John Dewey’s “Individualism, Old and New”, perhaps today a bit overlooked, consists of several articles published in the progressive magazine “New Republic” and then collected in the book Individualism, Old and New.

In his article “Toward a New Individualism”, he notes that our productive life is acquiring a corporate and collective character. And that, conversely, our moral culture is still “saturated with ideals and values of an individualism derived from a pre-scientific, pre-technological era.”, Dewey, “Toward a New Individualism” [1999 (1930): 37]. 

The somewhat paradoxical idea of Dewey is that the spiritual roots of such individualism are to be found in medieval religion. In this sense,

“The apparent subordination of the individual to established institutions often conceals from recognition the vital existence of a deep-seated individualism….the fact that the controlling institution was the Church should remind us that in ultimate intent it existed to secure the salvation of the individual….The power of established institutions proceeded from their being the necessary means of accomplishing the supreme end of the individual.”, Dewey, ibidem: 37.

It is interesting to note how this wild form of individualism went in tandem with political absolutism and a very hierarchical society. With the advent of industrial revolution, many things had changed, and societies became more dynamic, but such kind of individualism ― expressed in the form of natural rights ― remained relatively unaffected and persisted also in the next stage of corporate capitalism. This stage, despite its semblance of individualism, is much more than individual capitalism based on collective action. This assertion can appear paradoxical: in fact, is it not true that corporations are privately owned? This is true, of course, but it is also true that the work of corporations requires a notable socialisation of their activities as they must work together and interact each other in order to keep the system working. Also, the legally “private structure” of corporations often conceals the articulation of the stakeholders. These include not only the classic shareholders, but also other subjects like workers, consumers, local and (especially today) civic communities and environmental groups. Although these aspects would require a different and more collective attitude, the earlier creed of economic individualism still persisted. But, notes Dewey, “If [this individual creed] is not an echo of the echo of a voice of a long ago I do not know what it is.”, Dewey, ibidem: 38. In this respect, the “pure individualism” so often held at the basis of American development plays in the corporate time a modest role and exists only “in the movie and the novel”. But the persistence of this old individualistic creed in a context that requires a totally different attitude has caused the phenomenon of “lost individual”. This comes about in a situation of “anomie”, when there is for the persons a lack of social relations and no clear meaning of the public functions of their activities. As noted by Dewey, “They [influential and wealthy people], may be captains of finance and industry, but until there is some consensus of belief as to the meaning of finance and industry in the civilization as a whole, they cannot be captains of their own souls….Their reward is found not in what they do, in their social office and function, but in a deflection of social consequences to private gain….An economic individualism of motives and aims underlies our present corporate mechanism, and undoes the individual.”, Dewey, “The Lost Individual”, ibidem: 27, 30].

This lack of social meaning has its economic counterparts in economic insecurity, unpredictable and disruptive business cycles, chronic unemployment and precarious work. A situation of this kind, as people cannot live in a vacuum and continue to express their need of social relation, calls for vacuous and surreptitious values of “liberty” and “nationalism”. In this way, a kind of uniformity of thought is engendered but, notes Dewey, such standardization does not go deep. In fact, “Its superficial character [of such standardization] is evident in its instability. All agreement of thought obtained by external means, by repression and intimidation, however subtle, and by calculated propaganda and publicity, is of necessity superficial; and whatever is superficial is in continual flux. The methods employed produce mass credulity, and this jumps from one thing to another according to the suggestion of the day. We think and feel alike―but only for a month or a season. Then comes some sensational event or personage to exercise a hypnotizing uniformity of response. At a given time, taken in cross-section, conformity is the rule. In a time span, taken longitudinally, instability and flux dominate.”, Dewey, “Toward a New Individualism”, ibidem: 42. It is then a psychological anchorage to a wild and unsocial form of individualism that produce these evils. Their overcoming, for Dewey, rests in promoting an economic system based on element of democratic socialism and new, social oriented, forms of individuality.

This perspective presents interesting synergies, among others, with the following research streams:

(I) original institutional economics, in particular with John R.Commons’s analysis of the transition from the “individual capitalism” of the industrial revolution to the “mixed economies” of our time. A central aspect of this perspective pertains to the analysis of the markets, which are conceived of not as exogenous and tendentially perfect mechanisms but as institutions created and maintained by an evolving set of norms, institutions and policies.

(II) In this respect, it is interesting to note that the notion of a “mixed economy” has interesting parallels with Rudolf Hilferding’s theory of “concerted capitalism” and with other heterodox economics’ contributions underscoring the importance of public action (and spending) for the development of the later stages of capitalism.

(III) Psychoanalytic contributions highlighting the neurotic reasons of the psychological dependency of many people on authoritarian leaders/ideas and the need of a new participatory society.

In conclusion, exploring the synergies between these and other related theories can help better understand the multifarious aspects of these phenomena. This is because such theories, however different in many respects, present notable complementarities, in the sense that the aspects more overlooked by some are more completely considered by the others.


Commons, J.R. (1934) Institutional Economics: Its Place in Political Economy, New Brunswick (New Jersey, U.S.A.), Transaction Publishers, originally published by the Macmillan in 1934.

Dewey, J. [1999 (1930)], Individualism, Old and New, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books.

Hilferding, R. (1910), Das Finanzkapital. Eine Studie über die jüngste Entwicklung des Kapitalismus, Vienna, Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1910 (Marx-Studien, vol. III).
Translated in English as Finance Capital. A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development, (edited by Tom Bottomore), London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981.

By Arturo Hermann