Will Wilkinson, a research fellow at the Cato Institute who has been analyzing the numbers, says the reason for it hinges on what we need to survive: “According to University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, the head of the World Values Survey, under conditions of relative scarcity and insecurity, individuals tend to develop values oriented toward survival,” he said. “In such conditions, the family is like a little mutual insurance society, and adherence to traditional family values is high. Respect for authority and conformity is also high. As economic prosperity advances, individuals naturally begin to worry less about how to simply get by and to worry more about making life meaningful. Wealth tends to produce a syndrome of ’self-expressive’ or ‘emancipative’ values that includes a stronger sense of individuality and greater tolerance for diversity.”
His use of the word syndrome introduces an appropriate modicum of tension in what might otherwise be read as a straightforward celebration of the progressive liberation of humankind in an affluent society. Clearly, not having to worry constantly about bare survival has its upsides; one can notice/invent a meaning deficit for oneself to create a new scarcity crisis to dictate behavior. (Alternatively, one can recognize an attention deficit brought on by a surplus of distractions.) We become preoccupied with self-fashioning, with curatorial consumption amidst the surfeit of goods; this can be understood as the freedom to be who we really are, or at least the freedom to always be int eh process of becoming more authentically ourselves, and more important, be recognized as such. This kind of narcissism seems to produce a kind of indifferent tolerance for what everyone else does. One’s stake in another’s behavior doesn’t seem so high. We are free to ignore one another if we so choose.
That seems an awesome freedom. But then we realize that it means we are being ignored. The disintegrating tendencies of individualism thus yields anomie and an exhibitionism by which we try to secure the recognition that once came from serving a discrete, established social role and from following the rules, for better or worse. The circuit of meaning was that self-sacrifice yielded a more stable community, which yielded a nativist pride that went a long way toward validating the self, not as a unique flower necessarily, but as something with a clear, strong identification.
I don’t endorse that nostalgic vision. It’s more or less an account of the impression left on me by Phillip Blond’s “Rise of the Red Tories” piece about communitarian conservatism in Prospect. Blond elaborates an attack on neoliberalism’s deleterious effects of society and champions a return to Burke:
It was Edmund Burke who famously spoke of conservative radicalism being founded on the little platoons of family and civic association. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
Leaving aside the strange oxymoron of “conservative radicalism,” it’s worth asking whether filial affections really work this way. Does it move beyond the little platoon to a love of mankind? Or does it become a society of little platoons in perpetual civil war?
In championing the tolerance that emerges from laissez-faire principles, Wilkinson is drawing from the liberal tradition that Blond denigrates. “This left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy moral relativism of the liberal professional elite.” (That’s not fair. My moral relativism is rigorous!) Blond’s argument is that there is no inherent self to liberate from social repression; the society constitutes the self.
The most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape. The liberal idea of man is then, first of all, an idea of nothing: not family, not ethnicity, not society or nation. But real people are formed by the society of others. For liberals, autonomy must precede everything else, but such a “self” is a fiction. A society so constituted would be one that required a powerful central authority to manage the perpetual conflict between self-interested individuals.
The laissez-faire neoliberal society, Blond suggests, constitutes individuals as a void. So emptied, we must continue make those futile gestures at meaning, trying to consume our way to a sense of self. (I think this is Blond’s most persuasive argument. In order to combat that line of thinking, usually a form of biologism or evolutionary psychology gets deployed to suggest that there is an inherent self that demands a specific form of society to allow for its full and proper expression.)
This leads then to a Hobbesean war of all against all because everyone will be out for themselves. (I’m less persuaded by that.) Since no one is obliged to share values and are arguably encouraged instead to invent unique ones for themselves to be distinctive, society disappears until the chaos calls forth a totalitarian state.
I am more inclined to think that a repressive state has become unnecessary because atomistic individuals have proved easier to control—self-involvement is not a revolutionary frame of mind. Whether or not it is a positive development that dissent has been stifled by increased narcissism says a lot about one’s politics.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.