Individualism and Inequality
Show Less

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.
Show Summary Details
You do not have access to this content

Chapter 6: Classes and evolution

Ralph Fevre


The relationship between individualism and inequality can only be successfully theorized with knowledge of the historical circumstances within which sentimental, religious and cognitive individualisms developed. Without this grasp of history and contingency, we would not be able to understand why sentimental individualism in the UK, but not in the USA, was closely related with nineteenth-century anti-slavery. Nor would we understand why American, but not British, sentimental individualism was associated with educational expansion and reform. We now move on to extend our grasp of the relationships between individualism and inequality from anti-slavery and education to the division of labour. Adam Smith believed that we tamper with the division of labour at the cost of damaging prosperity and that, on its own, the division of labour produced little of the inequality he saw in eighteenth-century British society. Smith thought it was the way that people understood and shaped their relationship to the division of labour that was the cause of inequality. WN included a powerful critique of the cognitive individualism which used the differences in the talents and efforts of individuals to explain inequality. He also pointed out that cognitive individualism’s assumptions about the freedoms that individuals enjoyed were deeply flawed. Modern misrepresentation of Smith might easily lead us to believe he wrote nothing about the class system of his time, or saw it as a type of social structure that would be swept away by the operation of free markets and replaced by healthy individual competition.

You are not authenticated to view the full text of this chapter or article.

Elgaronline requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books or journals. Please login through your library system or with your personal username and password on the homepage.

Non-subscribers can freely search the site, view abstracts/ extracts and download selected front matter and introductory chapters for personal use.

Your library may not have purchased all subject areas. If you are authenticated and think you should have access to this title, please contact your librarian.

Further information

or login to access all content.