In the movie Office Space, the waitress, Joanna, gets yelled at by her boss because she does not express her individuality sufficiently.
She has only put on 15 ‘personal’ badges on her restaurant uniform, which is the minimum requirement for the originality of staff attire.
‘Personal expressiveness’ is actually the restaurant's concept. The waitress objects that she has met the requirement. “Certainly”, responds the boss. But still. Why can she not try to and express herself more individually than that? Why can she not be more like her colleague, who has adorned his uniform with fully 37 personally selected badges?
Talk about individuality! Joanna then decides to resign.
Being an independent individual today is something obviously good. But what does it mean? Joanna's conflict with her boss touches upon the double meaning of the term. On the one hand, the individual is unique and authentic, not a copy of someone else. The boss just wants Joanna to let out her personality. However, an individual is also autonomous.
She herself sets the framework for how she lives her life. The conflict between Joanna and her boss reflects a broader shift in how individualism is perceived. Simply put, it looks as if Joanna's boss is about to win. Being an individual begins increasingly to be about having 37 personal badges on her uniform. It does not bode well.
Once upon a time there were no individuals, not in the sense we use the word. It was through the emergence of state power they arose – partly as a side effect.
How can society be organised and predictable if there is no state power that can control the territory and pass laws?
The question sounds like a philosophical exercise, but it is in fact possible to respond both anthropologically and historically. The answer sheds light on the conditions for the individual's emergence. Today, there are many geographical areas where state power’s grip is significantly weaker than in the West. When comparing social systems across time and space, there is a striking difference between the individual's circumstances where the state is weak or absent and where the state is strong.
As the state grew, competition arose in the area. The production of social order was not an empty niche. The problem was just resolved in another way. In the common liberal historiography, the story tends to be that individuals decided to form states because life was so miserable when they were left to themselves. By pointing to the misery of not having a state and analysing the demands that independent individuals have in wanting to establish themselves in a state, one seeks to legitimise its existence.
But then one turns to the causal chain. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to produce one’s own security and social structure that one needs in order to live a decent life. But, for that very reason, societies without centralised government power have not been based on individuality, but solve the problem of order in a completely different way. There prevails the tribe or clan. Safety and security are produced at the family level – real families that share an actual ancestor, or imagined families and tribes that share a symbolic loyalty. In such an environment, the individual is swallowed up, and their status, duties and loyalties are not the result of their own actions, choices and commitments. They are a function of a group identity into which the individual just happened to be born and cannot get out of. It is when a central government power has managed to displace a clan empire that the conditions arise for individualism and independent individuals. It was not the individual who created the state, but the state that created the individual.
Such is the thesis that Mark S. Weiner posits in the well-researched book, The Rule of the Clan (2013). Through comparisons between historical clan societies such as Scotland and contemporary regions where the state is either absent (Somalia) or relatively weak (e.g., Afghanistan and Pakistan) Weiner captures the unifying traits of clan societies and analyses what they mean for the people who live in them.
The clan has long been the dominant way of structuring communities, so the specific expressions and idiosyncrasies vary enormously. Nevertheless, there is a common core, a clan society's logic.
A clan structure includes the individual in an alliance of loyalty and honour connections to other clan members. The clan provides protection and security, but it also requires reciprocity: the individual has the same obligations to his clan. The connections are not self-chosen – but this applies not only to the clan's expectations of the individual, but also to how the individual is regarded by other clans. If I, by other clans, am still held responsible and hunted for actions that other people in my family have done, I have no choice but to seek my own family for protection. The clan logic, in that way, becomes mandatory for individuals.
Neither one's own family nor others offer any voluntary exit.
Clan communities are honour cultures, writes Weiner, and involve much more than the repression of female sexuality. The individual's status, reputation and opportunities will depend on the status of the whole family in society. In this way, all family members are irreversibly connected to each other and share the same social fate like mountaineers attached to the same rope. The “cousin’s tyranny”, is what the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, calls the result. When the clan is tightly bound by mutual sureties, one unfortunately has rational reasons to put a choke on each other’s throats.
To control a territory, the state needed to push back clan formations and take their place as the guarantor of security and the producer of order. People's loyalties must be refocused, from their allegiance to the tribes and clans to the abstract state. Success was variable. Only in Europe were clan societies completely replaced by states. The fortunate side effect was that the individual's social position was now changed. Now it became more personal, based on individual agreements, contracts and personal commitments.
It was the cultural changes that pointed towards to the notion of community members as equals under the law. The most important social ties had a more voluntary character – instead of the extended family was the nuclear family, the central unit of life. It was here the person got his or her own personal space. The individual had won autonomy from the family.
