Should Labour oppose individualism?

photo.jpgEver since the Thatcher era, British politics has been defined by forms of economic and social liberalism. The right won the argument for the former and the left the argument for the latter, or so it is said. Yet in the post-crash era, this ideological settlement is beginning to fracture. The right is re-examining its crude economic liberalism and the left its social liberalism.

This shift is characterised neither by a revival of socialist economics, nor by one of reactionary conservatism. Rather, it is defined by a mutual recognition that liberalism, at least in some of its guises, does not provide all the answers to Britain’s most entrenched problems: its imbalanced economy, its atomised society, its lack of common identity……. …With its emphasis on abstract individualism, liberalism, the great driver of social emancipation and economic prosperity, now feels inadequate to this new age of insecurity…..

New Statesman. Leader, ‘Liberalism now feels inadequate in this new age of insecurity’, New Statesman, 27 March 2013

In short, yes I believe that Labour should oppose individualism. Yet opposition alone is insufficient. Labour should propose a positive vision that transcends the exhausted binary poles of individualism and collectivism. It should propose a view of association and the common life that respects liberty and personhood but sees individual human flourishing contingent on a deeper experience of community. This vision draws on distinctly Christian resources which can avoid the twin tyranny of the individual and the collective.  It has an appreciation of the reality of the soul, the example of scripture, an appreciation of society and is situated in a particular expression of socialism. One that is Christian in origin as opposed to a secular, liberal perception of the individual that is atomised and seeing the self as autonomous and sovereign. It is this latter approach that is the root of many of our contemporary problems.

We hardly need any more individualism in the West. Social and economic individualism, rooted in the ‘revolutions’ of the 1960s and the 1980s, have proved empty and disastrous. But a return to state collectivism is neither desirable nor realistic.

Individualism may appeal to part but not all of the electorate. Certainly parties might win an election with an appeal to individualism, but can a country be transformed by individualism? I don’t believe it can or should.

I set out why I believe individualism is inadequate and therefore why Labour should not embrace it.

The Soul

I believe that man has a spiritual dimension. We have a body and a soul, the eternal part of our being. This may not be a word heard much in society let alone Labour Party fringe meetings. However, I hold to a Christian worldview, that is my starting point. The late US philosophy professor Dallas Willard said:

‘You are not just a self; you are a soul. You are a soul made by God, made for God, and made to need God made to run on God. Which means you are not made to be self-sufficient’

From the outset, it is clear from that statement – with which I wholly concur – that mere individualism, even situated in a social democratic or communitarian frame, will not do. So whilst it is perfectly feasible for political programmes to be designed to cultivate individualism or vague abstractions of community, to me they will prove inadequate if rooted in a materialistic and secular view of the person. There is a metaphysical and cosmological framework, which has to be considered first.

Scripture

My reference point for interpreting meaning is scripture and theology. This resource tells us that individuals are endowed with dignity scripture.jpgand worth, all mankind is unique irrespective of class, gender, race, economic status or ability. Each creature, made to relate to his or her creator, has inestimable value. But man as the focus of creation is situated in an order of creation and only understands his or her true meaning and orientation when cognisant of that creator. God, revealed through scripture has made clear the worth of each individual, yet the whole counsel of God, does not stop there. God is relational, the mysterious vision of the Trinity, the three in one and one in three gives us a glimpse of this important part of his creative nature was not about an individual but Adam and Eve, partners, entrusted with a divine injunction to steward creation. They had responsibility beyond their immediate self-interest and were mandated to flourish and oversee the flourishing of creation. God’s plan of redemption is situated in a people, Israel, a community, led by heroic individuals certainly. Jesus’ mission is shared by a ‘collective’ of twelve. In Acts 2 we see the early church sharing their goods and possessions in an early version of communal living. In the book of Revelation we see the final triumph of God’s people which is corporate in expression, ‘the saints’.

So, from a biblical perspective the individual is important, but not reified to become a creed of individualism. The individual’s identity and potential cannot be wholly understood or sufficiently realised without being reconciled to their creator, relating to others for a common purpose or entering into a shared story that is larger than the whole. It is here I find it helpful to focus on personhood rather than the individual. A book I read over the summer provides a helpful insight.

‘…one person inward-looking, refusing to relate to others, is not a true person. We only become authentic persons when we are able to say with full conviction: I need you in order to be myself. Merton makes use in this context of the distinction between individual and person.’

(Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, Ecumenical Patriarchate: Afterward, ‘A silent action – engagements with Thomas Merton’, Rowan Williams.)

