Conservatives, by nature, are individualists. While valuing faith, flag, and family, they are skeptical of ideology and of utopian solutions to social problems. But they have been losing the culture war. A paternalistic state is a panacea for the younger generations and groups favored by the identity politics of today. Social liberalism has been bolstered by legislation and policies that protect people of particular status and criminalize expressions of contrary opinion (‘hate speech’). But the growing conflict between traditionalists and progressives is causing stress, with divisions exacerbated by social media. In this context, there are signs of the West shifting towards collectivism. This will bring security — but with a regrettable loss of liberty.
Individualism is now a global phenomenon, according to a recent study of 78 countries by Henri Carlo Santos and Michael Varnum of the University of Waterloo in Canada, and Igor Grossmann of Arizona State University. Measuring variables such as household size, solitary living, divorce rate, favoring of friends over family, and emphasis on independence and self-expression, the authors attributed this trend to a burgeoning middle class in developing nations. As education and earning opportunities widen, people eschew traditional religious and cultural strictures in pursuit of meritocratic and materialistic reward.
Secularization and social liberalism are certainly features of modern society. However, freedom from traditional mores has led to social division and strife, and collectivist order may be appealingly contrasted with individualist disunity and anomie.
A pioneer of scientific investigation on individualism and collectivism was Harry Triandis, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Raised in a traditional community in Greece, Triandis experienced culture shock on moving to the liberal, pluralistic environment of an American university. His research since the 1970s has shown clear differences in the extent of individual autonomy and collective cohesion: “Within any culture there are people who act more like collectivists or like individualists. The distributions of these attributes, however, are different.”
At a societal level, the individualizing process may be traced back to the industrial revolution. Feudal society was tightly-knit and restrictive but had a human scale that was lost in the huge mill towns. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx described the alienation of the working class. The mass labor movement gained rights by strength in number through trade unions and eventually political representation. Marx, however, did not foresee the emergence of a middle class. White-collar workers and their families could live upwind of the smog, having disposable income to acquire material goods and enjoy recreational activities. While the laboring class lived cheek-by-jowl with grandparents and grandchildren, the middle class created the nuclear family and became geographically dispersed.
In the 19th century, millions escaped from the coal mines and factories by emigrating to America. Far from the privations of the old country, here was a land of opportunity. The Constitution of the “Founding Fathers” was influenced by the libertarian ideas of John Locke and the free market principles espoused by Adam Smith. Such thinking contrasted with the “social contract” of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whereby individual wants are relinquished for the sake of collective needs.
Rousseau’s concept of the “general will’” has been exploited by governments of means-to-an-end ideology, as warned by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom. Socialist parties, which prioritize equality over individual freedom, were prominent throughout Europe in the 20th century, with fluctuating electoral success but pervasive influence on governments of whatever hue.
Nonetheless, democratic societies in Western Europe tended to preserve individual choice and liberty. The rise of individualism in the late 20th century was so steady that it suggested historical determinism. Progress from blind faith to rational humanism was conveyed by the title of a Darwinian analysis in 2009 by Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson: “Why do people become modern?”
The political and cultural establishments of the UK and U.S. were profoundly shocked by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president. Commentators in the mainstream media and across academe now fear that liberal democracy is mortally threatened by a regressive, xenophobic backlash.
Rising above such reactionary rhetoric, Matthew Goodwin at the University of Kent has objectively investigated this rejection of “normal” politics. In the book National Populism, Goodwin described a dealignment of conventional parties and voting patterns. In the UK general election of 2017, many working class voters switched from Labour to Conservative, while Labour gained middle class support. Among seats changing hands were quintessentially Tory Canterbury and the former coal mining town of Mansfield. A similar inversion is evident in the U.S., with the post-industrial rustbelt turning to the Republicans.
In recent decades, the social democratic parties that dominated European politics have prioritized minority group interests, protecting the disadvantaged from the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Consequently, ordinary people worry about being placed last in the queue.
Such a social divide exposed by Brexit was conceptualized in 2017 by David Goodhart’s “Somewheres” and “Anywheres.” The former type of person is rooted in community, with a strong sense of belonging at several levels from family to country. “Anywheres” express the progressive values that are educationally, professionally, and economically rewarded; they presume themselves ‘on the right side of history’.
Yet populism — which means the “will of the people” to its supporters, and uninformed “mob rule” to its detractors — is gaining momentum. The survival of mainstream parties is not guaranteed: French and Italian centrists have been decimated by the surge of anti-establishment parties. While populist parties differ, common interests are a revival of nationhood and resentment of the identity politics of gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.
