In the future, it seems, there will be only one “ism” — Individualism — and its rule will never end. As for religion, it shall decline; as for marriage, it shall be postponed; as for ideologies, they shall be rejected; as for patriotism, it shall be abandoned; as for strangers, they shall be distrusted. Only pot, selfies and Facebook will abide — and the greatest of these will probably be Facebook.
That’s the implication, at least, of what the polling industry keeps telling us about the rising American generation, the so-called millennials. A new Pew survey, the latest dispatch from the land of young adulthood, describes a generation that’s socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than earlier generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely — by a striking margin — to say that one’s fellow human beings can be trusted.
In political terms, the millennials are liberals on the surface, which is why the Pew report inspired a round of discussion about whether they’re likely to transform electoral politics in the short run, whether they will push our political debates leftward in the long run, and whether this gives the Democratic Party a hammerlock on the future.
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But the millennials’ scepticism of parties, programmes and people runs deeper than their allegiance to a particular ideology. Their left-wing commitments are ardent on a few issues but blur into libertarianism and indifferentism on others. The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: It explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread.
So the really interesting question about the millennials isn’t whether they’ll all be voting Democratic when Chelsea Clinton runs for president. It’s whether this level of individualism — post-patriotic, post-familial, disaffiliated — is actually sustainable across the life cycle. One can answer “yes” to this question cheerfully or pessimistically — with the optimism of a libertarian who sees such individualism as a liberation from every form of oppression and control, or the pessimism of a communitarian who sees social isolation, atomisation and unhappiness trailing in its wake. But one can also answer “no”, and argue that the human desire for community and authority cannot be permanently buried — in which case the most important question in an era of individualism might be what form of submission it presages.
This was the point raised in 1953 by Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community, arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology. Trying to explain modern totalitarianism’s dark allure, Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.
In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control. You don’t have to see a fascist or Communist revival on the horizon to see this argument’s potential relevance for our apparently individualistic future. You only have to look at the place where millennials — and indeed, most of us — are clearly seeking new forms of community today.
That place is the online realm, which offers a fascinating variation on Nisbet’s theme. Like modernity writ large, it promises emancipation and offers new forms of community that transcend the local. But it requires a price, in terms of privacy surrendered, that past tyrannies could have only dreamed of exacting from their subjects.
This surrender could prove to be benign. But it’s still noteworthy that today’s vaguely totalitarian arguments don’t come from demagogues. They come from enthusiasts for the online Panopticon, the uploaded world.
That kind of future is far from inevitable. But as Nisbet would argue, and as the rising generation of Americans may yet need to learn, it probably cannot be successfully resisted by individualism alone.