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 15: The future of work and politics

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 a book which has so often insisted on the importance of contingency, the claim to foresight is problematic, but the analysis presented here allows us to see that some possibilities are more likely than others. The ways in which people understand their world have a big part to play in determining likely futures. The most obvious way in which they might influence events is through political decisions in democratic countries. Even if we have reason to be sceptical about the degree of freedom people have to make these decisions, or change anything by them (Streeck 2014), misunderstanding individualism as self-interest blinds us to the possibilities that may arise in this way. As we saw in Chapter 1, friends and foes of neoliberalism identify a link between individualism and inequality. Most of them believe the essence of this link is that individualism encourages self-interest but this book suggests they are wrong. Any sensible discussion of likely futures depends, first of all, on rejecting the idea that what is wrong with individualism is self-interest. To find a time when individualism could sensibly be defined as self-interest, we must go back much further than the dawning of the neoliberal age in 1976, to Edmund Burke and his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, published almost exactly 200 years earlier.

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