The Glorious Ego
The Double Face of Individualization
By Johano Strasser
[Individualization is a success- and suffering history at once. The political scientist and author Johano Strasser emphasizes this. Individualization has produced on one side the emancipated individual and on the other the modern lack of orientation. This article is translated from the German in: zeitzeichen 11/2000.]
The Dance around the Ego
Egoists and self-centered persons have always existed. The shirt was always closer than the coat. At the same time there were values that curbed the human propensity to self-glorification and feelings of omnipotence and recalled limitation and dependence. The person is free and subject to no one; the person is a servant subject to everyone. Only the right balance is regarded as human maturity. Today in a time of media-supported self-glorification, only one thing seems important: having fun. "Being more than appearance" is replaced more and more by "appearance is being".
Still the glorious ego needs its confirmation as appearance needs its reflection. The body culture that refuses the ideal of moderation and focuses on the admiring glance or envy in the eye of the other is the best expression of that glorious ego. The question remains whether the post-modern ego-cult can not also be a step promoting universal humanity.
The individual as a dominant value is an invention of the modern age, more exactly of the Renaissance. Early beginnings in Judaism and Christianity lead first in the modern age to more and more persons making themselves and their own drives, wishes and insights into the starting-point of all thinking and acting in mastery of the world and life.
On this intellectual basis, the claims of traditional societies and subordination under hierarchies of power and knowledge are increasingly put in question. Emancipation, enlightenment and the "awakening of the person from his self-incurred tutelage" (Kant) are the consequences of this change in perspective.
Social position, gender or race are no longer simply accepted as fateful determinants of life together with their assignments of social status. While the individual in high scholasticism as with Thomas Aquinas was lifted out of the rest of nature as a being capable of morally responsible conduct ("Summa theologiae" I) and individualization in the Reformation was largely restricted to the self as the place of moral and religious decisions, the natural powers of the person, the special mixture of mental and physical characteristics and inclinations were declared values in themselves in the following period.
No longer only the person but the personality as an epitome of specific personal traits, the individual as an incarnate person existing in flesh and blood now becomes an end-in-itself before whom all order must justify itself.
With the upgrading of the individual, the ethical, moral and religious values and the legal norms essentially changed in Europe and later in other parts of the world. Where the emancipation of the individual first historically assumed the form of the collective emancipation of the "Third Estate", the modern human- and civil rights born in this revolutionary act were conceived from the beginning as individual rights, defensive rights against the state (and against the church).
Freedom in the singular developed out of the old freedoms in the plural which were understood as group rights or class rights. The citizen in the sense of the French "bourgeois" who changed in the revolutionary process to the "citoyen" is the archetype of the modern free individual.
As a consequence, civil freedom is generalized corresponding to its inherent universal promise. The freedom of the worker, women and finally the oppressed and colonized non-European races came out of the freedom of the male propertied citizen in the course of development.
Appealing to the promises of universal freedom of the middle class revolution, new groups today sue for their "natural" human- and civil rights. The dynamic of the age of the Enlightenment seems unbroken in this point.
That is the success story which we have to tell when "individualism" and "individualization" are emphasized. This secular trend prevails inexorably where the middle class European intellectual tradition was not at home or was consciously interrupted in a great leap as in the "annus mirabilis" of 1989. However seen more closely, the process hardly proves free of contradiction as on first view.
The liberation of the individual is always a step in uncertain terrain. Whoever wants to be come-of-age must renounce familiar certainties. Those bonds imparting warmth and safety are often torn with the rupture of fetters.
Individualization can be read and experienced as isolation. Existential homelessness can make the desire for integration overpowering even at the cost of submission as seen in the success of fundamentalist currents, authoritarian sects and extremist rightwing organizations.
There is obviously reason to explore more closely what we call "individualism" or "individualization", what it means for the life of individuals and society, under what conditions is individualism experienced as liberation and enrichment and when does it hinder possibilities of human development. Like all processes of modern times, individualization is ambivalent.
Does individualism destroy society? Does it endanger the continuance of our democratic institutions? Is individualization the reason that more and more persons --especially young persons - withdraw from their social and political responsibility?
For years people have agreed that the "new individualism" has led to a dangerous decline in public interest orientation. That the alleged decline of social engagement does not correspond to the facts is usually not even noted in this depressed mood.
The American sociologist Daniel Bell first developed the threat panorama by describing the contradictions of the western individualization processes as "cultural contradictions of capitalism" (1976, "The Future of the Western World: Culture and Technology in Conflict").
According to Bell, the consumer hedonism produced by capital destroys the secularized protestant work ethos and finally that republican responsibility for the community without which modern industrial society cannot exist in the long run. The erosion of its cultural foundations caused by the capitalist society itself must ultimately endanger its survival.
In this question, Bell is a forerunner of modern-day communitarians who since the eighties point to the danger that the individualist culture of the West undermines its own prerequisites of existence. Reflection on values and institutions forming community is urged.
That they mostly start from the assumption that a person is egoistic "by nature' and the indispensable minimum in public welfare orientation must be taught "from outside" so to speak against his natural inclinations with the means of pedagogy and the administration of justice is problematic in strengthening the public welfare commitment.
In Germany, this way of looking at things has a long and venerable tradition rooted in the dualism of inclination and obligation stressed in Kantian ethics.
That the individual knows social dispositions, that helping others and doing something useful for the community can also be fun, that we are always born in "involuntary associations" and cannot grow into personally strong individuals without embedding in common shared structures is mostly not considered.
Both the Anglo-Saxon utilitarian individualism with its tendency to hedonism and the romantic or expressive individualism where the life of the individual is an adventure of personal discovery are narrowings that do not correspond to the condition humaine. That these narrowings are still influential today reflects our economic mode and habits more than "the nature" of the person.
In fact the capitalist society produces the trend radicalizing individualism and the resulting contradictions and problems. The increased demands for mobility that threaten the remnants of traditional socialization structures and the development of the mass consumer society which cannot exist without the constant appeal to the hedonism of individuals are very important in this context.
Invoking duties and calling to self-limitation and renunciation are hardly promising. Rather the appeal to "well-understood self-interest" can achieve something. Lastly, the frustrations brought inevitably by the search for happiness on the modern markets of experience are part of our everyday experience. There is a natural basic need for community, communication and mutual confirmation and acknowledgment and for enhancement of existence in communal life. There are astounding testimonies of a practical altruism as Morton Hunt shows in his beautiful book "The Mystery of Charity".
Beyond the old duty ethic, the modern individualist culture can develop its own social ethic, a social ethic starting from a realistic view of the person that guides modern self-realization in socially-friendly paths.