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Perspectives on the Relationship between the Individual and Society

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Liberal, Marxist, and nationalist perspectives are often described as contrary to one another in their beliefs of the relationship between the individual and society. In this essay, I will show that through these differences, though with slight underlying agreements, liberalism has been the most successful in predicting a relationship between the individual and society. I will first explore each of their basic, normative, understandings of human nature; then how society will, foundationally, organize in line with these basic understandings; and how these ideas from each perspective are contrarily seen to be organized in real life when looking at the empirical evidence to show where my preference in liberalism arises. Lastly, however, I will argue that my preference is limited, using arguments against these three perspectives, namely the racial undertones and discrimination, they all implicitly bring, making them, therefore, restrictive of who they include in their ideas of who constitutes as an individual that can belong in their society.

Firstly, exploring the ideas normatively, the three perspectives fundamentally disagree regarding the human nature of individuals, despite slight similarities. John Stuart Mill (1859) represents the liberal perspective: ‘On Liberty’ argues that human nature is fundamentally based on individual autonomy, where “people decide based on their personal preferences” (Mill, 1859, p.13). This is reiterated by John Locke (1689) in his ‘Second Treatise of Government’: individuals are only “subject to limits set by the law of nature” and “no-one has more power and authority than anyone else” (Locke 1689, p.3). This shows the sovereignty of the individual that is ever-present in the liberal perspective. The selfishness of human nature is also important here, as shown by Thomas Hobbes (1651), in his book ‘Leviathan’, where he describes that individuals “become enemies”, “where every man is enemy to every man” (Hobbes, 1651, p.76,78). Whilst differing from the Marxist perspective where people will want to live together in communes (Marx and Engels, 1848), it is like the nationalist perspective, in that it is argued that most of us prefer our own kind, as we will have the least conflict with them. However, a key difference between the nationalist and liberal perspectives is that the former is based on communitarianism, as argued by J.G. Herder, who stresses the human condition as cultural and social, as opposed to the individual seen in liberalism. In this sense, the nationalist and Marxist perspectives could be seen as similar, stressing the idea of belonging to a community. However, again a fundamental difference arises; as Herder argues, the cultural and social conditions of humans are based on geographical variance, so there is no universal condition. This differs from the Marxist perspective, where historical materialism defines human nature, as humans have a drive to spontaneously and creatively produce, in a mutually gratifying way, that is universal. It also differs in this sense from liberalism, where autonomy is also a universal condition. Therefore, this shows that whilst there are minute similarities in ideas of the human condition between the perspectives, significant differences prevail.

These differences in ideas of human nature contribute to the foundational differences in how these perspectives believe society will be organized. Liberal ideas of society are based around a limited government where individual autonomy still prevails, but is given up slightly to allow for progress, which otherwise would not be possible. As both Hobbes (1651) and Rawls (1971) argue, a form of the social contract will be created between individuals to allow for a civilized society, where individuals rights are protected, so individuals can live together peacefully. This is inherently different from the Marxist perspective of how society will organize, due to the differences in the belief of human nature. Liberals stress the need to control selfish desires; Marxists stress that proletariats will recognize the capitalist system as exploitative, and will organize a revolution, which in the long run will lead to communes, where mutual advancement and cooperation will come naturally outside a capitalist system (Marx and Engels, 1848). This is a stark contrast to the liberal perspective where the only reason to enter a community would be for self-preservation, to deter others from crime, and to secure men (Locke, 1689, p.5).

The nation-state stressed by nationalists can be argued to exist within the liberal system, but the ideas behind why it exists in such a way are contrasting. The idea that the nation-state is linked to the normative idea of sovereignty by identifying people who were entitled to the land by nationalists can be reiterated with private ownership views, as held by Locke and Grotius in liberalism. However, they are also contrasted where some argue that “the world, while owned by nobody, is open for use by everyone” (Arneil, 1992, p.597; from Pufendor, 1672). Overall, however, fundamental differences lie in the ideas behind this; it is not about individual sovereignty as liberals would argue, but rather it is the ties of a sense of belonging that makes popular culture important, as it allows the organization of people into a society (Miller, 1993). Therefore, this shows fundamental differences between the three perspectives in how society should be organized, in line with their differences in views of the human condition.

