The Revolutions of Individualism



Individualism has become necrotic and today threatens the pillars of the democratic rule of law

“Individualism” is a polysemous term, with many meanings on the stage of history. It would be a big mistake to imagine that the concept has remained immobile in time. Like an aria by Giuseppe Verdi, “like a feather in the wind / he changed his accent / and his thoughts”. This article raises some questions that crossed the theme approach. Under Nazi-fascist totalitarianism, which stifled individual rights, individualism tattooed the supreme value of freedom in the field of moderate humanism. It was the first revolution of individualism, in the period after World War II.

For Simone de Beauvoir, in For a morality of ambiguity, this “new individualism” had the ability to refound the existentiality of individuals, in philosophical terms. It was not a simple way to "l'anarchie du bon plaisir”. Albert Camus, in the angry man, followed suit by explaining that the individualism in evidence should not be confused with the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure: “il est fight”. Outside of existentialism, however, there was resistance to individualist positions through the refusal of what appeared to be an alienating escape from reality, and not a real struggle.

Sensitive to objections, the magazine Modern times founded by Jean-Paul Sartre echoed the primacy of the collective. If that wasn't enough, the author of Critique of Dialectical Reason discussed the importance of “groups in fusion” to transcend “alienation” and “seriality” (dispersion, loneliness). The aim was to remove the new individualism from an impenetrable glass dome. However, the Sartrean perspective relativized the social by circumscribing freedom in the sphere of singularities: “The important thing is not what they did to me, but what I do with what they did to me”.

In the 1970s, formulations contrary to individualism were given a boost to confront the existentialist individuation project, which reeked of civil disobedience with an anarcholiberal bias. Based on collectivism, Marxism entered the battle to combat anarcholiberalism, in important intellectual centers in France, Italy and England, fencing a critique of “petty bourgeois individualism” and atomized libertarian illusions, which tended towards quietism.

For Marxists, only collectivist solutions could equate social and economic inequalities. The political process of capitalist disalienation depends on the organization, in all workplaces, housing and study of oppressed and exploited workers, they argued.

The “social dimension of human activity” was highlighted by several thinkers, including Michel Foucault, for whom “the individual is, without a doubt, the fictional atom of an ideological representation of society, but it is also a reality manufactured by this technology of power called discipline”, in Discipline and Punish. Anti-individualism spread with the names of class, group, neotribe, multitude. A holistic culture was designed, with the empowerment of plural subjects.

The first revolution of individualism increased feminist emancipation, for the right to dispose of the body. At the same time, it encouraged the opening of sexual and family customs in a test of independence in the face of heteronomous rules, “until death do us part”. Greater autonomization derived from individualist movements, and generated divorces and celibacy. The current crisis of political representation is the side effect of the enhancement of private interests and individual commitments to participate directly in the direction of society and Gaia.


new world reason

The second revolution of individualism, as a mentality and lifestyle, found a strategic ally in the 1980s: neoliberalism, “the new raison du monde”, in the lexicon of Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval. A phenomenon that coincided with the loss of prestige of Marxism, due to the numerous reports by dissidents from the former USSR about the totalitarian practices of “Soviet communism” (neither “communism” nor “Soviet”, by the way, for the Trotskyists). In this context, militants with references to Leninism and Maoism rediscovered the individualist and liberal aura of rights, previously labeled with contempt as “bourgeois ideology”.

The brand new race towards individualism accompanied the winds that were blowing in the direction of a “narcissism”, with vigorous gusts demanding “less Marx, more Mises”. On the boat of monetarist civilization, the recurring theme was the role of the state; the applause went to the free market. under the unique thought (hegemonic neoliberalism), the fashion consisted of problematizing the size of the State apparatus (bureaucratic, mammoth), as opposed to the virtues of private enterprise (agile, efficient). Antistatism and antinationalizations pushed a regressive right to abandon the banner of equality, which is at the origin of Western modernity. The high tide dragged social and labor rights back to the gloomy nineteenth century, in which women and children had the enslaving sixteen-hour workday, with a starvation wage.

The rudder of egalitarianism has suffered breakdowns. The collectivist impulse of May 1968 was left behind. An era was beginning that proposed making the most of existence, now with the rule of hedonism. The youth was dressed with the precepts of mass consumption. Stereotyped individualities forged a distinction in the orbit of subjectivity. Consumerism was linked to signs and slogans identified with freedom (rock, jeans), which served to fill the existential void.

Freedom referred to an economic regime in which privatism extended to choices for private health, private education, and private culture. The public interest did not matter. If reality didn't provide options for 99% of the people, too bad. The problem was with the people, not the state. "Society does not exist, what exists are individuals and families", cried Margaret Thatcher. Everyone take care of yourself, as you can. Or fuck you. Self-help literature enriched writers.

