How Power Invented Individualism
The recent online debates between Alt-Righters and various classical liberal dissidents have resulted in a a string of victories for our side. In fact, the opposition has at times appeared too flimsy to be taken seriously. Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad) has been ridiculed for nitpicking his way through his debate with Richard Spencer, then responding to criticism by placing the paper crown of the ‘liberalists’ upon his head; and even the more erudite Tarl Warwick (Styxhexenhammer666) could do little more than throw ‘what ifs’ at Greg Johnson’s case for an ethnostate.
But the question underlying these verbal catfights could not be of greater importance. We and our debating opponents both know that the Left has worked itself into a toxic cultural revolution from which it can no longer back down, and that this is generating a massive public backlash against it. The question, then, is whether this backlash will give rise to a truly viable reaction against the forces destroying the West – or whether it will end up in a miserable and futile Ghost Dance of liberalism, the very ideology that brought us to this point in the first place. Sargon/Benjamin deserves serious attention not because he is a serious thinker, but because he is an archetype of the seriously deluded Westerner, who sees how the Left wields and justifies its tyranny and still concludes that the only remedy is a double dose of liberalism.
Indeed, for him and his fellows there can be no other remedy, least of all the resurgence of national identity offered by the Alt-Right. Liberalism has sired different visions of society, but the single trunk of all its branches is individualism, which demands the primacy of the individual and his rights, interests and freedoms over all social collectives. In earlier days, this appeared to be quite compatible with national identity, and there are those in the Alt-Right who would like to make it so again. However, as individualism has dispensed with initial compromises and progressed to its logical conclusion of denying all ‘collectivism’, such a reconciliation has become impossible.
Autonomous and self-interested individuals might coalesce into a voluntary club, a political faction like the ‘liberalists’, or a social-contract state garlanded with civic patriotism. But such a group is a mere cipher for individuals, or in other words, a collective means to individual ends – and is thus easily opened up to free entry by outsiders, defection by its members, and even dissolution in the event that the group outlives its usefulness. The Alt-Right rejects any attempt to define the ‘true nation’, or ethnos, in this way. It conceives of this nation in fundamentally non-liberal terms: as an end in itself, defined by collective traits that are not subject to individual choice, and imposing obligations on individuals who neither founded it nor can ever dissolve it.
As the Alt-Right takes the nation as its end, and our liberal opponents take the individual, both sides have spent most of the online debates talking past each other. Alt-Righters are genuinely bemused at the mindset of these people, who obsess over individual rights while the barbarians are swarming through the gates. They argue that individualism is an unaffordable luxury in a society full of cohesive foreign tribes. But no such argument can disprove anything that is believed to be an end in itself – as the Alt-Righters themselves go on to prove minutes later, when they are reminded of the many practical difficulties standing in the way of an ethnostate, and respond that they would move hell and high water to achieve it anyway.
As we shall see, things are not quite equal here. But we must try to step back from this awkward and unproductive duel of sacred cows, and try to take up a wider perspective. Such a perspective is furnished for us by Bertrand de Jouvenel’s work On Power, a ‘natural history’ of state expansion, which also has much to say about the origins of the liberty prized by the liberal individualists.
The thesis of de Jouvenel is that Power – a term that refers to central state authority regardless of its political form – expands itself to the detriment of the social order, by making alliances with the lowest classes against the intermediate social authorities that are capable of regulating Power. By ‘social order’, de Jouvenel means the capacity for a society’s members to regulate their own conduct through customs and traditions. Power, originally set up as a guardian of this order, breaks its leash by turning upon it and becoming a subversive force.
‘Intermediate social authorities’ refers to what de Jouvenel calls aristocracies – those groups or classes that hold social power outside the state, and thus have a vested interest in conserving social order and restraining the expansion of Power. This role was last played to significant effect in the West by the bourgeoisie; but this class, bound as it was to the socially-destructive forces of capitalism, was only ever a half-hearted and Janus-faced replacement for the traditional nobility.
