The Future of Work and Politics
Chapter 6: Classes and evolution
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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