i meant to respond to this piece by kurt anderson.
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal.
not surprisingly, i want to stick up for individualism in what i hold to be the traditional american sense, and i point out that anderson, reflecting the conventional rhetoric of his demographic, conflates individualism, selfishness, hedonism, and laissez-faire capitalism into a single enemy, which is about as ham-handed as could be imagined. i do think that hedonism killed the sixties, by the way, or showed that there was little seriousness in the hippie/peace movement. really the people who represented sex and drugs as the essence of human liberation - oh you know abbie hoffman, timothy leary, even the dead and airplane - have a lot to answer for. and of course many of them did directly answer for it with addiction and death.
but i just want to say that 'individualism' in the way i use the term and certainly as connected with 'america's founding,' or the american character circa 1840, etc. is something else again. now the sixties at its best did recommend it, even reviving thoreau. there was an iconoclastic, skeptical, anti-authoritarian streak of 'non-conformism' in the sixties. there were marxists, of course, striving for the dictatorship of the proletariat, but those were sad chumps. i think of a more 'existentialist' sixties politics. in my book, for example, bradley manning and i.f. stone are american individualists: not rah-rah capitalists, but profoundly concerned with freedom of expression and the articulation of subversive and idiosyncratic viewpoints and the honest expression of the self.
individualism in this sense is not to be opposed to social cooperation; indeed the mutual respect for differences that it embodies would seem to me to be a precondition of actual collaboration. and the meaning of none of the terms anderson tosses about should be conflated with any of the others without a long conceptual and historical argument, which would not work out.
if you really want to make the left/right spectrum a matter of individualism as against collectivism in this sense - in the sense that we engage in collective action because we all [ought to] agree or all believe together or act as a social class, then i'll just float right. individualism in this sense is not selfishness or rah-rah capitalism, not sheer self-indulgent hedonism or narcissism: it is a willingness to think against the common wisdom of your age, and to develop and articulate your own point of view, or to realize in external action your own person with all its eccentricities. and there are other, better, leftist traditions, many of them rooted in american soil and in individualism.
our problem now is not that we are too individualistic, as say tony judt argued (and anderson is doing virtually nothing but recapitulating judt), but that we think in herds. that's what turns our politics into meaningless opposed catch-phrases that everyone mutters in unson like automata. or like kurt anderson.