Rosemary Bechler on the Difference between Individualism and Selfish Individualism

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Rosemary Bechler (in debate with Jeremy Gilbert in Open Democracy):

"Cruddas and Rutherford (Soundings 42) open their critique by drawing the fault-lines in the current political turmoil between “those who continue to believe that the market and individual choice” are the most effective means of maximising individual freedom, and “those who believe that individual freedom is based in social relationships and the democracy of public action”. They accept the invitation of Collins and Reeves, authors of the Demos publication The Liberal Republic, to revisit the “conflicting traditions of radical liberalism and socialism” at the roots of the centre left, only for long enough to accuse them of leaving out “the social realm” altogether, thereby sacrificing social solidarity, shared culture, ethical socialism and the chance to build a force which can take on “wealth inequality” and the power of “employers” and “economic institutions”. However, I fear their own reliance on other-regarding empathy and alliances of old and new which will somehow capture “the centre ground” do no better at addressing the problems they outline. The search for a “popular balance between individual self-realisation and social solidarity” with which they end the review pretty well merely restates the opening question.

My starting point would be to abandon these misleading polarisations altogether. Yes I do regard individualism and the working of individual choice as a vitally important process within the pluralism of modern societies like ours and fundamental to our developing democracy. My interest in pluralism, for the individual or the group, is that it provides an encounter with ‘the other’ which, while it may confirm one’s original position, will add something to the sense of the context one is in and may help us better to understand a different perspective. It may also change our minds, allow us to negotiate an enhanced way of living side by side, or lead to an entirely new, shared way of looking at the issue in contention. We do not question the value that what I have called ‘adult intelligence’ brings to the inevitable ‘me,me,me’ focus of the human baby. Why do we suppose that we can live without it in our complex democratic societies?

You say that there is an “absolute difference” between “a pluralism which enables me to think of myself as belonging to multiple overlapping collectivities, and an individualism which tends to make it impossible for me to imagine myself as belonging to any kind of collectivity at all.” But I see no such difference. In fact, if you replaced the word ‘pluralism’ here with the word ‘individualism’, you would have a much more meaningful sentence. The self that thinks of itself belonging or not belonging is of course a social construct that has been in preparation, via capitalism, Protestantism, the French Revolution and consumerism since the Renaissance at least, but this doesn’t make it any less crucial to political decision-making today. Instead of worrying about which comes first, the social or the individual, the conflation that really matters in our discussion, as well as in the Cruddas/Rutherford review, is the conflation between individualism and selfish individualism - a confusion which I believe anyone who wants to see social progress in the world reproduces at their peril, since it is a conflation on which capitalism and capitalist power increasingly relies. More importantly, its opposite - or how the individual may come to perceive his or her self-interest (notice I do not say selflessness or altruism) as residing not in ‘power over’ but in mutual empowerment, and in the wider social and environmental ‘good’ is, I believe, the precondition and absolute bedrock for all progressive social change.

This suggests to me that the left, the centre left, anyone interested in social democracy, needs to go further back to refresh their thinking than to the nineteenth century debate between social liberalism and ethical socialism - perhaps to the critique of capitalism to be found amongst the early English exponents of the novel form.


Today, more than ever before in history, the “collectivities” that Jeremy Gilbert’s vision requires will be ones that individuals choose to belong to, not ones that they will be bounced into by force or by hermetically sealed ways of life. We are beginning to understand this in regard to our failed attempts to impose democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan - why don’t we also grasp it about our own western liberal democracies. Hence the interest for my argument of the diverse groups of individuals who opt into and successfully collaborate on large-scale projects on the net in response to social signals, rather than market prices or managerial commands. This suggests opportunities for greater autonomous action on the part of millions of individuals. Of course, they can choose evil. But wherever they are engaged in a process of interaction with the ‘other’, they can also learn lessons for their time and place and choose good.


It seems to me perverse at this stage in human history for the left to concede the pass to ‘possessive individualism’.

The left must do more than avoid the mistake of taking ‘selfish individualism’ as its starting point. It must also wrestle with what it means to pursue a politics that fully recognises and respects the role of individual choice in any democracy. I’m afraid we are once again back at square one.

Well, not quite at square one. If we want to describe what this would look like and how it might come about, thankfully, there has been a revival of civic republican thinking since the middle of the twentieth century, led by thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and more recently, Charles Taylor. They recognised that if values and identities were once confirmed through social hierarchies and homogenous communities, now those societies are marked by increasing diversity. They concluded that in these circumstances, political community must be based on communication rather than an assumption of commonality.

This call for an expanded realm of deliberation allows us to envisage a return of politics which would surface in multiple publics to which all can contribute. Moreover, the process of extending these deliberative frameworks need not be “an all-at-once upheaval”: piecemeal changes can improve the situation - wherever two or three are gathered together.


I believe that it is an urgent matter for any left to set about arguing for and helping to create these ‘multiple publics’ essential to a thriving deliberative, republican politics." (