The choice for the labour movement: authoritarian conservatism or progressive individualism?



Photographer: Pexels via Pixabay

This text was originally published by Jesper Ahlin Marceta via his blog and translated by Helena Prytz. 

FREEDOM. Neo-liberalism is dead. Self-inflicted, it is not a day too soon. In his article in the Expressen newspaper, Payam Moula from the left-wing think tank Tiden makes a philosophical interpretation of the contemporary development which demands a response. The liberal individualism must be defended.


As editor-in-chief of the social democratic magazine Tiden (meaning The Time) Moula argues that the decade we are just leaving behind is a decade when ‘(neo) liberalism finally died, both politically and intellectually’. Grotesque inequalities and massive injustices mixed into a ‘toxic cocktail’ have resulted in ‘the legitimate disappointment in social development, politics and establishment’.

 Indeed, there is much to be said about this analysis. Nevertheless, Payam focuses primarily on the liberal individualism, which he claims is wrong and destructive in its foundations.

 According to this view, the human being is a social atom completely isolated from others. Such views do not take into consideration that the human being is a social animal or that such things as loneliness can be terrible, which is why friendships are a good thing. The full ideological understanding of human beings is wrong. It separates humans and leads to communities, cultures and societies breaking down.

 Therefore, the labour movement should at the time of ‘our crisis’ choose a different way of looking at humans, one that is natural and leads to a good life and a good society. Payam does not state what that means. This omittance to explain what he means is also seen in some of the friends he is referring to – maybe because the alternatives to liberal individualism are horrifying under normal circumstances.

For a start, Payam’s theory about atomical individualism is an old one. It is also a malicious portrait. As far back as the 1930s, John Dewey, who was an individualist, wrote that socially and culturally isolated individuals are ‘monstrosities’. A decade later, Friedrich A. Hayek wrote that this criticism is the ‘silliest of the common misunderstandings’ because the individualists are ‘starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society’. 

Instead of individuality, it was the group belonging that decided how one particular human should relate to others. Individualism has contributed to the breakdown of this social determinism in which social and economic circumstances decided the human destiny.

Sure, some liberals have the kind of view on human beings that Payam is ascribing to all liberals, but they are few. Most such liberals are found in different youth organisations where they ideologically rage at meetings, boring the other members. The idea that humans are social atoms has very weak support among liberals both in politics and in philosophy. Such views are not ‘dominating’, as Payam claims.

The malicious portrait of individualism that Payam is presenting is sinister, partly because it is ascribing views to liberals which they do not have. This is dishonest, but it also hides individualism’s merits.

 Individualism argues that individuals deserve attention and that they have a particularly high value compared to other moral differences, such as group-based interests. In my view (shared by many), the political and social impact of the ideology belongs to humanity’s main achievements – something that can be compared to agricultural and scientific revolutions.

Our history can illuminate something of the value of individualism. Before individualism made a breakthrough in Sweden, the population was divided into social groups such as priesthood, nobility, bourgeoisie and peasantry. Humans were social, political and judicial subjects in relation to being group members – not individuals.

Instead of individuality, it was the group belonging that decided how one particular human should relate to others. Individualism has contributed to the breakdown of this social determinism in which social and economic circumstances decided the human destiny.

During the 20th century, individualist ideas created a foundation for individual taxation, which liberated many women from a predetermined social function in the family. Today, individualism is a motivating factor when it comes to things such as that a private person should have the right to decide about her medical treatment – the family or its leader should not be the ones deciding which medical treatments another individual should undergo, for example. This is also important when it comes to counteracting the rise of local clan societies.

Even the critics acknowledge the many virtues of individualism. Charles Taylor, one of the philosophers mentioned in Payam’s article, argues that it was individualism which provided humans with a right to choose their lifestyles with their conscience and beliefs. Previously, people were often stuck in a particular place in a particular role which it was almost unthinkable to deviate from, but now they are liberated.

