It is the individual in the mass who turns to work as a means of proving his worth and usefulness — Eric Hoffer1
Over the past century the word individualism has become a battleground. The two first meanings listed by the Oxford English Dictionary identify the opposing forces. In 1835 H. Reeve described it as “a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow creatures, and to draw apart with his family and friends.” But by the 1880s the left-wing attitude appears: “Individualism regards humanity as made up of disconnected or warring atoms: Socialism regards it as an organic whole, a vital unity formed by the combination of contributory members mutually interdependent.”
Thus George Bernard Shaw, opening the first of the Fabian Essays in Socialism, describes a Creation in which Adam is the First Individual who “drives his spade into, and sets up his stockade around, the most fertile and favorable patch [of land] he can find.”2 So we are to believe that the first individual was an agricultural buccaneer, grabbing the best land and calling it Private Property.
In fact, people that believe in individualism don’t think of individual humans as “disconnected or warring atoms.” They experience individualism as an advanced form of socialization that builds a vital organism of social cooperation “formed by the combination of contributory members [made] mutually interdependent” by the promptings of the market system.
Clearly, humans are profoundly divided on the meaning of individualism and the meaning of society. For some people, individualism is the acme of social cooperation, because it is voluntary; for others it is the pit of selfishness, individual atoms banging about on their own without the least sentiment for their fellow humans, because they lack solidarity. We shall show that this is because there are two kinds of believers in individualism in the modern world.
Perhaps the resolution of the quarrel is to admit that a paradox exists at the core of modern individualism. This paradox is powerfully brought to light by Eric Hoffer in an essay on “The Readiness to Work.” Who decides in human society, he asks, what work is to be done and who is to do it? He illuminates the question with two powerful assumptions. For the socialist government, the problem is “how to make people work — how to induce them to plow, sow, harvest, manufacture, work in the mines, and so forth.” But in the western capitalist countries “the chief problem is not to induce people to work but how to find enough jobs for people who want to work.”3 Hoffer proposes an astonishing thing about the modern age. From time immemorial, work was “viewed as a curse, a mark of bondage.” But the modern age worships work.
That free men should be willing to work day after day, even after their vital needs are satisfied, and that work should be regarded as a mark of uprightness and manly worth, is not only unparalleled in history but remains more or less incomprehensible to many people outside the Occident.4
This is the great notion that divides the modern era from its predecessors. In former times, the “mark of uprightness and manly worth” was the martial virtue expressed in the calling of the aristocratic warrior. But now we measure men by their application to work and their success in soldiering to work every day.
In Hoffer’s view society has two choices. The first choice is for the rulers to decide how the work gets done and issue the orders to the slaves. On this system the rulers shoulder the yoke of responsibility and the slaves shoulder the yoke of work. The other choice is for the workers how to decide how to do the work themselves. The workers are now free, but at an awful price: they now must shoulder not only the yoke of responsibility but also the yoke of work as well. They must find out what work needs to be done, and then do it. They cannot lounge around waiting for the boss to make up his mind what has to be done; they must go out and do it themselves. Individualism is thus a solution to the problem of getting the work done; not the rulers but individual citizens take upon their shoulders the job of getting society’s work done. And how is this possible? It is possible because of the price system, which signals to each worker, each businessman, each consumer what consumers want, what producers can deliver, and what human skills are worth.
To its writers and readers Fabian Essays was the last word in enlightenment and modernity. Yet Shaw opens his argument with an agricultural foundation myth – this for a society that had just spent a century transforming itself from an agricultural society to an industrial society through market-driven manufacturing. Nor was this century of transformation utterly surprising and unforeseen; it was already prophesied in 1685 by Carew Reynell two hundred years before the Fabian Essays. The consequence of industrial and manufacturing revolution was that the population in Britain had tripled between 1750 and 1850 from 5 million to 17 million, and then doubled to 42 million by 1900. Who cares about spades and patches of land when Britain has become the workshop of the world? Individualism in Britain arose not as a buccaneering land grab but in the small pleadings of feudal serfs obtaining the right to trade copyhold land in the manor court of their local squire. It was ancient tribal man that acquired land in the way of Shaw’s myth, and he acquired it by tribal conquest and border warfare, not by individual appropriation.
