A person thrust into a new environment first scans their surroundings for danger. As such, they have a heightened attention to detail, a cautiousness of the phenomena occuring around them, and an awareness of the effects on their person. However, if raised from birth in a particular world, the nature of their environment and its effects would remain unseen, for it has always been there, like water for a fish. Similarly, we are often unaware of the essence and impact of the environment we have lived in all our lives. We seldom reflect on the state of our societies, assuming the current arrangement of affairs to be natural. While generally aware that we live in the “modern” age, as opposed to the “medieval” or “ancient,” with better technology and different social norms, we nonetheless remain oblivious to larger, totalizing, and omnipresent aspects of our world.
The Phenomenon of Social Atomization
One such phenomenon that we often fail to reflect on is the disintegration of our social fabric, namely, social atomization, or the basic unit of society being broken down into smaller parts. In medieval and early modern times, community was the basic unit of society, in part due to the lack of communication and transportation technologies that would allow a person to live securely and independently of their community. Today, the joint effects of technology, the principles of modern citizenship, and relatively open borders give people the ability to decide where to live, with which nation to align, and what lands to call home. As individuals become accustomed to frequently moving and breaking ties with their community of birth, communal identification becomes transient. People lack deep links to any singular culture; globalization makes the individual a sponge that soaks up the norms and beliefs of whichever locale they find themselves in. The result is the absence of a clear and permanent identity, without which the individual cannot truly/fully belong to any one community. Without community, they have no culture to provide shared customs and understandings that create common links and trust between a people. Overall, ties of community dissipate and the individual becomes the basic unit of society.
Analyzing statistics that track variables of social capital reveals increasingly atomized societies in Euro-America and in westernized countries, such as Japan and South Korea . Among the indicators of atomization in these places are decreased levels of trust, time spent with neighbors, and social participation. Social trust is at a 40-year low in the United States and nearly one third of Americans report no interactions with their neighbors. In most European countries, people trust the police more than they trust each other. In Japan, there is a documented phenomenon known as hikikomori, or shut-ins, where young people find themselves unable to leave their homes. General distrust of the government is widespread in Western liberal democracies, despite claims of government transparency and accountability. In the United States, for instance, both main political parties are (justifiably) perceived as being self-absorbed and beholden to elite interests and out-of-touch with their voter base, with public trust today hitting a near all-time low. The reasonable becomes unreasonable as distrust culminates in a refusal to work with others and belief in conspiracy theories that cause withdrawal from political participation become increasingly widespread. Across the Anglosphere and Westernized countries, the prevalence and debilitating effects of social atomization are becoming extreme. The shared Western culture of these countries is not a coincidence, as they all have the same ideological and material factors that produce this social atomization.
The Ideological Causes: Liberalism and Individualism
The underlying cause of this atomization and the overall ideology that encourages this development in the western world is liberalism; a classical philosophy that posits individual autonomy and equality between individuals as the two ultimate moral values. An Enlightenment philosophy, it dominated and subsequently characterized the West in the early modern period, assuming a fixed position as the default moral language and ethical guidebook of Westerners. Liberalism’s unit of analysis is the individual, caring neither for the community nor any collective. As such, economic, political, moral, and legal questions are resolved with the individual in mind, making it unsurprising that it was in liberal parts of the world, namely the United States and Europe, that extreme individualism first emerged.
Individualism refers to an ideology (closely linked to liberalism) of free and independent choices of individuals being given preference over the decisions and interests of the collective. It affirms a state of being in which people habitually focus their thoughts and conduct on their own needs and wants, with the ego being the focus of all pursuits. Individualist ideology naturally produces individualist behavior. As people are raised to believe that their choices are sacrosanct as long as they are not ‘harming’ anyone else, any sense of duty or service to others is slowly, but surely, lost. If physical harm and self-interest are the arbiters of the rightness of an action, concerns for collective goals, which often require self-sacrifice and at times may involve harm to those outside the community, quickly dissipate. Liberalism breeds individualism, resulting in a society of atomized individuals and an absence of community.
When Communitarianism Meets Individualism
The recent mass migration of North African and Middle Eastern peoples, mostly Muslim, to Europe affirms the distinction between individualist and communitarian societies. Migrants tend to self-segregate, maintaining the markers of their culture in language and dress and outdoing European locals in birth rates and religiosity. One may wonder if this contrast between the Muslim migrant and the European resident is attributable to the difference of religion; perhaps Islam is simply more communal than Christianity. But this explanation is nonsensical, given the traditionally communal nature of European Christianity, with its organization of communities under the parish system and the nation under a national church with a head, typically the monarch. Of course, such Christian institutions appear meaningless today given the rapid rise of irreligiosity in Europe. It is, in fact, in this divide between Europe’s irreligioisty and MENA’s (Middle Eastern and North African region) religiosity that the prevalence of individualism and communitarianism in these respective regions can be explained.
