Why ‘The Individual’ is a muddled idea

The Individual – Who Is It?

by Gwydion M. Williams

From one viewpoint, the ‘average individual’ is a bronze-skinned hermaphrodite less than 5 feet tall. That comes from taking your abstractions a few degrees too far. Merging men and women, adults and children, plus the human diversity that is expressed through skin colour. [A]

The Western idea of ‘The Individual’ is just as much an over-the-top abstraction. It’s not even an average of real living people. It muddles a single individual’s identity as a distinct person with the separate matter one’s shared identity as a member of a group. Each person’s distinct identity is shared with one or more wider groups, in a real society. ‘The Individual’ ignores such complexities and lumps us all as standardised units of The Individual.Who Is Individual

The Classical Liberal model of ‘The Individual’ was a white male of independent means and immersed in the best aspects Anglo culture. This ‘eternal truth’ lasted till the 1960s, with special exceptions made for a few women and non-white, provided they hid their differences as much as possible. The sacredness of the rights of The Individual did not mean that actual living people had any right to be ‘weird’.

When the Cultural Metamorphosis of the 1960s got confirmed in the 1970s, the concept of ‘The Individual’ completely lost touch with reality. Liberalism only worked for as long a ‘superior people’ were in charge.

A lot of what’s wrong with the USA comes from a genuine populism, the ‘New Backwoodsmen’ of Middle America overthrowing the East Coast Elite, the heirs of the European Enlightenment. This isn’t something the Liberal-Left can face up to, of course. Belief in the benevolence of ‘The Individual’ is at the heart of the Liberal / Libertarian spectrum of ideas. ‘The Individual’ can trust ‘The Individual’, because ‘The Individual’ would not wish to cheat ‘The Individual’, obviously.

But ‘The Individual’ is a fiction – a useful fiction for some purposes, mostly administration. If you’re organising a coach trip for 35 people, it is simpler to classify them as 35 ‘Units of the Individual’ and let real differences sort themselves out privately. The concept is a product of mass production, something that rose with industrialism, the assembly of people into units of a vast political and economic machine.

Real people are individuals shaped by their social environment, though not passively and not without being able to choose their own fate. Besides, a ‘ social environment’ is actually a huge collection of other humans, not some supernatural Leviathan that can treat humans as raw material. We are material, but self-shaping material.

One 19th-century thinker put it very nicely in a letter to a friend:

“History is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting force, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.” [B]

The discovery of ‘Structured Chaos’ over the last few decades adds the missing element – an explanation of how a lot of effort may appear to produce no results, and how an apparently stable system may suddenly change radically, or even collapse completely.[C] Though ‘social forces’ are the sum of individual choices by complex human personalities, dramatic change can also be generated spontaneously within a system of mindless components. A classic example is a double pendulum, two simple pendulums on a common mounting. It looks like some mischievous ghost has got hold of it, but everything works according to known physics.[D]

[The best popular account of this is Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick]

To understand societies, you have to understand that they are dynamic. And that ‘dynamic’ can include static periods, when enough people value stability over their other goals.

In the West, the 1950s were stable because people who’d grown up amidst fear, want and war were willing to sacrifice self-expression for stability. They also talked a lot about ‘individualism’, but their vision of ‘individualism’ was an aggressive conformism, everyone striving for their own advancement and not daring to be different. Those who did dare were harassed with various degrees of ferocity, including mob violence.

These ‘Standardised Individualists’ raised a generation that saw stability and plenty as part of the natural order. A new generation that also had some legitimate protests at what a stable technocratic order was doing to people. So in the 1960s, the established concept of ‘The Individual’ was overthrown. No longer was this entity assumed to be something like a white male within Anglo culture. It had been taken as a fact of life that The Individual drove a car, played cards, smoked cigarettes, and drank alcohol etc. But this model hadn’t really worked, was seen as oppressive and dull by the rising generation. Then also, the Vietnam War was a critical test for the validity of ‘Mr The Individual’, the standard person of 1950s. The Standardised Individualist was weighed in the balance and found to be wanting.

