The death of a great idea: The rise and fall of the free individual

Ridvan Peshkopia

Covid 19




Ridvan Peshkopia

Ridvan Peshkopia 400x500Security forces’ violence against Australian, British, Italian and other citizens throughout western societies only because they continue to believe in individual freedom shows that the very idea of individual freedom is dead now.

Everyone was caught off guard by the latest developments on the streets and squares of the “free world,” the unprecedented violence that law enforcement is exercising against their citizens protesting governments’ encroachment in a very basic rights, the rights of an individual to control her/his own body. Australia has become the posterchild of police brutality against vax mandate protesters, but news of such violence come from other parts of the Western societies as well. Police violence against antivax protesters shows the authorities’ hatred toward individual freedom, but also the inability of the free individual to bring back into the bottle the genie that is ruining individual freedom, the Big Government.

The idea of individual freedom is the greatest and unique creation of the Western Civilization. No other civilization before knew it. In all other civilizations, the individuals operates in function of social structures. His/her choices derive from a certain consciousness that social structures inculcate in that individual (according to an anti-individualist reactionary such as Karl Marx, people carry the social consciousness of their own class). Therefore, the history of the individual freedom’s rise and fall is tightly linked with the history of the rise and fall of the Western Civilization.

The socioeconomic and cultural roots of the concept of free individual

The essence of the concept of individual freedom is rooted in Christianity. The Protestant reformation brought about a quantum leap of the agency concept by drastically reducing the clergy role between the individual and God. The Lutheran conceptualization of a direct relationship between the individual and God expanded the range of individual decision making. The German sociologist Max Weber explained the success of the industrial capitalism in Northwestern Europe with the Protestant work ethics, frugality, and efficiency as individual efforts to fulfill a predestined success.

Other scholars claim that those conceptual transformations occurred neither in vacuum nor by chance. By then, Western Europe was at the eve of an unprecedented economic, political and cultural boom propelled by geographic discoveries and enormous riches fetched from distant lands. The era of European empires supplanted anarchic feudalism, and economic transformations ushered them from feudalism toward industrial capitalism. Contrary to Weber, the British sociologist R. H. Tawney argued that socioeconomic pressures and the individualist spirit were more important to the capitalist rise than the Calvinist theology. According to that argument, it was not Protestantism what brought about capitalist developments; instead, pressures for economic development from within Western societies brought about the Christian reformation from the religion that promised God’s blessing and kingdom to the poor (Luka 6:20-21) to the religion that blessed economic success.

In each of those explanation, the free individual appeared as a key variable. The emergence of the free individual concept thoroughly transformed the very concept of freedom, switching its framing from the etheric notion of group freedom to daily tangible tensions between the individual and society. British Enlightenment authors such as John Locke and David Hume developed the concept of free and rational individual, endowing it with political agency due to its undeniable God-given rights for life freedom and private property. The American Declaration of Independence of 1776 holds those truths as “self-evident,” although they are far from being self-evident.

The rationale behind the concept of the free individual

The emergence and rise of the free individual concept represented a powerful rationale: the struggle between new social relationships brought about by industrial capitalism against old feudal structures to win over the individual. The emerging industry needed workers and consumers, which at the time belonged to aristocracy, mainly entrapped in its county system. The workforce initially grew by absorbing freemen, but the aristocracy still controlled the territory and trading routes and markets. The emerging politics of the free individual aimed at dismantling the control of social structures over the individual, and allowing for peons’ free relocation in cities as a workforce, but also the flow of merchandises toward the periphery as consumption goods. Enormous profits generated by industrial production, coupled with Enlightenment’s new ideas enabled the emerging bourgeoisie to win political and military battles against the Old Regime. By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, bourgeoisie’s march toward establishing its political regime, liberal democracy, with the free individual at its core became unstoppable.

Rationality remains a “small detail” often forgotten in the discourse related to the free individual, but also in discussions over the concept of freedom. Philosophically, in the state of nature, the individual is not only free but also rational. Such rationality significantly complicates any moral veil cast on the free individual concept. The rational pursue of individual’s own interests with no regard for consequences of their actions represents the individual’s “original sin.” Rationality makes impossible social life by undermining the creation of common goods. As demonstrated by the theoretical game Prisoner’s Dilemma, society ends up worse off when individuals pursue their rational interests and do not collaborate compared with cases when individuals accept some losses for the benefit of the common good. Arguably, a social contract binds individuals among themselves and with the state, with the former surrendering to state institutions liberties that undermine collective action, and the latter committing to guarantee individuals’ fundamental liberties.