Europe is the birthplace of liberalism, an ideology with a disposition of encouraging individuals to free themselves of old traditions, religion, and if necessary, society. Liberalism secured its place on the European continent in the 20th century, with the vanquishing of modern collectivist alternatives (chiefly fascism and communism). One of the many victims of this ideological hegemony was Christianity. While still extant on the continent and claiming millions of adherents, the submission of Christianity to liberalism appears to be complete, given occurrences such as Catholic-strong Ireland voting overwhelmingly to legalize abortion and nominally secular Germany using Christianity to serve state interests when it would otherwise disregard it.
In contrast, the MENA region has not completely succumbed to liberalism. Despite past efforts such as the secular pan-Arabist movement of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the French colonization of Algeria, and current ones like the UAE’s “moderate” Islam project, Islam remains a potent ideological force. Even if not actively at the forefront, its latent presence is strong enough to offer the people of the region a civilizational vision besides/beyond that of western liberalism. In spite of the inescapable contact with the West, liberalism and its atomizing effects have not afflicted the Muslim world as much as they have Europe, and so communal tendencies, though weakened, remain largely intact. However, where liberalism reigns triumphant, communal modes of existence die. It is for this reason that Muslim migrants to Europe are remarkable in their implementation of such a communal life in the most individualist of societies. This is also perhaps why they cause such strife. Had their Islam been a decisively liberal one or if European society had a strong sense of community and developed ways of having different communities live side by side without subsuming them all under secularism, integration in Europe would be easier. But liberalism, like all modern ideologies, is totalizing.
Liberalism’s Handmaidens: The Market and the State
Social atomization is heavily reliant on liberalism’s dominance. The two creatures of liberalism, the state and the market, while separately advocated for by political rivals, both work to exacerbate social atomization. Conservatives advocate for free-market capitalism, which of all economic systems is most suited for liberalism, while progressives support regulation and direct involvement by the state. As liberalism values individual autonomy and liberty, capitalism values individual purchasing power. The free market system touts the ideal liberal economy: anyone can compete for wealth and success and such competition promotes equality. Similar to liberalism, an outcome of capitalism is the breakdown of communal and social structures. Capitalism benefits from social atomization because the more individual agents, the more consumers, and thus the more opportunities for profit. As such, there is a vested interest in fracturing the family unit into individual consumers. For example, if there is only one phone per household, then that leaves the rest of the family as a potential consumer base yet untapped. The household landline, once a staple of the family unit, fell to the rise of personal cell phones.
As everyone is further isolated and broken apart, the greater economic system continues to churn forward, looking for novel ways to create more individual agents. The economic division of people places them in financially insecure positions. Families no longer make and run budgets as a group, as everyone is forced by the system to worry about themselves. Familial based investment and loaning systems which are traditionally utilized to soften the blow of poverty, such as Osusu, found in African communities, or the Latin American counterpart Tanda, are rendered moot. As a result, the experience of poverty is heightened due to lack of support systems, financial and otherwise, that communitarianism typically provided. This is why western and westernized nations almost uniformly exhibit high wealth inequality. The United States, Sweden, UK, Germany and Austria are all among the top 6 nations for wealth inequality. As self-reliance proves too difficult, people are forced to look for help, providing progressives the opportunity to promote state-backed protections and financial assistance. Individuals become reliant on the state for their unfulfilled needs, making the family and community less relevant and accelerating social atomization. Economic life reveals the facade of partisanship in western countries, as both conservatives and progressives are essentially liberals whose policies further threaten communitarianism.
Moving Forward: A Communitarian Revival?
Having seen and understood the deleterious effects of social atomization driven by liberalism, it behooves us to not only educate ourselves on the matter, but to begin the process of exploring how social atomization can be mitigated. Since liberalism, individualism, and capitalism are at the root of social atomization, it is necessary to find alternative ideologies and politico-economic systems to determine the possibility and means of their implementation. This is a pressing matter for all who live in the modern world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, as none of us can escape social atomization. Challenging the very nature of our social world will not be easy, and proposed answers will surely be contested. By having a commonly shared diagnosis of the ills of modernity, we can begin to create a successful and coordinated effort to address them.
About the Author: Sami Omais is a graduate in political science and European history. His interests include traditional Islamic sciences, geopolitics, Middle Eastern history, and Islam in America.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.
22 thoughts on “The Death of Community and the Rise of Individualism”
Great down to the point article. Showing the heart of current cultural crisis. So called western liberalism is reaching new levels of absurdism with its covert agenda of making individualism a new religion. In that this common sensual yet more an archaic habitual belief of understanding oneself as separate coherent unified being among other similar separate beings / minds is pushed to such limits by western agenda. That people are getting extremely alienated from each other by trashing all the traditional unifying notions of family, parenthood, religion, culture, history.. swapping these with consumerism, lgbtism, instagramism, pc games, drugs, anything capable of disorienting, alienating, devoting you of critical thinking, getting you trapped in this hyper individualistic mind set. So now you find yourself surrounded by similar atomized pinoccios unable to co-exist, associate with each other, live in a unified cultural field. Yet such atomized mode of societal existence works in hand with the corporate elites, for individual is realising his individual absurd existence with neverending absurd purchases, activities, competing in this futile mode of living with similar individuals… as such these individualistic masses are easily manipulated, pose no threat to the elite class, and a new mode of voluntary slavery…
You lost me there. I was agreeing with everything (consumerism, Instagramism, etc), but how does it alienate or work against community when a man has a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend? We want family and community, too.
