Individualism and Inequality

Individualism and Inequality

The Future of Work and Politics

Ralph Fevre

A belief in individual self-determination powered the development of universal human rights and inspired social movements from anti-slavery to socialism and feminism. At the same time, every attempt to embed individualism in systems of education and employment has eventually led to increased social inequality. Across the globe individualism has been transformed from a revolutionary force into an explanation for increasingly unequal societies where dissent is largely silent. This book explores the possibility of rediscovering the original, transformative potential of individualism.

Chapter 4: Inequality, welfare and the cultivation of character

Ralph Fevre

Subjects: business and management, critical management studies, economics and finance, labour economics, politics and public policy, human rights, public policy, social policy and sociology, labour policy


In the last chapter, I suggested that the relative weakness of sentimental individualism in the USA helped to bring earlier educational expansion there. In this chapter and the next, we explore American and British versions of sentimental individualism in some detail. This chapter concentrates on the UK but it begins with the educational proposals made by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations since they were to prove influential in both countries. Smith was not content to leave the development of modern society in the hands of the market because the way the division of labour was tending left so much individual potential unrealized. Since the division of labour was sovereign, there was no point in developing this potential for economic reasons since, no matter how well educated people were, they could not do jobs that did not exist. Nevertheless, Smith was concerned about individuals’ lack of opportunity for self-development precisely because the division of labour was demanding less and less skill and knowledge. So implacable was the division of labour that an ‘essential part of the character of human nature’ was ‘mutilated and deformed’ and he believed something must be done to counter-act the ‘gross ignorance and stupidity’ it created amongst the mass of the population (Smith [1776]2005: 642).

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