Ralph Fevre, Individualism and Inequality

Ralph Fevre, Individualism and Inequality: The future of work and politics, Edward Elgar, 2016, ix + 310 pp, 1 78471 650 9, hbk, £80

Fevre’s thesis is that the individualism of Thomas Paine, which gave birth to the concept of ‘the rights of man’, was ‘sentimental’ or ‘moral’ in character, and assumed a context of equal opportunity for all; that in the context of the United States this moral individualism evolved into a very different neoliberal individualism that assumed that the individual was responsible for their own wellbeing, whatever their circumstances (giving rise to increasing inequality, and the stigmatising of those unable to compete because of less favourable circumstances); and that the UK then imported this neoliberal individualism from the United States, to the detriment of its own tradition of moral individualism. It is a persuasive thesis, persuasively argued.

Fevre recounts the history of these developments from the anti-slavery movement and Adam Smith, through public education’s turn towards the employment market, and a shift from positive freedoms to negative freedom, to trade union strength’s replacement by selective individual employment rights. The early chapters, on the history of sentimental or moral individualism (and the related more rational ‘cognitive’ individualism), emphasise this early individualism’s ability to inspire social action to provide the context within which individual rights could be exercised. The problem was that ‘utopia failed to arrive’ (p. 17) and the playing field had not been levelled. But one thing that the social action that sentimental individualism inspired had achieved was an educated and healthier population, which fed the success of a nascent neoliberal economic individualism. It looked as if individuals left to their own devices really could create their own freedom and wellbeing: but of course nobody had been left to their own devices. They had benefitted from the collective action of sentimental individualism.

One aspect of the history of individualism that Fevre alternately emphasises and downplays is its organisational aspect. Perhaps this was to be expected, given that organisations are in some ways the polar opposites of individualism. So although Hayek, Friedman, et al, are frequently mentioned as the authors of neoliberalism, there is no mention of the Mont Pelerin Society and the think tank activity through which it spread its neoliberal ideology. And concentrating on some institutional arrangements – particularly in relation to education and employment – might have led Fevre to neglect others, such as the role of council house sales in the consolidation of the Conservative vote after 1979. The absence of organisations from some aspects of the history extends into Fevre’s prescription for the future. He suggests that growing awareness of neoliberal individualism’s failure to deliver autonomy, freedom, and non-alienated labour, will lead us to question the way in which our individual marketing of labour has resulted in us being trapped in a neoliberal financial machine and into increasing inequality, and that this such questioning might lead us back to sentimental individualism and collective action. But if that is to occur, then instead of the social movements that Fevre envisages (for instance, in relation to the failed individualistic bargain between employees and employers), we shall need organisations, and particularly the State, to establish the necessary institutions. What is required is not simply ‘universal education’ (frequently mentioned in the book), but educational institutions that generate a level playing field; and what is required is not simply a ‘welfare state’, but the kind of welfare state that will provide a secure financial platform on which people can build. Here in particular an appropriate institution is required if individuals are to experience freedom. Neoliberalism pretends to be about individualism, but it is in fact about corporations and those who benefit from them. Only an organisational approach will be able to ameliorate neoliberal individualism’s unfortunate consequences, and return us to a world driven by sentimental individualism.

This is a wonderful holdall of an interdisciplinary book. We could call its content history, sociology, political economy, economic geography, economics, and social policy: and it is packed full of fascinating detail. It’s a real pity that it is so expensive, and that it isn’t a paperback.