So the First Individual wasn’t an agricultural buccaneer; he couldn’t have been, for farmers have always been subservient to a warrior class that “protected” them from buccaneers, and ownership in land has been a process not of individuals grabbing land in the wilderness but of landowners slowly surrendering rights in tribal or patrimonial land to their serfs and tenant farmers. The notable exception to this rule was the appropriation of land as private property by white settlers in North America from native American tribes that owned land in common and thought that land owned them and not the other way around.
As the Fabian Essays proceed, we learn of the “outbreak” of individualism, of the “abandonment of the old Individualism,” of “Socialism as the offspring of Individualism” dedicated to the proposition that “individualism or anything whatever in the nature of laisser faire goes by the board.”
What is individualism? Is it an “outbreak,” a disease? Is it the breeder of Socialism, parent of a clutch of red-diaper babies? Could it be a kind of social atomism? Is it the “selfishness” that Ayn Rand celebrates as “concern with one’s own interest”?5 Or is it the acceptance of responsibility for others? Or is it something else?
Could it be that individualism is the necessary and sufficient condition for human freedom, the foundation of a society of voluntary social cooperation? Eric Hoffer:
It hardly needs emphasizing that the individualist society we are talking about is not one in which every individual is unique... All that one can claim for the individual in such a society is that he is more or less on his own; that he chooses his course through life, proves himself by his own efforts, and has to shoulder the responsibility of what he makes of his life. It is obvious, therefore, that it is individual freedom which generates the readiness to work.
Individualism comes in a package with freedom and responsibility. If you want freedom, then you must accept the yoke of individual responsibility. Thus Hoffer’s musings about who shall issue the orders to the workers to get the work done exactly presents the issue. If you don’t like the boss or the village big man or the political placeman telling you what to do then you must shoulder the responsibility of doing things on your own. That is what freedom from the tyranny of the boss system means.
We hear echoes of this in our recent arguments about the good society. In his 2012 reelection campaign President Obama used “on your own” as a stick with which to beat Republicans. At Osawatomie, Kansas, in December 2011, he ridiculed Republican “on your own economics” as leaving people out in the cold without help from government6, and in 2012 told businessmen that “you didn’t build that” on your own; government was there all along to help.7 On the one hand he scorns the idea of leaving people on their own; on the other he insists that everyone is supported by the government infrastructure.
Like the Fabians, President Obama equates individualism with a society that throws its people into the economic pool to sink or swim without assistance, and assistance for him means government social programs. Without government, you are on your own. For him, social democracy is social, and individualism is not. But Eric Hoffer argues, in anticipation of President Obama, that big government and individualism are merely two solutions to the eternal social problem: how shall humans contribute to society? On Hoffer’s view societies have two options to get people to work and contribute to society. One option is the modern method of individualism that places the monkey on the back of every individual to prove, by work, that he contributes to society. The other option is the ancient method of elite compulsion: the ruler or the lord tells people how to contribute; he makes them an offer they cannot refuse. It is telling that when the 19th century critics of individualism came to power in the 20th century they resorted immediately to force. The only way the revolutionary leaders inspired by Marx could think of to build their world of collective liberation for the working class as they came to political power in the 20th century was by force, using the lash of the slavedriver and the threat of the labor camp to put the people to work to build the perfect society.
In the real world modern humans in developed societies have a range of choices between the two extremes that Hoffer offers or the false choices that President Obama tossed up to his partisan supporters. Nobody is truly “on your own;” nor is anyone in the position of a chattel slave driven to work by the lash. People have a choice. They can pile risk and responsibility on their backs and start a business, they can go work for the government, keep their heads down and follow orders and get a job and a pension for life, or they can compromise with something in between.
