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 6: Classes and evolution

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

Extract

The relationship between individualism and inequality can only be successfully theorized with knowledge of the historical circumstances within which sentimental, religious and cognitive individualisms developed. Without this grasp of history and contingency, we would not be able to understand why sentimental individualism in the UK, but not in the USA, was closely related with nineteenth-century anti-slavery. Nor would we understand why American, but not British, sentimental individualism was associated with educational expansion and reform. We now move on to extend our grasp of the relationships between individualism and inequality from anti-slavery and education to the division of labour. Adam Smith believed that we tamper with the division of labour at the cost of damaging prosperity and that, on its own, the division of labour produced little of the inequality he saw in eighteenth-century British society. Smith thought it was the way that people understood and shaped their relationship to the division of labour that was the cause of inequality. WN included a powerful critique of the cognitive individualism which used the differences in the talents and efforts of individuals to explain inequality. He also pointed out that cognitive individualism’s assumptions about the freedoms that individuals enjoyed were deeply flawed. Modern misrepresentation of Smith might easily lead us to believe he wrote nothing about the class system of his time, or saw it as a type of social structure that would be swept away by the operation of free markets and replaced by healthy individual competition.

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