Rampant individualism is how the West will be lost
Britain and the US are now widely regarded as among the worst countries in their handling of the coronavirus. This is partly a failure of leadership, with US President Donald Trump spouting dangerous ideas (such as his suggestion of injecting disinfectant), while in London, the Conservative administration has seemed ill-prepared and inconsistent in its approach.
But the main reason why much of the world looks at the US and the UK in this way today has little to do with Mr Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. We are in the middle of the most serious pandemic for a century. Many have endured economic hardship and agonising separation during lockdowns to stem the virus’s spread. If we have learned one thing, it is that social distancing and reducing personal transmission are crucial.
And yet on both sides of the Atlantic, we see endless images of crowds.
In America, with 128,000 fatalities, and in the UK, with more than 43,000 dead, we see beaches jam-packed with sunseekers, and streets in which thousands of demonstrators jostle for space. We hear of illegal raves in London and Manchester in Britain, and overflowing bars and restaurants in America.
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This makes a mockery of any rules, laws or guidelines that are or have been in place to fight the pandemic. Many of these gatherings have been illegal, and yet nobody has made any serious attempt to stop them going ahead. The idea that the rule of law must be sacrosanct has been shattered.
The instrument of this act of legal vandalism now lies bare: a rampant individualism on both left and right, which declares personal desires must be given full reign. I want to go to the beach, so I will. I want to demonstrate against racism, so I will. The motive in the second case is worthier than the first, but the principle is the same. Whatever I feel is right comes before the law. The individual comes before the community.
This has not emerged out of the blue. The backdrop is of conservatives who ditched the need to conserve and the obligation of one generation to the next, favouring instead a rapacious capitalism that puts personal wealth and advancement above all else. No "One Nation Conservative" or decent Republican could approve of Mr Trump's politics, and yet millions of Americans continue to enable him, if not with vocal support then with their silence.
Liberals, meanwhile, have forgotten that their creed is supposed to be tolerance – including of those they disagree with. The judgementalism of the woke is cruel, fundamentally illiberal, and deeply individualistic: I feel offended or triggered – whatever anyone else thinks, including whether it is reasonable for me to feel slighted, is irrelevant – therefore you must be punished or cancelled. Some so-called progressives are self-righteously consumed with finding the next witch-hunt, while many on the left are too scared to disagree publicly with whatever the new orthodoxy happens to be, even if its opposite were accepted only yesterday.
When the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society”, she meant that it did not exist as an abstraction separate from individuals, families and associations. But the line, in its literal meaning, is coming perilously close to being a reality in atomised, bitterly partisan and riven America and Britain. And there is a word for the condition to which these two countries have sunk: decadence.
The term may seem extreme. Older readers will recall communists denouncing “the decadent West”, when all they were truly criticising were Western freedoms. Today, to talk of decadence may sound like a critique from the right; and it has been made cogently, such as by the US commentator Ross Douthat, who published a book titled The Decadent Society earlier this year.
But by that Mr Douthat meant a state of torpor, decay and stagnation. “Note that this definition does not imply a definitive moral or aesthetic judgement,” he wrote in an essay in February. I, on the other hand, am making a moral judgement – and believe it to be just as valid from the left.
For the left can and should criticise societies that have elevated the individual above the community so much that people just don’t care how hazardous their behaviour is in gathering in crowds, for whatever reason; wealthy societies in which personal gain has so far outweighed the common good that, unbelievably, people were having to resort to food banks before the virus struck.
The left should confront activists who risk the hard-fought and still ongoing battle for women’s rights in favour of men who self-identify as women and, having had no surgery, demand the right to enter women’s safe spaces. The left can take the broader view and argue that the former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s contribution to the defeat of fascism is still more significant than the multiple racist stains on his record.
The US and the UK have lost their way, and badly. Decadent is a word I use advisedly. The feral individualism – on both left and right – has led to huge numbers of deaths. It has led to the closing of minds. It has even led to the whole idea of western states being either civilised or competent polities being questioned. This feral individualism must be challenged.
So on what foundations can a public square be built in which ideas may again be debated freely and a capacious and generous common ground be refound? In the secular West, it cannot be religion. The consequent danger of that is that morality consists merely of what most people think at any given time. That is the tyranny of the majority – and of the mob.
But a start must be made somewhere. The rule of law can and must be once more the cornerstone. Equally critical is the insistence that there is such a thing as society – and it is far, far more important than the individual.
Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum
Updated: July 1, 2020 03:00 PM