Ralph Fevre’s new book Individualism and Inequality: The Future of Work and Politics explores the origins of individualism and looks at how ideas about the individual in society have changed, especially with the rise of neoliberal thinking at the turn of the millennium.
Fevre describes two very different worlds or societies chronologically separated by the year 1979 – the year Margaret Thatcher was elected UK prime minister. In the pre-1979 world, ideas about the individual were informed by what Fevre calls ‘sentimental individualism’, a compassionate liberal belief in the potential to change society for the better. In the post-1979 world, continues Fevre, our conception of the individual is framed by neoliberalism.
Fevre traces sentimental individualism back to the work of 18th-century thinkers Thomas Paine and Adam Smith. What was significant about Paine’s contribution was that he replaced the idea of God-given natural rights with a ‘belief that every individual shared a common humanity, which compelled others to recognise those natural rights’. Fevre argues that Paine, who was to become such a key figure in the American Revolution, helped to usher in an era of mass individualism, with rights increasingly being demanded for everyone, regardless of class, gender or race. This Enlightenment emphasis on universal human qualities fed ideas of social progress, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage and civil rights. As the 19th century developed, individualism underwent a sentimental turn, with the values of compassion and care expressed and exemplified in the work of the children’s charity Barnardo’s and the nurse Florence Nightingale.
Individualism and Inequality traces the expansion of a different idea of individualism over the course of the 20th century. At its centre is what Fevre calls the ‘cognitive individual’, which is characterised by the idea that personal success or failure in society is the responsibility of individuals alone. Its roots can be partially found in Adam Smith’s work, but it really gains its strongest formulation in the work of 19th-century philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer. Unlike Smith, Spencer felt there was a certain inevitability to inequality. In Man Versus the State (1884), Spencer argued that market forces had the potential to cultivate virtues, although he was sceptical about the potential to change the character of the poor. He was thus strongly against state intervention to compensate for the market.
People expect to gain too much from work – a job is a job and so can only give so much meaning to life
The story told in Individualism and Inequality covers the shift from sentimental individualism to cognitive individualism during the course of the 20th century. ‘Belief in human qualities’, writes Fevre, ‘was gradually replaced by knowledge of human qualities, which stimulated the growth of the neoliberal incarnation of individualism’. Hitherto, cognitive individualism had been kept in check by commitments to sentimental ideals and a belief in the potential of social progress.
Fevre identifies the 1970s as the point at which ideas about society and the individual changed dramatically. Many of those who identified themselves as leftwing became disillusioned with political parties on the left, which had failed to achieve social progress. Fevre suggests that in the UK, Thatcher seized the moment in 1979 and won the General Election because she appealed to the individual aspirations of those who felt the Labour Party no longer represented their interests. Her victory was echoed in the US, with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1981. And in the background, businesses were busy restructuring and internationalising more of their operations, marking the beginnings of what we know now as globalisation, and membership of workers’ unions also declined, especially after Thatcher’s defeat of the British miners in the mid-1980s. The neoliberal model was further enhanced by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fall of Stalinist governments and socialist movements worldwide. Now there really was no alternative to the global march of capitalism.