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Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton’s (1996) revised edition of Habits of the Heart first published in 1985 at the height of Reaganomics and Ronald Reagan’s fascination with the “magic of the global marketplace,” is a relevant and cogent analysis of individualism in American life. The authors’ socio-philosophical perspective on the meaning of work and play, life and living, and the ethical foundation of the private and public good, drawn from their interviews with representatives of middle-class Americans, discerned what individualism connotes from the historical-materialistic and metaphysical calculative contexts and subsumed under the notions “utilitarian” and “expressive” individualism. This brief essay will first analyze Bellah et al.’s (1996) main thesis and next look at how the authors find “individualism” problematic and will conclude with a critical analysis of the authors’ work drawing from its “missing links” as it relates to the political-economic context of the transfer of individualism as a discourse within the context of American imperialism. 


The underlying theme in Bellah et al.’s (1996) work is that historical junctures and historical materialism which have given the American project its distinct character in terms of the ethos of the individual vis-à-vis society, have defined, ruptured, and redefined the meaning of American individualism. The authors put forth the argument that American individualism has its roots in the biblical tradition of John Winthrop, in the civic tradition of Thomas Jefferson, in the utilitarian tradition of Benjamin Franklin, and in the expression tradition of transcendentalists such as Walt Whitman. These roots in turn shape the character of the biblical and republican foundation of individualism. They set the stage for the development of utilitarian and expressive forms of individualism through the encapsulation of these ideals with the historical materialistic advancements brought about by the cult of scientific rationality and economic efficiency as the nation is progressed by the Industrial Revolution.

The progressive dimension of social consciousness inherent in the biblical and republican roots was subdued as the nation moves from one stage of growth to another; growth determined by the discourse of primacy of capitalism over social reconstructionism extracting the heroism in the individual over altruism in the social. Bellah et al. (1996) concluded that rather than becoming a nation that could have capitalized on the social efficiency of its plurality, America has become a nation fragmented by its variegated interpretation of individualism which has ironically rendered itself as a monocultural nation one-dimensionalized of its middle class by the political-economic nature of capitalism. In the domain wherein utilitarianism reigns, work becomes an avenue for the pursuit of success through the individual’s commitment to the pursuit of the good life and in the domain of expressiveness, therapy and play becomes one utilized as a tool to manage emotions which could promise trauma out of the subliminal and invisible effect of the utilitarianism of public life. The rupture brought about by progress as such runs deep into the American psyche and in the shaping of the private and public American character.

In short, Bellah et al.’s (1996) concluded that the epitome of the American psyche is in the “manager-therapy” ethos inherent in the middle-class sphere and anathema to the much-needed dialogue on social conscientization which can bring the nation back to realizing the ideals of its founding fathers. It is this ethos and the dominant middle class’s conception of the private and public good, subsumed within the vacillating notion of utilitarian and expressive individualism, which Bellah et al. (1996) found problematic. 


The authors analyzed the ideological formation of the middle class within the problematic context, which was contributed by the advancement of economic affluence and technological efficacy. Bellah et.al. (1996), in describing the manager-therapist ethos, note that: [T]his is a society in which the individual can only rarely and with difficulty understand himself and his activities as interrelated in morally meaningful ways with those of other, different Americans. Instead of directing cultural and individual energies towards relating the self to its larger context, the culture of manager and therapist urges a strenuous effort to make our particular segment of life a small world of its own. …the cultural hegemony of the managerial ethos is far from complete. It is rooted in the technological affluence of postwar society, prosperity that has been neither equitably shared nor universally accepted. (p. 50) Taking the above quote as a point of analytical departure in discussing Bellah et.al.’s (1996) diagnosis of the problem of American individualism, it can be said that the individual in the American capitalist system has evolved into one who primarily is involved in his/her survival within a system of economic production and reproduction living and breathing on the cult of efficiency, rationality, and productivity.

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Within the world of invisible complexity and ambivalence towards perceiving the more desirable cosmopolitanism thinking towards matters of social and economic justice, the individualist is caught within the demands of the capitalist ethos and the hopes of the socialist ideal. There is a loss of the sense of the communal and the gain in the euphoria of succeeding as an individual baited by the promises of the material and psychological reward of the economic system. It is a phenomenon that can perhaps be attributed to the ideology of early, middle and consequently late-capitalist formation which has created a middle class which not only has created, as Marcuse (1964) might term as the “one-dimension-man” but also as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would call an instrumental class which is stripped off of its ability to perceive the inner contradiction is it plunged into. It is a condition Bellah et al (1996) would suggest as one in which the individual has been relegated in his/her evolution into an inward and distorted form of communitarianism and cosmopolitanism in one; one in which a monoculture of wants and needs exist within a polyculture of hopes and desires.