The high-low alliance against the middle was represented in antiquity by the alliance of the tyrant and the mob, which culminated in Caesar’s overthrow of the Roman Republic in the teeth of aristocratic opposition. Long after the centralised Roman state had collapsed into a feudal social order overseen by a weak and regulated Power, the same dynamic reappeared at the twilight of the Middle Ages, as kings consolidated their power at the expense of the nobility with the help of plebeian clerks and jurists. And when the very presence of a king proved to be a restraint in itself, the democratic revolutions summarily dispensed with him, allowing Power to expand itself even further by conflating its will with that of the whole people.
In light of this, the support of Western elites for foreign immigrants against native citizens no longer confuses us. Power is simply up to its old game of subversion and expansion, conscripting the black and brown hordes into the role of the loyal plebeians, and treating the white nations of Europe as though they were defiant noble houses.
At first glance, all of this lends credence to the liberal obsession with individual rights and freedoms. The foreign immigrant invasion that so horrifies the Alt-Right is only one prong of the hostile pincer movement; the other is the expansion of Power, whose progress can be measured by the retreat of liberty, and which is taken just as seriously by those who choose to focus upon it. But having conceded the legitimacy of their concerns, we must ask the liberalists and libertarians why they assume liberty to be synonymous with individualism, and tyranny with collectivism.
De Jouvenel’s reasoning, based upon many facts and few ‘liberal principles’, poses serious challenges to such a view. First, a society must possess the capacity to regulate itself if it is to avoid regulation by Power – so an absolutised concept of individual freedom, which resists the bonds of social custom and state tyranny alike, can only lead in a roundabout way to the victory of Power.
Second, the earliest roots of liberty sprang from ancient aristocratic clans, and were nourished not only by inequality but also by collective structures and obligations. In de Jouvenel’s words: “whoever belongs to one of these families is free, because he has ‘brothers’ to defend him or avenge him”. It hardly bears repeating that the defence of liberty in later eras also depended on the solidarity of collectives, and that the nobility with its blood ties did a better job of this than the bourgeoisie with its ‘social contracts’.
Of course, there is a good reason why liberty and individualism are associated so strongly in Anglophone culture. As de Jouvenel points out, due to the strong customary law and long aristocratic domination of Power in England, the advent of liberal democracy in the Anglo-Saxon world initially took the form of an extension of the rights of the English nobility to all individuals. Having been granted these rights, apparently, on the basis of liberal theory (although historical realities had more to do with it), conservative Britons and Americans naturally defend them on an individualist basis. But even they should be able to see that this arrangement has not lasted anywhere outside the realm of theory: while one liberal Youtuber (Sargon) tells us that the British state exists to protect the rights of the individual, another faces imprisonment by that state for telling a joke about a protected group.
The question we must ask, then, is this: how could the extension of noble rights to individuals have ever been expected to last without the guarantee of any collective social entity that could preserve it against Power? It may have survived for a time on the ‘borrowed capital’ of pre-liberal social forms, like aristocracy and religion; and the transient coalescences of individuals may also have defended it. But liberal individualism is compelled by its own principles to burn up this borrowed capital, and undermine the solidity of even voluntary collectives, until nothing is left but the social atom who stands against Power as chaff before the wind.
If all of this has sounded like a broadside, rest assured that we have not even brought up the heavy guns yet. The contradictions between liberalism and restraint of Power, between individualism and the social order, should arouse our suspicion and motivate closer investigation. What if this elaborate theoretical formula for producing liberty, in which so many hopes have been vested by those who fear the creeping approach of tyranny, was never designed to work in the first place?
Inventing the Individual, Or, How Power Invented Individualism
Few aspects of Western civilisation appear to be more genuinely unique to it than individualism. For conservatives and libertarians, this is a good reason to be a Western chauvinist, and perhaps complain that the Muslims invading Europe are too gosh-darned collectivist and should be banned from wearing long dresses or something. But for those who recognise a more sinister ‘Western uniqueness’ in the internal crisis of our civilisation and its submissiveness to external invasion, it is also a good reason to regard individualism with suspicion.
