unabashed nationalist who craved a “national reformer…in the guise of St. Michael, armed with a flaming sword and winged for flight,” to redeem a decadent America. This secular “imitator of Christ” would bring an end to “devil-take-the-hindmost” individualism in precisely the same manner that the real Jesus closed the Old Testament chapter of human history. “An individual,” Croly wrote, sounding very much like Wilson, “has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed.” Echoing both Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, Croly argued that “national life” should be like a “school,” and good schooling frequently demands “severe coercive measures.”

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Croly constructed this worldview out of what he deemed vital necessity. Industrialization, economic upheaval, social “disintegration,” materialistic decadence, and worship of money were tearing America apart, or so he—and the vast majority of progressives—believed. The remedy for the “chaotic individualism of our political and economic organization” was a “regeneration” led by a hero-saint who could overthrow the tired doctrines of liberal democracy in favor of a restored and heroic nation. The similarities with conventional fascist theory should be obvious.

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We should not forget how the demands of war fed the arguments for socialism. [John] Dewey was giddy that the war might force Americans “to give up much of our economic freedom…We shall have to lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step.” If the war went well, it would constrain “the individualistic tradition” and convince Americans of “the supremacy of public need over private possessions.” Another progressive put it more succinctly: “Laissez-faire is dead. Long live social control.”

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[Walter] Lippmann, as he argued later, believed that most citizens were “mentally children or barbarians” and therefore needed to be directed by experts like himself. Individual liberty, while nice, needed to be subordinated to, among other things, “order.”

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For the most part, the progressives looked upon what they had created and said, “This is good.” The “great European war…is striking down individualism and building up collectivism,” rejoiced the Progressive financier and J. P. Morgan partner George Perkins. Grosvenor Clarkson saw things similarly. The [World War I] war effort “is a story of the conversion of a hundred million combatively individualistic people into a vast cooperative effort in which the good of the unit was sacrificed to the good of the whole.” The regimentation of society, the social worker Felix Adler believed, was bringing us closer to creating the “perfect man…a fairer and more beautiful and more righteous type than any…that has yet existed.” The Washington Post was more modest. “In spite of excesses such as lynching,” it editorialized, “it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior of the country.”

And so on. Occasionally, these quotes would rebound rather ironically upon the utterer. In the early years of the 1920s, Mies van der Rohe, the pioneering modernist architect and last director of the Bauhaus, the Weimar-era German school for modern artists would write, “The individual is losing significance; his destiny is no longer what interests us.” This in the midst of earning a living designing houses for wealthy individuals and only a decade before the Nazis came to power, who disliked individualism much more than Mies did, shuttered the Bauhaus and eventually forced Mies to flee Germany to teach and practice his profession in Chicago.

A century that revolved around the horrors of collectivism in all its forms doesn’t stop similar talk today. Scientific American reviews a new book titled The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, and queries:

Although Hood believes the self may be the greatest trick our brain has ever played on us, he concludes that believing in it makes life more fulfilling. The illusion is difficult–if not impossible–to dispel. Even if we could, why deny an experience that enables empathy, storytelling and love?

“To justify fascism,” Smitty, Stacy McCain’s co-blogger tersely responds:

If you want to factor out any theistic concept of a soul or notion of free will in one fell swoop, this sort of materialistic reduction is the way to go.

And it’s cool, too: once we’ve got life reduced to measurable bits of matter, and have nuked the idea of a ‘self’, we can set about the elimination of the individual and manage society through a series of spreadsheets. The molecules made us do it–how could there be a Devil?

This is not an evangelical pleading, though. My secular answer to this discussion is that the self, and freewill, have got to be taken as an assumption. That is, barring clear genetic-level defects like Downs, free moral agency has got to be the default position for the individual. Otherwise, we remain a societal collection of infants, forced into heroin addiction and inter-species romance because we’re, you know, victims.

Or to use the preferred word of Mayor Bloomberg, Jerry Brown and Barack Obama — constituents.

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