As I’ve argued previously, cultures that prize individualism dominate the West (cf. Ethical Musings: Thinking about community, Class divisions, and What difference does religion make?).
Thirty years ago, Gibson Winter in Liberating Creation (New York: Crossroad, 1981), presciently suggested that individualism could easily become narcissism (pp. 92-93). Reflecting on the last sixty years in the United States:
· The already strong sense of individualism, symbolized by the frontier ethos, became even stronger as the civil rights, anti-war, and other social change movements fractured the existing sense of community. This was not inherently bad; the U.S. enjoys a much more just culture today than it did in the 1950s.
· Excessive individualism developed into the narcissism of the “me generation.” People in the 1980s and especially 1990s focused on hedonistic self-fulfillment and personal pleasure to the exclusion, often the detriment, of the common good.
· That excessive individualism and shattered sense of community is now apparent in our political process. Politicians pander to voters’ self-interests as the best way to win the next election. Politicians’ agenda rarely includes the common good, especially the common good that connotes the interests of anyone other than the politician’s constituency. Consequently, government often approaches deadlock; compromise and bipartisanship signal the end of a political career rather than the emergence of genuine leadership.
The nineteenth century German philosopher Hegel proposed that history moves dialectically, i.e., an antithesis develops in response to each thesis. In this case, renewed emphasis on community would emerge as a response to the excessive individualism. The antithesis that emerges is usually excessive.
Nazi fascism and communism both exhibited excessive emphasis on the communal, becoming destructive and evil. Following the founding of the modern state of Israel, the emphasis on communal life in kibbutz yielded to a healthier balance between individualism and communalism without excess. That seems to be an exception, not the historical norm.
What is the future in the West? How much further will the sense of community disintegrate in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of the individualistic? The libertarianism of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul would push our culture even further in that direction.
The more extreme individualism becomes, the more likely the move toward community will be extreme. A healthy society constructively and creatively balances individualism and communalism. Globalization increasingly pushes us to define community globally rather than locally or nationally. But globalization also brings with it the capacity for ugly totalitarianism that may allow precious little individualism. Future generations will benefit if we can reverse the move toward individualism without triggering an over-reaction in the opposite direction.