In Alt-Right circles and beyond them, one comes across many explanations for the unique individualism of the West. There is the theory of John Hajnal, which states that the marriage patterns of Western Europe diverged from the regions beyond it as a result of developments in the Middle Ages, giving rise to several ‘modern’ behaviour patterns including high individualism. Alan MacFarlane’s study of the English argues that this people, at least, displayed individualist and proto-capitalist social patterns as far back into the Middle Ages as one cares to look, with the roots of this behaviour presumably lying in the obscurity of the Saxon and Viking freebooter cultures. Kevin MacDonald traces the origins of our individualist tendencies all the way back to the Ice Age.
All of these theories suggest that Western Europeans may be predisposed – or, should we say, susceptible – to individualism. But they cannot explain the origins of individualism, because they approach the question from the wrong end of society, and fail to recognise the crucial role of Power in social change. Explaining individualism in terms of a racial-cultural stress on individuality is like explaining feminism in terms of female nature – such a theory might tell us why feminism is able to mobilise half of the human race against the other, but it cannot explain why that human race did not succumb to feminism throughout thousands of years of history, until Power gained the resources to supplant the social role of husbands.
In the same way, explanations from culture and biology cannot tell us how Europeans contrived to spend the vast majority of their history in ‘collectivist’ societies. (And not only does this arrow miss the target, it also shoots the Alt-Right in the foot, by enshrining individualism in our biological heritage and thus turning the collectivist defence of this heritage into a contradiction in terms).
So let us make a distinction. Individuality, understood as personal egoism and differentiation from others, is a neutral social phenomenon: all nationalists have individuality, just as all individualists have nationality. Individualism is a theory of social order and political legitimacy, and is apparently unique to the modern West. Only the origins and nature of this theory need concern us here.
In order to find them, we must introduce a brilliant and important work: Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. The many twists and turns of its detailed historical narrative cannot be done full justice here; to grasp these fully, you simply must read the book. What follows is a stripped-down retelling of the book’s conclusions in the light of de Jouvenel, intended to highlight their implications for the question of Power and the social order. These conclusions, properly understood, dissolve the basis of the link between individualism and liberty – and they stand all the stronger for the fact that the liberal philosopher Siedentop had no intention of discrediting his subject.
Siedentop notes that most Western liberals are deceived as to the heritage of their ideals: they believe that the West invented individual liberty in antiquity, ‘lost’ it for no less than a thousand years of mediaeval religious tyranny, and happily ‘found’ it again when the Renaissance restored the light of antiquity to Europe. In order to replace this myth with a true understanding of the genesis of individualism during the Middle Ages, Siedentop begins his narrative in early antiquity, and makes it clear that the founding principles of Greek and Roman civilisation were completely alien to modern liberalism.
The basic building-block of ancient society was not the individual but the family. This took the form of a self-contained religious cult, a church in itself, in which the paterfamilias had power of life and death over his subjects. These families required either blood ties or common worship to agglomerate into larger tribes; and when these in turn agglomerated into the ancient city, the result was a federation of cults and not an association of individuals. The life of the individual was consumed by the city, which penetrated every aspect of his life with its rules, and could summarily dispose of him by ostracism. Liberty simply meant a share in this omnipresent public power, and to seek a life outside it was to be an ‘idiot’.
Ancient reason or logos conceived of an hierarchical model of the world, a great chain of being, in which there was no hint of the moral equality underpinning individualism. But as the expansion of Roman imperial authority flattened the social landscape, and this rationalistic structure withered along with the role of the citizen class, there began a new religious search for a mystical and supra-rational Absolute. What it eventually found was the early Christian movement, which displaced the ancient governing role of reason in favour of a Judaic emphasis on the will, and would later go on to fuse this with the abstract universalism of late Hellenistic philosophy.
The teachings of Christ, refracted through Paul, displaced collective piety as the road to immortality in favour of individual spiritual transformation. Jesus had preached to all regardless of station, and his followers went even further in flouting social roles: early monks in Egypt and Syria withdrew into the desert to become ‘fools for Christ’s sake’, and the martyrs persecuted by Rome changed ‘heroism’ from the pursuit of civic fame into the defiant rejection of society. Monasticism offered a group identity that rested on voluntary acts of association, and rejected social roles and the wider community. One important theological development was Augustine’s emphasis on human weakness of will and reliance on grace, which inaugurated a sort of negative moral equality, and this was conserved against heresies like Pelagianism that tried to return to aristocratic conceptions.
