INDIVIDUALISM VS. INDIVIDUALITY
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools[i]
From Rudyard Kipling’s “If”
Our era of doublespeak teaches that using certain politically progressive concepts in accordance with their original significations, which may prove slightly uncomfortable for progressives, is vulgar or gauche. Hence we all timidly insist on obscuring any link between “socialization” and socialism, as though the similarity between the two words were purely coincidental, and attempt to persuade ourselves that “proper” socialization is apolitical, and merely a matter of learning how to interact with other people appropriately. Those who developed the term “socialization” in its original, educational sense, however, were quite clear about its implications. One Russian scholar’s examination of the absence of a clear definition of the word “socialization” among social scientists themselves begins by noting that:
The etymology of the concept “socialization” leads to the German language when two words “Sozialisierung” and “Vergesellschaftung” were borrowed by the Anglo-Saxon language system for the description of absolutely new social phenomena and processes:
1) “Sozialisierung”—transition of private property to public one (or state one);
2) “Vergesellschaftung”—as “cooperation of persons in a mental unity of group life” and as “the central process in social evolution.” [ii]
Public school socialization, understood in its early formative connotations, implies the de-privatization of the individual, i.e., psychological training for life in a socialist collective.[iii] That it has gradually lost the explicit political associations should not be misconstrued as indicating a fundamental change in meaning. Rather, the normalization of the term as a descriptor for the educational process in any kind of society indicates the extent to which the once-radical idea, like many others essential to the realm of what we now casually call “the social sciences,” has taken hold of both the academic and popular minds. We no longer identify socialization as a function of political collectivism per se, simply because it is now implicit in our universal indoctrination that every society is, at heart, a collective being—a social entity logically, morally, and metaphysically prior to its constituent individuals—and hence that in every society child-rearing is merely a variation on the process of absorbing the individual into the collective life and will. That is, child-rearing and moral education—the preparation of an individual for life as an adult human being—which were adequate and accurate terms to describe what adults were doing with their children prior to the late nineteenth century, have been replaced, not just lexically but conceptually, by “socialization.” On this new view, any society, including a supposedly democratic and capitalistic one, is a “culture,” a living organism in a geographical Petri dish, in which individuals are problems to be solved, natural anomalies to be resolved into the cultural growth. Socialization, as the term is now used—not a new definition, but a mere universalization of its original socialist sense—means any given culture’s solution for the problem of nature, nature being understood as an impediment to social evolution.
More concretely, to socialize a child through government schooling is to divest him of certain psychological traits that would develop of their own accord in a reasonably healthy environment—traits that progressives implicitly regard as symptoms of disease—most notably a thoughtful concern for his own personal welfare and that of his loved ones, and a craving for the freedom required to pursue his interests and goals without artificial restrictions. Consider the normal arc of the old-fashioned parent-child relationship, a character-forming tug of war between the child’s continual pleas for increased freedom and his parents’ gentle resistance, resulting in a gradual loosening of restrictions on the condition that the child demonstrate the maturity to employ his new powers intelligently and honorably. In a reasonably healthy family setting, therefore, the child’s pursuit of private interests and goals fosters the growth of self-reliance, responsibility, and a maturing self-determination—everything progressives hate, as these traits weaken the popular appeal of paternalistic regulatory control and its devil’s deal of ever-shrinking liberty exchanged for ever-growing “security.” Therefore this child, the well-developed, independent-minded human being, is the prime instance of what today’s educational establishment would call a maladjusted child in want of socialization. Socialization is rarely defended openly in precisely these terms anymore, for obvious reasons. Today it is usually upheld in public as a necessary preventive against antisocial behavior, violence, and selfishness—concerns which, to the “conservative,” affect a small minority of troubled children, hardly warranting universal preemptive care; the “liberal,” however, identifies these traits with early symptoms of conservatism, thus defining the core mission of state child-rearing, namely habituation to progressive collectivism. Modern compulsory schooling was always intended by its leading advocates to be the cure for the natural development of independence and so-called ethical individualism. Socialization was and is the general name for the application of this cure.