With autonomy comes personal responsibility. In honour cultures, social sanctions are based on shame. It is a collective sense.
The shame one feels in front of others is not so much over the actions themselves, but over the fact that those in one’s surroundings have witnessed them. In a shaming system, it is the looks and others' moral evaluation of one's own behaviour that are crucial. Individualisation means that shame becomes less central, and guilt takes its place. Guilt is a personal and private feeling. The focus is turned inward. Guilt is the individual conscience that silently passes judgement over whether an individual has managed to reach his or her own ethical standards. The individual wins moral autonomy. You could say that autonomy makes individuals into adults and forces them to personally decide for their own lives.
But the strong state power that released the individual from the clan becomes simultaneously a new threat. The state must be strong but should not be too strong. Therefore, its power is limited – its scope is limited by individual guaranteed rights, and its exercise of power is limited by the rule of law and legal equality.
Autonomy also requires other components, namely, property and livelihood. Here, the individual faces a trade-off. Those who are entirely self-sufficient are undeniably autonomous in economic terms, but will also be very poor. By specialising, individuals sell their labour, buy products on the market and can increase their productivity and income tremendously. This comes at the cost of reduced autonomy and an increased dependence on others.
In the marketplace, individuals are at the mercy of the price mechanism and other individuals’ buying and selling preferences. Specialists soon lose the ability to self-produce everything they have begun buying from others, and their own services have no value once others refuse to buy them.
Through these networks of mutual dependence, contemporary man, in an economic sense, has become far less autonomous than a farmer from the last century – something that is revealed at the slightest disturbance in the supply chain and/or wage payments.
In practice, no one chooses to completely evade the market, but, by owning property, individuals may still maintain some of their independence. Often, it is these small islands of independence that we value most in life. The question is perhaps best analysed by James Buchanan in his classic publication, Ownership as a Guarantor of Freedom. Property is autonomy embodied.
Through property ownership, individuals retain the opportunity to withdraw and return to a measure of self-sufficiency – a freedom guaranteed. House owners provide their own accommodation instead of renting monthly and negotiating terms or voting at the association's annual meetings.
Car owners retain the ability to self-produce their mobility instead of always being subject to a schedule or a taxi company's telephone queue. Even owning a regular bicycle provides a measure of autonomy.
Property has a value beyond its immediate function. It makes people independent and provides the framework for a private sphere. One need not ask permission. One must not allow others to determine one's own frames. Property provides predictability and continuity, even between generations. Through property, individuals’ independence is backed with security. One can better predict tomorrow when one possesses the main parameters.
The autonomous person is a self-sufficient individual in a number of ways. But one thing is not included in the picture. Individuals are not necessarily particularly original or unique. On the contrary, usually they are not, because people in general are just like people in general. But then the question is: can you really be a real, independent individual if you're just like most other people?
Political philosophers have long been disappointed by the lack of the human desire to live a special, authentic life and go their very own way. Even Alexis de Tocqueville believed that America, despite its formal political rights and freedoms, was still a country where freedom of thought was not exercised in practice. A people of equals also began to regard itself as being comprised of equals, i.e., being alike. Individuals risked being swallowed by the masses and using their freedom only to become one of the crowd.
What Tocqueville and his like feared was in practice that citizens would use their rights to try to alleviate the phantom pain from the lost clan society; that mass man was missing the strong community that was lost when we left the tribe to become individuals who would choose their own context. So too would the structures that stifle all individuality reappear spontaneously, but now magnified to a national scale.
This fear was especially evident in the work of John Stuart Mill. His solution to save the unique human being from the suffocating crowd of conformists was even higher doses of autonomy in the form of political liberty and rights. But, when he pleaded for the right to self-determination, it was an expressed thought about what it would ideally be used for. It was the deviant and eccentric that was truly valuable and worthy of protection – the unique, authentic individuals who, through their daring lifestyle experimentation, generate new knowledge for the benefit of the whole community.
Thus, we have drawn the two pillars on which individualism has traditionally rested. Individualism as autonomy applies to human emancipation from power and dependency ratios – the clan, the state and the market. Individualism as self-realisation applies to human emancipation from social conventions, to the free search for its very own, authentic life choice. The two have been seen as interconnected. Autonomy may, but need not, be used to allow unique life choices.
But, of these pillars, there is only one that currently seems to have some viability.
Autonomy’s value is not often talked about. Individuality as personal expression is, however, highly topical. One wants to be Pippi Longstocking, but is no longer talking about gold money.
