Yet this complaint is inspired as well by communist ideology. Throughout the twentieth century, Marxian cultural criticism exploited the sort of Romantic dissatisfactions with modernity expressed as early as 1802 in the Preface to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. No matter that the next two centuries saw remarkable improvements in material existence wrought by capitalism and science, and saw individual freedom extended to millions by liberal democracy, these modern cultural critics exaggerated and dramatized the social costs of such benefits. They contrasted life in industrialized capitalist societies with a mythic golden age of pre-capitalist communal life in which the “alienation” fostered by capitalism didn’t exist and the individual was nurtured in a warm collective cocoon. Indeed, according to Marx and his followers, this communal paradise also lies at the end of history: once private property is abolished, capitalism and the state have withered away, and people are once again united into an organic, mutually supportive whole, the needs and desires of the individual will be identical with those of the community.
In their zeal to strain out the gnat of individualism’s flaws, the idealizers of lost community swallow any number of communitarian camels. They forget the deadening conformity and petty tyranny that frequently characterize so-called “organic” communities, typically based on castes and classes that subordinate individuals to the group.
They wish to tame the energies of individual freedom in order to fit people into some larger vision of communal good, some utopia of perfect equality and justice, always to be challenged by the quirky, unique individual.
Hence the ideology of “communitarianism,” which gains traction by obsessing over the trade-offs and costs that necessarily follow when each person possesses his own freedom and autonomy. Yet these costs are more than outweighed by the benefits resulting from freeing the imaginations and minds of millions from the stultifying shackles of group norms and herd mentalities.
And whatever these costs, they are as nothing compared to the mountains of corpses created by the collectivist ideologies that dissolve the individual and personal responsibility in the aims and needs of the community.