The practical difficulty with the systematic rerouting of human development was that in those nations with deep roots in classical liberalism and its philosophic precursors, a direct explanation of the aims of public school socialization was bound to meet with principled resistance. What was needed in these nations, then, was a manner of presenting the aims of state child-rearing that would make the project seem less directly antagonistic to liberty. That is why our program of universal collectivist indoctrination has been supported, for several generations, with carefully conceived manipulations of language, a kind of political hypnotism to lull incautious populations into a sleepy compliance with tyranny.
One of the key terms in this mass hypnosis is “individuality,” the progressive doppelgänger of individualism.[iv] This notion, spewed from the crater at the peak of modern education theory like lava, has long since hardened into a permanent feature of our landscape.
The purpose of the progressive pseudo-concept individuality is to obscure the authoritarian sensibilities of its purveyors behind a mask suggestive of a kind of freedom. This clever abstraction has been so successful as a substitute for the broad notion of individualism that it has virtually replaced the latter in popular usage, even among people who do not realize they are espousing the lexicon of progressive reformation.
No word, however, is “just a word.” The political corruption of language leads to the eventual corruption of thought, as the ideas behind the new word slowly supplant the ideas behind its predecessor in the public consciousness. An important part of the long project of undoing the damage done by public education will be to revivify and reassess the important ideas it has buried. This requires exposing and exploding the deliberate distortions of these ideas by means of which progressivism has displaced the human heritage. As an example of the kind of constructive demolition that is needed, let us directly compare the twentieth century sense of individuality with the concept it was designed to replace, individualism. For despite the (intended) superficial resemblance, the two concepts could not be more profoundly opposite.
First of all, the magma at the core of the volcano. The man most prominently responsible for the popularization of our notion of individuality is the man commonly dubbed the father of progressive education, John Dewey. His understanding of the individual human being is diametrically opposed to the individualism associated with classical liberalism, a view which Dewey, channeling Marx, identifies primarily with the desire for material profit. In a 1930 collection of essays, Individualism Old and New,[v] he dismisses traditional ethical individualism as selfishness and material acquisitiveness, while declaring his discovery of a new sense of individualism which answers more truly to the need to honor the individual human being.[vi] That is, he rejects the modern moral tradition outright, but seeks to evade the full implications of what he has done by proposing a consolation prize for those, particularly in his English-speaking audience, who might refuse to accept his anti-individual ethic. His solution, typical of Dewey (as we shall see in Part Two), is to argue that the old individualism, spanning the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries, has been rendered obsolete through the forces of history, specifically by the development of science and technology, but that he can save the day for the individual, if only we adhere to his new form of individualism, one which is somehow consistent with moral and political collectivism. This new individualism, in fact, is dependent for its realization upon the establishment of a socialist collective. In short, he argues that whereas the old individualism presumed that humans exist independently of their social relations and build a society out of their voluntary associations, today we must concede the contrary, namely that the genuine individual is a product of his social relations.
This does not mean anything as prosaic and obvious as that individual character, attitudes, and tastes are influenced by the societal structures within which one is raised. Rather, Dewey is making the much more substantial claim that without the proper pre-existing social structures, there can be no individuals. In other words, whereas modernity had previously viewed individuals as the primary realities, and collective humanity as an abstraction derived from these—thereby making political philosophy the quest for the best way to advance the natural individual—Dewey contends that the collective is the primary reality, from which individuals may or may not develop.
This last point is the key. The development of individuals, in Dewey’s new sense of the term—a sense which denies principles of metaphysics, ethics, psychology and logic going back more than two thousand years—is not only dependent on the prior existence of the collective, but is contingent upon the existence of a correctly structured collective. That is to say, Dewey, in a more congenial, less openly revolutionary parallel to Marxist doctrine, believed that only socialism could produce fully realized individuals. The means to his preferred notion of democracy—a lyrical fantasy of majority rule grounded in collectivist ethics and (literally) collective thought—would be an educational establishment that promoted his “new individualism,” individuality.