With neoliberal rationality came the demand for a self-regulated market and the deregulation of state inspection bodies, as in the last quadrennium under the authoritarian heel of genocide, as well as ecocide, in the country. By introducing neo-fascist authoritarianism into the anti-work grammar, the starting and ending point was the boçal individual, the yuppie. The dissolution of the divides between the persona, the citizen and the State was part of the ethical and theoretical onslaught of a toxic individualism. The human sciences were not immune to the expansion of the virus, when it assumed a “methodological” character.

The hallmark of neoliberalism – “mass” individualism – took root in the intimacy of citizens / consumers, who prayed in the temples erected to the cult of commodities, the Shopping Centers. The market destroyed the sense of belonging to a national community with globalization. The disintegrating effects were capitalized on by neo-Pentecostal churches. Old Catholicism was knocked out in the corner of the ring. Traditional associative modalities suffered an ebb. The internet encouraged experiences for digital sociability. Unemployment and the extinction of mandatory union dues are not enough to understand the pace of super-individualization.

The second revolution of individualism even made Germany, recognized for its holism and communitarianism, disseminate among its inhabitants the guiding idea of ​​happiness in life insurance, as well as the desire to break free from social/moral constraints and subordination to the standards of a collectivity, class, party, nation or state. The “economic miracle” in Northern Italy was attributed to individualist insurgencies against state tutelage. The legendary cradle of the Welfare State, Sweden, saw in the 1991 ballot the blossoming of a conflict that lasts between individualist aspirations and the “Swedish model”, then socialized and governed by collective interests.


Utopia versus dystopia

The established controls loosened. The “general liberal” statute worked to reinforce social anomie. Violating health protocols, crowding and walking without a mask in the pandemic; transgress environmental legislation with the deforestation of the Amazon region; driving above the permitted on the roads; idiosyncratically reinterpret the Constitution to fit whims and vanities; disrespecting popular sovereignty by denying the result at the polls; and plundering the nation's symbolic heritage (the Planalto Palace, the National Congress and the headquarters of the Federal Supreme Court / STF) are attitudes that tore up the citizenship contract and plunged individuals into the “state of nature”. Therefore, they severed the bonds of loyalty to the Hobbesian “social state”.

Individualism has become necrotic and, today, threatens the pillars of the democratic rule of law. Tempered by the rise of the extreme right in the neoliberal era, in the North and South hemispheres, it gave the green-yellow signal for “the war of all against all”. A lot of water accumulated, to the point that the dike could not withstand the pressure and burst. At the height of hyper-individualism, conflicts ceased to pass through the sieve of institutionalization. The arguments yielded to the presumption of firearms. Civility was beaten and killed. Post-truth has replaced consensus. Denialism stabbed science.

By rejecting the power of the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary, neo-fascism proclaimed a spectacular departure from the institutional structures of democracy, which made dialogue and negotiation impossible in the face of violence. Ignacio Ramonet, in “La nueva ultraderecha y la rebellion de las masas conspiranoicas” (The Diplomatic World, 10/01/2023), writes: “the seditious masses of the ultra-right never dared to launch an insurrectionary assault on power, without the support of a previous barracks undertaken by the Armed Forces”. They took the lid off irrationality.

The legitimizing architecture of capitalism seemed eternal. The demise of the Berlin Wall raised reflections about the “end of history” and celebrated the ceiling of humanity: “liberal democracy” and the assumption of “market economy and society”. But the hasty prophecies were fake news.

The really existing institutionality, whose program contained the unfulfilled promises of political representation and technological innovations, suffered a brutal erosion of credibility under neoliberalism. Justice closed its eyes to the absurd iniquities, plastered by corporatism. In meritocratic competition, the resentment of losers opposed the arrogance and privileges of winners. The losers suffered humiliation; the victors deepened the discrimination. “The generous man will be blessed, since he shares his bread with the needy” (proverbs 22:9). The selfish man, on the other hand, does not even know how to vote in elections, which he will say is concerned with his neighbor.

It goes from there that, according to recent sociological surveys, 25% of Americans would exchange democracy for an illiberal regime, with a dominating leader “who does what he has to do”; while only 20% of Brazilians believe that democracy would meet the conditions to solve the serious and colossal problems of our “patropi”. The alarming data incited coup fantasies in the sick mind of the family militia about liquidating the Supreme Court, “with a corporal and two soldiers”.

Hate circulates underground in the United States (Donald Trump) and Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro). No wonder, right-wing extremism has turned hate into the preferred tool for its political construction and enlisting supporters. The capitalist paradigm, which contemplated only 1% of the world's population, went bankrupt. The doors to utopia or dystopia opened wide. The dispute is ongoing. As the philosopher of praxis wrote, “the old has died, but the new is slow to be born”.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.

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