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Study Notes

Atomism (Conservatism)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 19 Jun 2020

Atomism refers to the view that the main component of society is the individual (i.e. the ‘atom’), and that these individuals are self-interested, equal and rational.

The action of individuals combines into a cohesive whole. In this relationship between the individual and society, conservatives emphasise the need for a high level of cultural homogeneity, balanced by the idea that we must face our responsibilities towards others. Unlike liberals, conservatives are not overly concerned with the despotism of custom or the tyranny of the majority. The mindset of conservatism claims that the individual can only flourish when we are all part of a cohesive and orderly society.

Society is only held together by a shared consensus over how to lead one’s life, which is why conservatives seek to emphasise traditional values rather than those associated with subcultures based around religion and culture. This point of view leads towards the conservative argument that immigrant groups should assimilate into British society. On this basis, conservatives are critical of how liberals prize cultural diversity and aggressive individualism over the goal of social cohesion.

This clash of ideas between liberalism and conservatism is particularly pronounced within the United States in relation to the culture wars. According to cultural conservatives such as Irving Kristol, the most important issue facing society is the number of children born out of wedlock. His proposed solution (that the welfare and taxation system should encourage stable married families) is a very clear illustration of the conservative point of view. He also reminds us that “the idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with conservative political philosophy.”

According to conservatives, a society can only be truly successful when it meets the needs of its members. In order to achieve this level of stability, it is vital that we protect and defend those institutions that have proved their worth from one generation to the next. In the case of the nuclear family, conservatives are (by instinct and temperament) highly supportive because the nuclear family has shown itself to be the best way to socialise children into the norms and values of wider society. The Conservative Party has long sought to present itself as ‘the party of the family’ via the creation of the Child Support Agency under John Major to tax breaks for married couples from David Cameron.

Conservatives are also critical of those families that seek to abandon their childcare responsibilities to ‘society’ in the form of the welfare state. This is part of a broader critique of the welfare state by New Right theorists such as James Q. Wilson and Charles Murray. Margaret Thatcher encapsulated this viewpoint with her memorable quote that “there is no such thing as society, merely individuals and families.”

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