Jacques Barzun on historical trajectory

“…what is history in itself, the vast profusion of events tending now this way, now that? Is there in it a meaning to be read, a goal to be foreseen? And whether there is or not, how are we to explain the emergence and dissolution of ‘civilization’ or of any given civilization?

These are deep questions. Many good minds have tried to solve the riddle of the rise and fall of empires, and the answers vary widely: soil exhaustion, inferior weapons, low morals, mosquitoes and malaria—take your choice. Some observers, like Vico in the 18th Century, Nietzsche in the 19th, and Spengler and Toynbee in our time, have seen in the total record a cyclical movement, but they have not agreed as to its pattern. Others, such as the Biblical prophets, Saint Augustine, Hegel and Karl Marx discerned a linear progress, but they disagree about its direction: toward the end of the world, or perfect freedom under government, or perfect justice without the need for government.”

Bourgeois individualism vs. universal personal development

“People commonly see individualism emerging alongside capitalism in the seventeenth century, but the concept itself is of more recent origin. It arose in France in the aftermath of the Revolution, and was first used by French monarchists and Catholics to condemn the ascendancy of private judgement and the dissolution of traditional hierarchy. In 1820 the monarchist de Maistre spoke of ‘this deep and frightening division of minds, this infinite fragmentation of all doctrines, political protestantism carried to the most ultimate individualism’. Lammenais deprecated the individualism ‘which destroys the very idea of obedience and duty, thereby destroying both power and law; and what then remains but a terrifying confusion of interest, passions and diverse opinions’. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had, in the opinion of these French conservatives, subverted the fixed order of the estates, the family, the church and the monarchy, and had unleashed upon society a turmoil of individual wills. Social harmony, they held, depended on the subordination of personal judgement to doctrinal authority and on the restriction of individuals to their proper station in life.

Although the word was invented by reactionaries it was soon taken up by socialists, who used it to describe the disorder of bourgeois society. The influence of French socialism was so great that this usage has passed into the modern socialist vocabulary. Some French socialists, however, recognised that individualism meant not only a war of wills but also the full development of individuals, and they held that individualism in the latter sense could be achieved only under socialism. Louis Blanc contrasted individualism with fraternity: individualism was a rebellion against traditional authority and therefore contributed to human freedom, but it was incomplete if it did not pass into fraternity. Fraternity transcended individualism, retaining its virtues and eliminating its vices, and it made individual freedom possible without competition and selfishness. Fourier denied that there was any conflict between socialism and individualism, and Jaurès held that ‘socialism is the logical completion of individualism’. From the first, the word ‘individualism’ has had subtle nuances, implying on the one hand the ruthless pursuit of individual self-interest, and on the other the self-development of individuals. It is important to appreciate these nuances and to recognise that individualism does not always mean competitiveness.

The sort of individualism I have been describing is often confused with competitive individualism, and is thrown out with it. All forms of individualism are condemned indiscriminately. From time to time one finds this indiscriminate anti-individualism in collective organisations where self-assertiveness, personal judgements, the nurturing of individual abilities or dissent from the collective consensus are discouraged as competitive. But these kinds of individualism are not competitive at all.

Competitive individualism — the capitalist doctrine of unfettered economic competition — embraces the following principles: the best interests of society as a whole are served if individuals pursue their own private interests; material inequality is a good thing because the prospect of exceptional rewards is the only guarantee of exceptional achievement; the market is the best social regulator and permits greater individual freedom than economic planning; the activities of government should be limited as far as possible; and collective bodies should be discouraged because they restrict economic activity.

Several of these principles were first expounded in the seventeenth century by political theorists like Hobbes and Locke, and they found their fullest expression in the views of the Manchester school in the nineteenth century. Milton Friedman is their most passionate publicist today, and his role as the guru of right-wing governments has elevated him from the obscurity of the American academic community to the stardom of a television series. This is real bourgeois individualism. Bourgeois in dividualists pay lipservice to the other sorts of individualism, we know that well enough. But that is not the important thing. It does not matter what they say. What counts is that a regime of unfettered competition cannot respect individuals and cannot allow them autonomy. We should not be misled by high-sounding phrases and good intentions. Inequality, competition, and self aggrandisement prevent large numbers of people from leading the lives they want to lead. Capitalist society treats people as means rather than ends.
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Faced with the unfulfilled ideals of individualism, some people adopt a curious attitude towards them. The ideals have been hollow under capitalism, they say, therefore we will have none of them; individualism in all its forms is a capitalist creation, so socialists must reject it; the ideas of personal autonomy, self development and economic competition are bourgeois to the core, so out with them all. Saying this is like saying that industry is a capitalist product, therefore we should go back to the horse plough, or that science is a capitalist product, therefore we should go back to superstition. It would be more sensible to recognise that the reason why individualism is an unfulfilled ideal is that it actually subverts capitalism and points the way towards a socialist society.

The fact that personal development has been possible for those with wealth shows its incompatibility with bourgeois individualism. The inequality praised by bourgeois individualists allows personal development to only a few. If it is to become possible for everybody, then there must be greater material equality. Without a reasonable standard of living one has little opportunity to develop because one’s energies have to be put into sustaining life.”

Czeslaw Milosz on historical ignorance (1980)

“…for those who come from the “other Europe,” wherever they find themselves, notice to what extent their experiences isolate them from their new milieu -and this may become the source of a new obsession. Our planet that gets smaller every year, with its fantastic proliferation of mass media, is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. Certainly, the illiterates of past centuries, then an enormous majority of mankind, knew little of the history of their respective countries and of their civilization. In the minds of modern illiterates, however, who know how to read and write and even teach in schools and at universities, history is present but blurred, in a state of strange confusion. Molière becomes a contemporary of Napoleon, Voltaire a contemporary of Lenin.

Moreover, events of the last decades, of such primary importance that knowledge or ignorance of them will be decisive for the future of mankind, move away, grow pale, lose all consistency, as if Friedrich Nietzsche’s prediction of European nihilism found a literal fulfillment. “The eye of a nihilist,” he wrote in 1887, “is unfaithful to his memories: it allows them to drop, to lose their leaves. . . . And what he does not do for himself, he also does not do for the whole past of mankind: he lets it drop.”