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Empirically, liberal ideas are most prominent and accepted, and nationalist sentiments are rising, with Marxism the least prominent or accepted. Liberal ideas can be seen for example with representative governments in both the United States, and that call for limited intervention, and accountability, upholding the rights of the people; this is seen with Covid mandates that have sparked many protests among the people across western liberal countries. This aligns with Mill’s as well as Locke’s ideas as presented by B. Arneil (1992). They are also seen on a world scale as the most accepted because they are pushed by the West, in opposition to Marxist ideas which are represented by the East, namely in China, as the Marxists movements in Europe dissolved after the Soviet Union collapsed. Yet, these Marxist movements differ vastly, not only to each other but also to the original ideas presented as shown by Chambre and McLellan (2011), which entails why Marxism itself has not been as successful, as it may hold an overly optimistic view of individual nature. Empirically speaking, Liberalism is more coherent in explaining why individuals choose to live in societies, based on contracts that allow stability, holding our individually oriented nature at its core. Nationalism is on the rise in the modern-day, with more threats being perceived, such as the incident of 9/11, Brexit and calls for another referendum for Scottish independence, which can be seen as ‘radical nationalism’ in response to potential foes. However, this may not be due to the need to live in a community, as nationalism would argue, but rather securitizing individual interests through selfish desires, as seen in liberalism. Therefore, it can be argued that Marxist ideas are the most incoherent when looking at the empirical evidence, whereas liberal and nationalist ideas are more successful. However, due to the nationalist and Marxism perspective of human nature organizing society being less coherent empirically and the threat of nationalism in the world today, as described below, my preference for liberalism arises.

The threat of nationalist sentiments can be shown through its rise being unsurprisingly adjacent with rising anti-immigration views, with a migrant crisis being prominent – the United Nations reports that since 2014 166 people have been recorded dead or missing in the English Channel (UN, 2021). This is also represented with the nationalist perspective in Brexit, which showed anti-immigration a prominent factor in the Conservative Party’s pledge in dropping migration figures to the tens of thousands (Ali, 2020). Not only is this dangerous in how we treat migrants, and their human rights, but it can also be described as ‘kicking away the ladder’ (Chang 2021), after benefiting from underdeveloped countries, and then leaving their citizens with no better way of life, with nationalist sentiments dangerously encouraging only the advancement of their own country. Marxism also contends with arguments of racial discrimination, in the chapter ‘Marxism and the N-Problem’ (Zukerman, 2004), where it is seen to be exploitative ideology, benefiting one race over another.

Despite this, my preference for liberalism only goes so far, it still presents many problems to the world, rather than solutions, as with the Marxist and nationalist perspectives. Bounded liberal traditions encourage a sense of ‘liberal interventionism’, which can be seen within Western countries, namely the US, and invading many Middle Eastern countries, in the name of liberal ideas; the case of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. It can even be seen in the failure of communism in the West, as this did not align with the liberal view. This shows an imperial-like agenda being pushed by Western states, in the name of liberalism and democracy, aligning also with arguments of racial discrimination, as described by Charles Mills (2017). Therefore, my preference for any of these perspectives is limited as they are all fundamentally restrictive and exploitative in the organization of their societies, despite the benefits of cohesion or stability they may bring to some.

Overall, it is clear to see that any small similarities between the three perspectives are overridden by the fundamental differences in their ideas of the individual human condition, which in turn represent how society would be organized differently between the perspectives. Empirical evidence shows liberalism is most successful in the acceptance of its ideas, whilst Marxism is the least, and that nationalist sentiment is on the rise. However, all three are based on discriminatory biases, that restrict how their societies are organized, based on the individuals they accept, which is why my preference for liberalism is also restricted.

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Perspectives on the Relationship between the Individual and Society. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved November 29, 2023, from
“Perspectives on the Relationship between the Individual and Society.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023,
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