‘All Men Are Brothers’ was a progressive slogan up to the 1970s – ‘All Men Are Sisters’ would have jarred at the time, and still would, even though ‘man’ in English can be generic. (The political feminists usually get this far and then wander off into nonsense. They’ve pushed their way into a male-dominated power structure, but also lost connection with the vast mass of independent-minded women who do paid work outside of the limited areas of politics, charities, teaching and ‘the media#.)


The 1960s was a Cultural Metamorphosis – ‘Cultural Revolution’ would be a better term, but Mao appropriated the term for his own attempt to redefine ‘The Individual’. Comments on Mao’s Cultural Revolution ought to start by looking at the two processes, profoundly different reactions to the same cultural uncertainty. That’s a topic for a separate article, for now I’ll do no more than label the western version the Cultural Metamorphosis. Everything changed gradually, with a new generation gaining power that allowed them to change old ways. Everything changed without any ideological framework to explain what was happening – both Left and Right preferred to say that things were much as they always had been, still ‘capitalist’. People who grew up after the Cultural Metamorphosis seem not to understand it – are baffled by the fact that there was a time when ordinary Britons would get married without having first lived together for a few months or years. ‘Living in sin’, it used to be called, but who now recalls this?

The West’s unguided and misunderstood Cultural Metamorphosis produced an unforeseenEarly Microsoft oddity, Counter-Culture Capitalism, which included marginal hippy enterprises growing into gigantic global corporations. A Microsoft staff photo from 1978 shows 11 people, 9 men and two women.[E] Most of the men look like generic hippies with plenty of facial hair. Gates is one of two males in the photo who have engaged in the unnatural hair-suppression that modern US citizens regard as normal. (By the standards the mainstream USA started imposing from the 1920s, most of their 18th and 19th century Presidents would count as ‘weirdoes’.[F])

Microsoft are the biggest and most dramatic example. There are thousands of others.

The USA incorporated its 1960s rebels, whereas the Soviet Union suppressed them. That plus the US moon landing were the determining factors in the Cold War. A western victory became likely, regardless of who was in charge in the West, just so long as they avoided a drastic economic crash.

The ‘theorists’ of the New Right push a line of patter that sounds convincing until you try to work out what it actually means. They congratulate themselves on having restored Capitalism in the 1980s, undoing the bad work of the 1940s. But the Western system as it existed between the 1940s and 1980s is also defined as capitalism. Capitalism was abolished by the wicked Corporatists, and became – Capitalism! Then in the 1980s, the heroic efforts of Thatcher and Reagan restored Capitalism, putting it in place of Capitalism, apparently.

The New Right have to think in such twisty ways, otherwise they’d have to admit that a non-capitalist system managed to provide several decades of stable economic growth, political democracy and personal freedom. The New Right know for certain that none of these things can exist without capitalism, so the systems of 1940-1980 was still capitalism, though also it wasn’t.

For the New Right, Capitalism arises from unchanging human nature, so the best human efforts have never eliminated it. But also it has never existed – there is even an influential book called Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, written by Ayn Rand, who was also the mentor of central banker Alan Greenspan. So, everything bad is because capitalism never existed, while everything good is because capitalism has always existed. Thirteen out of ten mad hatters would strongly endorse this logic!

State Intervention is very bad, except for October 1987, when there was a spectacular stock market crash and it did seem possible that the western system would collapse. Sensibly, both Reagan and Thatcher ignored their own creed and spent their way out of trouble. In 1987, Gorbachev had only just begun undermining the Soviet system. Had the West been in trouble in the same period, there would not have been the same enthusiasm for abandoning what they had.

