Individuals against individualism: an anarchist paradox

One of the most striking features of today’s Western capitalist society is the dominance of what we usually call “individualism”.

We live in a “me” culture, where, it seems, nobody has the ability to see beyond the end of their own all-important nose.

Everybody is jostling for attention, bombarding the world with accounts of their meals, their coffee breaks and their shopping, frantically sharing the “selfies” they have taken of the most significant person in their life.

We seem to have collectively swallowed the neoliberal lie that “there is no such thing as society” and we now see simply an accumulation of individuals.

Our understanding of freedom has been shorn of all collective or social sense and is taken merely in its liberal form as the “liberties” granted to an individual by the state.

This individualist language has even crept into radical environmental thinking where, for example, instead of talking about a deep respect and love for the whole of nature to which we belong, we prefer to imagine our fellow creatures as possessing “rights”, as if they were tax-paying non-human citizens of some smug global liberal bourgeois republic.

We often cannot even take a holistic view of the hideous system in which we are trapped, because the anti-holistic contemporary mindset cannot recognise a whole as anything other than a construct of its separate parts.

Instead of identifying the entire system as oppressive and corrupt, in all its many aspects, we feel we have to piece together its badness in terms of the “intersectionality” between the various injustices suffered by separate individuals – in whose personal experiences all reality and value are considered solely to reside.

Paradoxically, however, there is another vast problem that looms over 21st century human culture and that is the absence of authentic individuality!

The “me” culture is also a “me too” culture. Everybody wants to be seen to be doing the same things as everyone else. Nobody wants to miss out.

Modern individuality is an off-the-peg identity. There is plenty of choice, but the range of possibilities has been prepared in advance and lined up on the supermarket shelves of social self-definition so that you can take your pick.

The one thing you can’t do is to refuse to take part. You are not allowed to go elsewhere for your sense of self. You must not, under any circumstances, yield to the temptation to send their pre-packaged personality-choices crashing to the floor with mocking contempt.

The modern individual’s desire to feel important is matched by a desperate need to be loved, a terrible fear of not being accepted by their family, their work colleagues and all their hundreds of non-existent online “friends”.

Good taste is seen as liking the things that other people like. Good sense is seen as having the opinions that other people have.

Social self-preservation, for the contemporary pseudo-individual, involves knowing what not to say, what not to read, what not to think.

The problem, of course, is that the “consensus” to which these people remain faithful does not actually arise organically, but has been manufactured by the dominant system. It is all part of The Spectacle, The Matrix, The Thing.

If we are ever going to smash down the walls of this civilizational prison, we are therefore going to need rebels strong enough to remain immune to this psychological manipulation.

We need people who are prepared to spend their lives chipping away at every crack they can find in the reinforced concrete and take no notice of those who tell them it’s the wrong crack, or the wrong wall, that they’re chipping in the wrong way or that there’s no chance of ever escaping and they’d do better to struggle for nicer biscuits in the prison canteen.

We need strong individuals – people who have no desperate need to be loved by everyone, no terrible fear of not being accepted.

Unfortunately there don’t seem to be too many of them around today. They are a dying breed in a world where “individuality” is regarded more as a question of decoration than of substance.

This seems to have been the case for quite a while. The philosopher and writer John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), for instance, made some very pertinent comments on the question in his 1930 book The Meaning of Culture.

John Cowper Powys

He draws a distinction between an “educated” person, who accepts the consensus of their time, and a “cultured” person who builds their own personal philosophy through a process of intuitive choice, seeking out opinions and insights which somehow appeal to their own mind, regardless of how unfashionable or “out of date” these may or may not be.

He writes: “That this personal philosophy already exists before it is brought into conscious articulation cannot be doubted… One always feels that a merely educated man holds his philosophical views as if they were so many pennies in his pocket. They are separate from his life. Whereas with a cultured man there is no gap or lacuna between his opinions and his life. Both are dominated by the same organic, inevitable fatality. They are what he is.”

Powys stresses the importance of nurturing this personal philosophy by finding our own intellectual path to follow, rather than shuffling along with the crowd.

The reaction from others may well not be positive, he says, because of “the cultured person’s innate predilection for combining extreme opposites in his thoughts and his taste.”

He adds: “His philosophical opinions will be found as a rule, judged by the standards of the merely educated, to be at once startlingly revolutionary and startlingly reactionary.”

Powys concedes that everyone has some kind of roughly-sketched personal view of the world, but says that what denotes the cultured person is “the conscious banking up of this philosophy of his own, its protection from disintegrating elements, the guiding of its channel-bed through jungles of brutality and stupidity. The more culture a man has, the more austerely – though naturally with many ironic reserves – does he abide by his own taste.”

