|Source: Individualism--is it just a consolation prize?|
There are several reasons why rampant individualism sits at the core of the Tory project. Individualism promotes the idea that our successes in life are purely down to our own efforts. That rationalises inequality, because it perpetuates the myth that the wealthiest are the brightest and hardest working while the poorest are the stupidest and the laziest. Inequality simply becomes just deserts, rather than the sign of a society rigged in favour of a lucky minority. Tax becomes a punishment for success rather than a contribution to the collective kitty.
Individualism transforms social problems such as poverty and unemployment into personality defects, rather than the ills of a poorly constructed society – to be cured by a change in an individual’s attitude rather than by collective solutions, such as a welfare state. It erodes a sense that the majority have shared interests and aspirations, which are not only different from those of the elite, but on a collision course with them. It is fatal to the logical conclusion of this sentiment: that the majority should deploy their collective strength to challenge the concentrated wealth and power of the few.
As a dogma, this form of individualism is a formidable obstacle to socialism. But in practice it has increasingly resulted in insecurity: no wonder, then, that solidarity is so hankered after by so many.
Economic hardship, after all, imposes stultifying constraints on human freedom. Is an individual saddled with debt, who lives in fear of energy bills landing on their doormat, and who has to choose between a hot meal for themselves or their children, truly free? The private tenant whose income is devoured by rent, and who can be evicted at the whim of their landlord, lacks freedom, as does the child with nowhere to study in an overcrowded home. So does the worker on a zero-hours contract who cannot plan a month or even a week ahead because they don’t know when they’ll be working or how much they’ll be paid. By robbing individuals of security, neoliberalism has robbed them of freedom too.
And that’s why the dichotomy between collectivism and individualism is a false one, because all individuals flourish only by standing on the shoulders of others. The provision of secure, decently paid jobs; a properly funded education system that unlocks individual potential; the building of comfortable and affordable homes; the elimination of student debt: all these will allow the individual to prosper and thrive. But that requires a collective approach – or socialism, as it is commonly called.
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