"Individualism". Why? Because it creates a deracinated, anomic, atomized mass that looks to the State to solve its problems. Statism is the enemy, and individualism paves the road over which we will inevitably travel to get there. Here's Big Think's and PoMoCon's Peter Lawler on the subject:
Modern individualism is the cause of modern statism. The inability to keep Locke in the Locke box–and the resulting withering away all the various “intermediary institutions”–leave the lonely, shivering individual with no choice but to cling to dependency on an omnicompetent state. And it’s individualism (that “heart disease” that makes us apathetically indifferent to the fate of our fellow citizens), Tocqueville says, that makes us all easy prey for despots.
Tocqueville might be interpreted to talk up the ways American combat individualism–from local political institutions to free associations to religion to even the family–as existing in fact but not in principle in America.
I think this is a legitimate concern. Putnam makes the same point in Bowling Alone. Conservatives dread Statism--the Stalinist State or the Orwellian State of 1984. Who doesn't? But is it accurate to say that individualism is the cause of modern statism? Is individualism, in other words, some kind of mistake?
Locke and those who followed him didn't invent individualism; they simply expressed what was already in the ether, so to say. More people began to experience themselves as individuals starting in the 1400s. It's what happens when you start to read, and after Gutenberg more and more people where reading. They read the Bible for themselves rather than only hearing it read in the assembly. And an interior life started to be more commonly experienced, and it became possible to have ideas that were not the same as the community groupthink. And the wonder of the individual human being--his reason, his conscience, his being the measure of all things--was at the heart of Renaissance humanism and then further emphasized by the Reformation in matters of faith.
People started thinking for themselves of seeing themselves as autonomous agents. In other words, they were growing up, and in growing up they had to leave the nest and make mistakes from which they would learn. Yes, it led to the fragmentation of Christendom, but I'd argue that it was necessary to allow more people to come into possession of Freedom, which I'd argue is our deepest identity as spiritual beings. That this freedom was abused--and continues to be--is a necessary cost. Nevertheless, the robust emergence of individualism during the Renaissance/Reformation era was an advancement. It meant the loss of a naive traditional community life, but creates the conditions for the possibility of a more mature free individual living in communion with other free individuals.
And yes the mistakes that followed the crack up of Christendom were often horrific. In the next century the atrocities associated with wars of religion--the Thirty Years War on the continent and the Civll War in England--largely delegitimated the churches, or it at least sent thoughtful people scurrying for a more humane alternative than that presented by people who claimed to be Christians. Human reason seemed to offer a robust alternative, and it was embraced by the culture's leading lights. And at the same time emergent capitalism and the new class of people driven by commercial passions wanted the constraints of the mercantilist State removed to give them more freedom to pursue their economic interests, and thus was unleashed the creative destructive forces of market capitalism. The spirit of the age destroyed the old ways, and the State is simply a manifiestation of that spirit.
And in this context Locke arises, and then later Bentham and Mill. Are they mistaken? Yes and no. Yes in that they see the world only very partially; No in that they accurately reflect in their thinking the spirit of the age, which is this ferverish embrace of Freedom. Freedom from, freedom for, freedom exalted, freedom abused--it is the preoccupation of the age, and culminates in Nietzsche, and later Sartre, and the whole fissiparous, quasi-nihilist thing we call the postmodern. And this spirit and the forces unleashed by it, not the State, were the principal destroyers of the traditional social fabric conservatives lament the loss of.
Conservatives like Lawler, Deneen, Larison understand that economic forces have played a huge role in the destruction of traditional intermediary associations and institutions and with it the creation of the deracinated individual that restlessly wanders the contemporary American culturescape. Are they right, though, to blame Progressive thinkers for abetting a movement toward the inevitable Statism that they fear will be the only thing to contain this entropic social chaos? Do they see a problem that Progressives don't in the latter's more sanguine embrace of the State to provide solutions for pressing social and economic problems? Are they right to think that the Progressive embrace of State to find solutions in an age of massive social upheaval will have consequences they do not intend?
For surely almost everybody I know who thinks himself a progressive doesn't want the Stalinist or Orwellian State. But conservatives like Lawler and Deneen would counter that these Progressives may say they don't want it, but they don't realize how it follows inevitably from their own assumptions regarding the sacrosanct individual and his rootless rights. But are all Progressives really such rabid individualists? Some are, but I'd argue most are not. They just don't embrace the traditional forms of community and intermediate association that their parents and grandparents did. Not because they are against them in principle but because they lack any real cultural vitality. These traditional forms no longer hold the life that shaped them in the first place, and so they are simply adapting to the world as they find it, a world defined by market capitalism.
So if I were challenged by Lawler or Deneen to justify why I think my progressivism is not paving the road to Statism, I would say that I'm not at all at home in the sterile thought world of Locke, Bentham, and Mill. And I would argue, also, that Republicans and Democrats are equally comfortable in that world because they're both Liberals in the Locke-Mill tradition. Classical Liberalism is the moribund thought world of a dying historical cultural era. From it we will move on, and this blog is all about trying to think about what a non-Liberal Progressivism might mean.
I lean Democrat in my politics not because I feel particularly at home there, but because, while it accepts Liberal assumptions, it has at least tried to mitigate the free market's more destructive effects on ordinary people. The ethos of the Republican Party is for me astonishingly cold-hearted at worst, oblivious at best of the suffering that the modern market economy causes. This freak-out about Obamcare is over-the-top, and the idea that it's some foreshadowing of the Stalinist state cannot be taken seriously--not even a little bit. The Democrats, at least the best of them, recognize that in late modernity the state must play a critical role to mitigate the massive damage the market economy inflicts on people, and which overwhelm the coping capacity of the intermediary institutions. If you want to have free markets, you have to have some institutions large enough to clean up the messes it makes. Anybody with a shred of commons sense and common decency recognizes this.
I'd then tell them that I embrace the principle of subsidiarity, and that, yes, subsidiarity requires culturally vital, flourishing, intermediary associations and institutions, but it also needs the State to step in when those intermediary institutions are overwhelmed. And I'd argue that it's precisely because most of the traditional associations have been weakened or destroyed by market capitalism, that there's no use crying over spilt milk. Rather the task is to adapt the old insititutions that have stayng power and create new ones better suited to a world with 10 billion people in it, all of them rubbing up against one another in ways that make the old tribal identity mentality utterly inadequate.
Conservatives' complaining about what was lost is a waste of energy. Create something new, something that has vitality and that will attract people because it's good. Retrieve the the treasures that have been lost and re-present them to the world. Seduce the broader culture with quality--with truth and beauty. And stop worrying so much about the State. It's not the enemy. The corporate takeover of the State is. That's the nightmare scenario that both progressives and thoughtful conservatives ought to be able to join forces to resist.
And you do that not by sending crazy people to congress who want to destroy the State, but by preaching subsidiarity and sending people who understand that the State has a vital role to play in promoting a flourishing society, but also that it's not everything. And it's certainly not the most important thing.
We need an electorate and their political representatives who understand that at the end of the day the most important thing is free, well-informed, critical thinking, self-reliant citizenry living and working together with others like them in intermediary associations--families, churches, unions, small businesses, bowling leagues, whatever. That's where the life is--not in the State. But there is nothing structurally inherent in the State that prevents these associations from flourishing. That cannot be said about what is structurally inherent in our economic life.