Much of Siedentop’s account focuses on these Christian moral and theological innovations, which permeated the teaching and actions of the Catholic church in mediaeval Europe, as well as having wider effects on the feudal society created by the Germanic barbarians (such as preventing the return of ancient slavery). But we must remember that social and political individualism, and by extension modern liberalism, could not have come into being from a spiritual doctrine alone. The Eastern Orthodox regions of Europe share the early Christian tradition with Western Europe, yet did not create individualism; Islam stresses the personal ideal of the Prophet, and has produced anti-social ‘holy fools’, yet did not create individualism. Buddhism and Sikhism were spiritually egalitarian religions that abolished caste distinctions – yet did not create individualism.
What created individualism was a struggle for supremacy by Power in the West.
Let us return to Siedentop’s narrative. After the Germanic barbarians carved up the Roman provinces and the imperial administration disintegrated, the clergy ended up wielding considerable power and influence as the sole educated class. A ‘schizophrenic’ marriage of Germanic customs and Christian morality was created under Charlemagne, who briefly restored political unity to Western Europe, and strengthened the clerical elite under his personal rule. But when Charlemagne’s empire fragmented into local feudalism after his death, the clergy reacted by developing its own political will to unity and self-defence, expressed as an insistence on the universal moral law and the equal submission of souls to the church. Against the hereditary principle of local lordships and the Roman imperium revived by Otto the Great in the German lands, the clergy in Francia promoted a monastically-inspired idea of government, in which the unit of subjection was not the fief or family but the individual ‘soul’.
Once the papacy had been rescued from the morass of Italian aristocratic intrigues by Otto the Great, it was ready to begin taking control of this formidable power network and new subversive idea of political legitimacy. After this was accomplished in the mid-eleventh century, a ‘papal revolution’ across Europe followed, as the papacy asserted its supremacy over the Empire and Christian kingdoms by appealing directly to individuals.
In Pope Gregory VII’s Dictatus Papae, which asserted a papal sovereignty extending to the right to “depose emperors” and “absolve subjects of unjust men of their fealty”, the concept of Roman imperium was merged with the ‘care of souls’ proper to the church. Significantly, this defined the individual as the basic unit of subjection to legal order. The power of this universal message was on display when Pope Urban II initiated the crusades: the feudal structure of command was perfectly inverted as first commoners, then nobles, then kings, and finally emperors set out for the Holy Land.
Originally justified as an attempt to free the church from secular abuses, this revolution soon degenerated into a typical expansion of Power for its own sake. The papacy claimed not just independence but also moral authority over secular affairs, and turned itself into an Europe-wide court of appeal that treated even quite petty cases. An army of canonist lawyers were raised up to create a new unified and positive legal system with reference to Roman law, and their writings foreshadowed many absolutist and liberal concepts such as Bodinian sovereignty, the social contract, and the natural rights of the individual. Such ideas always went hand-in-hand with the expansion of papal power: for example, no sooner had Pope Innocent IV extended human rights to the non-Christian populations of the world (“lordship, possession and jurisdiction can belong to infidels”) than he also claimed the right of the papacy to rule over them (“the pope, who is the vicar of Jesus Christ, has power not only after Christians but also over all infidels”).
Kings, nobles and independent communes had reason to be disturbed at this, but so did saints, as it represented a descent of the papacy from its spiritual calling. The famous ascetic monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, wrote: “What slavery can be more degrading and more unworthy of the Sovereign Pontiff than to be kept thus busily employed…in furthering the sordid designs of greed and ambition?”
