Individualism came to the west, ultimately, through the values of the enlightenment. Many wonderful values have seen an increase in the west through the enlightenment, like the spirit of scientific exploration, a meta-ethical challenge to universalist norms of the time and a drive to technological efficiency. However, when paired with individualism, all of these things, over time, have become corrupted and universalized anew in some form or another. The west has committed centuries of error by assuming that individualism is synonymous with freedom. Both capitalism and socialism arise from this strain of thought, if ultimately working from different directions.
Capitalism employs the Protestant spirit in which man takes hold of his destiny and approaches the divine of his own volition; the market spuriously assigned an anologous relationship with the nature of phenomena and natural law, thus justifying a progressive view of capital. Socialism, on the other hand, while also appealing to its approximation between the economy and nature, performs a reversal which first recognizes the individual, but then immediately postulates a society as an other who is also recognizable as a base version of the self.
While the classical Marxist critique of capital understands the danger of the atomized individual overstepping and cancelling the conditions of its own surplus, it has largely failed to see where the conditions for its own solution to this would amount to much the same, though with atomized individuals acting in the service of collective utility. The pieces, in either case, merely get switched around but the result is much the same: alienation, loss of identity, the mediocritizing of all positive goals to a base-transactional formula, the need for ever-expanding territory and coextensive materializing of all social transactions, racing all to ward a loss of being in the Heideggerian sense; in general, the complete degradation of vitality and any higher spiritual meaning.
The two dominant parties of today in America, the Republicans and the Democrats, ultimately serve identical interests, have the same values and are invested in the same transnational power plays. The only thing that differs between them in the long run is how they present themselves, and also, the people who feel represented by them; two large groups who act as nothing more to these parties than a sort of cultural subconscious which can be manipulated and played upon in order to hide the fact that their despotic programs are being carried out exactly as wished regardless of any voting or political participation on the part of the people. What lies behind this puppet show is not simply bureaucratic corporatism, though it is that too, and it isn't simply an unsustainable welfare state, though it is also that. These things are merely the effects of a more deleterious force lying behind American values, their philosophical precepts, and the very locus of their activity which governs America's outward appearance.
To criticize individualism sounds indefensible, nearly criminal to the ears of a westerner. The westerner has been told his whole life that he can buy whatever he likes, that he can become a businessman if he works hard enough, or that he can atomize himself from society even further if he so wishes by learning the correct trades or the right set of skills. Ultimately, western man sees his agency in the world as something which must be purchased with his very time, his very energy and his very soul.
If ever 'character' or 'virtue' are spoken of unironically, we see them as novelties and, much like chivalry, we can't help but feel embarrassed at the utter antiquation of these ideas even where we admire them. The western form of individualism, which America has fully appropriated and embodied today, would value the spontaneity of mere unrestrained, reactive stimuli over mastery or the attainment of any higher agency. Individualism, both in its political form, which in America is our democratic republicanism, and in its cultural forms, which can be anything from liberalism, conservativism, activist groups, fringe anarchism, libertarianism and alternative or New Age spiritualities, to its philosophical forms in solipsism, anti-essentialist postmodernism/deconstruction, existentialism, egoism; these all exist as degrees of the same thing, tied together by a sometimes veiled, sometimes dogmatic self-interest. But even where this self-interest is dogmatic, as in renegade thinkers like Max Stirner, Ragnar Redbeard, de Sade and Ayn Rand, they fail to notice or if they do notice they certainly fail to care that their self-interest is as arbitrary as the kinds of theocratic authority enjoyed by the claims of religion. If a thousand egoists are telling me about their desires, their wants, their wishes, how am I to treat that any differently than the claims of a thousand gods?
Individualism ultimately operates on false assumptions, as it assumes that everyone possesses or can possess the same degree of agency. Where it doesn't assume this, it doesn't care, which ultimately betrays its whole project, as it would then remain evident that the problem of agency would have to be dealt with within the domain of a common interface which transcends the equal blank slate the individual is presupposed to be. It would be supposed that only some people are individuals, which is not entirely different from the belief in 'master' or 'superior races.' One is only an individual as far as one's conditioning will allow, and everyone possesses individuality and conditioning to varying degrees. We cannot even be certain to what extent individuality and conditioning could even be qualified as exclusive categories.
