Reviewing “Individualism Old and New”

By Brian Brecker
Elm Staff Writer

Educator and philosopher John Dewey states in his book “Individualism Old and New,” that corporations maintain individualism as a concept, but they are also the main factor in the decline of individual self-worth.

In his book, Dewey tracks what has happened to the concept of the individual over time, particularly through the period of industrialization which led to massive corporations.

Individualism, the belief in the importance of the individual person in politics, has largely been used as an argument for the pro-business right against regulation.

A person who runs a business as their property should have the right as an individual to do with their organization what they wish with minimal interference. Dewey correctly points out how twisted this logic has become in order to remain in any way associated with individualism.

The complete control and power over thousands of workers, Dewey argues, is actually a denial of those workers’ individual economic rights. Dewey claims that not only does the corporation have little to do with maintaining individualism as a concept, but it is the main factor in the decline of individual self- worth.

Backing up this claim, Dewey addresses technology, an aspect to human life where he sees great potential. For instance, if automobile manufacturing becomes fully automated, then workers are no longer needed. We can see the mechanization of jobs occur throughout American history, most recently with the loss of coal jobs in the Rust Belt.

Angered lower middle class Americans, displaced from their jobs, rose in 2016 to aid in the eventual election of president Donald Trump. It may be tempting to some of us to hound these individuals due to their political decisions. However, it is completely understandable how machines replacing your work systematically would lower your overall self-esteem and leave many with a resentful feeling of being left behind by the American economy. This is what Dewey refers to as the “submergence of the individual,” as their work and livelihood become secondary to efficiency on a grand scale.

Dewey comes to the conclusion that due to the issues of industrialization and corporatization, Americans need a new understanding of individuality that is not so centered on one’s economic will over others, but on the cooperation of multiple members of society.

Here we reach the most controversial aspect of the book, where Dewey seemingly advocates for socialism. If we parse out his real meaning, we will understand that Dewey is not a communist radical, but instead one committed to the tenets of democracy.

According to Dewey, the best way for society to be restructured would be the creation of workplace democracy, where workers in large enterprises vote on corporate policies. A cooperative, an economic entity owned by the workers, would then be preferable to a corporation, as it would be less focused on pecuniary gains and more on the validation of the worker. In this way, what Dewey is proposing is not a break from our American political ideals but the application of one of them, democracy to the economy.

I have criticisms. For instance, the book is written in such an abstract way with language meant for academia, it is unlikely it would have caused much of a stir among the general public. Also, Dewey does not in any formal way address criticisms to his position, instead he lays out his idea in full detail without much scrutiny. After reading it cover-to-cover, I have to say it is well worth a read if one is actively engaged in these sorts of topics. If not, I hope this article has suited well as a summation of the main points of Dewey’s work. It is important that we revise our understanding of individualism and how we value work and the worker.

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