The individual is expressive insofar as he/she can articulate the plight of his/her utilitarianism in which the invisible complexity of his predicament lies in his/her inability to discern, dissect, and deconstruct the ideology which the sense of tragedy in which the individual wrought by the machinery of corporatism may perhaps only be soothed by the Utilitarian practice of modern therapy either professionally employed or pervasively present in a variety of forms in the public sphere. Bellah et al (1996) sums up the dimension of this tragedy as it pertains to the private and private life of the individual. The impersonal forces of the economic and political worlds are what the individual needs protection against. In this perspective, even occupation, which has been so central to the identity of Americans in the past, becomes instrumental – not a good in itself, but only a means to the attainment of a rich and satisfying private life. But based on what we have in our observation of middle-class American life, it would seem that this quest for purely private fulfillment is illusionary: it often ends in emptiness instead. (p. 163)

What is even more problematic, as will be argued in the proceeding paragraphs is the fact that the illusion and emptiness of individualism as an ethos focused and formulated within the superstructure of capitalism is also transferred to American colonies abroad through imperialism as inevitable progress of the march of capitalism. The utilitarianism of Reaganomics-like multinational corporations forms the mission of American capitalism abroad employed hand-in-hand with the expressiveness of contra-Tocqueville notion of democracy and human rights – these two forces of “civilizing mission” undergird American gunboat diplomacy lending wisdom and wealth to the American military-industrial complex. I assert that the transfer of “individualism” as ideology and political-economic discourse historical materialistically is one in which Bellah et al.’s (1996) work falls short of treating. The following section analyzes this point of discontent towards Bellah et al.’s analysis. 


Bellah et al’s (1996) undeniably employed a mild critique of the ideology of the American middle class as it pertains to the rupture in the conception of the private and the public good. It is a cogent micro-level analysis taking the middle class as a unit of analysis with occasional reference to the ideological basis of the discontents of individualism. It is an argument hovering within the Essentialist tradition of social analysis in which the hope is to initiate the dialogue so that it moves towards genuine biblical and republican conclusion; so that there will be a return to “communities of memory” pastoral in theme and participatory in the ideal. The usefulness in Bellah et.al.’s critique has in its critique of ideology within the semantic logic of the weltanschauung of the middle class and in its invitations to perceive how consent is manufactured, reality invented and myth prevailed in the complex inner-workings of the corporate-capitalist production system. What is lacking then in this seemingly shrewd mirroring of the problem of American individualism?

It is precisely the mildness of such critique of ideology that Habits of the Heart has contributed to the lack of forcefulness in relating the role of the military-industrial complex in disseminating via gunboat diplomacy the American brand of “manager-therapeutic” capitalist democracy abroad as analyzed perceptively by American critical theorists such as Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman and Michael Parenti in the 1980s. The transfer of individualistic habits to Third World countries through a historical process of covert and overt intervention to nation-states such as Iran during the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi, Chile during General Pinochet, Indonesia during Suharto, and the Philippines during Marcos is not without the backing of multinational corporations interested in maintaining their global dominance through global reach. Barnett and Muller (1975) for example analyzed this transfer of political-economic discourse which has formed the exacerbation of big business individualism over global social reconstructionism, made possible through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the ideology of free enterprise which inherently contain the belief that the world should be made peaceful for (corporate American brand of) democracy. Bellah et.al. (1996) failed to name names in their analysis of the actors behind the one-dimensionalization of the American psyche.

A subtle mentioning of the global implication of the quagmire individualism can and have lead to is made though, illustrated in the concluding passage below: 

We have imagined ourselves a special creation, set apart from other humans. In the late twentieth century, we see that our poverty is absolute as that of the poorest nations. We have attempted to deny the human condition in our quest for power after power. It would well be for us to rejoin the human race, to accept our essential poverty as a gift, and to share the material wealth with those in need. (P. 296)

The above is certainly a heartwarming statement of hope for one to begin looking at the structural formation of corporate capitalism. However, lacking in them is the issue of praxis, i.e. moving from theory to practice not only in framing how culture has shaped the American individual but how the socialization process should be reconceptualized so that schooling, media, transcendental philosophy, and social movements can be engineered so that the excess of individualism can be destroyed and truly democratic political-economic rearrangements can be made. Is the American political consciousness merely a therapeutically managed continuum controlled by either Republicans or Democrats?

