The Global Spread of Individualism
By: Jay Ogilvy | Stratfor.comOctober 15, 2015

Worrisome trends sometimes have their bright sides. For example, the abysmally low levels of confidence in large institutions, from governments to the church to big corporations, might be interpreted as a condemnation of those institutions. Dysfunction in Washington, 500 demonstrations a day in China, the Arab Spring, the Maidan revolution in Ukraine — each of these may be taken as evidence of corruption and incompetence in high places. Such interpretations come with words like "crisis," and they evoke fear and pessimism.

I'd like to suggest a more optimistic spin: that day by day, week by week, year by year we are experiencing a gradual but pervasive spread of individual autonomy and increasing confidence in personal judgment.

There was an ad that ran for years, for a product I cannot even remember, whose tag line ran, "I'd rather do it myself, mother." The world over, more and more people are waking up from lives as children, slaves, serfs, subjects and followers to a dawning wakefulness as autonomous adults who are, as the movie Network put it, "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore." This is, for the most part, a good thing, not a bad thing.

Signs of Individualism

There's evidence to support this more optimistic spin on the crises of ruling institutions. Social scientist and opinion researcher Ron Inglehart has been fielding global values surveys for the past 35 years. Among his most robust findings, elaborated in a series of books over the past two decades, is a universal, secular trend toward increasing individualism. The United States, "home of the free," is the leader in this trend. But across the world, individualism is on the rise in other cultures as well.

Thinking about the dialectic between individualism and collectivism, we cannot deny the dangers of too much individualism: too much emphasis on entitlements rather than social responsibility, creeping narcissism, and a selfish indifference to the needs of others. But the dangers of excessive individualism are nothing compared to the oppressiveness of excessive collectivism. The fall of communism stands as the 20th century's most obvious turn away from collectivism. But there are less obvious data points as well; the hikikomori, for example, otherwise known as the 1.5 million young people in Japan who will not leave their bedrooms.

In Shutting Out the Sun, Michael Zielenziger, a journalist who spent nine years reporting from Japan for Reuters, argues that these young people, mostly male, are not all autistic. They are not video game addicts. They are not crazy. If airlifted out of Japan to places like Hong Kong, Vancouver or New York, many thrive. But in Japan, a country with a very strong and homogeneous culture that features society's needs over the individual's, they are simply unwilling to play the collectivist game. They drop out. Their parents, unwilling to lose face by openly acknowledging their children's asocial behavior, end up enabling their reclusiveness.

The Rise of Self-Declared Independents

Turning from Japan back to the United States, consider the remarkable disaffection with the two political parties.

For the party faithful on both sides of the aisle, this looks like a crisis. Or we can interpret these numbers as a progressive evolution from dogmatic adherence to a party line toward a healthy reliance on one's own judgment? While the literature on increasing political polarization sometimes makes it sound as if the country were riven by a dysfunctional split between deeply opposed values — and voting records in Congress do reveal increasing polarization in Washington — a closer look at the values of American citizens reveals bell curves galore with most of the citizenry clustering toward the center and thinning toward the tails of the extremes.

A series of causes can be cited as over-determining the mismatch between increasing polarization in Washington and a citizenry that is more moderate than its elected representatives.

First, the media loves a fight. If it bleeds, it leads. "Fair and balanced" journalism demands an antithesis for every thesis. And the increasing fragmentation of the media, from a few major networks to dozens of channels on TV and blogs on the Internet, leaves people sourcing their news in silos of the like-minded.

Second, the system of primary elections, combined with the gerrymandering of congressional districts, favors extremes over moderation.

Third, when Newt Gingrich told the new cohort of congressional freshmen in 1994 that they should leave their families at home rather than bring them to Washington, this seemingly insignificant shift led to major consequences: less time to socialize with those across the aisle. Initiating a pattern according to which legislators would travel home on Thursday or Friday and return to Washington on Monday or Tuesday, this new pattern raises the question of whether a nation as large and complex as the United States can be governed on Wednesdays. No wonder they can't get anything done in Washington.

So more and more individuals look on in disgust and try their best to engage socially in ways other than party politics. It would be a mistake to interpret the rise of self-declared Independents as evidence of indifference to social and political issues. Polling of Independents on specific issues reveals a partisanship across the swath of Independents that is every bit as passionate as one finds among self-declared Republicans and Democrats. On this subject, see Morris Fiorina's excellent book, Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America.