Perhaps personhood is a better starting point than individualism. Scripture and a knowledge of our relation to God provides a sound reference point to appreciate this. Personhood says ‘I need you in order to be myself’. Individualism alone will fail apart from relationships and the other. It is a non-starter.

The hunger for liberty and freedom detached from its values base has proved dangerous, as has been pointed out by Phillip Blond. The fundamental problem for liberalism is that it become detached from the Christian roots that fostered it. 

Society

One of the most interesting developments in recent years is the re-assertion of civic society in political discourse. It is too early to assess where this will go.  Clearly, the renewed profile of the primacy of the civil society in underpinning the good life renders naked individualism a curious project. Any glimpse at society or its importance must tell us that individualism is insufficient. We all operate in a broader context or space, civic society may have differing forms and may be stronger in certain places than others. Competing visions will seek to define it in different ways. Yet, the aspiration to focus on civic society and its importance tells us perhaps of a hunger for more than we have no. Hyper-individualism has failed us. The evidence of church administered foodbanks, debt advice centres, youth provision, mums and toddlers groups and host of other activities run for the common good attest to the health of civic society, filling gaps in provision at critical junctures. This is not a complacent analysis, whole areas of society are bereft of community and suffer from the ravages of economic, social and cultural individualism.

This is why, for all its flaws, the Big Society should not be too swiftly dismissed. It was not merely a cover for cuts as some on the left initially suggested. It was the recognition that there is more than the state, market and the individual. It should have been the Labour Party making this argument.

Years of market and state dominance have whittled away civic society. But it is because of the potential for civic renewal we should be open to the idea that mere individualism is insufficient. Labour’s civic roots should tell us that individualism alone is not a path the party should embrace.

Socialism

socialist-league.jpg ‘We raise the watchword liberty, we will, we will, we will be free’ – George Loveless, Tolpuddle Martyrs

The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance’ John Philpott Curran

The Labour tradition has many streams; secular, socialist, social democratic, celtic and Christian Socialist. It should be natural that the socialist, collectivist traditions provide a corrective against individualism per se. In many ways they have; the establishment of free trade unions, the Rochdale pioneers, democratic empowerment, the National Health Service, access to national land and beauty were achieved through the ‘strength of common endeavour’. Labour has in its DNA a sense of the common life.

However, misty eyed reflection on the achievements of past collectivism is of little use. The corrosive impact of hyper-individualism or social and economic liberalism have wrought deep damage.

‘The [2011] riots were signposts to the failure of successive governments to deal with the downsides of two revolutions. A social revolution in the 1960s made us freer, more tolerant and a more vibrant nation. An economic revolution in the 1980s made Britain more prosperous and innovative. But, left unchecked, the combination of the two revolutions has made us more atomised, more unequal and less compassionate. Our culture is more hyper-individualised and our social fabric is stretched and damaged. The malaise of long-term worklessness, materialism, the inadequacy of the criminal justice system and the lack of positive male role models came together in a perfect storm during August 2011.’

(David Lammy, Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots (London: Guardian Books, 2012), pp. vii-viii)

As David Lammy points out hyper-individualism and other forces have stretched and damaged us. They render attempts to renew the left’s ever present struggles almost impossible.  The challenge is not to give up on task but to find the resources, traditions and language to focus the movement today.

It is in the Christian faith and its values and worldview the answer lies. Despite the apparent triumph of unrestrained liberalism many people still yearn for a sense of belonging and association.  The desire to cherish relationships, family and place is strong.  The discipline and practice of community organising to mobilise civil society vis a vis the market and the state demonstrates association and mobilised campaigning can still inspire and deliver material change.  This is why I believe this debate about individualism in the context of the Labour Party needs as a conversation partner. That partner is Blue Labour and post-liberalism.

We are living in a twin crisis of inequality and identity.  The challenge of secular capitalism, environmental degradation and family breakdown cannot be faced by the individual alone.  Nor can these challenges be met solely through a political platform designed to win an election. There needs to be a long-term, transformational approach to public life that is pro-faith, post-secular and post-liberal. An intention to foster institutional life, allowing individuals to flourish and character to form; honouring liberty but eschewing extreme liberalism and moral relativism, pursuing the common good in the family, locality, workplace and society. This is not about moralism or utopia. A vision of the common good that is pro-association, pro-person, goes beyond tribe and secures the basis for individual flourishing outwith a liberal frame. This approach can renew society thus shaping politics. Under these conditions, we can see any party, Labour or whoever not merely opposing individualism but setting out a broader, richer vision of the good life.

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