The value of personal choice and personalisation is now a firmly established part of the Swedish model, established on both sides of the block boundary. The aim of gradually increasing the personalisation of the welfare state and make it more responsive to the individual citizen has been around a long time and is highly controversial. One should choose for oneself, find one’s own taste in supply and have it delivered in ways that suit one’s personal needs. But one chooses all the time from a range that is publicly funded, and (increasingly) regulated. The individualisation that has taken place has increased opportunities to express personal preferences. Individuals’ autonomy in relation to the public sector, by contrast, has not changed.
An interesting example is the reform of the pension system, which included an individualised pension saving, premium pension.
This type of pension saving would be controlled by the employee. The system combines a high degree of individuality with a nonexistent autonomy. The citizen can make the most imaginative placement combinations and move funds between funds as a form of daily recreation. But the funds are locked up and the public authorities decide the regulations. The range of funds is also regulated by the public authorities and individuals cannot themselves freely seek outside this menu, or be free to choose any other form of savings.
This freedom of choice without autonomy has not created any personal responsibility, rather a mild disinterest. And, when the return on premium deposits is lower than expected, censure will be immediately directed against the government.
Rarely does the tension between autonomy and personal fulfilment become as clear as in nursery school. The Schools Inspectorate has criticised nursery schools for not adequately seeking to break traditional gender roles in children. Such external demands prevent children making their own, authentic life choices. Thus, this individual-liberating education must be mandatory throughout preschools.
If preschool enables authentic individuals who choose themselves, one cannot in good conscience allow any child to miss out on it. It will only be a matter of time before the individual-liberating preschool will be mandatory from toddler-age and up.
High taxation is a major threat to the autonomy of individuals, as it interferes in their ability to make a living. Therefore, excessive taxation has previously been criticised from an autonomy perspective: that high taxes make people unfree and dependent on public systems that they really should and could live without. So no more. The only result of such an argument has been a suite of bourgeois election losses, and now it is no longer on the agenda. Tax cuts today are not motivated by the will to liberate people and give them autonomy, but rather that the tax cuts will affect their behaviour in the desired manner.
In some areas, it is not only the importance of autonomy for individual freedom that has been overlooked – the emphasis has shifted more than that. The political parties' ability to self-finance their operations has declined drastically in the post-war period. Prior to 1965, the parties stood on their own feet and funded themselves and their activities through membership fees and donations. Today, the parties' revenue from membership fees has been wiped out and the negligible amount that the parties themselves collect is under suspicion, while the parties’ monumentally dependent relationship with the state is barely discussed. The Social Democrats is, with its lottery sales, the only party able to create proper external revenue. But, instead of being inspired by this, one sees that this is met with disapproval in other political camps that wish such operations would cease. Ideally, all horses should be eating out of the same manger, according to fixed allocation rules. MPs have in turn been made totally dependent on their party groups – something that Anne-Marie Paulsson sets out in detail in her book, Knapptryckarkompaniet (The Button-Pressing Brigade). Only at the local level can some politicians be found who have enough of a personal power base to dare exercise personal leadership.
Alongside parliament, universities and courts are the sacred institutions of secular society. Their autonomy has previously been regarded as central. Today, we see the leash already on campus. Extreme variation and imagination in course offerings is in no short supply, but the universities are now timid institutions that worry about being ‘socially useful’, popular and topical, just like any other authority. The courts’ position still seems to be more intact but, even here, one cannot but be alarmed at the direction of the debate.
One may ask whether the combination of hunting for self-realisation and too little autonomy induces a characteristic stinginess and social hypersensitivity in cultural life. Without the resources for self-determination, one dreams life-dreams that are dependent on other people's approval and appreciation. Then it becomes important to one's choice should be ‘recognised’ and ‘seen’ by others. In this way, essentially private life projects become strikingly public.
Time and again, when the public debate becomes heated, it is the opponent's autonomy that is focused on and targeted for reduction. Where do they get their money from? Can you starve the business? Where are they employed? As in war, you target the enemy's supply lines. Sometimes employers are looked up. See here what these employees have written in public! One of the few available protections is that the individual may cling to anonymity. But should it really be allowed? Instead of debating social issues, the debate is about who should be fired.
The main prerequisite for Pippi Longstocking remains the suitcase with gold money. If autonomy’s significance is rediscovered, we will once again see real individuals in the debate. But what is the likelihood of this?
If we continue on this road, soon all that will remain will be reprimanded waitresses walking around with 37 personal badges on their restaurant uniforms.