In a society which superficially grants everyone a special claim to an equal aptitude for individualism, those who cannot assert their power are inevitably going to fall behind or blame those they feel are obstructing their freedom. Everyone will have a different definition of freedom whilst maintaining that the exact same standards need apply to everyone, no matter the consequences of their behavior. This kind of individualism could be equated with passive nihilism, which, in the absence of a strong value structure, seeks the next best option in order to determine behavior, which could be anything from replacing one value system with another equally vacuous one, accepting existence as a futility, choosing values as constituent pieces which cause pleasure and do not have any other importance, or even seeking revenge on those for whom other value systems seem to be working quite well. These various responses are all quite useful to coercive control systems, like governments and the people who keep governments in power, thus, they have no problem with and are not threatened by the constant mantras which equate freedom and individualism with democracy and free markets.
To counter the false freedom of individualism, America would do better to accept the crisis of value and discover new values rather than spending all of existence trying to get revenge on the values which don't serve a purpose any longer. We should address the problem of agency and embrace it as something which cannot be granted through the law, but as something which can be cultivated within the frame of one's nature and one's conditioning. One can change conditions by changing causes, but where it is not possible to change causes, they must be embraced. This would re-address for modern times the concept of 'destiny' and 'fate' as realities in which possibilities can be explored and tested, but ultimately, the rules of the game themselves cannot be changed just as they cannot always be known. Existence should be explored, once again, as a whole piece, rather than a nonbeing in which death is ever-present and overshadows the active value of life as being.
The project we Americans should put to ourselves is to attain a true individuality that is equal to the challenges and the limitations put forward by the excesses of our age, rather than exalting 'individualism' as a unilateral ideology, as a standard which pretends that certain types of behavior are not less preferable to others, and which uses the 'other' as a convenient if brief ethical excuse to absolve one's responsibility for one's actions.
A new vision of America, adjacent to the nostalgic vision of old but operating from a different set of metaphysical presuppositions would greatly benefit and restore its spiritual rigor by completely replacing individualism with the concept of autarchism - the rule of one-self. As the founding fathers were inspired by the federational model of certain Native American tribes, let the new America practice its own form of similar free association, free from the mania and ubiquity of the economic bloc to which it continually re-indebts itself and establish, rather, a bloc which is beholden only to the idea which is America itself; a potentiality to be made manifest, growing ever toward its vision.
Institutions would likewise embody the principle of autarchy. They would exist as independent bodies which would fill their stations with a sense of honor, knowing that the whole would be compromised if they acted only in their own self-interest. The principle of Individualism becomes here inverted, as the principle of autarchy constitutes the rule of oneself to the service of the higher and the lower; the self (likewise the institution) is considered only a cleaving of these two planes, as it was in the ancient world which understood man as the meeting of heaven and earth. Institutions would not be parasitic tax-eaters, but would rather operate around the conditions of the earth with farmers, land owners and those who cultivate goods contributing to the well being of those independent bodies sworn to maintain the well being of society - a sort of mutualist, federal potlatch existing as one layer alongside practical, localized markets.
It becomes evident when one explores the ideational foundation of such a concept just how well maintained freedom would be, though without sacrificing one's life, time or collective identity, as is often the case in our society today, which is such a far cry from anything resembling liberty as to become laughable.
Pride in the best and most vigorous representatives of a new potential American spirit sits just at the horizon of history, in the hearts of Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Twain, Henry Miller, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Douglas, Herman Melville, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, William and Henry James, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Djuna Barnes, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway and countless others. Let us look to them for the voice of an American spiritual transformation, rather than constantly re-reading the words of the founding fathers for a historical authority they are certainly not in the position to grant us. Amendments and constitutions have no inherent authority and are not effective without the devotion of people, without an uniting eidos which binds various peoples under one contract, not simply passively in regards to one another, but actively toward the cultivation of the highest form of the idea.
Let there be many varying autonomous peoples with their own respective, collective identities, under no threat of erasure from any single top down authority with absolute power; a true equality with no pretenses to false liberty. The offices of 'government' insofar as they exist, should be such that they are attached strictly to the employment of their own internally organized measures. Presidents, ministers and ambassadors would not represent American people but only the governing bodies and autonomous institutions they themselves work for, free to unite for the sake of balance with other autonomous units. Let their services be supported in the manner of lay missionaries and charitable councils, operating on their own resources or those gifted to them.
As for the people themselves, they will always have their natural leaders, whether that be chieftains, local men and women with some charisma, people of unexplainable spiritual authority which cannot be granted by paltry state measures, entrepreneurs, warrior-types devoted to security, artists, visionaries, mystics, city planners and innovators of new technology.
Only by creating better options for the individual than cleverer ways to alienate oneself will American 'freedom' stop being a dream lost in a nightmare, antiquated by the general confusion of our time and be renewed as a chance for heroism, self-determination, honor, pleasure, love and absolute value.