David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote a series of op-eds where he critiques liberalism and its emphasis on individualism. He argues that America has been moving in a bad cultural direction and that it’s primarily due to the loss of a shared cohesive moral order. As Brooks states, “People like me emphasize cultural issues. If you have 60 years of radical individualism and ruthless meritocracy, you’re going to end up with a society that is atomized, distrustful and divided (2018a).” Brooks argues that the emphasis on individuality has damaged our culture and, in turn, has caused a reliance on the state to protect individuals. In so doing, he downplays how our social institutions have shaped the dysfunctional culture that he points to. This essay will explore Brooks’ argument about “excessive individualism” and then will offer an alternative understanding, “excessive narcissism”, in terms of what has generated America’s divisiveness.
Brooks takes issue with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s liberalist claim that, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life (2018c).” Brooks asserts that in Kennedy’s statement, “There is no acknowledgment of the parts of ourselves that we don’t choose but inherit- family, race, social roles, historical legacies of oppression, our bodies, the habits that are handed down to us by our common culture (2018c).” Brooks asserts that individuality needs to be constrained by culture to some degree. When individuals stray too far from cultural traditions and norms, they will wind up isolated. This isolation, in turn, pushes the individual to reach out for assistance from the state.
Brooks argues that this isolation has pushed individuals to revert to surface-level tribalism. Tribalism places the needs and wants of their group above the rest of society. Tribes become unwilling to negotiate with each other and essentially lead to disorder. Brooks states that the major way tribalism has emerged is through identity politics and that it’s playing a detrimental role in today’s political divide. Even though tribalism is rampant, he still argues, “The core problem today is not tribalism. It’s excessive individualism, which has eaten away at uniting faith and damaged our relationships with one another. Excessive individualism has left us distrustful and alone – naked Lockeans. When people are naked and alone, they revert to tribe. Tribalism is the end product of excessive individualism (2018b).”
Brooks decries the excessive individualism and tribalism that he believes to be at the core of America’s reliance on government and the decline of a shared moral order. “If you strip away all the communal commitments that help people govern themselves from within, then very soon you find you have to pass all sorts of laws to govern them from without. If you privatize meaning so people get to follow their unrestrained desires, they immediately start tramping on one another, and public pressure grows from restrictive laws, like hate speech regulation, to keep things from getting out of control (Brooks, 2018c).” Hence, Brooks thinks that individuals breaking away from cultural norms has essentially fractured our society and left us divided and isolated.
Christopher Lasch, in his book Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), also critiqued the lack of a cohesive moral order but rejected the notion that “individualism” is to blame. Instead, he argued that the economic system is responsible for this new ethos. Essentially foreseeing the arguments by conservatives like Brooks, he stated, “[The conservative critic] deplores the erosion of authority, the corruption of standards in the schools, and the spread of permissiveness. But it refuses to acknowledge the connection between the developments and the rise of monopoly capitalism- between bureaucracy in government and bureaucracy in industry (Lasch, 1979; 232).” It’s the virulent social structures which are the root of America’s declining moral order.
Lasch argues that the economic system we are surrounded by has generated “the narcissistic culture of our time.” It’s not so much individualism as it is solipsism. A total absorption with the image of our “self” that we present to others. An image that is largely crafted by our consumption and the social status positions that we occupy. What may appear as individualism is better understood as systemically-created narcissism. Lasch summarizes the symptoms of our cultural narcissism: “Experiences of inner emptiness, loneliness, and inauthenticity… arise from the warlike conditions that pervade American society, from the dangers and uncertainty that surround us, and from a loss of confidence in the future (Lasch, 1979; 27).” The precarious economic system has entered into the psyche of the individuals who operate within it.
In a chaotic economy where the workforce has essentially become subservient to financial investors, it has contributed to generating toxic social relations:
When personal relations are conducted with no other object than psychic survival, “privatism” no longer provides a haven from a heartless world. On the contrary, private life takes on the very qualities of the anarchic social order which it is supposed to provide a refuge. It is the devastation of personal life, not the retreat into privatism, that needs to be criticized and condemned (27) …. Our society, far from fostering private life at the expense of public life, has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs, and marriages increasingly difficult to achieve. As social life becomes more and more warlike and barbaric, personal relations, which ostensibly provide relief from these conditions, take on the character of combat (Lasch, 1979; 30).
These narcissistic relationships, encouraged by our social structures, are the real culprit behind our social isolation and crumbling moral order. Nonetheless, it is not the quest to “define our existence” that has created this isolation, as Brooks argues, but instead, is better explained by Max Weber’s “iron cage”, Karl Marx’s “alienation”, or Herbert Marcuse’s “one-dimensional man.” The systemic pressures to conform in order to ensure psychological survival have penetrated into nearly every realm of our lives. It is really the loss of individuality, not the excess of individuality, that has lead to the tribalism and identity politics of our times.
As Brooks reminds us “people are only capable of exercising responsible freedom when they are embedded in and formed by social institutions- like family, schools that take morality seriously and a shared civic order (2018c).” Social institutions that are driven exclusively by profit-seeking, like traditional public corporations, annihilate any sense of morality or shared civic order among the public. Instead, these inherently amoral institutions engage in what could be considered “civilized cannibalism.” By treating individuals like interchangeable objects, these social institutions have infiltrated and poisoned social relationships. Instead of rational individualism in America, we are left with asocial hedonism.
Brooks. D. (2018 a). “How Democracies Perish,” New York Times, 12 January 2018, p. A23.
Brooks. D. (2018 b). “A Renaissance on the Right,” New York Times, 13 April 2018, p. A27.
Brooks. D. (2018 c). “Kennedy and Privatizing Meaning,” New York Times, 29 June 2018, p. A25.
Lasch, C. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. WW Norton & Company.