National populism is one of three forces driving society from individualism to collectivism. It may be the least important, due to demographic destiny. Brexit and Trump were an electoral success for a declining sector of the populace: white, old, and lower-class.
The second and more potent force is mass immigration, which is transforming Western culture. The intelligentsia continue to assume the demise of religion, despite the steady growth of Islam and African Christianity resulting from the influx and high birth rates of Pakistani, Somali, and Nigerian diaspora. Countries like Britain are becoming more religious, not less. While Protestant Europe privatized faith, and the Church of England has emptying pews, collective worship thrives in African and Asian cultures.
The third force for collectivism is the hyper-connected but troubled younger generations. Online social media are a tremendous asset for communication and individual expression, but research by psychologist Jean Twenge indicates that the internet has produced a narcissistic and miserable generation. Society appears to have lurched from stigma to normalization of mental disorder, as celebrities openly divulge their psychological problems.
A mental health crisis in younger people is an urgent concern, with increasing incidence of self-harm among girls. Following a spate of student suicides, mental health services have been introduced on campus; effectively, universities have become locus parentis. As discussed last year by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, students have learnt that they are fragile.
Meanwhile, idealistic younger people are hungry for political change, often channeled into ecological or moral causes. Socialism, previously taboo in the U.S., is no longer a passing student fad but endorsed by Democrat politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jeremy Corbyn, the Trotsky-inspired leader of the opposition party in Westminster, is similarly very popular with younger people, for whom collectivist ideology is a comfort in a stressful environment.
Patriots, millennials versed in progressive values, and diverse migrant communities may not appear to have much in common beyond their shared existence in a particular setting. Yet there is convergence between these disparate forces. As the younger generations are increasingly multicultural, the white middle-class is a declining element in student cohorts. Entrants to the electoral register are more religious and more collectivist.
Furthermore, the assumption that younger people find populist parties distasteful is refutable. More important than age is social class. In Turkey, dictatorial leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan draws support from all ages in the vast interior, while educated voters in cosmopolitan Istanbul and Izmir fear reversal of Atatürk’s modernization. Despite demonizing of Marine le Pen’s National Rally as ‘far right’, some of its policies are in tune with the old Left, including nationalization of utilities and workers’ rights. In Italy, a coalition of the Lega and Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five-Star Movement or M5S) — parties from opposite political poles — was eased by similarities in their agenda.
To appeal to a changing electorate, political parties must understand that more of the same won’t work. From the perspective of the “Somewheres” —those who are worried about their country and culture, students anxious about their financial prospects, and migrant communities wary of secularist constraint on their religious beliefs — a sense of security is needed.
Social liberalism has also led to troubling schisms and rising crime. British justice minister David Gauke plans to abolish short prison sentences, but he doesn’t live in an area rampaged by gangs. The murder toll in London — where middle-class “virtue-signallers” decry stop-and-search as institutional racism — has surpassed that of assertively-policed New York. The impetus for the election of “authoritarian” Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro was escalating violence, with the highest recorded total of 63,880 homicides in 2017.
With reluctance rather than relish, fractured liberal societies will turn to strong leaders. Voters may abhor the boorish style of Trump, but they will seek reassuringly decisive politicians who will protect them from internal conflict and the challenges of globalization. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, the higher existential pursuit of self-fulfillment is irrelevant if basic needs are threatened. Safety, both physical and psychological, comes first.
The ‘long march through the institutions’ of postmodern ideology, and the unholy alliance between our political masters and global capitalists, may finally be coming to an end. As governments fear revolt at the ballot box or in demonstrations by gilets jaunes, they are tempted to act illiberally. Indeed, Enlightenment values are more likely to be suppressed by supposedly liberal leaders than by protestors.
The collectivist turn is also illustrated by the efforts of politicians and campaigners to regulate the “wild west” of cyberspace. States are collaborating with technology firms to quash politically incorrect opinion, and the British parliament has been defying the EU referendum verdict despite promises to the electorate. This, of course, is misuse of power to bludgeon the truth. Eventually, self-serving elites will be swept away by a national revival.
Countries need the strength of leadership to overcome internal divisions and to build a distinct and inclusive identity — with shared pride of place. A cohesive society depends on a consensual attitude to rights and responsibilities: excessive focus on the former has detracted from the latter. As inevitable conflict arises from the competing interests of identity politics, someone must take control. Regrettably, collective gain will bring a loss to individual liberty; but citizens will feel as relieved as the boys in Lord of the Flies when adults rescued them from their own barbarism.
This was originally published with the same title in The European Consertvaive on July 13, 2019.