Individualism, Meritocracy, and Communalism: Some Perspectives


            The past three decades, at least up to the time of the 9-11-2002 attacks on America, showed a striking growth in individualism in American and related western society. This was an individualism attached to a strong notion of meritocracy, along with the idea that the individual should be able to map his or her own course in life along with accountability for one’s actions.


            Meritocracy was discussed, somewhat negatively, by Theodore Reich back in 1970 with The Greening of America, as more or less an expression of “Consciousness II.”  To put it bluntly, meritocracy is sometimes interpreted as meaning that one person is inherently “better” than another. The implementation of student deferments during the Vietnam era draft was predicated on notions of meritocracy, and caused an eventual and indignant public backlash, well deserved. (Tied to meritocracy was the importance of academic performance and school grades, particularly for draft-age men.) Nevertheless, meritocracy, starting with a strong objectivistic component as explored by writers like Ayn Rand, would underscore much of feminism, the “gay rights” movement, and even the progress of other minorities in the workplace. Perhaps some of our notion of meritocracy originates at the time of Martin Luther when the Catholic Church promised remission of sins by drawing on a “Treasury of Merit” based on the holy activities of Christ.


            A key concept of this neo-individualism was the idea that one defines his own purposes before committing oneself to permanent intimate relationships with others, whether in the family or in community settings. Obviously this notion of self-ownership would appeal to lesbians and especially gay men, but also appealed in a much broader sense to women who preferred finishing professional education (like medical school) before starting families, and to maintaining a psychological balance between family and career or other forms of identity expression.


            Neo-individualism would be accompanied by entrepreneurialism, an optimistic spirit that would encourage individuals, aided by technology to try their own ideas in areas like software, publishing, film making, and all different forms of artistic expression. This new emphasis on self-definition, outside of the expectations of others and particularly beyond lineage, grew in the later part of the Twentieth Century in western society because, to put it bluntly, society thought that it could finally afford it. Some of the ideas stemming from self-promotion would become silly, and turn into hyper-marketing “get rich quick” schemes that help characterize the Internet bubble. In the financial world, as in times past, people would become careless about ethical conflicts, and this development would exacerbate the financial, auditing and accounting scandals of the recent past. On the other hand, individuals could sometimes gain recognition for work of real artistic, scientific or scholarly value with little financial investment.


            Neo-individualism would be resisted as harmful to the family, religious faith, and even dangerous to financial stability and even national security. But methods could be proposed to “fix” the concept by increasing the accountability of everyone for his own missteps. In this view, downturns may be regarded as a way to weed out less competitive persons form the open market.


            In the information technology world, there would be a sudden evaporation of the career and job market as the looseness and lack of standardized ideas of professionalism (along with the availability of intellectual skills overseas where workers who have a lower standard of living and lower wages compete) would catch up with many people making lucrative livings in I.T.  The idea would grow that anyone enjoying financial and public recognition for “success” should display increased commitment and accountability for his professional choices. Furthermore, failure should be faced squarely when it occurs as objective reality, regardless of extenuating circumstances.  People could be driven out of professional lives, or forced to “pay their dues” by proving that they could do the 24-hour grunt work of those upon whom they depended.  Students could be held responsible for “well-roundedness” and not allowed to hide behind academic excellence at the expense of practical skills, as I did.  People could be held accountable personally if they made a living working for unethical employers or according to unethical business models. I believe that my own personal example is controversial because for me public recognition for writing provided an effective way to connect with people who interest me and, moreover, avoid commitments to people on their own terms.


            One term used to describe this attitude is “social Darwinism,” although it (and the term “survival of the fittest”) was really proposed by 19th Century British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who saw meritocracy as fundamental to freedom and believed that government should maintain a hands-off attitude in remedying inequities.[1] 


            One can imagine where such a road can lead. We could have a hyper-meritocratic society of  “winners” and “losers,” with the losers tossed out of economic calculations as outliers. This reminds one of the “Hoover” attitudes just before the Great Depression and New Deal, that people should be accountable for their own competitive failures and should not depend on the public for support. Strict meritocracy could lead to hardened attitudes so severe that, even though they would not be race based, they remind one of Nazi Germany. In another way, the remind one of radical Islam, where “merit” is defined by “Allah” and where a permanent underclass is supposed, according to virtue, to deserve to be in its place.


