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Economic individualism

By the 1970s, the world was much more complex than it had been during the Industrial Revolution, global population in 1950 was approximately 1.26 billion, whilst in 2019 it was 7.71 billion. But the institutions and social relationships in which they lived were also more complex. The industries that are developed in the West during the early industrial revolution had developed into complex multinational conglomerates and no longer were as likely to use domestic labour. Instead, these industries were beginning to look to colonies around the world for cheaper labour, importing raw materials to these countries before exporting the products.
Whereas the Industrial Revolution saw the development of primary manufacturing and production industries, and in order to use the domestic labour provided by the evacuation of industry, by the 1970s, a large service economy had emerged. In addition to this transition to offshore production processes, financial services and global banking, alongside telecommunications, retail, hotels, catering and an education were starting to compete with primary industries for the most productive enterprises in the Western world. This culminated in an economic stage that is often referred to as post- industrialisation. As a direct result of this transition to a post industrialised economy, the Western European middle classes expanded in number and grew in wealth.
Citizens found themselves with more disposable income that was not needed solely for subsistence. And the leisure industry grew to take advantage of this increase in prosperity. Whilst for centuries before pubs and bars had been reserved for dispensing clean drinking water to workers at the end of the day in the form of beer and cider, their social importance came to the fore from the Victorian period onward. T heatre, musicals, opera and ballet likewise saw their fortunes soar as more and more people were able to afford luxury purchases. The third major change that had occurred by the 1970s was the development of an entire industry dedicated to advertising and in particular, marketing.
Whilst advertising was not new to either the 20th century or capitalism, successful capitalist industries combined the accrual of vast amounts of capital, with the developing academic discipline of social psychology, to produce a field of study dedicated to encouraging consumption. So whilst adverts seen on the early televisions of the 1930s showed off, the comparatively advantageous quality of products marketing changed the nature of advertising to focus on qualities that the consumer might aspire to. No longer, for example, were cars desirable because they were reliable and fuel efficient, but rather because driving one displayed the certain sort of person one was.
Aspirational marketing and the development of the middle class, alongside the burgeoning service sector, combined in the 1980s with the development of an economic mode of production called ‘neoliberalism’ ( we looked at this last week under the name ‘enterprise capitalism’). A development of capitalism as it emerged in the 19th century, neoliberalism is a form of economics that has its roots in the work of Hayek, Friedman and Schultz and which focuses not on production but consumption. Consumption, according to neoliberals is,
in many cases, even more Democratic than is voting in a general election: economic choices are made on a day to day basis in a wide range of different contexts, rather than periodic and populist popular elections. Rather than waiting for four or five years to find out what the population’s priorities are, we can simply look at how they choose to spend their money in the marketplace, neoliberals argue. Davies puts it clearly when he says that neoliberalism is the ‘elevation of market based principles and techniques of evaluation to the level of state endorsed norms’.
The coalescence of all these different factors led to the development of a consumerist culture in the 1980s that is still in evidence today, rather than seeing one similarities with others as having been produced by one’s relationship to them in economic terms, we now live in a world of economic individualism where we are frequently defined by what we consume. Perhaps even more cynically, we’re also defined not just by what we consume, but how we self-market, how good our are our social media feeds in terms of portraying the best version of ourselves, the right filter at just the right off-angle.
Our identities are no longer produced by our relationship to the mode of production, b ut as this is now so complex and alien to the majority of citizens, we look elsewhere to understand who we are. Marketing provides the answer, and we are now encouraged to identify ourselves with our consumption of fashion, music, cosmetics and other products that can be used to express oneself. Already by 1964, the German American philosopher and sociologist Marcuse had seen this change coming and coined it the development of the one dimensional man.
In his book, Marcuse argued that society has changed to the extent that individuals no longer had depth of character to them in the traditional sense, with sets of core values and beliefs that could be debated. Instead, people have become the same as the commodities that they bought and displayed, and nothing more. We might say then that in contrast to the connections between members of society in the class-based industrial revolution, individuals in post-industrial countries had thin connections, we might listen to the same music as a group of people who we thereby call friends, go dancing with another group or shop with another, but if this portrayal of society is correct, this is the extent of our depth of connection with others.
Of course, this might not be important in and of itself, what people choose to do with their leisure time is a personal decision. However, if we are to analyse post-industrial society from a political perspective, we can make some more important gestures. In particular, the transition from production to consumption orientated identities encourages people to think of themselves, and how they are portrayed, rather than in terms of solidarity with others. If one thinks of oneself as grouped together with a number of other workers who are all in the same boat as each other, it is more likely that that individual will work together with the others. If instead these connections are frayed, this is perhaps less likely.

In this video you will learn how countries moved away from political analysis based upon class towards that based upon economic individualism. What were the factors that lead to a focus upon the individual, and individual consumption, and what were the effects of this transition?

You will also learn what Herbert Marcuse meant when he talked of the ‘one dimensional man’, and why he was so cynical of the movement towards an individualistic culture.

The contrast between these two models will set the scene for a focus upon identity politics as an expression of economic individualism in the next activity.


Davies, W. (2014) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition. London: SAGE Publications Ltd and Theory, Culture & Society.

Marcuse, H. (2012 [1964]) One-Dimensional Man. Beacon Press, Boston.

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How Politics Works: From the Individual to an International Scale

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