The idea of the individual has been central to Western Civilization; we can discern its earliest manifestations in ancient Greece, when potters signed their work and bragged that they were better than other potters; we can see its further development in the Italy of the renaissance, when men of virtú like Machiavelli and Lorenzo the Magnificent forcefully asserted themselves as rightful masters of their time; we can see the new forms that it has taken after the Industrial Revolution, where the office towers of New York, like the medieval towers of San Gimignano, assert the ascendancy and priority of the individual.

Whether you love it or hate it, you have to acknowledge that the US is where individualism has reached its most unconditional realization. Some people glory in American individualism, and some despise it. If a member of the commentariat or the punditocracy wants to put a positive spin on individualism, they will call it “rugged individualism,” whereas if they want to put a negative spin on individualism, they will call it “rampant individualism.” There are plenty of examples of both of these attitudes, and I invite the reader to stay alert for these linguistic clues in future reading.

Jean-Paul Sartre said of the skyscrapers of New York City, “Seen flat on the ground from the point of view of length and width, New York is the most conformist city in the world… But if you look up, everything changes. Seen in its height, New York is the triumph of individualism… There are individuals in America, just as there are skyscrapers. There are Ford and Rockefeller, Hemingway and Roosevelt. They are models and examples.”

When earlier today I posted a longish piece on Tumblr about Appearance and Reality in Demographics, I continued to think about the recent poll results that I mentioned there, WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, as well as an earlier poll from the Pew Forum, U. S. Religious Landscape Survey, that I mentioned some years ago (in 2008) in More on Republican Disarray. In particular, I thought about how wrong prognosticators, forecasters, and social commentators have been about the development of religion in the US. There is an obvious reason for this. The US is not only a disproportionately religious nation-state (as revealed in numerous polls), it is also, as I noted above, a disproportionately individualistic nation-state, and the confluence of these ideological trends, the religious and the individualistic, means that US culture is marked by religious individualism and individual religion.

I touched on this peculiar character of religion in America — i.e., religious individualism — in my post American Civilization, in which I cited the song Highwayman, jointed performed by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings (and written by Jimmy Webb). This is an obvious pop culture example of what I am getting at, but the careful reader of classic American fiction will also reveal a religious individualism that frequently issues in pluralism, diversity, and the frankly eclectic. To put it bluntly, people believe whatever they want to believe.

Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, left to right, recorded the Jimmy Webb song The Highwayman and made a commercial success of it.

The attempt to pigeonhole American religious belief and practice always founders on the rock of religious individualism, which cannot be reliably classified in ideological terms. It is not consistently left or right, radical or traditional, liberal or conservative, activist or quietist — or, rather, it is all of these things at different times for different individuals.

Norman Rockwell’s iconic image of freedom of worship is for many a paradigmatic representation of American religiosity, which synthesizes in the single image the conformity and individualism that Sartre saw in American skyscrapers. Each worships according to his own conscience, but it just happens (I guess as a matter of pure chance) that everyone shows up at the white steepled church in the center of a picturesque American small town.

Individual religion takes the form of individual choice, and different individuals choose differently for themselves, and choose differently at different times in their life. This was one of the interesting results of the Pew Forum poll I mentioned above, which found a high level of religious observance in the US (everyone expected that), but when prying deeper found that, “More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion.”

This Rockwell image of American religiosity, no less iconic but perhaps a tad more realistic than the image above, shows an inter-generational solidarity of faith that defies the cool disinterest of the hip crowd. This is, again, like the other Rockwell image above, what many people want to believe about American religious life.

While this may not sound too shocking prima facie, it would be difficult to overemphasize how historically unusual this is. One of the conflicts that marked the shift from the medieval world to the modern world in European history was that between the personal principle in law and the territorial principle in law (which latter emerges with the advent of the nation-state). Given the personal principle in law, an individual is judged according to his community. If you were a Christian on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and were accused of a crime in a Muslim country, you would be dealt with according to Christian law, not Muslim law. That how it was supposed to work, and sometimes it did work that way, and for the decentralized societies of medieval Europe the personal principle in law fit the loosely coupled structures of a nearly non-existent state.

A much less flattering portrayal of American religiosity is to be found in Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. To reconcile the diverse imagines of Rockwell and Lewis you can imagine Elmer gantry preaching to the assembled small town congregation whose sincere faces, bowed in prayer, are depicted by Rockwell.

