Individualism and statism

Reading this column at The American Conservative led me to a column at the same site by Patrick Deneen. Deneen picks up on a point that he made in a column on Hobbes in the fall of 2012, which I blogged about here. That point is that state power and atomistic individuals are natural partners, and that the modern state has often sought to weaken social groups that compete with the state for the loyalty of the individual.

In this newer column, Deneen writes that Tocqueville saw this trend as well:

In the chapter that follows his discussion of “pantheism,” Tocqueville logically and sequentially moves to the subject of “perfectibility.” Once democratic man recognizes his membership in “humanity” at large, he becomes devoted to the improvement of everyone—and no-one in particular. In a democratic age, shorn of all positions and status, a new and nearly universal passion for perfectibility comes to predominate—the improvement of society constantly in the name and belief in the ever-increasing democratic equality of all humanity. Only when the aristocratic order has been displaced, and the individual has been liberated from the old order, can “the human mind imagine the possibility of an ideal but always fugitive perfection.”

The liberation of humanity from all partial and mediating groups and memberships finally culminates in what Tocqueville famously calls “the tutelary State”—the rise of a new form of tyranny, “democratic despotism,” particularly chilling because it comes about not through the imposition of force and violence, but at the invitation of an individuated and weak democratic citizenry. No longer able to turn to the old orders and organizations to which he might once have belonged, “he naturally turns his eyes toward the huge entity which alone stands above the universal level of abasement”—the State—amid his individuated weakness.

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2 comments

  1. What a powerful exposition by Deneen. And that Census video is quite the apt punctuation! Wow, look at how much is enabled by the Census.

    I especially like your term “atomistic individuals” as it emphasizes the severed voluntary associations (particularly severed from the responsibilities they bring), and Deneen’s term “democratic individuality” as individuality defined by democratic vote.

    Such qualifiers seem absolutely necessary to me when we talk of the “individual liberty” of progressives, because it is not simply individual liberty, but rather only certain liberties of only certain individuals. So, to call that “individualist” is not only contrary to modern definition but it also tells only half the story, and not the important half. “Isolatist” or “atomistic” might be more apt.

    Paine does sound exactly like a progressive at the end of Galupo’s piece and I can see how he is clinging to his artificial ideals of individualism, but his individualism has become heavily warped by his hostility toward traditional voluntary social groups to the point that it becomes statism at the expense of other individuals.

    After all, the state is not only under the influence of an atomistic individualism, but also under the influence of social groups, including corporations, which successfully lobby for biased subsidies, regulations, and other laws. They are spokes in the wheel, too.

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