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 14: Insecurity, intensification and subordination

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


Organizations had once experienced individualism as an environmental factor, but in the twentieth century individualism became an essential component of their teleology. All organizations, not merely capitalist firms, were able to claim that it allowed them to fulfil their purpose of managing resources as efficiently as possible. This was, however, an inadequate description of the advantages that organizations saw in responding to individualism. They responded because ‘[t]o leave so valuable a resource as the self-activating individual unincorporated would be to irresponsibly neglect to manage a now rationalized uncertainty’ (Scott and Meyer 1994a: 211). This chapter explains that some of the uncertainty of the employment relationship was transferred to employees, while power transferred in the other direction: from individuals to organizations. This subordination was a major reason for the synchronicity between neoliberalism and increasing inequality. The dominant interpretation of the increased uncertainty associated with cognitive individualism is that it reduces job security. This thesis gathered support from the inception of the neoliberal settlement in the mid-1970s. The general claim that we were entering an age of insecurity featured in many of the works of the most popular social theorists of subsequent decades and the thesis took hold in Europe, and particularly France, before spreading to other countries (Fevre 2007). The strapline for the insecurity thesis was that nobody could, any longer, expect a job for life (e.g. Drucker 1995; Handy 1990).

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