Thursday, November 7, 2013

Understanding Individualism

The last century has seen a great ideological war about the foundation of the good society, and that war has really been about capitalism.  Is it a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

In about the middle of the 19th century, capitalism became, for a growing sector of western society, a scandal, and that sector is identified with the name of Karl Marx.

It seemed to young Germans like Marx, in the decade when the old peasant order in Germany was collapsing and the industrial system was taking off, that the new industrial order was a murrain on society.  Yes, it was ushering in prosperity, at least for some, but it was demolishing the old collective ways in which humans came together in society and substituted nothing but exploitation: in one word, "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

As the years passed and Marxism gained traction, a rather romantic notion of pre-capitalist society grew up.  People may have been poor in the old days, but at least they weren't thrown out into the world "on their own."  They had the comfort of a collective village or extended family.  Instead of going out into the world working for wages making things for strangers people lived and worked for each other.  This idea developed into the Marxian idea of "alienation."  The peasant worker worked in the village for family and neighbors "for use" but the factory worker worked for strangers "for exchange" in a barren world of ruthless market prices.

This all fed into a Three Ages model.  In the old days people were poor but they were happy, because they lived for each other.  Then came The Fall into market capitalism and individualism where people became separated from the collectivity into a cold hard world of the "cash nexus" and selfish life "on our own" where the weak went to the wall.  But soon will come the age of socialism when the collective spirit will be restored and come to its full flowering in a new heaven on earth.

One of the main props of this argument was the idea that Britain, the vanguard of the industrial age, had been a peasant society up until about 1660.  Over the next century, with the expulsions from common land by the Enclosure movement, a vast army of landless laborers was pitched out of its rural cottages into the industrial slums of Manchester and the coal mines of Newcastle.

But Alan Macfarlane in The Origins of English Individualism: The Family, Property, and Social Transition argues that England was already a capitalist, market driven society as early as 1250.  Already, at that time, people were buying and selling land, people could will real and movable property, women could own property and represent themselves in court, workers regularly worked for wages, and parents routinely sent their teenage children away from home to become apprentices and servants.

All this is significant because in the supposedly traditional peasant community that the medievalists have proposed, work and home were one, so children grew up to become workers for the family; homes featured an extended family of multiple generations; women were married off young in arranged marriages and were completely ruled by the patriarch of the household;  old people were cared for in the family home until they died.

So Macfarlane argues that England was clearly not a traditional peasant society, not as late as 1250.  That means that the industrial system was not a sudden plague visited upon a defenseless England in the 18th century.  People had lived as individuals for hundreds of years already.  In any household that had limited land the children were sent out to work and the farm work was done by hired laborers.  It is reckoned that about half the population of England was working as hired laborers or as servants.

Macfarlane also calls in the testimony of people that had seen and reported on both England and France or Germany in those centuries.  Their testimony is that England seemed to be a lot more prosperous than the continental nations.  Individualism and freedom and prosperity went together.

Now in our society "individualism" has a bad odor.  It is associated with Ayn Rand and ruthless business practices, and "higgling" in the marketplace and a lack of compassion for those less fortunate, and "the sneering question: 'will it pay?'"  But I have come to realize that this understanding of individualism is completely wrong.  Individualism is not a doctrine that makes a virtue of selfishness.  It is really the opposite: it commits the individual to individual responsibility for serving others and society in general.

Individualism starts with the Axial Age religions where people first start to experience themselves as personally responsible to God for their lives.  I suspect and assume that this started in the cities of the fertile crescent in the Middle East.  But it includes Confucianism in China, Hinduism in India, as well at Judaism and Christianity.  The result is what I call the People of the Responsible Self, people that believe themselves personally responsible for every facet of their lives.

You can see that traditional peasants are not People of the Responsible Self.  They are People of the Collective Self and also People of the Helpless Self, helpless before weather, before pestilence, before the power of the lord, and before war.

But you cannot live like a peasant in the city.  You cannot repose in your family and wait for the patriarch to order you around.  You must go out and get a job.  You must figure out where the employers are and you must search out the employer that might hire you and you must persuade him to hire you.  If you rise in the world like Abraham Lincoln, once a hired laborer and soon a hirer of others, then you must start to figure out not who has a job for you but what the consumers want from a person with your skills and your products.

Here is what I am arguing.  With the growth of cities and the market economy and the wage economy humans cannot thrive in a peasant-type society.  People must live as individuals; they must be responsible for themselves; they must reach out beyond their household to find out how they can serve their fellow humans.  That is the meaning of individualism; that is what People of the Responsible Self do.

So to ask whether capitalism is a good or a bad thing misses the point.  Capitalism is the way of the city.  The people of the city are the People of the Responsible Self.  People of the Responsible Self are individuals.  They live by the ways of individualism.

And the sooner we all understand that and recoil from the progressive dream of a heaven on earth, the better.

1 comment:

  1. If you or ALan MacFarlane were lawyers you would know that a) he was attacking a straw man (origin - a person in law who either initiates or is part of an action solely to give locus) and (b) you would have to alter the meaning of capitalism to state that just because the statute of alienation allowed lords to sell land (though under the feudal tenurial system) that this meant a change from the feudal to capitalist model (the feudal tenurial system still exists - all land technically belongs to the queen in Britain). You would also have to ignore the long history of explicit individual rights in England (and Normandy) that resulted in the hybrid judicial system of the King's Peace, the jury system and Magna Carta in the 11-12th C if you are claiming that capitalism invented individualism - English individualism and its conception as its needing balance against the state's or lord's authority has its origins long before the Norman conquest.

    I would say that the significance of the late 17thC/early 18thC to capitalism is that several of its defining features became incorporated into law by the state (as markets and trading existed since the dawn of time) - such as limited liability of companies meaning they could borrow without incurring personal liability, a state backed banking system (Bank of England) and corporations (East India Company, etc) and enforcement of contracts with rules (writ of indebitatus assumpsit, etc). This also, coincidentally (not) is the period in which the constitutional monarchy was born and sectarianism became a secondary issue giving stability to English trade.