The only reason why liberalism, and not theocracy, eventually emerged from the papal invention of individualism was that secular kings learned how to play the new game. They, too, started to assert direct rule over individual subjects, raising up lawyers to assert royal sovereignty and allying with insurrectionary burghers against the nobility. The result was the genesis of the ‘nation-state’:
Applying the papal model to secular government…gave kingship a more territorial basis. At the risk of oversimplifying, the ‘king of the Franks’ became the ‘king of France’. In the past, kings had been related only indirectly to their peoples. They had governed through a series of lordships and status differences, that is, through intermediaries… But applying the papal model broke the chain. “The king was no longer chief warrior of the clan (or federation of clans) and chief baron in the feudal hierarchy.” [Tierney 1964.] He became a sovereign over a well-defined territory inhabited by his subjects, individuals.
And thus began the process narrated by de Jouvenel’s On Power: the centralisation and expansion of feudal kingship into absolute monarchy, which eventually fell in turn to democratic revolution, resulting in even further expansion and centralisation of the state under the legitimising banner of ‘the people’. By now, we have located the root of individualism, and know where the stem leads. So we need only continue with Siedentop as far as the fourteenth century, where we witness the fate of the papacy under the forces it unleashed. Assailed to the point of schism by the power-hungry French crown on one hand, and harassed by the rise of Pietists, Lollards and Hussites out of popular anticlericalism on the other, it had begun to reap the whirlwind that would destroy its claim to rule a spiritually united Europe in the sixteenth century.
Incidentally, Siedentop’s narrative ends at the point of the Renaissance – along with, it seems, much of his approval for the development of individualism. To his credit, he deplores the tendency of modern liberals deluded by the anticlerical tradition to hack at the Christian stem from which their own ideals flower; and he names the ‘cult of individuality’, beginning in the Renaissance, as a ‘liberal heresy’ that threatens freedom by undermining social cooperation. But like the liberalism of de Jouvenel, this is an incongruous footnote to an otherwise disinterested account of how one idea led to another and so on. And if liberalism is, as it would appear, a Christian heresy, then it has no more claim to legitimacy over a liberal heresy than one bastard has over another.
The real conclusion of Siedentop’s work, in the wider context of de Jouvenel, is this: one cannot honestly speak of individualism except in the same breath as one speaks of Power. Indeed, according to Siedentop, the use of the word individual became current at the same time (the fifteenth century) as the use of the word state in its modern sense.
The notion that the individual can be liberated from all collective structures, or preserved from tyranny under a state that calls itself ‘representative’ and stuffs a ballot and a list of promises into his hand, is thus a fantasy. All that the ‘liberation’ of individuals can accomplish is the destruction of intermediate authorities – the liberty-preserving ‘aristocracies’ – to the advantage of the highest governing authority. And once this Power has won its struggle, and the rights of its subjects have come to depend solely upon it, they can be taken away as quickly as they had been bestowed.
Conclusion: The False Opposition of Individualism and Collectivism
Let us zoom up from the depths of Siedentop’s historical narrative, armed with the insights we have gained, back to the shallows of our current debate with the libertarians and liberalists. They are, of course, still raving about the virtues of individualism and the vices of collectivism. Having perceived that the movement of the Left from individualism to collectivism is a step towards tyranny, they assume that the Alt-Right is just another variant of that tyranny, because our movement places a collective entity – the nation – above and before the individual.
But would it not be more accurate for us to place them in the tyrant’s camp? At the beginning of this piece, drawing on de Jouvenel’s work, we made the point that the atomised individual cannot stand against Power. Later, investigating things further, we saw that individualism was created precisely as a means for Power to fulfill the ‘high-low alliance against the middle’, which allows it to grow at the expense of the social order. In light of this, the form of collectivism plaguing the West in the present day – that is to say, the state-suckled and socially-destructive Leftist form – appears not as the antithesis of liberal individualism but as its inevitable conclusion.
When subversive Power confronts an intermediate social authority, its first priority is to undermine that intermediary, by stirring up the individuals under its control and breaking them out of their social fetters. This is Stage 1: individualism. After the intermediary has collapsed as a result, and Power – either the state itself or the partisans of its expansion – is ready to mobilise the liberated individuals to its further advantage, it does so by quelling their desire for liberty and fastening new state fetters upon them. This is Stage 2: collectivism.
