In terms of a future renewal, much of it will depend on a commitment to individualism, something that has been much maligned in recent years. We hear so much trendy, tedious talk today of how bad individualism is, and how we need to think in terms of “the group.” The problem is that the group usually offers conformity, not genuine community. The drift in the United States today is toward the submergence of the self into Mass Mind, a trend that is powerfully encouraged by corporate culture and the new technology. Along with this — as in the early Middle Ages — we see the dissolution of interiority, and the loss or denigration of individual judgment and achievement. All this is a major factor in the disintegration of American culture, which, popular opinion to the contrary, is a herd culture, not an individualistic one. Thus political scientist Kenneth Minogue writes that the fashionable attack on individualism amounts to “a project for closing down the innovative vitality of the modern world.” An important aspect of the new monastic option is thus a rejection of this project, of the group, and of attempts at institutionalization. Today’s “monk” is committed to a renewed sense of self, and to the avoidance of groupthink, including anticorporate or anti-consumer culture groupthink. The monastic option will not be served by the new monastic “class” being a class of any sort. As the quote* from E. M. Forster on page 9 shows, the power of this contribution lies precisely in its lack of institutionalization. Membership cards and badges (whether real or metaphorical), avant-garde language and appropriate party line, organization and even visibility — these are the exact opposite of what the monastic option is about. We don’t need to form our own little institutes or committees; that would be the kiss of death. In The Dark Side of the Left, Richard Ellis shows how avant-garde political movements, including environmentalism and feminism, become utopian, Manichaean, and finally tyrannical; but he admits that this is a right-wing tendency as well. The point is, it is a group tendency. The more individual the activity is, and the more out of the public eye, the more effective it is likely to be in the long run. Not that like-minded souls shouldn’t make connections, but the key is to keep these links informal. As Kenneth Minogue rightly notes, Western individualists have a capacity for joint action that exceeds that of communally organized civilizations.
–Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: Norton & Company, 2000), pp. 88-89
*The quote from E. M. Forster [What I Believe, 1939] on page 9 is as follows:
I believe in aristocracy,…Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos….On they go — an invincible army, yet not a victorious one. The aristocrats, the elect, the chosen, the Best People — all the words that describe them are false, and all attempts to organize them fail. Again and again Authority, seeing their value, has tried to net them and to utilize them as the Egyptian Priesthood or the Group Movement, or some other worthy stunt. But they sip through the net and are gone; when the door is shut, they are no longer in the room; their temple…is the Holiness of the Heart’s Imagination, and their kingdom, though they never possess it, is the wide-open world.