            This “winner take all” mentality become particularly troubling when one considers global free trade and global competition. American workers, even very skilled workers in information technology, for example, face competition from overpopulated non-Western countries where people will do the same job for much less money. The end result is a transfer of wealth and living standards to the Third World, although consumers in this country enjoy many cheap imported goods. The people edged out of the well-paid market and thrown back into the low-wage workforce are bearing the sacrifice. But yet one can rationalize this, by saying these people are simply the losers and must face the “free market cultural revolution” and finally pay their dues on their own, and start all over to have a chance to make it in the middle class.  The individualism of recent decades, while encouraging experimentation and self-direction, seems also as a paradox to require authentication, accountability, and even a ceiling on “chances.” That’s how it was when I was in school in the 50s and 60s.  But our new individualism the problem that a person’s “private choices” when publicly articulated may tend to undermine social cohesion (especially “family values”) that others used to take for granted.


            The polar opposite of all of this would, of course, be the communalism of the Left. The idea of competition and meritocracy is anathema to the ideological Left. Rather, people are born with certain natures that go with certain groups, and social justice issues should be resolved among groups, along with radical redistribution of wealth to help the poor. Authoritarian societies pose a moralistic version of communalism that denies any individual expression at all. But liberal versions of socialism imagine that, if many basic needs (transportation, medical care) can be met communally, people will be free to explore their own “natures,” although the idea that people should express “merit” is still offensive to this outlook. This sometimes makes certain sense. Single payor health care could be good for business, as can affirmative action preferences. The trouble is that many issues of a generally personal or private nature become politicized and become subject to public regulation.  One paradox of the Left is that solving social justice problems just in groups may tend to keep the groups socially segregated.


            Social conservatives have, then, tried to characterize liberty and freedom with a middle ground, a kind of individualized communalism. Religious faith, lineage, and nuclear family are important components of this outlook.  Of course, in earlier times personal adequacy had been tied to ability to provide for a family, but now there is supposed to be the context of a supportive, homogeneous community.  An adult is supposed to demonstrate the ability to function well in the family and community before striking out in life on his own. Homosexuality, in particular, is resisted or condemned, not just on religious grounds but because of an apparently deliberate narcissism that proposed the idea of “merit” associated with aesthetics, youth and beauty. Mormon society provides a characteristic example. Mormons generally believe that they are free as individuals but only because they play by a certain set of motivational rules necessary for their religious community as a whole.  One advantage enjoyed by a community based around this moral concept is that it may be better able to ride out financial, political and social instability (caused by external sources like terrorism and war) than can an open society as a whole. The social conservative believes that a precarious male should still marry and have children (even if he believes his own family is biologically “inferior”) and find support in the community, rather than run to upward affiliation and attach himself (psychologically and in motivation) to the “genetic merit” of other males.


            No one can fend for himself for a whole life, and it is clear that the accountability of individualism needs to be balanced with community values or at least with the idea that an individual should be able to take responsibility for others besides the self at different points in one’s life.  One could say that for any person self-ownership needs authentication. Here, debates about gays in the military and especially gay marriage and parenting become relevant.  An open society must, moreover, prepare for the possibility that extreme disruptions can occur, whether from terrorism, natural disasters, or even extraordinary breakdown of financial controls. In such case, those who have benefited most from society’s opportunities and openness should bear most of the burden.


            But on the authentication idea, many traditional people see the ability to create and parent a family as an item of merit-worthiness, and regard homosexuality as a cheater’s escape. But rarely is this debated that way anymore; in the 1950s this was a common belief.


