By: Holly Barrow

Across the West, individualism has long been considered a pillar of democracy and liberty. Individualism – which prioritises autonomy, independence, and personal freedom over the broader needs of society as a whole – often goes hand in hand with neoliberalism. As a more recent ideology, neoliberalism has served to heighten individualistic culture, stressing greater individual responsibility and undermining solidarity. In the UK and the US, where neoliberalism is arguably most rigorous, this self-serving ideology has thrived. Neoliberalism insists that we are all responsible for our personal well-being; it breeds a culture of ‘each man for himself’, detaching us from any sense of communal cooperation and collective responsibility.

For decades, neoliberalism has determinedly chipped away and reduced the role of the state in our lives, instead asserting that deregulation, privatization, and ‘the market’ are vital to a free society. George Monbiot writes that neoliberalism views competition as the defining characteristic of human relations; it defines citizens as consumers and promotes the facade of meritocracy – that each person will succeed and reap rewards if only they work hard.

In direct contrast are those nations and societies which practice a collectivist culture, viewing each person as part of a whole – emphasising the value of community and social relationships. Collectivist cultures are most frequently seen in such places as Asia, Africa and South America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these cultures are often derided in the West as totalitarian in nature, with their emphasis on community over the self commonly equated to the suppression of individuality.

The divide in culture between East and West has long been a subject of much argument and speculation. However, over the last ten months the role of culture in public affairs has seen renewed debate as nations across the globe have been forced to respond to an unprecedented health crisis in the form of Covid-19. It is by no means unfair or inaccurate to suggest that two of the most powerful and individualistic nations in the world – the UK and the US – have fared particularly badly throughout the course of the pandemic, while the likes of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand have managed remarkably well in the face of this deadly disease.

This has provoked many to consider what led such drastic failures in the UK and US to come about, and how individualistic culture generally and neoliberalism in particular may play a greater role than we wish to admit.

From the outset of the pandemic, both the UK’s Conservative government and America’s Republican administration attempted to heavily downplay the severity of the disease. Both nations contradicted the successful response of China – which had implemented a strict lockdown across the country, inciting horror in the West as the commentariat labelled this ‘draconian’, with some deeming it an indictment of its totalitarian regime. Trump shrugged off the severity of the disease, accusing the World Health Organization of conspiring with China. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson hinted at the idea of attempting herd immunity across the UK, actively undermining the advice of leading scientists in a bid to avoid a national lockdown and protect profit over human lives. Needless to say, these approaches to a highly contagious and life-threatening disease proved devastating for both nations.

It is crucial to examine how and why these approaches came to be in the first place. In the case of the UK and Johnson’s initial desire to attempt herd immunity, academics have described this as a form of ‘epidemiological neoliberalism’; the idea that allowing the virus to run its natural cause unregulated – much like the market under neoliberalism – would produce beneficial results for the majority, ‘only’ hurting a vulnerable minority in the process. This alone speaks to a callous and self-serving mentality, one which values some lives – typically those most able to shield from the virus – over others. Is this the benefit of a nation which values individual flourishing over collective wellbeing? Is this the form of ‘liberty’ we really wish to aspire to?

Economist Alfredo Saad-Filho is just one who has emphasised the role of neoliberalism and vicious individualistic culture in contributing to the UK and US’ tragically high death toll. In an article on this subject, he writes: ‘Human encroachment upon nature may have created the problem in the first place, but there is no doubt that the destruction of collectivity under neoliberalism exacerbated the impact of the pandemic.’ He goes on to explain that, through neoliberalism’s relentless devaluing of human lives and its constant promotion of diminishing the role of the state, the likes of the UK and the US delayed implementing a national lockdown to save face (and profits). This came at the expense of countless lives and, before long, the fragility and incapability of neoliberalism was exposed.

As Saad-Filho deftly notes, ‘neoliberal proclamations about the imperative of ‘fiscal austerity’ and the limitations of public policy vanished faster than one could spell ‘bankruptcy’’, with the private sector soon advocating for unlimited public spending. State intervention – demonized for decades under consecutive neoliberal governments – was suddenly hailed a necessity, despite years of decimating state capacity in favour of privatization and deregulation. However, the insidious nature of neoliberal hegemony continues to have lasting consequences.

In fact, measures such as nationwide lockdowns and essential mask-wearing have been met with rising non-compliance across both the UK and the US. The repercussions of having long peddled an ideology which upholds the worth and autonomy of the individual over collective community have played out in full swing. Anti-lockdown protests and a refusal to wear masks have proliferated throughout both nations under the guise of fighting for personal freedoms. Many of those primarily considered healthy and ‘able’ have argued that they ought to be entitled to continue to live their lives as normal, determined to avoid making temporary sacrifices which they do not see as beneficial to themselves.

Perhaps this should not come as a surprise under neoliberal systems wherein the idea of subsidising services from which you do not personally benefit – the welfare state, for example – is commonly characterised as a burden. When an entire system is built on dehumanising those who require assistance from the state and advocates for freedom from collective responsibility, how could we have expected this same society to jump at the chance of protecting the most vulnerable?

Anger towards the respective governments’ mishandling of the crisis became blurred with an ingrained distrust in the state; again, a side effect of having long upheld state regulation as invasive and inherently bad for society. Despite its geographical proximity to China and having limited resources, Vietnam’s collectivist culture has undeniably played a role in its incredible success with managing Covid-19. Since March 2020, it has recorded just 35 deaths from the virus. Constraints to personal freedom have been received with compliance not solely due to social conformity but, more importantly, an ingrained sense of solidarity.

Research carried out by sociologists and economists indicates that individualistic cultures – such as the UK and US – are at a disadvantage when collective action and cooperation are needed. Social culture and norms cannot be understated when we consider national responses to the virus. In fact, data shows a raw correlation between deaths due to Covid-19 per capita and countries’ individualism scores.

In the face of a crisis such as the pandemic, individualism proves itself to be an impediment. To ignore the individual’s moral responsibility to a wider society is impossible when faced with a contagious disease which requires sacrifices and efforts by all to overcome it.

Holly Barrow is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service which provides legal advice and guidance on UK visas, settlement, citizenship and more.

Image: PAM illustration.