The rise of the culture of individualism has been blamed for the breakdown of the family unit in the Western world over the last forty years. This is nothing new, and there have been many studies done over the years on the subject. I don't want to go over the same ground; instead, I am more interested in the psychological grounding of this trend, and the psychological implications it has had on society, that we can see all around us, under the surface.
I said that individualism has caused the breakdown of the family, but Western society's change began in the "baby boom" generation after the Second World War. That came about at the same time as unprecedented levels of rising prosperity in Western society, allowing children in the West to experience previously-unknown levels of parental attention. By the sixties, this prosperity created a greater emphasis on "self-improvement" and "individual achievement" in children, resulting in a greater degree of people's self-awareness generally. This culture of self-expression and exploration, and a greater tolerance of diversity of thought therefore created an unprecedented level of narcissism in children growing up in this social environment.
As long as this occurred at the same time as a healthy economy, this was not overtly harmful to society. The social culture of the West was radically different by the end of the sixties than what existed ten years previously, and was a direct result of both rising prosperity and rising self-awareness in Western society.
But by the seventies, the economy had become unstable, and one half of the equation (improving social conditions and rising self-awareness) had been destroyed. The effect on society was almost immediate: a culture of rising self-awareness had now grown to one of increasing narcissism, but in an unstable socio-economic climate. The collective psychology of Western society now became more dysfunctional, as an increasingly narcissistic society was unable to properly deal with a change in economic circumstances. The result was more family breakdown, and more crime. Thus children born of narcissistic parents (such as those in the social conditions of the "baby boom" generation) are even more likely to be narcissistic, if not outright psychopathic, when you combine narcissistic parenting with an unstable social environment.
When I talk about "narcissism", we mean Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which, with Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD), is one half of the psychological conditions required to create Psychopathy. I wrote here about what the medical definition of psychopathy is, as an (until recently) under-examined and virulent psychological plague on society, and how it can be seen as the cause of much of the problems in human society.
Narcissism (NPD) is largely a result of environmental factors: a combination of parental dominance/indifference/excessive adoration and/or abuse in the child's formative years. Instability in the family unit, such as separation and parental conflict also contribute to the problem. Narcissism results from the child's inability to see healthy and suitable psychological support from the parents and elders, as mentioned: the child then begins to see itself as the only reliable place to receive support, becomes self-absorbed and misanthropic. A narcissistic personality sees itself as grandiose, entitled to superior treatment, and abusive towards others it sees as inferior to itself (i.e. everyone), who it sees more as objects to be used rather than real people. A narcissist cannot take criticism easily, and refuses to take responsibility for his own actions; he finds it difficult to focus on one task (be it a job or a relationship) for a long time, as his grandiose nature makes it difficult to "waste" time on what he sees as fruitless pursuits. Cynical towards humankind in general, he finds it hard to trust people, and thus have many real friendships; superficial, his emotions are shallow and not to be taken at face value. In personal relationships, the narcissist uses partners as objects of his own amusement, causing emotional distress and potentially long-last psychological damage.
The above characteristics, when combined with ASPD (Anti-Social Personality Disorder) create the dysfunctional and amoral personality of a psychopath.
The increase in economic instability in the seventies therefore created the knock-on effect of familial instability, exacerbating the conditions suitable for incubating NPD in children. This effect is then multiplied over the generations; parents born of the "baby boom" generation, potentially narcissistic and dysfunctional in their own right, made the likelihood of causing NPD in their children all the more possible. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence to link the rise in consumerism as part of the modern Capitalist economy over the last forty years with the concurrent reported steep rise in narcissism in society.
The unstable economic climate of the seventies also destroyed the "Post-war Consensus" in the West; Western economies, such at the USA and UK in particular, saw the former Keynesian economic model as discredited. Monetarism, which emphasized the downsizing of government and social bonds, and the emphasis on individualist pursuit, became the new model to follow. While the economy improved over the next twenty-five years in both the USA and UK, the levels of inequality increased to unprecedented levels - the gap between the salary of the average CEO and his workers had increased tenfold in thirty years, while the salary of the average worker had only slightly improved, if at all, in real terms. For those at the bottom ten per cent, their earnings have fallen.
Monetarism, and the moral philosophy of Ayn Rand that inspired it, may even be compared with the economics and ideology of psychopathy put into practice. Psychopaths, because they are amoral, cunning, ambitious and promiscuous, act like a psychological plague on human society; literally spreading their psychopathic seed, and the unstable family conditions required for it to gestate in their offspring, they create more psychopaths in their unloved and misanthropic children.
Psychopaths cause chaos, and want to cause chaos because they gain pleasure and power from it, in equal measure. The Monetarist economic model, and its contemporary successors in the USA and the UK (The Tea Party, formed by the billionaire Koch brothers; and the Conservative government, intent on transforming and shrinking the public sector), is an ideological justification for the destruction of the social unit, and for destroying belief in government overall.
Like Ayn Rand's ideology, Monetarism justifies itself by saying it advances individual aspiration, innovation and achievement, like the Capitalist economies of medieval states like the Venetian Republic did, for example. This is a misnomer, and a smokescreen. For a start, the Venetian Republic was much more state-controlled than contemporary capitalists like to admit, as well as creating some progressive social measures to improve society (such as a rudimentary form of "NHS"). Secondly, by focusing on individualism as the primary method of improving the economy and society, it becomes an inherently misanthropic ideology; as all motives are seen through pure self-interest, cynicism in human nature becomes the norm. If people exist to simply get what they can more themselves, the motivation for co-operation decreases.
Ayn Rand argued that co-operation in society only exists through mutual self-interest: companies caring for the wider environment, for example, because they see the long-term benefits. But there is little evidence for this in reality. Companies are far more likely to do the bare minimum to benefit society, and will only behave in an altruistic way when compelled by government instruction; the same is true for individuals when there is no altruist motive. Rand's book, "The Virtue Of Selfishness" makes such counter-intuitive logic (that self-interest benefits society, while altruism destroys it), and turns the moral compass of society on its head. Thus people are poor simply through their own actions, people are made rich through purely their own actions, and charity becomes a counter-productive indulgence (as Ayn Rand thought herself).
Thus caring selflessly for others is akin to stupidity (if not outright evil), and human motive is reduced to pure self-interest: "he's helping me because he wants something, not because he cares about me", for example.
This is why Conservatives always emphasize self-improvement as the best method out of poverty, while conveniently ignoring the natural advantage of the wealth which they were born into. It is no coincidence that Conservatives are more likely to be rich; those that were not already born into comfort and wealth, most likely made their wealth through moral flexibility, if not outright ruthlessness and inhumanity. In other words, they are likely to be Narcissists, if not outright Psychopaths.
An economy based on these principles is most likely to create social inequality and sporadic bouts of economic chaos, which inevitably benefits those already at the top. The West, especially the USA and UK (where Monetarist policies are at their most virulent), has therefore created an individualist (and more psychopathic) society that is predisposed to perpetuate itself; greater individualism in society, greater family dysfunction, and greater economic instability are all conditions that will create a greater frequency of NPD and Psychopathy in society as a whole, which will create further chaos, and so on.
There is also much that links the psychopathic factors in Capitalism with that of the earlier human hunter-gatherer instinct; and in this sense, Capitalism is simply an adaptation of the hunter-gatherer mentality applied to a higher stage of evolution.
In other words, using this projection, narcissism and psychopathy will continue to grow like a virus throughout Capitalist society as long as the social and economic conditions allow it to.