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The Death of the Individual

The displacement of the “individual” as a primary category of social and political thought — a distinctly observable trend in the contemporary West — is an infallible sign of civilizational despair. The nexus of causes and factors accounting for this undeniable phenomenon has been analyzed in many different ways and from many different perspectives: the draining of confidence in the “Western enterprise” after two world wars and the devastation of the generations; the natural tendency of a successful civilization to grow tired and lazy in the course of aeonian time, as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee argued in their major works; the loss of religious conviction and its attendant moral armature, leading to rootless insecurity and lack of transcendent purpose; the attenuation of historical memory — what I have elsewhere called the chronosectomy — owing to a dumbed-down education paradigm and the consequent onset of a present-oriented hedonism. Perhaps all of these factors are coterminous and work together against the sense of individual responsibility for self, family, and nation. But whatever may explain our predicament, there can be little doubt that, despite all our technical advances, we are experiencing something like the advent of a new Dark Age.


The concept of the self has undergone a sea change, as has the practice of self-reliance, civic virtue, moral integrity, national pride, and the commitment to cultural perpetuation. The temptation is to embrace one of two options: unbridled self-indulgence without heed for the past or the future, a kind of, let’s say, bed-and-circuses mentality that has become pervasive in the West; or the emptying out of intellectual and spiritual substance into the amorphous but all-consuming structures of grand collective movements, generally of a utopian nature. I suspect these are only two sides of the same counterfeit coin. The pursuit of the millennium, to cite the title of Norman Cohn’s must-read volume, is an ironclad way of flattering one’s unearned self-esteem without demanding the duty of thought and the discipline of knowledge. It goes hand in hand with the surrender to authority at the cost of what the existentialists used to call personal authenticity. The individual, in the classic sense of a concrete center of cognitive awareness and moral responsibility, has become the relic of a vanishing tradition. The inclination is to identify with presumably benevolent but actually savage abstractions. In today’s “enlightened” world, the Arcadian dream — a dead idea embalmed with the illusion of vitality — has once again assumed massive and destructive proportions.

It should now be obvious that in the name of “the brotherhood of man,” of human sympathy and an oceanic desire for peace, a travesty is being enacted. Pragmatic democratic institutions and powers ready to entertain the prospect of conflict and sacrifice in the service of specific, empirical commitments to beneficial change, or the preservation of authentic liberal values, are slagged as aggressors, and courageous individuals unwilling to surrender themselves to the chants, slogans, and sentimentalities of the morally occulted are swept aside as vestiges of an archaic state of mind. As C.S. Lewis presciently wrote in his 1944 The Abolition of Man: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Such is the paideia, the method of education and cultural transmission, that obtains today in the West, chiefly in the debased Humanities.

The eclipse of the Humanities, which have been reduced to a politicized hybrid  called “cultural studies” in our university curricula, is one of the more conspicuous symptoms of precipitous cultural decline. In Break, Blow, Burn, Camille Paglia mourns the virtual extinction of lyric poetry, “which from its birth in ancient Greece has played so significant a role in the emergence of individualism, spawning in turn our concept of civil rights.” We have forfeited “custodianship” to “deconstruction” and in so doing have violated the “mission and goal of the humanities.”


It is, of course, not only a question of the melancholy fate of lyric poetry. We now suffer the dimming of a long tradition of scholarship, responsible pedagogy, literary memory, immersion in the cultural library, and the practice of independent study and thought — of learning for oneself rather than lapsing into groupthink or being “nudged” toward the treadmill uniformity of syndicate and guild. The articulation of broad-based knowledge and the formation of the sovereign sensibility, aware of both its freedom and its civic duties, even if more honored in the breach than the observance, represent the inherent morality of genuine education. “I am uncertain,” Paglia concludes, “about whether the West’s chaotic personalism can prevail against the totalizing creeds that menace it.”

The schools and institutions that “mediate moral understanding to children,” in the words of James Davison Hunter in The Death of Character, have become complicit “in destroying…character and its attending moral ideals,” by failing to provide “a more grounded experience of subjective autonomy.” One might go further and suggest that such a “more grounded experience” of subjective identity is almost entirely wanting and its antithesis — a world of unselved integers participating in a fable of universal peace and brotherhood — installed in its place. There can be no question that we live in an age in which the concept of the autonomous individual, capable of forming his own ideas, asserting his right of self-determination, and chary of dependence on others, has been critically weakened.