So what is this individualism; where did it come from? In his “Religious Evolution” Robert Bellah speaks of a new kind of religion that emerged in the millennium before Christ. This new “historic religion” that replaces “primitive” and “archaic” religion
leads for the first time to a clearly structured conception of the self. Devaluation of the empirical world and the empirical self highlights the conception of a responsible self, a core self or a true self, deeper than the flux of everyday experience, facing a reality over against itself, a reality which has a consistency belied by the fluctuations of mere sensory impressions. Primitive man can only accept the world in its manifold givenness. Archaic man can through sacrifice fulfill his religious obligations and attain peace with the gods. But the historic religions promise man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it. The opportunity is far greater than before but so is the risk of failure.8
This is the birth of the individual human, the responsible self. Primitive man, according to Bellah, is almost animal-like, surrendering to the “givenness” of life. Archaic man, the Homeric warrior on the plains of Ilium, sacrifices and bargains, hoping to earn the favor of his divine patron and somehow win a boon from the political mayhem of Olympian divine politics. But the historic individual believes in a God that is no longer the boss of a divine political family, but the author of the universe. Now the human individual has the ability and the responsibility to understand the world, the “structure of reality,” and face up to the responsibility that comes with understanding.
The Fabians, coming after Marx, knew a different kind of individualism. For them, individualism was an atomic thing, the “on your own” experience of the peasant thrown off the land by the Agricultural Revolution of the last millennium, or the rank-and-file industrial worker hired and fired at will by the capitalist bosses. They thought the way that Karl Marx thought when he wrote about the Agricultural Revolution in the first volume of Capital.
A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, who, as Sir James Steuart well says, “everywhere uselessly filled house and castle.” … The dwellings of the peasants and the cottages of the labourers were razed to the ground or doomed to decay.
The process of forcible expropriation of the people received in the 16th century a new and frightful impulse from the Reformation, and from the consequent colossal spoliation of the church property. The Catholic church was, at the time of the Reformation, feudal proprietor of a great part of the English land. The suppression of the monasteries, &c., hurled their inmates into the proletariat. The estates of the church were to a large extent given away to rapacious royal favourites, or sold at a nominal price to speculating farmers and citizens, who drove out, en masse, the hereditary sub-tenants and threw their holdings into one. The legally guaranteed property of the poorer folk in a part of the church’s tithes was tacitly confiscated.9
So here Marx and the conservative Disraeli are agreed: the Whigs, court favorites of Henry VIII and richly rewarded with their Marney Abbeys,10 were thieves!
From our vantage point, several economic revolutions later, it is possible to read the Agricultural Revolution in a different, more innocent way: less the deliberate spoliation of innocent peasants and more the ordeal of change from one economic way of life to another, for change of any kind creates winners and losers and transition costs. We could say that the “free proletarians hurled on the labour market” were a condition of the serfs obtaining their freedom. Marx’s “useless” feudal retainers seem like ancestors of the once-prosperous hand-loom weavers of 19th century Dunfermline in Scotland, displaced by power looms, or the Main Street grocer run out of business by the supermarket. And at the turn of the 21st century we see once-modern manufacturers and their rigid unionized workforces run out of business by newer, agile businesses and the old promises of life-time employment canceled by the actions of the bargain-seeking consumers. In the United States almost nobody works on the land; very few men work as miners in underground mines; the share of the workforce in manufacturing is declining. Each workforce was once the salt of the earth, but found that time had passed it by, and left it “useless.” Even presidential candidate Barack Obama knew in 2008 how it worked.
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them,” Obama said. “And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”11
For Karl Marx the landowners were responsible for the plight of the peasants; for the Fabians the factory owners were responsible for the plight of the workers. For 21st century progressives “corporate greed” or Hardt and Negri’s “Empire” is responsible for economic distress. They all have a point, but these shallow critics miss the point and fail to ask the interesting question.
