Individualism, Tyranny, and the Coronavirus

2 August 2020

What does individualism mean under quarantine? “Social distancing” demands civic isolation. And yet, cooperating with this isolation for the good of public health requires personal sacrifice. One of the ironies of our situation is that those rushing to lift the lockdown and to restart their social lives appear selfish, while citizens who continue to self-quarantine show a greater care for their community. What should we make of this?


Tocqueville famously distinguished between egoism and individualism. While egoism is instinctual and describes an “exaggerated love of self” that has existed throughout history, individualism is of “democratic origin.” It is specific to societies where social mobility severs citizens from the memory of their ancestors and the thought of their descendants. Individualism is also more of an intellectual construction. In Tocqueville’s words, it is:

a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself (Democracy in America, II.2.2).

American society is at war over individualism: while some try to impose it from above, others resist it from below. Individualism poses a threat to our democracy, but Tocqueville provides us with some helpful suggestions for ways to mitigate it.



Individualism From Above, Solidarity From Below


Perhaps our current moment of “social distancing” is individualist only in a spatial way. Accepting lockdowns doesn’t need to be the same as fully withdrawing from society; most of us can still communicate using modern technology, which has diversified at an astonishing rate, from video conferencing services to board game websites. And in a way, we are all living through a shared experience of collective trauma and sacrifice—although it is certainly true that we suffer in different and harshly unequal ways.


Moreover, the American people have transcended individualism in more active ways. They have sewn thousands of masks to make up for hospital shortages. And at least 26 million people took to the streets to protest racism during the deadliest pandemic in recent history, risking their lives to make the current iteration of Black Lives Matter the biggest social movement (according to some estimates) in the history of the country.


Things get more complicated when it comes to the anti-lockdown and anti-mask protestors. Some—and potentially most—express a repugnant and reactionary individualism, a refusal to sacrifice anything at all in the name of public health. When we refuse to wear a mask, we risk quite literally spitting in the faces of our neighbors. But it’s also true that many of the anti-lockdown protestors have legitimate reasons to be angry. $1200 checks just aren’t enough to counterbalance enforced economic hardship, and citizens have a right to demand more from their government. Moreover, the federal government’s failure to develop preventative strategies like contact-tracing has effectively nullified the hard-won gains from lockdowns, as cases surge across the country. Most of the protestors probably care very deeply about their communities, but they are right to mobilize against the government’s response to the pandemic. And faced with institutionalized powerlessness, some might even see refusing to wear a mask as the only way they have left to lash out at a government that has failed them so egregiously.


On the other hand, the governing classes and economic elites who have pushed a premature reopening deserve far less sympathy. Our government has mandated physical separation in the absence of a more communal economy that would make such separation bearable. Without a universal basic income or guaranteed healthcare, stay-at-home orders have promoted an especially dangerous individualism.


Even more than that, it’s an individualism imposed from above. Recall that Tocqueville believed individualism would lead people to “willingly [leave] society at large to itself” (emphasis added). But the quarantines have not been voluntary. State governments mandated them, and voters have had no veto. Moreover, most Americans favor guaranteed healthcare, in other words, a less individualistic response to the pandemic. It’s important for Tocqueville that individualism is “willing” because in his view, it’s an attitude that arises spontaneously out of the fundamental dynamics of American society. Individualism in Tocqueville’s sense is not merely a product of bad policy. So actually, our contemporary, imposed individualism might not even qualify as such for Tocqueville.


This dichotomy—individualism from above and solidarity from below—is not unique to the coronavirus, lockdown orders, or healthcare. Neoliberalism has been the engine of our modern hyper-individualism for decades. The government has slashed taxes and auctioned off public services, erasing key sources of collective protection. The human subject was remade into a purely economic actor, a homo economicus in perpetual competition, as Wendy Brown explains, which universalized individualist norms. And as the public sphere falters, policing has become more central to the state’s source of legitimacy. This has made the government all the more eager to deploy force against those advancing collectivist challenges to dominant norms, as we’ve seen in stand-offs between federal agents and protestors in Seattle in the 1990s and Portland today.



Individualism and Democracy


Tocqueville would be alarmed at these attempts to force individualism on the American people. He writes in Democracy in America that “despotism, which is of a very timorous nature, is never more secure of continuance than when it can keep men asunder; and all its influence is commonly exerted for that purpose” (II.2.4). Tocqueville realized that a society of equals fosters individualism, which provides an opening for despotism. As each retreats to their own sphere and tends to their own affairs, they leave room for despotism to flourish in the public sphere.