Erich Fromm has furnished the definitive study of the process of self-abdication in his Escape from Freedom, which convincingly accounts for the dynamic of moral and individual surrender to the collective mind. According to Fromm, the identification with authoritarianism is a “mechanism of escape” from a feeling of personal insecurity and weakness. The “severed” personality attempts to overcome so crippling a condition by choosing to “give up his freedom” as a way of “eliminating the gap” between his individual self and the world he cannot come to terms with or enter as a productive participant. The lamentable result is “the more or less complete surrender of individuality and the integrity of the self.” And the choice is paid for “by a kind of life that often consists only of automatic or compulsive activities,” another way of describing the totalitarian nightmare.

Fromm focuses on the psychology of Nazism to better clarify the structure of the totalitarian personality. It is typified by a deep intuition of lack, of insignificance and deficiency. Two of the factors that tend to predominate are a slavish admiration of power and the accusation of the Jews as a “race” that desires mastery over others. The contradiction is rarely noticed: power is to be sought as a good on the one hand, condemned as an evil on the other. And yet the paradox is only apparent. Where the psyche is inwardly prey to the presentiment of its own vacancy, one always requires both a threatening usurper and a redeeming authority to establish the conviction of one’s own supremacy and completeness. Though Fromm’s theory is not entirely original — Papa Freud throughout his oeuvre, Elias Canetti, and Eric Hoffer have all in one way or another proposed similar notions — it is about as accurate an understanding of the totalitarian impulse that governs the “lifeworld” of the contemporary sensibility as we can come up with.

As Fromm points out, then, what we are witnessing is the “craving for power over men and the longing for submission to an overwhelmingly strong outside power.” But these cravers and fellow travelers are the susceptible victims of their own pliable credulity, subject to the intellectual corrosions of desire, reverie, and impractical ideas. This is the crux of the matter. The West has grown tired and decadent, increasingly unwilling to engage in the perpetual battle to preserve its patrimony — its charter of rights, freedoms, and obligations — and opting instead for the phantom of universal harmony predicated on the capitulation of the robust individual self. We recall that “individual” means “undivided” or “non-divisible.” (The Greek word for “individual” is atomon, in the original sense of an indivisible particle. The “atom” has now been “smashed” in the cyclotron of the modern age.) When cultural exhaustion sets in, the self is fractured and dispersed into a collective super-self which is no self at all. The example of the Borg in the Star Trek series is not entirely a fanciful conceit. It speaks to the cultural unconscious of the era.


Following Fromm’s magisterial study, French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in L’humanité perdue: Essai sur le XXe siècle has thoroughly dissected the idea of the brotherhood of man, showing that it is not intrinsic to the human condition but a speculative artifact whose effects are generally barbarous. Finkielkraut understands that the philosophy of “realizing the unity of the human species” leads invariably — as in the major ideological movements of the previous century and both Islamic supremacism and utopian infatuations today — to its proponents “releasing themselves from the bonds of humanity,” exposing men “to limitless violence” and taking away “their ontological dignity.” Acceding to “the mystical model of fusion,” the individual disappears into the tribe, the clan, the umma, the bogus family of mankind, since freedom is now conceived in the mode of identity politics, that is, “as a collective attribute, never as an individual possession.” “Brotherhood” is that into which the individual self, grounded in historical continuity, disappears and is lost.

This is where we seem to be today. In The Disuniting of America, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. tells the story of a student who “sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual’.” The paper was returned by a college administrator who wrote: “This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges [sic] the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.” As Schlesinger muses, it is these endangered “strands of particularity” that contribute to the richness, texture, and vitality of the nation. Their disappearance threatens the republic as a “polity of individuals” and supplants it with “a congeries of distinct and inviolable cultures.”

The only indication of resistance against spiritual and cultural atrophy derives from those of a conservative persuasion who understand, as did Wendell Berry in A Continuous Harmony, that the “modern crisis” entails “the failure of the past to teach us to deal with the present or to envision and prepare for a desirable future.” The future which is now gestating is not one that any thinking man or woman would find appealing — a future unmoored from its institutional past, reviving the vast conceptual illusions of the 20th century of a new, hegemonic world order in which the rights of the collective overwhelm the rights of the individual.

Thus, what Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France called the “partnership” between the generations, founded in respect for the individual both in himself and as a member of a living and productive community, succumbs to the leveling dictates of revolutionary ideologies — whether, as we have noted, that of the Islamic Caliphate or the socialist utopia. This is in its essence an old story, of course. The impetus to join an encompassing entity that removes the burden of personal responsibility is certainly perennial; what is current is the definitive form and political momentum it exhibits.