Individuality, as opposed to the antiquated classical individualism, would, on his view, consist in acting out one’s feelings regarding one’s relationship to the collective, after a process of guided self-critique. (This is where public school socialization becomes essential to the process.) Reflecting the pro-Soviet idealism endemic to leftists of that era, Dewey identifies his socialism-dependent individuality as a “scientific attitude,” in which everyone participates in a communal enactment of a loosely defined social science, i.e., the shared embodiment of scientific ideas for social transformation. In this dream world, the man who believes he owns himself, has individual rights, and so on, is the deluded one, whereas the true individual is the man who actively submits his mind and energy to the flow of collective progress.
Consider this representative assault on the old individualism, a prefiguring of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”:
The mind that is hampered by fear lest something old and precious be destroyed is the mind that experiences fear of science. He who has this fear cannot find reward and peace in the discovery of new truths and the projection of new ideals. He does not walk the earth freely, because he is obsessed by the need of protecting some private possession of belief and taste. For the love of private possessions is not confined to material goods.[vii]
In this passage, Dewey leaves his trickery showing just a little too plainly, as the subject of his critique slides stealthily between “fear of science” (e.g., wishing to believe the earth is flat) and fear of “the projection of new ideals,” implying that discoveries based on empirical evidence and political aspirations grounded in progressive theory are truths of the same ungainsayable quality—or indeed even the same truths. This is not careless reasoning; it is careful sophistry. And the upshot of the argument is that individualism in the old sense—the sense linked to modern theories of political liberty and private property—is the enemy of freedom, where freedom is redefined as the willingness to relinquish one’s possessions, including one’s thoughts, in the name of projecting new truths and ideals that would debunk political liberty and the ethical individual in favor of scientific socialism.[viii]
Here is how Dewey explains this in another context:
Liberty is that secure release and fulfillment of personal potentialities which take place only in rich and manifold association with others: the power to be an individualized self making a distinctive contribution and enjoying in its own way the fruits of association.[ix]
Translated from academic Newspeak into English: Individuality is the result of striving to make oneself interesting and useful to the collective, on the collective’s terms, and without rocking the social/historical boat except in the name of strengthening the social uniformity that allows the aims of socialism to flow efficiently from the practice of state-directed majority rule. Individuality means “active” conformity to the collective, as indicated as early as 1899 in one of Dewey’s more lucid critiques of old-fashioned non-progressive schooling:
The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so individual an affair [in the “old” sense of individual] that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no objective social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.[x]
In other words, independent development of one’s mind and character is the enemy of the state’s interests—of “objective social motives.” This leaves only the development of socially useful skills and collectivist attitudes as the purpose of education. Dewey seeks to establish a “scientific” democracy in which a dependent mob of useful moving parts sing songs of harmony and individuality—songs written by the overlords who stand to benefit, not only materially but in self-protection and self-importance, from this system of mass social control.
Here is one of Dewey’s more entertaining descriptions of the obsolescence of that old individualism which he has reduced to the pursuit of “private pecuniary gain”:
[I]t is no longer a physical wilderness that has to be wrestled with [as was the case in the pre-industrial period]. Our problems grow out of social conditions: they concern human relations rather than man’s direct relationship to physical nature. The adventure of the individual, if there is to be any venturing of individuality and not a relapse into the deadness of complacency or of despairing discontent, is an unsubdued social frontier.… Traditional ideas are more than irrelevant. They are an encumbrance; they are the chief obstacle to the development of a new individuality integrated within itself and with a liberated function in the society wherein it exists. A new individualism can be achieved only through the controlled use of all the resources of the science and technology that have mastered the physical forces of nature.[xi] (Emphasis added.)