Karl Marx, to continue with philosophers mentioned by Payam, argued that the historical development was going in the direction of individualisation and that it was a good thing. Individuality, according to Marx, concerns the extent to which a human being has achieved his potential and become a free and creative individual in society.

In the historical development, according to Marx, people are transformed into individuals in step with achieving increased control over their social existence. Communism, argued Marx, was an individualistic last stop where the human being has become complete.

Individualism has other merits and defenders. The socialist and liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that individualism allows the human to flourish. As the contemporary philosopher George Kateb puts it – individualism means more than expressiveness, sensibility and a feeling of liveliness. Research shows that individualistic norms promote democracy and economic growth, make it easier to handle common resources (which is critical from an ecological and climate perspective, and contribute to the equality between genders.

Few philosophers and contemporary thinkers would defend atomism today, i.e. the caricature of individualism that Payam is the latest of many to reiterate. Today’s individualists are discussing the very aspect that Payam claims is missing in individualism: how the human being is positioned socially and the effect that has on us.

Among the research areas that individualists are pursuing in academia are questions such as what makes a human being able to competently make decisions for herself in hazardous situations, given that risks are at least partially dependent social factors and how the social framework of the statement of the fact affects how it is perceived. Moreover, just during the last 15 years, robust theories about the individual as a socially and physically constructed being have been developed by philosophers such as John Christman and Rachel Haliburton.

Much of the idea-packages of the individualist philosophers can be found in our daily life. Those freedoms that our liberal democracies are protecting are individualism’s values – individuality, expressiveness, personal autonomy. In Sweden for example, liberal individualists argue in favour of individualisation of parental insurance, partly because they believe that it is hard for the individual to make life choices completely independent from their social expectations that influence their decisions.

It is, therefore, a pity for many reasons that an editor of a social democratic magazine is putting individualism in a glass bowl and encouraging the labour movement to make a choice.

Payam is arguing with the support of, among others, the conservative political theorist Patrick Deneen’s theories that the labour movement should promote ‘traditions and other things that empower community’. In the book, Payam is referring to Deneen argues against social mobility and in favour of a return to social determinism. Deneen believes that real pluralism is only created when people are restricted to living in those geographical and social contexts into which they were born.

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Furthermore, Deenen is searching for a freedom-term that is ‘compatible with authority’ and would make it possible to pin down people socially while simultaneously claiming that they are free. Nevertheless, an idea about freedom which is compatible with authority is in the end only an idea for authority.

When Deneen’s book was published, he was invited by Viktor Orbán – who in the previous year had banned gender studies from his country’s universities – to a public meeting. The two were re-joined in front of the cameras the two agreed that the future is based on ‘national and family values rather than on liberalism’. It is in light of this that one should read Payam’s pitch for his article in Expressen, where he states that the modern liberalism is a ‘disease’ that has ‘spread like a cancer’ and ‘has to be eliminated’.

Payam’s attack on the ‘liberal human view’ does not lead to one but two choices for the labour movement, mainly the following:

It is possible to conserve social structures as the conservative thinker Deneen wishes, or one can act in favour of improving them and creating new structures, as the progressive individualists want. Is the labour movement going to choose a conservative or a progressive line? The answer makes a difference when it comes to such things as the question of whether parental insurance should be individualised: a conservative labour movement does not promote feminism.

Moreover, people can either be liberated from the social structures that are making their lives follow a determined path, something that individualists are arguing in favour of and that Swedish Social Democrats have supported in the past. Alternatively, people can be pushed back into old structures. What is the choice labour movement’s choice: freedom or authority?

Earlier, I have argued that individualism can unite liberals and socialists in the struggle to liberate the human being from social and historical determinism. Together, we should change the circumstances that are infringing our possibilities to create our lives. Payam’s assumptions seem to be the exact opposite, which is deeply regrettable.

Jesper Ahlin Marceta



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