Atomized Individuals

by Zoe Pollock

Mark Lilla explores China's one-child policy and its psychological repercussions, through the story of a father distraught over his only son's breakup with a girl:

It worries him that the popular culture now promotes dating and youthful romantic love, something he feels Chinese young people aren’t psychologically prepared for, especially the breakups. The more he spoke, the more anguished he sounded about losing his son in other ways, too. Even as a youngster the boy would stay in his room glued to his computer avoiding human contact, rarely going out with his few friends. Other Chinese parents I spoke with said similar things about their children, complaining about their remoteness, their social isolation, and their obsession with technology. They seem an alien race of free-floating individuals.

For many Westerners, this is a familiar picture. We have not only accustomed ourselves to the atomizing forces of capitalism and modern culture, we idolize them. They only make us freer (we think), and anything that increases our freedom is good (we think), given that freedom is the highest good (our unquestioned questionable assumption). Q.E.D. But China isn’t there yet. People I spoke with my age or older still think in traditional ways about family and society, even as economic growth and the one-child policy promote individualism, selfishness, and narcissism. They are disturbed by the prospect of atomized individuals facing a powerful state and largely un-regulated market forces without mediating social institutions. Western nations have somewhat adapted to the cultural contradictions of capitalism because they are politically and socially democratic. China hasn’t, and isn’t.