            As the country (and western world) deals with recession and terrorism, a certain perspective on the role of individual merit as a public policy objective needs to remain in mind.  Liberals (and for the most part moderate Democrats) correctly point out that extended unemployment benefits, for example, and even universal health care might stimulate the economy or remove some of its tensions. Furthermore, if Republican-style tax cuts are to work, they need to be designed in such a way as to provide an incentive for investors to create long-term jobs (as well as deal with deficits). A significant observation when it comes to social and health care programs is that older voters have more political clout, when a philosophy of  meritocracy would suggest that public resources should be spent on the young so that everybody gets at least one “chance.” In fact, there have been arguments for extending Medicare to children, or even to giving families with children more votes (although that would require constitutional amending that make the anti-gay-marriage amendment proposals look tame by comparison.) All of this is sensible.[2] However, America and other First World countries face stiff wage competition from parts of the world with a lower standard of living, and all of this, in a global economy with freer trade will, while helping consumers, tend to reduce the market value of many skills, especially now information technology skills, in the West, leading to outsourcing of jobs to less developed countries. Furthermore, the less developed world is growing impatient with the West’s energy consumption problems and willingness to acknowledge global warming (although the less developed countries actually contribute more to industrial pollution and deforestation). All of this tends to put some pressure on the “moral credibility” of the fallen American worker, especially any worker who has enjoyed a high wage and comfortable working conditions and then fallen off the truck in layoffs. The fact is, many workers have not been mentally able to maintain the skill levels required by their industries even while performing their jobs at particular employers.  Furthermore, many workers have become used to making a good living in “bubble generated” work that has a morally questionable basis (such as Internet spamming).  Integrity and accountability even of the middle class worker or home-based entrepreneur, as well as for their bosses or for large corporate CEO’s, becomes a major component of economic stability, even in a liberal democracy dedicated to protecting freedom and individualism without becoming overbearing upon those who cannot always compete. If some “exiled” workers take a real hit and have to learn to adjust to the low-wage life for a while and “pay their dues,” it could teach a lesson for everybody.  So, again, what we are seeing is a free-market driven “cultural revolution” that even some Maoists might relish.


            A particularly distasteful speech in October 2003 by Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohamad at an Islamic summit generates a chain of thought that rather summarizes the discussion. In circular fashion, Mahatir accused the Jews of “ruling the world by proxy” despite a small population, through political inventions including democracy and human rights that will invalidate attacks against them by much more numerous peoples (Muslims). He seemed to be applauded in the Muslim world. Why does this work? It appeals to a kind of tribalism. Most people do not have the opportunity or capability to achieve a lot on their own, so they derive most of their self-concept through affiliations, first with family roles and then with national or religious identities. A similar principle can work with affirmative action preferences, where some African Americans may feel grateful for opportunities that they could not earn on their own just as individuals. We see it with labor unions, and with families. Family is the ultimate safety net and within any community is usually the most reliable protector of morality, yet it perpetuates inequities among groups that only individuals can transcend. Homosexuals present a problem for people whose sense of identity comes from their performance in creating biological or familial lineage. In most cultures, anyone who is “different” presents a threat to ordinary individuals who derive a sense of purpose and stability from established social or familial roles; like Smallville’s Clark Kent he becomes a potential enemy.  Individualism can overcome this, but individualism must be accountable and play by its own rules. Individuals must “pay their dues” and in some circumstances be willing to sacrifice to show that they can still be held accountable to others. The consequences for this philosophy can be severe to some people in some circumstances, but no social system can make things “right” for everybody. Hatred of Americans by radical Muslims or of homosexuals by many people in our own culture may start with simple tribalism, but it is exacerbated by the idea that so many of us are not held accountable enough for how we can exploit others.


For a related discussion see a gay marriage essay.  Also a discussion of hyperindividualism and solidarity.




 ãCopyright 2003 by Bill Boushka


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[1] David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. New York, Harcourt, 2004, p. 122.

[2] Rebecca Vesely, “Letter From Silicon Valley,” The Nation, May 26, 2003, p. 20 gives a complete perspective from a generally liberal viewpoint.