Today it is a movement endorsed by unhinged academics, ignorant politicians, left-wing sansculottes, self-esteeming students, union syndicalists, Muslim radicals, and metrotextual intellectuals who mistake a millenarian rhapsody of uniform contentment and enforced equality for the real world of inevitable differences in talent, drive, intelligence, character, and accomplishment. In the words of historian Bruce Thornton from Decline and Fall, it signals the arrival of “collective man, the implacable enemy of the individual soul,” whoring after the “dolce vita lifestyle” and the “Utopian dream of absolute equality brought about by government planning and technocratic control.” We see it happening all around us, for example in the metastasizing Occupy Wall Street movement. As culture critic Andrew Klavan remarks apropos the OWS hordes, the protesters have taken to wearing the Guy Fawkes mask from the film V for Vendetta which “envisions a world in which all people will come together as one to support acts of terrorism against free institutions.” This “signature mask” removes them “from every trace of individuality.” Babbling their mantra of “social justice,” the redistribution of other people’s income, and across-the-board “equality” regardless of merit or input, these denizens of squalor raise the torch not of freedom and individual rights but of cultural combustion and anonymous samehood.

Most of these soi-disant “utopians” are not producers — e.g., artisans, craftsmen, farmers, laborers, tradespeople, entrepreneurs, scientists, and medical researchers, among others — but what the Soviets used to call “intellectual workers” whom we now refer to honorifically as “cultural workers,” a notion given prominent status in Henry Giroux’s influential and jargon-choked 1992 book, Border Crossings (republished 2005). Giroux, for example, champions “the politics of …symbolic presentations that take place in various spheres of cultural production… implicated in the construction and organization of knowledge, desires, values, and social practices” — whatever this means. But whenever we come across the buzzphrase “cultural production,” so reminiscent of “cultural studies,” we can be sure that nothing of real value or solid import, nothing that contributes to social betterment or economic productivity, has come into existence.

These theorists are for the most part (there are notable exceptions) professional parasites supported by the state or the university who have scarcely done a day’s real work, started or been part of a business, or advanced national prosperity and well-being in any meaningful way. They tend to live in a subsidized bubble. Many of these credentialed freeloaders and trimmers, as we are ruefully aware, have found their way into the current American administration where they inflict immense damage and then retire into well-upholstered sinecures. For when it comes to the cynics, there’s no cure like a sinecure.


Obviously educated several echelons beyond their natural capacities, they do not and cannot change. They persist in opposing the conservative, that is, the “neoliberal” drive to economic priorities, market efficiency, consumer choice, personal autonomy, and private enterprise and seek to maximize the role of the state, central planning, and top-down managerial systems in general, as propounded in Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk’s iconic volume, Evil Paradises, which seems to have become something of a sacred text. And the result of their efforts is to create a society of fungible clones who look alike, sound alike, act alike, and are the hapless victims of a species of moral and intellectual craniotomy.

Certainly there are inequalities and injustices in the world, but no political system, whether of the left or the right, has yet been devised to eradicate them, nor is there any indication that one ever will be. Inequalities and injustices are part of the human condition, and given that we live in an ineluctably flawed and discrepant world made up of necessarily imperfect human beings, the way of least harm is the way of respect for the individual soul rather than the promulgation of an aggregate mentality in which individual differences and ambitions are washed out. Karl Popper’s reminder in The Open Society and Its Enemies remains timely: “The emancipation of the individual was…the great spiritual revolution which had led to the breakdown of tribalism and to the rise of democracy.” Individualism is the root of political freedom, hedged by reciprocal constraints formulated and enacted within the structure of law, but allowing in a truly liberal society for the maximal development of the self consistent with the need for mutual protection and benefit.

Should this be forgotten, we will find ourselves, as Friedrich Hayek warned, trudging on the road to serfdom. Hayek writes: “the question remains whether the price we should have to pay for the realization of somebody’s ideal of justice is not bound to be more discontent and more oppression than was ever caused by the much-abused free play of economic forces.” Nor is it only a question of economic forces, but of “relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity and of the power of choice” — that is, of precisely the “vectors” that determine the individual’s individuality. The conservative turn of mind represents the only significant pushback against the vaporous effects of quixotic and grandiose schemes for the attainment of human perfection at the expense of the particular and unique, qualities associated with the individual self. The decay of the concept of the individual is tantamount to the decay of a free society.


Here the vintage distinction applies between egotism and selfhood, that is, between untrammeled desire and solicitous purpose, gratification, and fulfillment, the fitting of a prosthetic identity and the laborious working out of one’s unique destiny. As Fromm urges, it is only by strength of will and character and knowledge that a human being can “relate himself spontaneously to the world in love and work, in the genuine expression of his emotional, sensuous, and intellectual capacities…without giving up the independence and integrity of his individual self.” In the current environment of self-dissipation, generic identities, and median solutions to monumental problems, it is clear that we have a near-insuperable task before us.

One recalls the epitaph of the renowned and gloriously eccentric Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, a man for whom personhood was nothing less than a divine commandment: “That Individual.” May it not be buried alongside him.

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