Individualization is here to stay

If the individual is the citizen’s worst enemy, and if individualization spells trouble for citizenship and citizenship-based politics, it is because the concerns and preoccupations of individuals qua individuals fill the public space to the brim, claiming to be its only legitimate occupants, and elbow out from public discourse everything else.

The ‘public’ is colonized by the ‘private’; ‘public interest’is reduced to curiosity about the private lives of public figures, and the art of public life is narrowed to the public display of private affairs and public confessions of private sentiments (the more intimate the better). ‘Public issues’ which resist such reduction become all but incomprehensible. The prospects of individualized actors being ‘re-embedded’ in the Republican body of citizenship are dim. What prompts them to venture onto the public stage is not so much the search for common causes and for the ways to negotiate the meaning of the common good and the principles of life in common, as the desperate need for ‘networking’.

Sharing intimacies, as Richard Sennett keeps pointing out, tends to be the preferred, perhaps the only remaining, method of ‘community building’. This building technique can only spawn ‘communities’ as fragile and short-lived as scattered and wandering emotions, shifting erratically from one target to another and drifting in the forever inconclusive search for a secure haven: communities of shared worries, shared anxieties or shared hatreds – but in each case ‘peg’ communities, a momentary gathering around a nail on which many solitary individuals hang their solitary individual fears. As Ulrich Beck puts it (in the essay’On the Mortality of Industrial Society),

What emerges from the fading social norms is naked, frightened, aggressive ego in search of love and help. In the search for itself and an affectionate sociality, it easily gets lost in the jungle of the self. Someone who is poking around in the fog of his or her own self is no longer capable of noticing that this isolation, this ‘solitary confinement of the ego’ is a mass sentence.

Individualization is here to stay; all thinking about the means of dealing with its impact in the fashion in which we all conduct our lives must start from acknowledging this fact. Individualization brings to the ever-growing number of men and women an unprecedented freedom of experimenting – but it also brings the unprecedented task of coping with consequences. The yawning gap between the right of self-assertion and the capacity to control the social settings which render such self-assertion feasible or unrealistic seems to be the main contradiction of fluid modernity – one that, through trial and error, critical reflection and bold experimentation, we would need collectively to learn to tackle collectively.

Zygmunt Bauman – Liquid Modernity