To put it in a way that points toward yet another domain that demonstrates the rise of individualism, one could say that self-declared Independents are to the political realm what the "spiritual but not religious" are to the religious realm. As Fiorina makes clear, most Independents aren't indifferent to social and political issues. But they have left the churches of the parties. They have lost faith in political leaders. They are no longer willing to be followers. This is not all bad, however worrisome it may look to those who still hope for a return to a more functional two-party political system.

The spiritual but not religious are themselves the fastest growing "sect" in America. Here again the emphasis is on autonomy. Rather than uncritically accepting holy writ as handed down from on high, the spiritual but not religious may have a passionate interest in matters outside the secular. They can meditate on their own. They may have an intense interest in mysticism. But they are no more willing to worship the old gods in their old churches than the Independents are willing to support the old politicians in the old parties. This is not all bad, however worrisome it may appear to prelates bemoaning empty pews.

The End of Power

The long-term global trend toward increased individualism is both effect and cause. It is part of a co-evolution of forces well charted in Moises Naim's book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn't What It Used to Be. Naim does an excellent job of pointing to larger phenomena that are fed by and feed the trend toward individualism.

The core of his argument revolves around three revolutions: the More Revolution, the Mobility Revolution and the Mentality Revolution. The More Revolution is based on the fact that there are simply so many more people who have risen from poverty and servitude to join the middle class, such as the 660 million Chinese who have escaped poverty since 1981. In the words of Naim, "the World Bank reckons that since 2006, twenty-eight formerly 'low-income countries' have joined the ranks of what it calls 'middle-income' ones." And "more" does not refer only to those rising from the bottom of the pyramid. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, "the number of working scientists grew from 4.3 million in 1999 to 6.3 million in 2009."

Though gradual and incremental in a way that leaves them beneath the radar, shifts like this evoke the title of a paper by physicist, Lee Smolin: "More is Different." Summing up the More Revolution, Naim concludes: "The key to this: When people are more numerous and living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control."

The Mobility Revolution makes all those people harder to control. And as Naim states, "it also changes the distribution of power within and among populations, whether through the rise of ethnic, religious, and professional diasporas or as individual vectors of ideas, capital, and faiths that can be either destabilizing or empowering." Urbanization, migration and what has been referred to as "brain drain," add up to what Naim calls "brain circulation." To the extent that the exercise of power requires some degree of control over borders, this Mobility Revolution undercuts the power of nation-states.

Closest to the ideas in the first half of this column, Naim explores what he refers to as the Mentality Revolution. Part of it stems from what Samuel Huntington labeled the "expectations revolution." People who get more tend to want still more again: "the effect of the More and Mobility revolutions has been to vastly broaden the cognitive, even emotional impact of more access to resources and the ability to move, learn, connect and communicate."

Governments, churches and political parties are not the only institutions to feel the effects of these three revolutions. The institution of marriage is vulnerable as well. Even in relatively traditional societies like those in the Middle East, divorce rates are skyrocketing, "reaching 20 percent in Saudi Arabia, 26 percent in the United Arab Emirates, and 37 percent in Kuwait."

Since the appearance of Naim's brilliant book, yet another data point has hit the airwaves — the Ashley Madison hack. I, for one, was stunned to learn that no less than 33 million names were associated with this supposedly discreet dating site with the slogan, "Life is short. Have an affair."

Good News and Bad

Spanning the globe from hikikomori in Japan, to divorcees in the Middle East, to philanderers in the United States, it would seem that there's no end to the dots that can be connected in support of this worldwide trend toward increased individualism. I'll stop before they call in the doctors who treated John Nash's brilliant if deranged Beautiful Mind.

But not without one more observation I share with Naim. Yes, there's a lot to be said in favor of the good news about upward mobility and greater autonomy. But there's some bad news that can't be denied. While a certain degree of splintering and decentralization can take the form of entrepreneurial vitality and more local control over resources, there are some problems that simply cannot be solved without a capacity to scale. Climate change, the global trend toward increasing income inequality — these are problems that don't yield to local solutions.

As Naim puts it, "power is not just shifting. It is also decaying and, in some cases, evaporating." We need governance structures that can manage the power needed to solve some very big problems. "But the decay of power means that obsessing about which great power is on the rise and which one is declining, as if geopolitics in the end reduced to a zero-sum game among a global elite, is a red herring."

The spread of individualism has consequences for geopolitics. While some of those consequences may be problematic, I would argue that there's more good news than bad.

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