Individualism and neoliberalism


Individualism refers to a set of ideals or values from a 19th century American legacy, which in North America celebrated “individualism, self-determination, independence, privacy, and freedom from intrusion” as the country’s cultural values (Hooyman and Gonyea, 1995:108). Contemporary American culture continues to emphasize values such as self-reliance, economic initiative and productivity, while negatively characterizing any form of weakness or dependence (Harvey, 2005; Hooyman & Gonyea, 1995). Through geographical proximity, combined with similar economic and political foundations of capitalism and democracy that privilege the individual, individualism has also been incorporated into the Canadian identity. The neoliberal concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘personal responsibility’ are embodied in the ideology of individualism, which is  another significant influence that affects our ideas about aging and fuels ageism.

Neoliberalism: definition and background information

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families…Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul” (Margaret Thatcher, 1981, 1987).

In the late 1980s-early 1990s a subtle change started to take place in Canadian society as a creeping ideological rhetoric entered the public domain. The mantra of “individual (or personal) responsibility” and “choice” could be found over and over again in everything from academic publications to the mainstream press. This rhetoric was accompanied by a political-economic shift that included the privatization and profitization of many of Canada’s social welfare programs – neoliberalism was on the rise (Williams, et al. 2001; Navarro, 2002).

The term ‘neoliberalism’ can be traced to the late 1800s in France (néolibéralisme), and later found in the writings of Milton Friedman and his 1951 essay, Neo-Liberalism and its prospects. Its contemporary usage is usually attributed to Milton Friedman and Fredrich von Hayek, who in 1974-75 proposed ideas for a major new economic system based on deregulation and privatization of public services and assets designed to combat the threats to capitalism advanced by the social democratic policies of the left[1] (Harvey, 2004: 8-9). The economic policies that were put forward by Friedman, von Hayek and Paul Volcker, the newly appointed Chairman of the US Federal Reserve in July 1979, came to be known as neoliberalism. This system was quickly embraced by a number of other world leaders including China’s Deng Xiaoping, who began China’s ascent into the world of market capitalism in 1978; Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK as of 1979; and Ronald Reagan whose US presidency began in 1980 (Harvey, 2005).

The neoliberal policies put in place by Thatcher and Reagan rapidly became the new orthodoxy of economics that has dominated the political-economic structure of western nations since the mid 1980s. These policies have two primary components: 1) They contain a political-economic structure based on deregulation of private corporations, and the “rolling back of government” – replacing government support of public services with privatization or profitization of public services (Williams et al, 2001); and 2) They are embedded in a pervasive ideology of “individual responsibility” and “choice” (Harvey, 2005, Hooyman and Goonyea, 1995).

Neoliberalism, which is embraced by nations with a strong belief in individualism, holds that state involvement in public affairs inflicts a negative impact on the social and economic development of its citizens. Instead, by reducing the power of the state, power will be transferred to the individual (Navarro, 2002b). According to neoliberal thought “all forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility and family values” (Harvey, 2005: 23). The purpose of government is thus transformed from a system that protects the interests of its citizens, to one that protects the interests of the market. But although neoliberalism promises less government intervention in public affairs, neoliberal governments in fact remain involved in the administration of public institutions (Williams, et al., 2001). However, rather than provide government support of public services, an economic market model of industry has been imposed on public institutions, (education, health, etc.). In this way, the purpose of government is thus transformed from a system that protects the interests of its citizens, to one that protects the interests of the market.

With the assistance of effective government and corporate media support, neoliberalism and its underlying ideology, individualism, are now deeply embedded in government policies that emphasize individual responsibility, which in turn have affected polices and attitudes around older adults. As this ideological rhetoric is internalized and normalized, citizens have been transformed into consumers – customers readily available for the emerging markets provided by the profitization of social welfare programs (Ungerson, 1997, Williams et al, 2001). This remarkably successful transformation has affected all aspects of Canadian life.

Neoliberalism found a home in the values of 19th century individualism. Building on the ideology of individualism, neoliberalism contributes to the belief that to have value as an older person in our society, you must continue to be healthy and productive and/or have enough wealth to maintain complete independence. And two of the primary tenets of neoliberal ideology – ‘choice’ and ‘personal responsibility’ – provide the method to maintain independence in old age. But if you should instead become a frail and dependent older person any value you might have is removed, translating into a pervasive form of ageism.

[1] According to Harvey, Chile provided the stage for the first experiment with neoliberal policies following Pinochet’s coup in 1973. The main effect of this experiment reflected an inequitable outcome: Chilean elites and foreign investors did very well financially while the standard of living for the general population decreased, while neoliberalism also helped to restore the class position of the elites (Harvey 2005, pp. 8-9).