Old individualism was the ethos of a world of primitive frontiersmen, and is therefore an encumbrance in the new world of industrial interdependency. In the old era of complacency, the lone individual standing face-to-face against nature may have seemed sufficient to constitute a complete being. In the new age of “general problems” and “complex forces,” what is required is an individuality that serves “a liberated function in the society,” which—recalling how Dewey defines liberty—means the human being reconceived as essentially a useful contributor to the collective rather than a self-sufficient entity. Not to be overlooked is the final sentence of the passage: Individuality is not merely a conception of man more suited to industrial society; it is one which cannot come into existence at all except through “the controlled use of all the resources of science and technology.” In other words, only the state, operating as the grand regulator and controller of industrial society, can create the new individual. (Try that one on for a while if you are one of those inclined to scoff at conservative claims that progressives seek to replace God with the State.) Thus we find, buried in this characteristically Deweyan obfuscation, an implied contrast between the supposedly outdated illusion of the individual as a natural entity, and the bright new reality of the individual as a mere by-product of history’s collective progress toward scientific socialism.
The preceding is offered by way of ground-clearing. By no means am I suggesting that Dewey developed our contemporary non-ethical notion of individuality on his own. His ideas are derivative upon a variety of sources, most of them in nineteenth century European (primarily German) thought, with extensions in early twentieth century psychology, perhaps most obviously Alfred Adler’s socialist “individual psychology.”[xii] Nor do I believe that everyone who uses the word “individuality” today means exactly what Dewey meant. In fact, my point is that it would be better if they did mean what Dewey meant; for the effect of using the word with the casual imprecision we do today is to obscure fundamental differences of principle and motive under a mask of vague kinship. An essential moral divide disappears into a haze of abstract language, as tyranny marches forward behind a shield emblazoned with the motto, “We all want the same thing in the end.” Clarifying your terms by rediscovering their history is the only way to win an argument against opponents whose stock in trade is sophistry.
With that brief initiation into the peculiar ancestry of the “new individual,” we may now compare our progressive individuality to traditional individualism more directly. This comparison will provide one small window into how the moral inversion of modernity has been achieved in practice.
For one thing, modern individualism, however one may judge it in the end, was an ethical position, based on an understanding of human nature, and of the virtues which are consistent with it. Individuality, on the other hand, is not an ethical position at all, but rather an aesthetic appendage of collectivism. It denotes the superficial sparks of color that progressives believe will issue from the gray mass of uniform humanity under socialism. Dewey concludes his account of individuality this way:
To gain an integrated individuality, each of us needs to cultivate his own garden. But there is no fence about this garden: it is no sharply marked-off enclosure. Our garden is the world, in the angle in which it touches our own manner of being. By accepting the corporate and industrial world in which we live [at present], and by thus fulfilling the pre-condition for interaction with it, we, who are also parts of the moving present, create ourselves as we create an unknown future.[xiii]
You might notice an inconsistency between this notion of “creating ourselves” and Dewey’s earlier claim that individuality can only be achieved through a controlling state. The inconsistency is deliberate; it is part of Dewey’s propaganda method, standard among progressive activists, to stay one step ahead of critics by seeming to be saying everything. As will become clear in Part Two, however, the inconsistency fades when we piece together Dewey’s understanding of the relationship between state and society, and flesh out the meaning of such rhetorical flourishes as “we, who are also parts of the moving present.”
Dewey’s individuality is Hegel’s divine self-revelation converted into a children’s coloring book. It is how the progressive collective preens, namely by holding parts of itself up for its own approval and acceptance.
While the early modern conception of ethical individualism left plenty of room for serious disagreement about principles and practice, it began from a metaphysical view traceable to the ancient Greeks, namely that earthly existents, including and especially living entities, are essentially individuated. The notion of the soul, so central to the development of our great traditions of ethics and education, is inextricably tied to the primacy—at least in the earthly realm—of individual beings. Life is fundamentally individual (which need not imply antisocial); hence the human good, virtue, is that which accords with our nature as separate living things that desire to survive and thrive.
