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 9: An introduction to people management

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


We saw in the previous chapter that the influence of individualism on American education was increasingly centred on preparation for work, including the acquisition of attitudes and orientations to the division of labour. As the requirements of the division of labour changed, so an elaborate system evolved for shaping the future workforce. This system extended beyond the school gate: developments in workplaces and labour markets embedded individualism in practices and institutions (Scott and Meyer 1994a). The term people management best describes those practices and institutions. It encompasses the rise of personnel and human resource managers but also includes the legal framework under which workplaces and labour markets operate. The next two chapters take the history of people management up to the point at which we left the history of (British) education in 1976. In that year, an American management book declared businesses knew ‘that freedom for self-development is the finest value in life’ and that ‘a basic principle of personnel management concerns the “sacredness” of individual personality’ (cited in Anthony 1977: 161). We must understand how people management reached this point and, in doing so, we meet a new theme: the systematic exaggeration of the capacity of cognitive individualism to make the hopes of sentimental individualism a reality. This exaggeration arose from the category mistake in which cognition was presented as a perfect substitute for belief. Once sentimental beliefs were interpreted as human aspirations, they could be translated into cognitive sense-making.

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