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 is a student of political science and history. His interests include Islamic studies and sociocultural studies. You can follow him on Twitter here.