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Individualism and consumerism: reframing the debate

Stephen Thake

18 November 2008

The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern 'social evils' on the theme of 'individualism'.

Stephen Thake argues that, in the face of selfish individualism and wasteful consumerism, we must create a counter-dynamic that supports new forms of agency, solidarity and individual behaviour to rebuild a strong civil society. Investing in civil society will help to foster behavioural change and reinvigorate existing forms and create new forms of agency, which are better able to harness the advances in technology and economic development for the common good.

Summary

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The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern 'social evils' on the theme of 'individualism'. Stephen Thake argues that, in the face of selfish individualism and wasteful consumerism, we must create a counter-dynamic that supports new forms of agency, solidarity and individual behaviour to rebuild a strong civil society. Investing in civil society will help to foster behavioural change and reinvigorate existing forms and create new forms of agency, which are better able to harness the advances in technology and economic development for the common good.

Key points

  • A concentration on social evils focuses on symptoms rather than the drivers that bring them about. It is more productive to consider selfish individualism and wasteful consumption as products of a destructive dynamic that has overwhelmed agency and undermined trust.
  • The consultation has identified a myriad of interconnected social evils: it is difficult to know where to intervene.
  • The last century has witnessed cultural, scientific, technological, economic and political change that has brought large benefits, but at a cost.
  • Supra-governmental agencies and representational government at all levels have been reactive and unable to protect against the negative aspects of change, with a consequential loss of authority and decline in participation.
  • The retreat into protective individualism, while contributing to both, is an understandable response to the failure of agency and the loss of solidarity.
  • It is imperative to invest in a counter-dynamic that generates practical solutions at every level of engagement, from the individual to the global.
  • Change takes place at the level of the individual and community association. We need to support the change that is already taking place within civil society.
  • Without a strong civil society the larger issues will not be resolved. The role of government is to establish the framework and to release the resources to enable civil society to thrive.

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