In all likelihood early humans could not have survived alone. The odds against an isolated individual were prohibitive. And for that reason and lots of others, people over the centuries gathered together and linked up with others and with groups of all kinds, most predictably the immediate and extended family. Also, the clan and the tribe, eventually the village and the town and the surrounding community. Those who mastered a trade probably joined a guild of the similarly skilled. Across Europe everyone was class – ified as belonging to a separate rung on the social ladder – serfs, servants, peasants, bourgeoisie, clergy, nobility, etc. The group weighed heavily upon the person – provided identity, support of one sort or another but also defined the boundaries and limited the possibilities. Most everyone knew and accepted their place, understood the framework that existed to be fixed and unchanging. Still, forms of individualism began making inroads. Elements of the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and Romanticism, directly contributed to such developments. Nonetheless group identification and connection continued into the modern era whether in the village, the congregation, within a social class, or through affiliation with a trade. All this led in some way to a reliance upon a broader community beyond the individual, to a conception of the general welfare, also the expectation that the state could advance it. This is what ultimately undergirded the emergence of Socialist ideologies with their promises of wealth fairly shared and benevolence expressed by way of co-operative undertakings.
Group identities re-appear naturally in America. Large families flourished, church congregations spread far and wide, countless communities were everywhere established, trade organizations arose and, as many noted, a bewildering variety of associations formed to reform society or to advance concrete objectives. But at the same time, the American society sanctioned and idealized a level of individualism the world had never before encountered. The sources of this development were many and mutually reinforcing and included the absence of formal aristocratic structures, an extensive and bountiful land along with widespread property holding, the exhilarating promise of life, liberty and happiness, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, the rapid movement out West to the frontier, as well as Evangelical beliefs in personal regeneration. Individual achievement came to be viewed as something society was eager to celebrate and reward, whether it was the intrepid frontiersman trekking through the wilderness, the ingenious tinkerer and inventor, the fearless gunfighter, the venturesome businessman and entrepreneur, the pluck and good fortune of the Horatio Alger hero, even the notorious outlaw.
The elevation of the individual was a powerfully energizing and liberating belief. The individual was set free to fulfill his destiny and to realize his potential, to defy convention and “group think,” to hit the road, become self-reliant and sever ties that proved burdensome, and to inspire others to do likewise. This produced a marvelously dynamic society, encouraged the
emergence of notable achievers, as well as legions of colorful and unconventional characters who helped give substance to the American Dream.But it has also come at a cost, short circuiting understanding and narrowing empathy. Individual ownership (private property) became sacrosanct, even when broader social priorities were at stake. Poverty, failure, and the absence of social mobility was readily ascribed to individual weakness and moral failure discounting other factors at play. Social class analysis and conflict too often was ignored when the focus centered primarily on the individual. Labor unions once enjoyed some measure of success, but in time lost leverage and effectiveness because America preferred to believe that the individual worker would be better off once freed from the costs and constraints of union membership. Socialism has ever been suspect in America because it acknowledged the reality of class, supposedly favored a “levelling,” as well as a broad distribution of National wealth, thereby threatening individual achievement and personal reward. Tax rates were always to be restrained lest individuals be denied just rewards for their labors and unique talents.
What is the proper relationship between extolling individual liberty, personal priorities and enrichment and promoting the advancement of the common good and welfare? Have we put too much pressure on individuals to go it alone, even as the result is often disaffiliation, loneliness, depression or worse? Should we not encourage and applaud individuals who cooperate, collaborate and seek out connections that strengthen the bond of community? Will we move more rapidly in that direction now that women, more inclined to connect, have stepped up, “leaned in” and become a highly visible and forceful presence in American society? Did an emphasis upon the individual serve a more useful purpose at a time earlier in our history than it may today? Such questions deserve serious consideration.

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