The personal principle in law persists today in the institution of diplomatic immunity, but apart from diplomats, those accused of a crime will be tried according to the law of the geographically defined nation-state where the crime occurred, and this legal process will have little or nothing to do with the ethnicity or traditional community of the accused individual. Again, that’s the way it’s supposed to work, though it is not difficult to cite violations of this principle.

College campuses and prisons are common sites for religious proselytizing, since young people going to college and away from home for the first time, and incarcerated persons having passed through the justice system, are particularly apt to convert to a faith not directly involved in their earlier life experience.

The personal principle in law is all about ethnicity and tradition and individual identity being defined by a traditional community, which in turn defined the individual in terms of his or her role in that community. The idea that an individual might change their religion was like suggesting that an individual could put on or take off an identity like a suit of clothes. This would have been utterly incomprehensible to our ancestors; for the US it is now a fait accompli, and the basis for the organization of our society. Just as serial monogamy has come to characterize American courtship and marriage patterns, so too serial faith choices, adopted sequentially throughout the life of the individual as that individual experiences personal crises that precipitate temporary religious identification, characterize American religious patterns.

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, moved from Boston to Philadelphia and thus inaugurated the quintessentially American tradition of self-reinvention through geographical mobility.

Indeed, one of the perennial themes of American life is that of personal re-invention (i.e., the putting on and taking off of identity). In the US, failure is not final. If things aren’t working out for you in Boston, you can move to Philadelphia, as Benjamin Franklin did. In a social context of personal re-invention and geographical fungibility, what counts is not one’s abject subordination to the community into which one happens to be born, but one’s cleverness and persistence in finding a place where one can feel at home. Part of this personal quest is also finding a faith in which one can feel at home, and this is not necessarily the faith of one’s parents or of one’s community.

In the context of religious individualism, orthodoxy counts for nothing. Or it counts for everything, but only because each man has his own orthodoxy, and there is no social mechanism in place in industrial-technological civilization to force the acquiescence of any individual to any other individual’s orthodoxy.

Even those who celebrate orthodoxy and who would welcome mechanisms of social control to force acquiescence to orthodoxy, cannot escape, at least while in America, the necessity of defining their own orthodoxy on their own terms. They are, in Rousseau’s terms, forced to be free, which in this context means they are forced to be religious individualists.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A few days ago I was posting some brief thoughts on Twitter (necessarily brief, given the 140 character limit) about social contract theory, and as the ideas developed I realized that I had something more to say about the exercise of power within institutions. What follows is something of an elaboration of my previously tweeted ideas, which were, in turn, an elaboration of the use of “institutionalized power” as I used that term in Web 2.0: An Alternative Vision.

1. It is not so much power alone that corrupts, as it is institutionalized power that corrupts.

Perhaps in the familiar line, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” it is to be implicitly understood that the power in question is institutionalized power and not merely the power of an individual, but we would do well to be specific that it is an institution that transforms the ordinary vitality of life, which is power, into something sinister.

2. Power channeled through institutions raises the arbitrariness of the power of an individual to a higher order of magnitude.

The power of an individual, while potentially dangerous, is limited to the scope of the individual, and the scope of the individual does not extend to a significant reach in either time or space. Thus the arbitrariness of power of an individual is merely the arbitrariness of a bully, but the arbitrariness of a bully allowed the powers of an institution, to be omnipresent and all but omnipotent, is power not subject to the natural limitations inherent in the individual person.

3. Once an individual experiences the aggrandizement of institutionalized power, the scope of merely individual arbitrary power feels paltry.

To be the representative of institutionalized power (which today means holding political office and basking in the power of that office), is to exercise a power that no individual could cultivate himself in isolation, and which no individual could implement without an institutionalized apparatus of power. To hold institutional power is to have more than the reach of an ordinary man, but it is also to be dependent upon others: in other words, it is to be institutionalized.

Herman Melville has made the definitive comment on this condition:

“It cannot have escaped the discernment of any observer of mankind, that, in the presence of its conventional inferiors, conscious imbecility in power often seeks to carry off that imbecility by assumptions of lordly severity. The amount of flogging on board an American man-of-war is, in many cases, in exact proportion to the professional and intellectual incapacity of her officers to command. Thus, in these cases, the law that authorises flogging does but put a scourge into the hand of a fool.”

Herman Melville, White-Jacket: or, The World in a Man-of-War, Chapter 36: “Flogging not Necessary”

While the scourge no longer takes the form of a cat-o’-nine-tails, the principle remains the same, and, similarly, although the fools who wield the scourge are not the same, the arrogance of office is unchanged.

