Individualism and Inequality
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Individualism and Inequality

The Future of Work and Politics

Ralph Fevre

A belief in individual self-determination powered the development of universal human rights and inspired social movements from anti-slavery to socialism and feminism. At the same time, every attempt to embed individualism in systems of education and employment has eventually led to increased social inequality. Across the globe individualism has been transformed from a revolutionary force into an explanation for increasingly unequal societies where dissent is largely silent. This book explores the possibility of rediscovering the original, transformative potential of individualism.
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Chapter 2: Anti-slavery and the secret of human rights

Ralph Fevre


The literature produced by historians, political philosophers, literary scholars, public policy researchers, anthropologists, sociologists and economists identifies many different types of individualism. They are sometimes differentiated by intellectual ancestry (their ‘genealogies’), or according to the countries, or academic disciplines, most closely associated with them (Lukes 1973). Some writers distinguish good and bad individualisms or, as Friedrich Hayek (1948), Austrian economist and philosopher, preferred, ‘true’ and ‘false’ individualisms. British sociologist Stephen Lukes (1973) teased apart the ideas of nineteenth-century individualism to find the combination of ideas that launched movements for social and political reform, including anti-slavery and other human rights campaigns. In his analysis, this combination was separated from the ideas that were developed in classical liberalism which included the right to property and to make a living as one chose, free-thinking, self-help, minimal government and taxation, and free trade (also see Spicker 2013). According to the historian Gregory Claeys, Tom Paine ‘insisted on an idea of the equality of rights and mutual respect which was stunningly radical in his own time, but is now central to modern civility’ and his message remained relevant around the world wherever human rights were denied (Claeys 1989: 16). Paine’s writings on individualism included elements of both types of individualism identified by Lukes, however. For example, he thought the market provided the best illustration of why people required minimal government since self-interest ensured they took care of each other’s rights when they were left alone.

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