I have often said that methodological individualism, the view that every social phenomenon can only be explained as being caused by individuals, is profoundly wrong and leads to irrational conclusions. But it seems like such an obscure issue to make a point about. If you ask people what “methodological individualism” is, you’d get mostly blank stares.
The funny thing is how prevalent it is amongst our modern political ideologies. It is the driving idea behind neo-liberalism. It is also the foundation of post-modernism. These two ideas exist in completely different areas of the political spectrum. It is also behind most of political reasoning: no matter the issue, we seem to believe that we can talk about it by solely referring to individual actions and individual merit or demerit. If Christians and other woo-woos can attack science on the basis of its reductionism (reducing all phenomena to “atoms banging around”), a charge which is mostly spurious, then all the more should we attack this political reductionism (reducing all social phenomena to individual action “in a vacuum”).
Atheism is the first threshold that one must cross intellectually, because most people are indoctrinated into some religion or other, and religion is a closed system which does not admit of intellectual progress. Some Christians may be able to transcend their Christianity, especially if they are in less extreme denominations, but by and large they are the exception, not the rule. It is very rare that you’ll find a committed religious person who does not also support hierarchies (so-called “Christian Anarchists” notwithstanding). Hierarchies are inscribed in monotheistic religions: the hierarchy between God and humans, the hierarchy between men and women, the hierarchy between humans and the natural world, and so on.
Still, most atheists are unable to progress very far beyond that point, so what is holding them back? What is the belief holding them back? I’ve tried to identify what that belief is, and I think it must be something like methodological individualism.
Religion is an extreme example of methodological individualism. After all, it seeks to explain the entire universe through the actions of only one individual: God. But beyond that trivial aspect, religion also tries to explain social issues through individual actions: crime is caused by unsaved, Satanic individuals (or Satanic conspiracies), poverty is caused by lack of faith or other personal shortcomings, and lack of faith itself is caused by you simply not trying hard enough. Crackpots even try to blame meteorological phenomena on individual sins. Often they simply cannot explain things that happen to us, shrugging them off as “God’s will.” But ultimately, the “choice” to be saved, or to not be saved, is the source of every good or bad thing in our lives, including our eternal fate.
Politics work in a similar way, just less extreme. We see issues through narratives, and we evaluate narratives by judging the archetype or stereotype involved. This means that we evaluate issues by looking at (imaginary) individual actions. This is methodological individualism, too.
The best sign of methodological individualism, at least from the liberal side, is when they interpret a socio-political critique as a personal attack. They are so indoctrinated to believe that politics is only about individual actions that they cannot even conceive of a critique of something greater than themselves. From their perspective, there is nothing greater than themselves. They follow Thatcher’s principle that “there is no such thing as society… [t]here are individual men and women, and there are families,” even though they may greatly disagree with Thatcher’s policies, because they have accepted the basic premise of neo-liberalism.
All the mainstream political movements, on all sides, are branches of neo-liberalism, which is an extreme-right ideology. So what they’re doing is trying to argue for liberal concepts by using extreme-right framing. It can’t work. So that’s the situation we’re in today. If you don’t understand how harmful this premise is, you won’t be able to reason your way beyond it.
Voluntaryism is probably the most well-intentioned methodological individualist position there is, which is why I was one for a while, and why I’ve taken so much pains to debunk it. In my view, if voluntaryism is debunked (which I think it is), then no individualist position can hold water, because they are all worse. Voluntaryists, of course, disagree that their position is debunked, but by and large their objections are very weak (a lot of moving the goalposts and tu quoque fallacies, mostly, which doesn’t add to a hill of beans).
The problem with voluntaryism is, in a large part, the problem of methodological individualism: the refusal to acknowledge the nature of institutions, a nature which mostly lies outside of individual action. But if you don’t understand institutions, then you can’t understand society. Society just cannot be reduced to individual actions, no matter how hard you try. This means you will always get wrong results. We see this in neo-liberalism, where these beliefs are implanted in order to further the capitalist agenda. We see this in post-modernism, where these beliefs are pushed in order to destroy any systemic analysis and reduce truth to a set of personal, innate traits. Their objective has never been to uncover the truth.
People who do break through this individualist premise are able to move on and construct theories which are much better at explaining social phenomena. Feminism (the systemic analysis of the gender hierarchy) makes a lot more sense than sexism (more specifically, the belief that individual women are responsible for their own exploitation). Anti-racism (the systemic analysis of the race hierarchy) makes a lot more sense than racism (the belief that individual POC are responsible for their own exploitation). Anti-capitalism (the systemic analysis of capitalism and how it affects society) makes a lot more sense than neo-liberalist rhetoric (which posits that individuals are responsible for their own economic exploitation). Anarchism (the systemic analysis of political hierarchies) makes a lot more sense than the rhetoric designed to support political hierarchies (that people are innately evil and must be governed, that people cannot do anything without hierarchies, in general, that individuals alone are incapable). The conclusions of the systemic analyses are much closer to reality than those of the individualist ideologies. But sexism, racism and neo-liberalism were never designed to uncover any truth anyway: they are rationalizations for exploitation and oppression, in the exact same way that Christian apologetics is a rationalization for Christianity. And they fail for the same reasons.