The Soviet collapse strengthened the self-confidence of the New Right. Led them to an ambitious and aggressive policy – and one that has mostly failed. The states of the former Soviet Union were open to remoulding, but Western advice was disastrously bad. Russia today is poorer than when it dropped the Soviet system, and under Putin’s leadership it is no longer ready to listen to Western ‘wisdom’. China was wobbly at the time but is now self-confidently independent. The only Western gain has been Middle Europe, countries that had long looked to Western Europe and only got detached by Russian military occupation. Even so, hopes for a ‘New Europe’ accepting US values have not been realised. Poland just now looks more like Vintage 1938 than anything resembling modern US values.

The whole process was cocked up. China got it right, keeping the state strong and applying something much like the Soviet Union’s 1920s New Economic Policy. But applying it with the land question already sorted out. Talk of Chinese Capitalism is more talk than reality: even though farming is now individual, there is no private property in land.

The New Right have misunderstood history. What they call a ‘Free Market’ has never existed without the backing of a strong state machine funded from general taxation. Claims that capitalism is spontaneous relies on ‘concertina logic’, expanding or contracting the definition of capitalism during the argument. To prove the merits of capitalism, the ‘mesocapitalism’ of the 1940s to 1980s is classed as capitalism, and so is the current Chinese system. But then the definition of capitalism is suddenly contracted to mean just the Anglo system of freedom for money with minimum social control.


Only one economic system is spontaneous among humans – gift-exchange. People give each other things on the basis of friendship, or to build up a friendship, or to restore a friendship that has come under strain. Or they may give away things to total strangers, if they have plenty. To be praised can often be enough of a reward. Some noble characters will give gifts anonymously, not wanting any visible reward.

Gift-exchange is the only economic system that is found in every known society. The only system that flourishes without any particular ideological justification or political support. It is probably the original basis of human society. Neolithic exchanges in which interesting or useful items must have travelled across Europe are called ‘trade routes’. But wherever we get direct evidence of people living at a Neolithic level, we find it is much more gift-exchange. You don’t get to know someone to make it easier to swap your goods for other goods that you’d prize more. You give gifts to someone you’d like to be friends with, with the friendship the main point and the goods secondary.

The standard Western vision of The Individual does not include the habit of gift-exchange, which would be classed as ‘irrational’. Just one more instance in which ‘ The Individual’ is an unrealistic model of human nature, even as it is expressed within Western society.

Humans are the most social of all mammals. Insects can form larger groups, but scientists don’t believe that insects can really think. Social insects also limit breeding to a few specialists – creatures called ‘queens’ in ants and bees, but the individuals in question do nothing except lay eggs and do not have any role in commanding others. Social mammals are more similar to humans, there is often a dominant male who monopolises the females, or a dominant pair who produce all of the offspring for as long as they are dominant. Humans are exceptional in forming societies in which most adults breed and in which infants accepted as part of the community will mostly get looked after.

‘Rationalism’ since the European Enlightenment has played down or ignored our social side. This was a convenient way of slipping free from a mass of inherited tradition that was corrupt, contradictory and had produced mass slaughter in Europe’s 17th century religious wars. In parallel with the religious conflict, modern science had been born in Italy, France and Germany, with secondary outbreaks in neighbouring countries, including Britain. The pioneers including devout Catholics like Galileo, conventional Catholics like Copernicus, irregular Protestants like Kepler and devout Protestants like Newton and Boyle. In a world where science offered a hope for the future, religious questions had to be evaded. The notion of ‘The Individual’ developed in this context.

The concept of ‘The Individual’ was useful to a rising middle class that wanted to undermine traditional authority. Nobles owed their power to social connections: the middle classes were much more concerned with individual talent. There was a lot of rhetoric about individual choice, but in practice the rise of the middle-classes included the building of state machines that had unprecedented power and scope. In a traditional society, the state was identified with the monarch and was fairly distant and weak. The Emperor of China was theoretically Son of Heaven and above question, but the entire apparatus of the Chinese state in the 18th century was one-twentieth of the total economy,[G] miniscule compared to a modern state. It was as much as the state could do to stop overt rebellions and keep out foreign foes. There was no need for detailed rules about how to protect ‘The Individual’ from the state. It was the massive growth in state power that made this necessary.

