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Individualism Is the Enemy

The conservative sees that all people enter the world with bonds—to family and tradition, to place and neighbor—and celebrates the fact.

When I was but a young collegiate firebrand making waves on campus in the distant days of two-thousand-eighteen, my academic advisor—a kind-hearted boomer liberal in the history department—found himself worried about my situation. I was too smart, he insisted, to write the way I did. (On the contrary, I promise I am exactly dumb enough to write like this.) “You can either be some shock jock,” the professor warned in a fatherly tone, “or you can be George Will.”

Well, I thought to myself silently, I sure as hell don’t want to be George Will.

A year or so later, in a less paternal moment, he accused me publicly of the thoughtcrime of “rank individualism.” I was a bit confused, given that the comment (and my less-than-voluntary resignation from the university’s newspaper) had been provoked by a broadside against the expressive individualism of the school’s gay-activist community.

Both moments came to mind this week as I read an unusual column by the very pundit whose name my advisor once invoked. Having revisited an essay by one of the liberal right’s chief philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, Dr. Will thinks he has stumbled on the key “to the United States’ distemper in 2021.”

From right and left, Will says, individualism is under attack. On the left, “critical race theory subsumes individualism, dissolving it in a group membership—racial solidarity, which supposedly has been forged in the furnace of racist oppression.” At the same time, “U.S. ‘national conservatives,’ who are collectivists on the right, recoil against modernity in the name of communitarian values, strongly tinged with a nativist nationalism and with a trace of the European blood-and-soil right.”

I am not a national conservative, for reasons I have previously explained. Yet Will seems to have sloppily assumed that the label applies to anyone on the right who is not a liberal, so I will take the liberty of counting myself among those criticized.

Both groups, the post-liberal right and the progressive left, are what Will calls “modernity’s enemies.” Will writes that “modernity’s greatest achievement, which was the prerequisite for its subsequent achievements, was the invention of the individual.” Before the advent of modernity,

Persons knew themselves only as members of a family, a group, a church, a village or as the occupant of a tenancy: “What differentiated one man from another was insignificant when compared with what was enjoyed in common as members of a group of some sort.”

This began to change in Italy with “the break-up of medieval communal life.” As the historian Jacob Burckhardt would write, “Italy began to swarm with individuality; the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved.” Individuals detached themselves from derivative group identities, becoming eligible for individual rights grounded in the foundational right to an existence independent of any group membership.

This is a ludicrous overstatement, inspired by a cursory reading of Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Burckhardt, an art historian writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, suggested that:

In the Middle Ages both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. The veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession, through which the world and history were seen clad in strange hues. Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category.

This is not only untrue but fundamentally unbelievable. The son of a Protestant minister, Burckhardt sits squarely in the tradition of Reformation historiography, which relies by nature on a cartoonish reduction of the Middle Ages to “faith, illusion, and childish prepossession.” No one can be expected to believe that medieval man was actually unable to think of himself as a distinct human person. The truth behind the lie is that medieval man did not think of himself first as an individual.

This is because he was not a moron. He knew, as a matter of fact, that he belonged to things bigger than himself, that his identity could not possibly be established without reference to the external world. Will’s “foundational right to an existence independent of any group membership” is an absurdity, especially so in a species whose every individual necessarily belongs to at least one definite group on being brought into existence. As far as I know, George Will was not created in a lab.

More than inevitable, though, the fact of identity’s dependence on interpersonal relationships is eminently desirable. It is a very strange kind of conservative who celebrates “the break-up of…communal life” (medieval or otherwise) as one of the great developments of human history. Beyond strange, it is impossible: The conservative’s interests necessarily transcend the individual, not least of all because tradition, the act of handing something down, hinges on connections between people. Individualist conservatism is a contradiction in terms: For whom could something not held in common possibly be conserved?

The achievement and preservation of the common good is intergenerational, “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born,” in Edmund Burke’s famous words. The world of Will’s imagination must be one in which nobody is ever born and nobody ever dies.

The conservative, meanwhile, lives in the real world. He not only sees that all people enter the world with bonds—to family and tradition, to place and neighbor—but celebrates that fact; he seeks to strengthen those bonds and the joy secured by them. Mindful of the ravages of time, he pursues that security not just for a moment but well beyond his lifetime, taking hold of something handed down and ensuring its preservation after he has gone. He knows that the atomic man is a vicious fiction, a deception whose success would loose every bond and wipe out every attendant joy. And so, as his critics worry, he “recoil[s] against modernity in the name of communitarian values.”

Will ends his individualist manifesto with an aphorism from Paul Valery, a gifted French poet with an astonishingly dull mind: “Everything changes except the avant-garde.” It is perhaps not the coup the column’s author thinks to admit his opponents are the only ones who have stood fast through the ages.