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  • The Cultural Challenge to Individualism
  • Hahm Chaibong (bio)

Individualism is the quintessential product of modernity. Modern philosophy, political thought, and economic theory all point toward and revolve around the individual. Modern political and economic institutions like liberal democracy and the free-market economy were designed to safeguard and to reward the individual. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it quite matter-of-factly, “individualism is of democratic origin” (II, 98). Yet individualism is also modernity’s most ambiguous achievement. While providing hitherto unimagined opportunities for political freedom, economic prosperity, and self-expression, it has also been responsible for modern man’s isolation, alienation, and loneliness. By unleashing individual creativity, it has fostered the spirit of enterprise and adventure, but it has also encouraged people to become selfish and self-centered, unwilling or unable to contribute to the public good.

If individualism is ambiguous, however, then so are the liberal democracy and free-market economy that produce it. Tocqueville himself, the earliest and most famous celebrant of American democracy, was deeply troubled by its individualistic implications. As he put it, individualism “originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart” (II, 98). Indeed, ambivalence—and sometimes outright hostility—toward individualism has often been the basis for resistance to liberal democracy [End Page 127] and the free-market economy and has prevented thoughtful observers from Tocqueville down to present-day communitarians from whole-heartedly embracing them.

Is it possible to have liberal democracy and a free-market economy without individualism? With the continuing triumph of these two institutional pillars of the liberal version of modernity, which seems to defy all efforts at resistance, it would seem that the answer is no. In the aftermath of the Cold War, all efforts to articulate alternative visions of democracy and capitalism seem to have been virtually exhausted.

Yet even as some have begun to predict the “end of history,” we now seem to be entering a new phase in the longstanding argument over democracy, capitalism, and individualism, as the cultural resources of non-Western civilizations are increasingly being brought to bear on the debate. With the spread of industrialization and democratization to the non-Western parts of the globe, religious and philosophical traditions indigenous to these areas are providing new intellectual and institutional resources for contesting liberal democracy and the free-market economy. And once again, the focus is on individualism. The “Asian values” debate, for example, is sparked by anxieties over the individualistic implications of liberal democracy and the free market. In that sense, it is only the latest phase in a controversy that has been going on for almost two centuries. It is the first time, however, that the debate is being conducted in an intercultural and intercivilizational context.

Individualism and Free Institutions

Tocqueville sensed that, with the coming of more equal social conditions and the attendant strengthening of the passion for equality, people “will not endure aristocracy.” He warned that “all men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion will be overthrown and destroyed by it” (II, 97). Yet even though Tocqueville predicted the demise of the aristocratic virtues, it is clear that he preferred them to individualism. Two things about individualism particularly troubled Tocqueville—its threat to traditional family ties and its threat to civil society.

For Tocqueville, an aristocracy provides the basis for strong family ties because “a man almost always knows his forefathers and respects them; he thinks he already sees his remote descendants and he loves them.” Thus he “willingly imposes duties on himself towards the former and the latter, and he will frequently sacrifice his personal gratifications to those who went before and to those who will come after him.” Moreover, aristocracy has the effect of “closely binding every man to several of his fellow citizens. As the classes of an aristocratic people are strongly marked and permanent, each of them is regarded by its [End Page 128] own members as a sort of lesser country, more tangible and more cherished than the country at large” (II, 98).

In a democracy, on the other hand, family bonds are relaxed: “Those who went before are soon forgotten; of those who will come after...

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pp. 127-134
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