The question is: What is to be done when the world changes forever, as it did in the Agricultural Revolution, in the Industrial Revolution, in the Automobile Revolution, and now in the Information Revolution? In the old days, before modern agriculture and modern transportation, economic change meant famine and starvation. Today when things go wrong we can airlift food and medicines anywhere in the world. But then what?
The response of modern government to economic change, almost universally, has been either to resist change, at the behest of the powerful, or to throw up its hands and toss a couple of mites at the sufferers, and allow them to molder their lives away in what a blind man living on Social Security Disability Insurance once described to me as “a bare existence.” In England the government responded to the proletarians “hurled on the labour market” with the Elizabethan Poor Law, the welfare program of the late 16th century. The 19th century governments responded to suffering in the mines with child-labor laws and Factory Acts. The 20th century governments responded with welfare and retraining programs. There is no sign that the 21st century politicians have any better news for the “bitter clingers.”
The birth of individualism and the emergence of the “responsible self” has introduced a new option for humans. People can still live as humans lived in the old days, as rank-and-file members of a collective, in an inevitable subordination to a lord. It may be a village big man, a feudal lord, a political boss, a factory boss, a union boss, or the household patriarch, but he that lives in a collective waits upon the orders of a superior. It is up to the boss to decide how to use the ability of the people under his command, and if his decisions bring failure and starvation, then too bad for the subordinates. Then there is the other way. Humans can pick up the challenge of responsibility, and become individuals. Now the monkey is lifted off the boss’s back and placed on the back of the individual. It is up to the individual to discover how to contribute to society and then develop the ability to do so. It is up to the individual to adapt to change.
What happens when the factors of production change, when the needs of society change, when the climate changes? In the collective model the subordinate peasant waits for his lord to decide what to do. But what if the lord is dispossessed by an invading army? What if the boss skedaddles out of town, leaving the factory and its workers to fade away? What if the city bosses run the city into the ground and there is no money left for city-worker pensions? The responsible individual knows exactly what to do; he must take his losses and discover once again how to be of use to his fellow humans. This is called adaptation.
In our definition individualism is a product of the Axial Age discovery of the “responsible self,” the responsibility in each individual human to God and to society to find an individual way to become a socialized adult and live a socialized life and become the human who has integrated the personal and the social, reconciled ego and alter, who has found a way to thrive by serving others. We are talking about a human who has dissolved the apparent paradox between the personal and the political not by reducing the personal to the political but by balancing them, and recognizing that the first step for any socialized human is always the step to offer service, to proffer trust to another, to assess whether he has performed a service, and only then to ask “what’s in it for me?”
We define collectivism as the age-old instinctive social bonds inherited from our tribal ancestors and inherited by them from our common ape-like ancestors. In Bellah’s framework this means either the “primitive” acceptance of the world with its “manifold givenness” and an unconscious submission to the collective or the “archaic” sacrifice of self to the will of the gods and the conscious submission to the will of the lord.
On this view we can rewrite the curiously anachronistic story-so-far in Fabian Essays; our story does not start with the curious tale of an Adam setting boundary markers around his original patch of agricultural Private Property. Why, after all, would the modern bourgeois individualist be an agriculturalist? When the original Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge, God sent him and his Eve out of the Garden of unconscious Eden and subservient obedience to his liege Lord and into the world to till the ground, not in an act of appropriation but a banishment from the life of unconscious givenness.
The first modern individualistic Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge that stood in a collective agricultural Eden and asked: Why? Why am I just doing things in the old way of the ancestors? Why I am waiting upon the pleasure of my lord? Suppose I vary the crop rotation? What would happen? Supposing my crop rotation produces more food, should I exchange and trade a surplus, or should I produce just enough for the needs of the collective? What then? Suppose I borrow money from the older guy at the other end of the village so I can buy more copyhold land? Maybe I could pledge the land as collateral in a formal written document to reduce the risk of my default and sweeten the deal for my creditor. This new responsible individualist is thinking, planning, creating a surplus that he trades for other peoples’ product, and expanding his new and profitable operations with the help of other peoples’ capital.