Smrtta na edna odlicna ideja Podemot i padot na slobodniot poedinecSource: shutterstock.com

Against all enemies: the triumph of the free individual idea

Since its very inception, the idea of a free individual as a cornerstone of society met with hostile reactions from all corners of Europe. From the Italian Giambattista Vico in the South to German philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Johann Georg Hamann and Johann Gottfried Herder in the North, the counter-Enlightenment movement (latter embellished as Romanticism) swept the continent. Romanticists aimed at throwing back the individual where it had always existed both as a philosophical category and a social unit: within the clutch of social structures. That reaction led to the magic teleology of another dark figure of the structuralist reaction, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and culminated with Karl Marx’s pseudoscientific theory of alienation. Other structuralist enemies of individualism such as Fascism, Nazism, and feminism attacked the free individual concept from hierarchical, racial and gender perspectives, respectively.

However, the free individual idea thrived for almost three centuries because the winners of the Industrial Revolution, industrial bourgeoisie and workers formed a far reaching consensus around it. Besides individual freedom and rationality, the liberal philosophical stool has a third leg, individual responsibility, an element that completed and reinforced the ground for epistemological, ontological and empirical stability of the concept of free society: only individual freedom and self-restrain of rational individuals would sustain a free and open society.

Social programs, the rise of the behemoth state, and the death of the free individual

Within that consensus, disagreements between workers and industrialists revolved around earnings and not values and, as such, they were negotiable. Growing wealth generated by individual freedom and open economy enabled a moral element in the otherwise rational capitalism: economic assistance for needy people through social programs. However, globalization and the deindustrialization that it generated hollowed out the middle class, along with its social consensus over guaranteeing individual liberties. Extreme polarization in distribution of wealth generated by globalization has increased discontent among those who are left behind. But now there is no longer any credible medium to negotiate such discontent.

Together with the loss of social consensus, Western societies are experiencing the evaporation of negotiators, its social-democrat and christian-democrat parties. Instead, their political space has been invaded by ideologically amorphous political organizations such as Merkel’s CDU and Macron’s En Marche. Hailing from city elites, those representatives of micro-bourgeoisie – major benefiters of globalization – and economically buoyed by the structural transition from the industrial modernity to the service-oriented economy of postmodernity, have pushed out of the social consensus industrial bourgeoisie and workers, and are trying to buy the social consensus with the exponential expansion of social programs.

Social programs represent today the core of the political discourse in Western democracies. Their critics accuse them of dulling people’s motivation to work and thrive as productive members of their societies. Others view social programs as destroyers of the family unit; with their excessive benefits, social programs motivate divorce and offer incentives to “marry” the Big Government. Social programs killed that spirit of initiative, frugality and self-reliance that has generated the most free and prosperous period in the humankind history. Social programs killed the free individual.

Thus, suddenly, Western societies woke up in a terrible situation. During the last seven decades, but mostly during the last 30 years, its citizens have mistakenly thought that they could enjoy freedom and the pursuit of their own rationale without the burden of responsibility, which they have already submitted to their governments. This is not an unknown scenario. In his book Escape from Freedom, the German psychanalyst Erich Fromm explained how, according to a Rousseaunian model, Germans surrendered to Adolf Hitler the cumbersome burden of individual freedom and responsibility, a hefty toll for them in a society with traditional hostility against the concept of the free individual. Similarly, during the last three decades, entire segments of Western societies have surrendered to their governments the burden of individual responsibility for individual progress, thus causing the unprecedented inflation of social programs. In turn, governments have taken over that responsibility, thus causing the perpetual increase of their size and power. Once upon a time considered a useful evil, with the limited task of collecting taxes, maintaining order, and enforcing contracts, now government in Western democracies is an omnipresent, powerful behemoth.

Instead of an eulogy to the free individual

Thus, security forces’ violence against Australian, British, Italian and other citizens throughout western societies only because they continue to believe in individual freedom shows that the very idea of individual freedom is dead now, along the social contract that would guarantee it; in turn, citizens’ efforts to resurrect both of them are already several decades overdue. The clouds of ideological dictatorships are gathering in the horizons of the Western Civilization, but that signifies nothing new. Communism, Fascism, and Nazism were all of them Western ideas and practices.


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Ridvan Peshkopia

Ridvan Peshkopia is Lecturer of Political Behavior and Research Methods with University for Business and Technology, Kosovo. He received his PhD in Political Science from University of Kentucky. He also holds Master's degrees in Urban Planning, Diplomacy, Political Science, and Applied Mathematics. He publishes regularly in academic journals on topics such as political philosophy, social theory, film studies, international relations, comparative politics, political and social psychology, research methods, criminal justice, education policy, and political behavior.