Individuality, on the other hand, is only an outgrowth of our supposed collective humanity, and therefore has no place for old-fashioned virtue as such. Instead of moral rectitude and practical reasoning, the progressive ethic deifies subjective feelings, attitudes, and “values,” in particular those which glorify the collective and debase the individual. Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” is the resentfully anti-individual sentiment of a perfect Dewey dupe. The applause this sentiment brings from the speaker’s fellow progressives is a model of the hoped-for relationship between the new state-created individual and the social group—the former’s individuality is defined by his ability to excite the approval of the group by glorifying the collective (i.e., pandering to the state) and marginalizing those maladjusted “conformists” (i.e., actual non-conformists) who have the gall to pursue interests with “no objective social motive.”
In sum, old individualism encouraged proper pride and self-reliance. Approval will come as it may, but it can never be the primary motive of genuine virtue. Individuality, on the contrary, is defined by an emotional need to be seen and embraced, a desire for approval and acceptance. This follows quite logically from the understanding of our new individual as a product of socialization, i.e., of learning to relinquish one’s private (natural) mind to the collective utility of the social (artificial) mind. One stands out from the crowd—though without fundamentally distinguishing oneself from it—precisely in order to be noticed, to be applauded and appreciated, to be more fully and actively immersed in the collective will.
We might, therefore, conclude that individualism was an adult sensibility, whereas individuality is essentially childish. This should not be surprising, in light of the fact that individuality, like the socialization through which it is realized, was created and promoted by “scientific” authoritarians with a view to reducing populations to compliant masses of obedient, needy, trusting dependents. Individualism begins by presuming the fundamental distinctness and significance of particular human beings, despite their many similarities and shared interests. Individuality, on the other hand, is the consolation the rulers offer their chattel for the essential indistinctness of life within the collective mass. Anything superficially different or unique, as long as it supports, rather than threatening, the progressive status quo—in other words, as long as it in no way challenges progressive rule—is to be encouraged and praised.
By systematically displacing so-called individualism in favor of collectivist individuality, the socializing educational establishment does much more than replace a well-grounded philosophical account of mankind with ill-defined poppycock. It completely reverses a fundamental moral tenet of the modern world and political liberty by means of verbal trickery. Rather than simply renouncing individualism outright—being honest, and allowing alternative ideas to stand on their real merits and appeal—progressive reformers have sought to deceive modernity into accepting its own demise under the guise of one of its own founding principles. The new individualism has won the day. Never has civilization displayed more kaleidoscopic differences, irreverence toward traditional beliefs and behavioral norms, infatuation with technology, scientific reductionism about human life, and dreams of “being somebody” and “expressing yourself”—or more emotional dependency, disrespect for others’ lives and property, unwillingness to take responsibility for oneself, and moral and political submissiveness.
Dewey would be pleased. Through universal public school socialization, we have largely realized his hope of a world without the selfishness of “mere learning,” in which men and women are raised to be unthinkingly compliant with the will of the collective and its masters, to seek self-expression only in ways that present no threat to those masters and their plans, and to apply their “creativity” only to the task of strengthening the progressive hierarchy. We have achieved a civilization in which every one of the following sentiments rings false:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.
Our new individualism, largely a product of compulsory government socialization, effectively teaches the contrary of all that. Today, to “talk with crowds” is the highest achievement of life; keeping your virtue, as something separate from that association, means selfishly guarding yourself against the collective, which demonstrates an unscientific mind “hampered by fear lest something old and precious be destroyed.” “If all men count with you, but none too much,” this implies that you insist on reserving a private realm of moral judgment apart from all social relations, which indicates materialistic possessiveness. “Fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”? That is precisely the concern that necessitated the development of compulsory schooling in the first place. Public education reconfigures that “distance run” into the shape of a hamster wheel, to ensure that the energy and enthusiasm of youth will be spent in a way that gets you nowhere, least of all to any place that the old individualism would have identified as being “a Man, my son.”