A state is neither God nor Devil. It is part of the human adaptation, people giving up some choices and getting back a lot more freedoms in return.

The only viable arrangements for human life are a tribe or a state. Or, more commonly, some mixture of the two, with informal tribal or tribe-like arrangements existing within a society defined by state power..

The liberal illusion has splendid units of The Individual, emerging spontaneously knowing exactly how to live. It is complete rubbish, the sanctification of a useful generalisation, The Citizen in a small uniform state that had successfully imposed a single way of life.

Liberalism can’t cope with actual human diversity. It has to pretend that the differences do not matter, which is simply not true. Nor can it explain Fascism, explaining it nowadays as an unexpected outbreak of evil. But in the 1920s and 1930s, a lot of the British and US middle class were quite friendly towards Italian Fascism and German Nazism. Churchill spoke for many when he praised Mussolini and said that something similar should be done in Britain if the society was ever in a sufficient crisis to need it.[H] Churchill’s opposition to Nazism was based on being able to understand how the world would look from Hitler’s point of view – that Hitler would not be content until he had established Germany as stronger than Britain, and perhaps also avenged Germany’s treatment after World War One.

Fascism was an attempt to fuse the society a single tribe-state that would control everything and be orientated towards war. This was very much an outgrowth of the popular militarism that most of Europe had been developing since the 1870s.

Fascism was also in all cases a creed of White Racism, though not all White Racists were fascists. Inside and outside of fascism, there was a different of opinion about how to classify Jews. The British norm was to classify Jews as part of the White Race and generally as a superior element within it. On this basis, the Jewish settlement of Palestine was part of the normal process of superior modern people pushing aside tribalists.

The Western world after 1945 picked up elements of Fascism and Leninism and was much stronger for it. It accepted the Fascist idea of mass culture and mass propaganda. The Leninist notion that colonial peoples should be free, that women could do the same work as men, that sex should be a matter of individual choice and that racial inequality was wrong. These things took time to work through the system: the British Empire fought a rear-guard action to save its remaining colonies after getting out of India. It took a tremendous battle in the USA to end open racism and legally enforced racial segregation. Functional racism and de-facto segregation have survived, aided by Ronald Reagan’s denial that there was a problem while he was President.

In the 1970s, people redefined the older concept of ‘The Individual’ to allow for these changes. Left-wing ideology failed to allow for this and kept on fighting old battles and missing new opportunities – most notably workers control. But that’s another story and a topic for the next article.



[A] A community of small bronze-skinned hermaphrodites is at least conceivable. Ursula Le Guin managed a fine realisation of something like that in her 1969 book The Left Hand of Darkness. What is impossible is the concept of society as a slurry of The Individual, the ‘rationality’ of the New Right.

[B] Engels to J. Bloch, September 21, 1890, [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm]. I left out the author’s name, in the hope of getting round existing preconceptions.

[C] James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science is still much the best guide to ‘structured chaos’, even though it was published 20 years ago.

[D] You can see a model double pendulum at [http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/~wheat/dpend_html/] and [http://www.maths.tcd.ie/~plynch/SwingingSpring/doublependulum.html].

[E] Wikipedia: article on Microsoft. Look also at Bill Gates, especially his 1978 mug-shot following a speeding offence.

[F] Wikipedia: List of Presidents of the United States has a nice collection of portraits and photos

[G] China: prehistory to the nineteenth century, by J A G Robert, page 217, revised edition of 2000.

[H] Detailed in Issue 70 of Problems Of Capitalism & Socialism, Spring 2003

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2007.

The photo of the original Microsoft comes from the Wiki, available under ‘fair use’ rules.  Gates is on the left in the front row, looking rather different from his current appearance.  On the right is Paul Allen, co-founder and probably an essential contributor to the company’s success.  In another article, Outliers, I note how many software successes have needed a successful partnership of two men with complementary skills.  (No women at the top level, as far as I know.)]

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