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 7: Sowing the seeds of neoliberalism

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


Chapter 5 described the combination of religious, sentimental and cognitive individualism – deriving from a curious mixture of millenarian Protestantism, American nationalism and civic republicanism – which Higham called the American ideology. Overhauling the American ideology to fit the ideas of Spencer would mean promoting cognitive over sentimental and religious individualisms. It would require celebrating inequality rather than civic virtue and shrinking the state rather than deliberative democracy. Cognitive individualism would be left to do its benign work and, as long as those with soft hearts did not intervene, the obvious evidence of individual success and failure would accomplish the necessary evolutionary changes (Taylor 1992). More extreme inequality, with extravagant success and harrowing failure, would get them made more quickly. This chapter explains in more detail how Spencer’s theories anticipated the next phase in American individualism, particularly in respect of his views on negative freedom, capitalism, the division of labour, social stratification and the state. Spencer thought the only thing that really mattered in politics was whether there was interference in the private lives of citizens. If individuals were not protected against political intrusion, the process of evolution might be disrupted. Spencer did not think that democracy was any more likely to prevent such interference than a monarchy. His only preference was for government that would improve justice and equity and there was no reason why a democracy could guarantee this (Francis 2007).

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