By contrast, today we have an entire popular music sub-genre of anthemic paeans to post-Deweyan individuality, typified by Katy Perry’s “Firework,” or “Let It Go” from the cartoon movie Frozen, songs which aim straight at the fully socialized heart of adolescence, whether of the chronological or perpetual variety. The message of these songs and their many cultural equivalents is doctrinaire and simple: Throw off your inhibitions, break free of the grown-up world’s rules (traditional virtue, modesty, and responsibility), and dazzle us all by flaunting your unique personality, meaning the collection of groundless “values” and ruling desires you have acquired through immersion in the collective. In this upside-down moral world, freedom means living unencumbered by past notions of right and wrong, and non-conformity means acting out your superficial and inessential “identity” in the hopes of gaining greater social acceptance and a sense of belonging. This is textbook individuality in practice—the pop-cultural distillation of the socialist psychological theories of Dewey, Adler, and others.
Individuality, along with its sister concepts, such as “creativity” and “self-expression,” has become one of the defining mantras of modern schooling. Every well-trained mainstream schoolteacher will tell you that she wishes to encourage individuality, and to foster self-expression. She will not be able to explain coherently what she means by individuality, anymore than she will be able to define the older individualism that she is certain must be counteracted or restrained through school socialization. But there is no denying that these teachers and their trainers have been successful, worldwide, in promoting the former at the expense of the latter. Today’s garish array of socialized “individuality” has about as much in common with traditional individualism as Katy Perry has with Rudyard Kipling.
The new individualism is no doubt a little blander and dumber in practice (and yes, more materialistic) than Dewey had envisioned—but as the famous pragmatist would surely concede, no tyranny is perfect.
[i] From Rudyard Kipling’s “If—,” in Rewards and Fairies (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1910), 181, available online at https://archive.org/stream/rewardsfairies00kipl#page/n9/mode/2up.
[iii] For a nice summary of some of the early development of the term, see Jenna St. Martin, “‘Socialization’: The Politics and History of a Psychological Concept” (master’s thesis, Wesleyan University, 2007), 13-31. (Available online at http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=etd_mas_theses.)
[iv] Note: the progressive usage of “individuality” essentially ignores or displaces that word’s medieval metaphysical usage, viz., to denote the property of being an individual existent, a logical atom.
[v] Dewey, Individualism Old and New (1930), hereafter ION, in John Dewey, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953 (hereafter Later Works), edited by Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), vol. 5.
[vi] Not only is there nothing new in Dewey’s reduction of “old individualism” to materialism and selfishness, but in fact it is worth noting that the very term “individualism,” used in a politico-ethical context, may not have been coined by the supposed defenders of ethical individualism. Rather, it seems to have begun in the early nineteenth century as a pejorative used by socialists as a rebuke to classical liberal theory. (Cf. Gregory Claeys, “‘Individualism,’ ‘Socialism,’ and ‘Social Science’: Further Notes on a Process of Conceptual Formation, 1800-1850,” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 47, No. 1 [Jan.-March 1986], pp. 81-93.) In other words, “individualism,” like “capitalism,” is a term originally promoted by opponents of modern liberty, and only later adopted as a self-description by defenders of the idea. One would do well, therefore, to employ the term as a theoretical category only with a grain of salt.
[vii] ION, 118.
[viii] For a sympathetic scholarly presentation of these ideas, see S. Scott Zeman, “John Dewey’s Critique of Socioeconomic Individualism” (1998), available at The Paideia Project Online, https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Poli/PoliZema.htm.
[ix] Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, in Later Works vol. 2, 329.
[x] Dewey, The School and Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1900, Second Edition 1915), 12-13. Hereafter SS.
[xi] ION, 85-86
[xii] During the period when Dewey was developing his new individualism, Austrian psychoanalyst Adler was gaining prominence with his method of individual psychology, which, like Dewey’s individuality, was a euphemistic term, as Adler’s individual, like Dewey’s, was essentially a social creation, one fully realizable only in a socialist society. Early twentieth century socialists seem to have been quite revealingly obsessed with the need to reinvent the idea of the individual, dismissing the previous notion—the individual man as fact of nature—in favor of the individual “personality” as a new, previously unrealizable entity made possible only as a by-product of socialism.
[xiii] ION, 122-123.