This is the main problem with addressing this issue. Throughout reading this article I was agreeing on a lot of things, but constantly wondering whether there was a dog whistle for this type of ideology. Religion and ostricising of LGBT people isn’t what creates community, and not what a modern community should be about. In fact, it’s this type of toxic, controlling behaviour that has been the driving force of the individualism we all suffer from today, as it has been the path of least resistance to break free from this type of oppressive behaviour. And today it’s what turns people off from truly discussing this issue, as there’s always this underlying feeling of being dog whistled by someone like Luke.
One of the problems is that large businesses (corporations) act, on a moral level, independently of the people who comprise them. Your average marketing bod is probably a nice guy who loves his football/his girlfriend/his tattoos/etc., etc.
The corporation is much, much worse than the sum of its parts.
There is no restraint to the cold logic of the corporation. Governments acquiesce. People buy into the marketing (advertizing being an evil thing in its own right).
By their nature, adverts work to trick us, to lie. The more time passes, the more advanced the trickery becomes. Clever people are rewarded for being able to trick us better – to lie more sneakily. Add to that the ubiquity of smart phones and there is no escape from incessant brainwashing.
It boils down to an acceptance of this status quo, and therefore a denial of feeling for our fellow man. Bills go through parliament which would give ten years to a sailor who saved the life of a drowning immigrant attempting to cross the channel.
Other bills give state agents licence to commit any crime (including rape and murder) and face no charges. These bills (and others) don’t appear on the BBC, or any mainstream media. The same media that is completely silent about the brutal treatment of Julian Assange – a real journalist, who exposed the ongoing horrors of this colonialist Empire.
So what will happen? Nothing. There’s absolutely nothing you, me or anyone else can do about it except wait until the biosphere collapses and then it’s every man for himself. Which, in a strange irony, will be a mirror of the present situation.
This article successively encapsulates the single most important problem facing the West today, one that most here understand intuitively but can’t effectively articulate.
Unfortunately, only a few scholars in the U.S. have addressed it. For instance, the late sociologist Robert Nisbet noted how local and cohesive societies act to prevent totalitarianism.
Very interesting article. I had not heard the term social atomization before, but it makes a lot of sense. I don’t sense bad intent when people do not respond to texts or emails, there just seems to be something missing in these peoples’ brains. They don’t have the socially connected neurons. It is also hard to tell people to be more socially kind as the atomic individual will find this insulting to his or her individualism. The individualist think that they are not bothering anyone, but there are inevitable social consequences. Just as slavery ended in the British Empire, there will be a time when people become socially conscious again – even if its unimaginable to us today.
Thank you for this brilliant analysis of liberalism’s role in promoting social atomization and for examining how that atomization supports the juggernaut of consumerist capitalism: The more people are separated from one another, the greater the opportunities for producers and marketers to swoop in an offer succor to lonely, isolated souls who have been duped into believing that they will somehow feel less lonely, less isolated if only they buy this or that product, service, or even ideology.
The difficulty, however, may lie in human nature itself and the way people behave when they associate in groups: While I broadly support communitarian ideals, I (perhaps as a Westerner steeped in neo-liberalism) am instinctually repelled by the way people come together under ideological or religious banners. There is the ever-present danger in communitarian societies of tribe-versus-tribe, of intertribal warfare. What structures can societies put in place to check those tendencies?
That’s a great question Alex. Before suggesting societal structures that can preempt communal strife, a comment on group association:
I share the fear of tribalism, particularly nationalism and ethnocentrism. Communitarianism produces strong, organic identity, which is different from rallying under an ideologically constructed identity (such as a race or nationality). The difference is that the former is passive, and provides belonging, which is important for mental and psychological well-being. The latter is meaningful too, but it is active and political, accompanied by intent for competition and conflict with out-groups.
Society can preempt communal strife by having a government structure that does not incentivize and empower group mobilization. Democracies are prone to jingoism as they uphold ideas such nationhood and “the people,” unlike premodern times where loyalty was to a ruler and bodies of popular representation were nonexistent. The challenge is to recreate that norm of intercommunal harmony, but understanding that we cannot (and should not) go back in time, devise a model appropriate for our (post-)liberal, (post-)democratic world.
This is a fantastic article. I found it whilst planning one of my own about how social atomisation is fuelling the return to far right ideas. I think your commentary on immigrant populations (especially Islamic ones) is very salient and the jealousy felt in western populations (especially among the working class) who have lost not only their religious communities (but due to austerity politics) any semblance of public space or community is manifesting in deepening islamophobia, racism, etc. (As these groups have formed communities as a way of empowering themselves against oppression). The simplistic narrative that their community is being replaced, rather than the recognition that all communitarian ideals are under siege by neo-liberal capitalist structures and immigrant communities are more resilient, is taking us to negative places.
Thanks Ben. I agree regarding the short-sighted and misdirected anger of the far-right. The challenge is to successfully convey this criticism and inspire a re-directed focus on neo-liberalism and the loss of communal ties and organic identities.