Of course, when it comes to the armed anti-lockdown rebels storming government buildings, individualism’s danger to democracy seems to be an overzealous, not apathetic, citizenry. But this is only the most visible example of individualism. Think of all the potential moments for collective resistance that haven’t happened. When President Trump used his clemency power to commute the sentence of his close associate Roger Stone, he crossed a line even Nixon refused to toe. Where was the national upheaval such an action deserved? People are simply too tired and disgusted to pay attention to politics anymore; they have retreated to their own private spheres. Even if citizens are right to wager that Trump cannot survive the next election, their individualism (born of apathy) leaves the door open to democratic erosion.


In a world of individualism, we might recall the words of Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Though our elites may mostly promote individualism to further an economic agenda, rather than to destroy democracy, citizens must stay vigilant. The United States is not immune to the tide of democratic erosion sweeping the globe. Would-be dictators don’t just pack courts or dissolve legislatures; promoting individualism from above is a dangerous weapon, all the more dangerous because it can be deployed invisibly.



Resisting Individualism


So what can we do about it? Tocqueville thought local politics were critical for resisting individualism, but there’s no question that the pandemic makes it more difficult to participate in politics. We need democratic methods that don’t rely on traditional forms of face-to-face contact, and inventing them—as the Black Lives Matter protestors have begun to do—will be one of the greatest tasks for twenty-first-century (small-d) democrats.


Moreover, we need to find resilience in what Tocqueville described as intérêt bien entendu: self-interest properly understood. In his words, it’s the idea that “man serves himself in serving his fellow-creatures, and that his private interest is to do good” (II.2.8). The beauty of intérêt bien entendu, according to Tocqueville, is that it doesn’t require a personal sacrifice. So while intérêt bien entendu is not a particularly noble sentiment, it can effectively push a very large number of people to do good.


Some see market logic as the epitome of intérêt bien entendu. In a functioning market, my individual interests align perfectly with those of my community, and acting on the former will ultimately bring prosperity to the latter. This kind of thinking is echoed in hopes that a strong stock market or renewed “consumer confidence” will help us survive the pandemic.


But in the real world, markets bear fruit for the very richest among us, not the community as a whole. And most importantly, this is a world where markets are responsible for the very environmental depletion that may have helped spread the coronavirus in the first place. If we want to avoid another pandemic—not to mention a civilization-ending climate change—we’re going to need to fix our markets. And the best way to do that is to nourish a much more substantive notion of intérêt bien entendu.


The best way to do that, according to Tocqueville, is to tell stories that showcase moments when individual and collective interests line up. He believed that these stories provide the critical strands from which the doctrine of intérêt bien entendu can weave itself.


Thankfully, now is the perfect time to start. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that our collective fates are intertwined. The health of our communities has been and will continue to be critical to our survival as the coronavirus pandemic rages through America.


We need to tell our stories of luck or tragedy, and we need to link those outcomes to the health or sickness in our communities. We need to talk about how wearing masks protects us and our neighbors. We need to talk about how generous unemployment benefits—even to “undeserving” people—wards off economic collapse and stops the spread of coronavirus by giving people the option to stay home. Social media can help with this, but simply bringing these conversations up with our friends and loved ones could make a big difference. The more people realize that they could have died because their neighbors were forced to work in essential businesses, the closer we will be to a doctrine of intérêt bien entendu, and the harder it will be for the government to resist our calls for more progressive, collective policies.


Tocqueville had it right: individualism is a product of erroneous judgment. We must seize this moment. If we tell our stories of hope and sorrow, we can live to see a better tomorrow.


Photo Credit: Denise Johnson, via Unsplash.


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1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Monsieur Saint-Loubert-Bie:
    Thank you for a very fine piece, whose even-handedness does you credit.
    Apropos of my own feelings about the American experiment, I would like to quote here Flaubert on the French politics of his time, as I am not always able to be as optimistic as you seem to be. He wrote a friend as follows:
    “I feel, against the stupidity of my time, floods of hatred which choke me. Shit rises to my mouth as in the case of a strangulated hernia. But I want to keep it, fix it, harden it; I want to concoct a paste with which I shall cover the ninetheenth century, in the same way as they paint Indian pagodas with cow dung.”
    May we, contra Flaubert, “tell our stories of hope and sorrow, [and] live to see a better tomorrow”, as you write. Thank you again for your sensitive reading of the climate in the U.S.

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