It is not easy to be true to one’s own innerly-motivated ideas when they conflict fundamentally with those of society – how can we forge a life, a role, when we are separated from most other people by a huge gulf of mutual non-understanding?

This is the question asked by the English existentialist Colin Wilson (1931-2013) in his 1956 best-seller The Outsider.

He writes: “For the Outsider, the world into which he has been born is always a world without values. Compared to his own appetite for a purpose and a direction, the way most men live is not living at all; it is drifting.

“This is the Outsider’s wretchedness, for all men have a herd instinct that leads them to believe that what the majority does must be right. Unless he can evolve a set of values that will correspond to his own higher intensity of purpose, he may as well throw himself under a bus, for he will always be an outcast and a misfit”.

The anarchist psychoanalyst Otto Gross (1877-1920) explored the same area in a 1913 essay entitled Overcoming the Cultural Crisis (Zur Überwindung der kulturellen Krise).

Otto Gross

Here he says that any individual with the mental strength to stand firm for their own inner principles will inevitably find themselves in conflict with society.

Gross observes: “It appears that the real nature of these conflicts always leads back, in the last resort, to a general principle: the conflict between that which is proper to the individual and that which is alien to them, that which is individually innate and that which is suggested, learned, imposed from the outside.”

The need to accept this conflict and to accept the responsibility of living by one’s own innermost principles is also the subject matter of The Forest Passage (Der Waldgang) written in 1951 by Ernst Jünger (1895-1998).

In this extraordinary call for opposition to oppressive power, Jünger declares: “The resistance of the forest rebel is absolute: He knows no neutrality, no pardon, no fortress confinement. He does not expect the enemy to listen to arguments, let alone act chivalrously. He knows that the death penalty will not be waived for him. The forest rebel comes to learn a new solitude…”

His solitude allows the rebel to descend “to the very springs of morality, where the waters are not yet divided and directed into institutional channels”.

This concept of morality is important, as, for Jünger, the search into one’s deepest being is not a quest for a separate individualist identity.

Instead one meets, in the forest, “with one’s own Self, with one’s invulnerable core, with the being that sustains and feeds the individual phenomenon in time”.

This core being is a collective one, a “strata which underlies all social life and has been common to all since the origins”. He explains: “The I recognizes itself in the other, following the age-old wisdom, ‘Thou art that’.”

Ernst Jünger

So there we have it. The individual who searches deeply and courageously enough inside themself ends up finding that their essence lies in something much larger. And they are then free and conscious enough to use their individuality in the interests of that greater whole.

What might have appeared, at the start of the journey, to be nothing but individual awkwardness or stubbornness, reveals itself to be what Gross calls elsewhere “the revolutionary instinct of humankind” acting through the individual free enough to allow it to do so.

Jünger admits that it has become especially difficult in the modern world to assert one’s freedom – “Resistance demands great sacrifice, which explains why the majority prefer to accept the coercion”.

The authentic individual, the real rebel, fully embraces their own individuality in order to put it to the service of the principles that form the very essence of human existence.

This is one of the great paradoxes of anarchism – a dynamic and deeply ethical philosophy for individuals strong enough to go beyond individualism and offer themselves up to the general good.

As Jünger puts it: “Each individual must know if freedom is more important to them – know whether they value how they are more than that they are”.

And once the individual has made this inner decision, found this inner strength, they can seek out other cultured rebels with whom to challenge the shallow fake-individualism of the modern world.

In a 1957 follow-up book to The Outsider called Religion and the Rebel, Wilson asks: “Is the Outsider strong enough to create his own tradition, his own way of thought, and to make a whole civilization think the same way?”

Colin Wilson

And he replies that ultimately, of course, the individual can achieve nothing on their own, no matter how determined they are: “While the Outsiders are a scattered and bewildered minority, without a tradition, without a philosophy, they are of no use whatever.

“It is impossible to say at this point what might be the ultimate result of a concerted effort of all ‘Outsiders’.”

Individuals of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your individualism!


John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1930)

Otto Gross, Psychanalyse et Révolution: Essais, trans. by Jeanne Étoré, (Paris: Éditions du Sandre, 2011)

Ernst Jünger, The Forest Passage, trans. by Thomas Friese, ed. by Russell A. Berman. (Candor, New York: Telos Press, 2013)

Colin Wilson, The Outsider, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1956)

Colin Wilson, Religion and the Rebel, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957)

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2 thoughts on “Individuals against individualism: an anarchist paradox

  1. Several cruise liners have been going through Covid trouble these days: they are a fantastic example of what you say.

    On the one hand, if you look at the ads on their websites, it is all about “the individual”: “you” as the focus of everything, “make your own show”, be yourself…

    All “having fun”, in the same way…

    Yet it is a sailing fortress, a prison of steel, kept going by thousands of invisible little people who sleep somewhere in the darkest underwater cells.


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