This movement from one stage of subversion to another explains how the meaning of the word liberal in the English language changed from ‘individualist capitalist’ in the nineteenth century to ‘collectivist socialist’ in the present day. As Mencius Moldbug observed (scroll down to the bottom of his rambling article), economic freedom in the nineteenth century meant the destruction of aristocratic paternalism; once this had been accomplished, and the ‘liberals’ were in power, they could set up their own form of state paternalism and throw economic freedom out of the window.
Another example can be found in the successive ‘waves’ of feminism, which in reality can be reduced to only two: the ‘first wave’ that proceeded intermittently from the Enlightenment to the early twentieth century, and the ‘second wave’ that started in the 1960s and has continued ever since. The subjection of women to the patriarchal family was an affront to individualist sentiment, so they had to be liberated from its closed domain and given the same civic rights as men; or, in other words, subjected directly to Power without any intermediate authority. When the forces of subversive Power were ready to mobilise these women into a collective battering ram against the social order, feminism swiftly transmogrified into a toxic and hysterical hate cult.
Liberal conservatives always support the individualist stage of subversion, and are always flabbergasted at the transition to the collectivist stage – no matter how many times it takes place before their eyes, and no matter how impossible it proves to argue the collectivists back to individualism. However – and this point cannot be made often enough – how can Power be prevented from mobilising individuals in this way unless it is restrained by intermediate social forces, which require the strong collective identities dissolved by individualism? Once you have demolished the roof over your head to bask in the summer sun, what remains to prevent you from being rained and snowed upon in winter?
Instead of drawing a line between individualism and collectivism, a wiser rule of thumb would be to distinguish between autonomous social forces on the one hand and forces controlled by or allied to Power on the other. But liberals are, if anything, more wary of social forces than they are of Power’s legions – and this has much to do with the ingenuity of individualism. Not only does it subsume the protectors and destroyers of the social order under the single category of ‘collectivists’; it also induces its adherents to sympathise with the very forms of collectivism promoted by Power, for these always bear the stamp of their Stage 1 individualist origins.
An individualist contempt for social roles underpins Marx’s vision of a society in which everyone can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic”. Non-white racial collectivism may tolerate a fair bit of Afrocentrist ethno-mythologising, but it justifies itself as a movement of individuals (‘Persons of Colour’) who happen to suffer the consequences of non-white appearance and culture. Feminism is not a female supremacist matriarchy, but a movement of individuals rebelling against female biology and social roles – which is why it must defer to the transgender movement, which is even more radically individualist, and more useful to Power as a solvent of the social order.
Nationalism, in contrast, tends to offend liberal sensibilities by flatly denying individualism. But as individualism is an invention of Power, this tendency alone should hint at the presence of a component in nationalism that is fully independent of Power. That component is the ethnos, or ‘true nation’ based on blood, heritage and culture – which is the foundation of the Alt-Right, and an object of unparallelled fear and hatred for the modern globalist form of Power.
To be sure, Power and the nation have not always been at loggerheads, and some would argue that the nation is no less an invention of Power than the individual. This misconception comes about because the nation has so often been subsumed by, and conflated with, patriotism – a cult of loyalty to a territorial king or state, which easily segues into imperial expansion, and which according to Siedentop had a strong individualist colouring in the centralising kingdoms of the West. Certainly, absolutist and democratist Power made a subversive use of the nation during its struggle against the old nobility, just as globalist Power presently employs non-white nations to subvert European ones. But Power did not create the nation, which stems from the same roots as the patriarchal family and blood nobility, and existed long before Power used it for a time and discarded it.
Today, in the wake of the near-total collapse of traditional social structures in the West, the nation alone can serve as a rallying point against the expansion of Power into the sinister form desired by its court intellectuals: a global, unmediated mega-tyranny, which shall inevitably seek to break down the social order of all peoples, and thus complete the process that began with the initial corruption of spiritual authority in the West. By preventing the consummation of this tyranny, and defeating its modern high-low alliance with non-white invaders, a movement of nationalist reaction can defend Western liberty and individuality. But liberal individualism is an illusion that cannot defend the world, the West, the nation, or even itself.