So far so good. But if individualism is a liberation from a world of manifold givenness, why is it so controversial, and why did the modern ruling class work up a crude indictment of individualism a century ago in Fabian Essays? The answer is simple: the ruling class believes in another kind of individualism from the responsible individualism we have been discussing here. We have seen it emerge above in the rise of what Charles Taylor calls “expressive individualism.” A similar view is that of George Simmel, who saw in the transition from the 18th century to the 19th century a progress from quantitative individualism to qualitative individualism.
First, there had been the thorough liberation of the individual from the rusty chains of guild, birth right, and church. Now, the individual that had thus become independent also wished to distinguish himself from other individuals.12
This new expressive or qualitative individualism is a culture that celebrates uniqueness and creativity, and it is the secular religion that energizes the desire in every young person in the 21st century to become a videographer. It is also the personal faith that moves the elite educated class to make of modern society an aesthetic project, to create a society that is pleasing to the eye of the ruling class, much as the landowners of Jane Austen’s era engaged Capability Brown to create parks and shrubberies around their great mansions to please the eye and sufficient in extent to permit their Lizzie Bennets to take a strategic walk when Lady Catherine de Bourgh came calling.
We can therefore understand modern society as a class conflict, in the Marxian sense of self-conscious groups acting in history, between three major classes. First are the eternal people of the subordinate self, that seek safety as the feudal retainer of some great lord, or big corporation, or political leader. Then come the people of the responsible self, that take the yoke of responsibility on their shoulders and the freedom that comes with it and seek to work and prosper in the world as responsible individuals, following the rules, going to work, and obeying the law. Finally we have the people of the creative self, that seek to live and excel as creative individuals, finding in a life of self-expression and affect a sense of meaning in work of original creation. We shall encounter these people in the next chapter as the “multitude” of Hardt and Negri.
This creative or expressive individualism lacks the social component that defines the responsible individualism of Eric Hoffer’s mid-20th century workingman and the middle-class 21st century technical worker. The creative individual does not want to contribute; he wants to star. He wants to flash across the firmament like a comet, surprising everyone and filling them with wonder. The first blush of this movement of creative individualism centered on aesthetic program of the Romantics. But pretty soon the creatives branched out into new vistas of creative endeavor; many of them began to feel that that the highest and best way to ascend to individual creativity was to lead and succor those marginalized and ill-adapted to city life in an aesthetic project of social and political revolution. Pretty soon this movement led to the conception and the birth of modern expert-led government, the aesthetic project of the entire educated class to improve the human race and human society and fundamentally transform humans into educated and evolved people just like the educated class itself. The great culture wars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been a conflict between the culture of responsible individualism and expressive individualism. The culture war has exploded into a political war because many creative individuals have chosen to star and excel in projects of political innovation, and such socially creative and expressive projects necessarily diminish the scope and the freedom available to the non-creatives, the responsible individuals in society that do not aspire to create, but merely to contribute to society.
1Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change, Harper Colophon, 1964, p. 35.
2George Bernard Shaw, “The Basis of Socialism: 1. Economic,” Fabian Essays in Socialism, 1889, Dolphin Books, p. 17.
3Hoffer, Ibid., p. 27.
4Ibid., p. 28.
5Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964, p. vii.
6Barack Obama, Speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, December 6, 2011, Accessed: 7/26/14: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/12/06/remarks-president-economy-osawatomie-kansas
7Barack Obama, Speech in Roanoke, Virginia, July 13, 2012. Accessed: 7/27/14 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_didn’t_build_that
8Robert N. Bellah, “Religious Evolution,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3, p. 367.
9Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, Chapter 27. Accessed: 12/30/13: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch27.htm
10Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil or The Two Nations, Oxford UP, p. 9.
11Barack Obama, speech at San Franciso fundraiser, 2008, reported by ABC News. Accessed: 1/6/2014: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2008/04/obama-explains-2/
12Kurt H. Wolff, ed., The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Free Press, 1950, p. 78.
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The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since
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