4. In the state of nature there is arbitrary individual power; it is only in the context of social organization that institutionalized arbitrary power emerges.

Arbitrary individual power in a state of nature, without social organization, can at most result in a duel, which will usually be a contest of equals if not rivals, since a non-equal match will result in the disadvantaged party fleeing. Arbitrary institutional power, made possible by social organization, turns every contest into an unequal confrontation of an individual against an institution, with the individual’s ability to flee the confrontation compromised by the same social organization.

5. The state of nature is a condition of absolute impunity and of absolute absence of impunity.

There is a dialectic of impunity when raised to its absolute form, in which an identity between the absolute possession of impunity and the absolute lack of impunity are seen to amount to the same state of affairs. For further elaboration of this thesis cf. the explication of Theses 10 and 11 below.

6. Impunity of power is an institution that emerges in parallel with the institutions of power, but it is an informal institution.

There can only be impunity is a formal sense when there is a law from which one is immune. However, as we shall see below, there is an informal sense of impunity that is realized in the state of nature. But where the formal institutions of power are present, impunity is an exception to the rules that constitute an informal social contract. It should be pointed out, though, that impunity as an informal institution is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, since in pre-modern states legal authorities were almost always exempt from the rule of law, or, if subject to laws, authorities were subject to separate laws — an instance of the personal principle in law not tied to ethnicity or confessional community — as when English Peers of the Realm were tried in the House of Lords or churchmen were tried in ecclesiastical courts according to Canon Law. This, in turn, is another development of formal institutional power, and impunity is an informal exception to formal institutional power. Thus the historical trend is toward the constitution of formal institutions that acknowledge informal exceptions.

7. An informal institution is an implicit social contract. A formal institution is an explicit social contract.

There is always a degree of exchange between the conventions of implicit social contracts and explicit social contracts, so that formal institutions borrow from informal institutions and vice versa. in other words, the distinction between the two is not absolute. But the distinction is nevertheless valid as far as it goes. This must be taken in the spirit of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy (which I subsequently christened The Truncation Principle), namely that for any distinction that is made, there will be cases in which the distinction is problematic, but there will also be cases when the distinction is not problematic.

8. The state of nature can be defined as the absence of any social contract, formal or informal, explicit or implicit.

The possibility of an absolute state of nature, lacking either implicit or explicit social contracts immediately suggests the possibility of a relative state of nature in which there may be an explicit social contract but no implicit social contract, or an implicit social contract without an implicit social contract. We can identify the former with corruption and the latter with proto-civilizations. And, again, as above, the distinction between absolute and relative states of nature is not absolute, but remains valid as far as it goes (and subject to the same principle and fallacy noted above).

9. Despite the absence of a social contact in a state of nature, the substance of what we understand by impunity is realized in this condition.

Because in a state of nature, individuals possess the Freudian freedom in which, “their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him,” there is no action whatsoever that is forbidden us in a state of nature. We possess absolute impunity to do as we will — and also to suffer as we will.

10. Impunity in a state of nature is something very different from impunity within a social structure.

Although in a state of nature we possess absolute impunity to do as we will, everyone else possesses exactly the same absolute impunity, and nothing in a state of nature puts me beyond the reach of any individual who seeks to behave with impunity toward me any more than such an one is beyond my reach to behave with impunity. In a state of nature, no one is accountable to anyone, and everyone is accountable to everyone.

11. In a state of nature, no one is untouchable, even while everyone is, by definition, beyond the reach of the law.

As there is, by definition, no law in a state of nature, everyone is beyond the reach of an institution that cannot reach out because it does not exist; in other words, everyone is untouchable. But there is also no law to protect the individual, and so no one is untouchable. The two are merely alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.

12. Formal and informal institutions, explicit and implicit social contracts, exist side-by-side, in parallel in a social system.

Institutions feed off each other. The existence of formal institutions require informal institutions that either allow us to circumvent the formal institution or guarantee fair play by obliging everyone to abide by the explicit social contract (something I previously discussed in Fairness and the Social Contract). There is a sense in which formal and informal institutions balance each other, and if the proper equilibrium between the two is not established, social order and social consensus is difficult to come by. However, in the context of mature political institutions, the attempt to find a balance between formal and informal institutions can lead to an escalation in which each seeks to make good the deficits of the others, and if this escalation is not brought to an end by revolution or some other expedient, the result is decadence, understood as an over-determination of both implicit and explicit social contracts.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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