Critiques of individualism are as legion as critiques of modernity in theological circles. But anymore I’m not even sure what a critique of individualism is supposed to do. Ostensibly authors of books lodging theological critiques of individualism are hoping to somehow reshape society or at least generate some substantive sub-cultures that don’t fall prey to being “individualistic,” however that be defined.
But what would that even look like? What makes today’s world so particularly individualistic in a way that is different from the rest of history up till now? The only thing I can think of is that today people (in the West anyway) have more power to make choices about how to live life. So a few hundred years ago most people probably didn’t have the option to pick up and change the way or place where they were living life. They were embedded in something stable, or at least hard to disturb without significant trauma on many levels. Now that level of trauma has been significantly reduced. Human bonds are more fragile, less likely to be permanent.
Hence “rampant individualism”?
I kind of don’t think so. In the first place, I don’t think all that many people today are actually going to seriously argue that it is wrong and bad for people to be able to make decisions about how and where to live. The radical discomfit that people seem to have with individualism is that they don’t like the modes of life many people choose and so they start launching polemics about the horrors of individualism, often with a nostalgic reference to how things used to be more given, more stable, more solid. Romantic references to “place” and “land” tend to come up a lot here.
But, here’s the rub: those lodging this critique certainly don’t think that they should have to give up or be denied their ability to shape the course of their life. The most ardent critics of individualism are remarkably mobile and nomadic fellows from what I’ve see. They go where the university posts take them with little regard for “place” or “land” or “community.”
Now, I’m not that interested in just pointing out a potential inconsistency between some intellectuals’ published positions and their actions. My point is more basic and more important than that. It seems to me that the people who most ardently criticize individualism are people who are concerned about a loss of power to shape society (or the church) towards their understanding of the good. Put concisely, “individualism” is only scary to those who want to control the social lives of others. Honestly I don’t think it can possibly be a coincidence that the folks most virulently critical of individualism are white males who have significant university posts. Indeed I’m hard pressed to think of a single female scholar who has attacked individualism in ways akin to say Robert Bellah or Zygmunt Bauman.
It seems to me that critiques of individualism invariably come beset with a totalizing vision of “the good society” that, ostensibly should be actualized whether people like it or not (because obviously they don’t like it or they’d be doing it already). In short, I don’t know how critiques of individualism, as such, avoid the charge that they are simply instances of the will to power. They are always animated with angst, fear, and revulsion towards the current shape of social life and deeply desirous of reshaping society in accordance with their own vision. Its hard for me to image that not being ultimately fascist (Milbank is perhaps the most sophisticated example of a theological fascist writing today).
If there can be a non-ideological mode of critiquing individualism I have yet to find it. Mind you I’m not saying that I think all the modes of life that characterize modern life are all fine and dandy. I manifestly do not. But, the impulse to structurally change and shape the conditions of social life in order to bring about one’s own vision of the good society is totalitarian. All despots believe that they are doing what’s ultimately good for the populace while insisting that the choosing and interpretation of that good must be out of the hands of the people themselves. They cannot be trusted to choose it so it must be imposed on them by a stable life, rooted in a particular place where things just “are” the right way. You know, my way. They way where I have power. Because at least that’s not individualistic.