How should schooling be famed as an issue of ideological formation to aid the social reproduction process to help the child subjectivize the objective, prioritize needs instead of wants, bring moral strand in Grand Narratives, and most importantly to help one recognize propaganda in its most subtle form created and produced by state-legitimated “culture industry” through those possessing the means of ideological production? The Progressivism of John Dewey as an epitome of the administrative nature of professional, individualizing and moral relativizing agenda of the New Deal has been successfully transported as a discourse to Third World nation-states in the form of educational transfer and borrowing (Steiner-Khamsi, 1997) which then has, for decades help the colonized to designed their political system and culture as capitalist logic conducive to the profiteering agenda of Corporate America – all in the name of democracy.

This version of “protectionist” democracy disguised in the name of mass education and democratization of learning can be analyzed as an ingenious attempt to integrate post-world War II nations into the global production system (McMichael, 1996 ). The Tuskegee Institute in Liberia, the Deweyian experiment in China (Su, 1996) the Philippine education system (Foley, 1984 ) are among those which illustrate the educational dimension of the complexity of the cultural logic of early, middle, and late capitalism. The scope of this essay may limit the discussion on Bellah et.al’s (1996) inattention to the details of the inner workings of the military-industrial complex as it relates to the issue of arms proliferation within the context of the continued expansion of global capitalism but suffice it is to say that “Irangate” the “Contra Affair,” “Star Wars,” “Desert Storm,” and other well media-hyped characterization of the business of the Pentagon vis-à-vis modern-day American imperialism are but a few illustrations of nature the discourse of “making peace by preparing for and going to war”.

The nature of this interpretation of international relations philosophy, Machiavellian and Social Darwinist in ideological orientation has largely been closed to the consciousness of the average American individual on the street. The creation of market demand for sophisticated engines of planetary destruction can logically be seen as a necessity for the basic needs of the mature American arms manufacturer. “National Security” becomes a catchword legitimizing the state department’s involvement in capitalizing on the conflicts in Third World nations, which are perpetually grappling with the meaning of modernization. How corporations such as Boeing, McDonald-Douglass, ICI, Dow Chemicals, and DuPont are involved in the production of weapons from biological to nuclear, to the tune of 5.8 Trillion dollars thus far in 1998 (Pincus, 1998) is largely absent from Bellah et.al.’s (1996) analysis of individualism and the need for the nation to retreat to communitarian ideals.

How the modern American presidency as a symbol of puppetry of the military-industrial complex is perhaps unpalatable to be analyzed in higher education let alone at levels wherein the mind of the young and curious can be shaped to look at such structural violence and oppression. How citizen mobilization can be engineered for them in that economic, social, and metaphysical democracy closer to the heart and become habits is absent in Bellah et.al.’s (1996) analysis, albeit lucid and riveting in its dissecting of the mind of the American individual. As it pertains to this essay, how corporations can be made to “stay at home,” “examine its largely unexamined life,” so that they “would be worth living” is also absent in Habits of the Heart. And last but not least how socialism as advocated by Michael Harrington and put to agenda by Norman Thomas can be realized is scantily treated by Bellah et.al. (1996).

The advent of another great American Depression brought about by the Southeast Asia financial crisis as it is transferred from those nations to the financial citadels of Wall Street may perhaps promise a renaissance in thinking about the transnational reach of the power of the military-industrial complex. Old habits are difficult to break, particularly when they have become habits of the heart. Perhaps it is when and if such a depression happens, America may reflect upon itself not merely a nation of individuals – of race, gender, class – but as an international class of citizens co-habitating on shifting grounds. It is then the metaphysical nature of individualism and commitment must be realized.


Barnett, R. J. and Muller, R. M. (1975). Global reach: The power of the multinational corporations. New York: Touchstone Press.

Bellah, R. N. et al. (1996) Habits of the heart. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foley, D. (1984). Colonialism and schooling in the Philippines, 1898-1970. In Philip G. Altbach & Gail P. Kelley. (eds.) Education and the Colonial Experience (pp.33-53). New Brunswick: Transaction.

McMichael, P. (1996). Development and social change: A global perspective. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press.

Parenti, M. (1993). Inventing reality: The politics of the mass media. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Pincus, W. (1998) U.S. Has Spent $5.8 Trillion on Nuclear Arms Since 1940, Study Says. In http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/Wplate/1998-07/01/0981-070198-idx.html. available.

Steiner-Khamsi, G. (1997) Transferring Education, Displacing Reforms. Comparative Education Review.

Zhixin Su. (1996). Teaching, Learning, and Reflective Acting: A Dewey Experiment in Chinese Teacher Education. Teachers College Record. 98/1, 126-151.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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