Romanticism was a cultural movement that gained momentum towards the end of the 1700s in Europe, and is still far from being a concept of the past: whenever you describe a “romantic” sunset or movie, you are the living proof that Romanticism and its focus on emotions has influenced our culture to this very day.
Another strong focus of romanticism was individualism: starting from Beethoven and continuing to me and you, individualism kept growing stronger and gained the status of cornerstone of western culture.
Years ago I assisted a Japanese friend asking to a group of people if they could name a famous Japanese personality. He had his point instantly proven: his culture didn’t focus on the development and promotion of individuals, but rather on the society as a whole. He went on explaining how while in western countries standing out is a value, in Japan he felt that fitting in was of equal and opposite importance.
I won’t try to demonstrate wether he was right or wrong, but surely this goes to show that what we perceive as a universal value, is only universal within our very limited scope… in fact we could say it is just one of many possible multiversal values, if you are interested in reading some more on the subject!
Next, I would like to look at what was the focus of different branches of western politics during the last few decades:
- Right winged governments typically aimed at lowering taxes that take our individual money to fund projects that interest the society as a whole, and at enabling successful individuals to thrive (it’s no mystery that the top 1% kept getting richer in recent decades)
- Left winged governments have shown a strong focus on progressivism: empowering minorities to freely express themselves, and extending individual rights with the ultimate aim to eradicate discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual preferences, religion, ethnicity, etc.
It is worth noting that very rarely a reform got counter-reformed from an opposite wing government: it would be largely unpopular these days to try to raise taxes or -of course- to suppress minorities’ rights.
It could be said that populism is somewhat invalidating that last sentence about counter-reforms, but that seems like a great way to confirm how true it held for many years before.
So what if our society is individualistic? There’s nothing really wrong with it, and as a matter of fact individualism served us well in moving away from the excessively conformist model that squeezed away from our society any residual plurality until about the second half of the last century.
As with many things, there is a line running between two opposites, and in this case the line goes from complete conformism to complete individualism.
Everyone has their own personal comfort zone along any such line, and democracy is about trying to stay in touch with the majority of people, and to align with their comfort zones.
Emerging populisms from right wing and developing ones from the left wing may be a warning sign that we moved away from that comfort zone in either direction: admittedly we moved fast in the past few decades and a lot changed in our society in a short time. As a result, policies that encourage individualism at a financial level or freedom of expression are already not as popular as they used to be.
Neoliberism allowed for an incredible speed boost in technological advances, and progressivism allowed for a degree of social justice without precedent in our society.
Sad as it may be to let them go for either party, it is time to find a constructive way to build a better future while partially departing from the primacy of the individuals.
It is a much larger mental shift than it seems: as we saw, it all started with romanticism well over 2 centuries ago, and we can look at this as just another way in which we are approaching the end of an era.