The Christian Answer to the Liberal Idea of Individualism
One of those common ideas in right wing spaces is that the building block of society is the individual. It is a dangerous and corrosive idea that should be challenged by Christians especially.
Now that I am not scrolling through Twitter all the time so as to keep myself in “the flow,” I have found myself once again reading more mainstream conservative publications. While it is useful to reconnect with ideas floating out in the “mainstream-o-sphere,” and while getting in touch with things written to catch and hold the interest of the “average” conservative or right-wing reader has been instructive, it has also reminded me once again how many of the ideas that we take to be “conservative” are in fact actually destructive left wing ideas. They are often earlier iterations of liberal ideas, old enough now that clinging to them gives the illusion of conservatism without its reality. It is easy to look back at the older forms of liberalism with fondness and optimism, thinking that if we just “return” or rescue these ideas from the corrupting influence of the current left we will be able to recover a hopeful future for our society.
One such idea is “individualism.” This is the idea that for a society to be properly democratic and free, it must respect the primacy of the individual as the basis of society. Each individual is an autonomous, free decision maker endowed with inalienable rights. I am just going to say it straight out: this is a deeply liberal idea and deeply corrosive upon society. It is also deeply ingrained within the American psyche as the essential building block of a free, democratic society. This is doubly true for many of us who are Christians. We confuse the notion of the human person, a personal salvation, and a personal God, with that of the modern, nominalist view of the autonomous individual, much to our, and our society’s, detriment.
People tend to gravitate toward simple schema, especially when it comes to politics. We want nice neat categories. We want to know, without complexity and nuance, who is friend and who is enemy. For much of the 20th century, America was seen to be at the forefront of battling the “Communist menace.” When faced with the collectivism of Communism, and it’s technocratic stepsister socialism, is was easy to slip into a straightforward taxonomy: anything that emphasized the primacy of the collective over the individual was bad. That which set the individual ahead of the collective is good. Looking at people as individuals based on their own merit is good. Considering their worth in terms of group identity is bad. You will often hear in normie circles that the way to battle group identity politics is to re-focus on the primacy of the individual. This, I would argue, has been a colossal, and socially destructive mistake. It arises out of a misunderstanding of the philosophical underpinning of individualism and its implications; as well as the nature of groups in “mass” society. All is not as it seems.
The article which touched off my need to flip open my laptop and begin the writing process recently appeared in the pages of American Mind. It was Robert C. Thornett’s “Identity Alchemy.” He gives a fairly commonplace recitation of intersectional identity politics, drawing on a recent book by Joshua Mitchell, and his explanation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings, to sketch out the binary between the individual and intersectional group politics as one between an identity which is stamped on us by others due to our falling into some group categorization, and those associations which are generated freely and voluntarily by the individual and thus freely become part of our human signature. The binary here is one of an identity and a sense of belong to a group which emerges from the free, voluntary actions of an individual vs. those identity markers which are assigned to us by others, stamped upon us whether we want them or not. These then become our identity markers, almost like brand labels. For many, most I dare say, on the right, this is fairly straightforward recitation of the received wisdom of the way things are and how to think rightly about the world and politics as a “conservative.” The problem is, there really isn’t that much “conservative” about it at all.
The Group in the Age of “Mass Man”
The difficulty we run into when discussing this is that what we think of as “groups” today are not really true “groups.” They are a collection or classification of individuals. That may seem obvious, but it is a subtle, important point that is essential to understand. The groups which we associate with the politics of collectivism in its various forms are not true unities. They are a simulacrum of a true group, a true community. The problem has a long history, one which has been percolating over a significant period of time. It has to do with how we understand the very fabric of reality and the nature of human beings. The offending philosophy is that of “nominalism.”
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