If we are free to think and argue what we like, in Of Individuality, As One of the Elements of Well-Being John Stuart Mill asks if we have the same freedom to act upon them. And the answer is yes - provided there is no intent to harm or cause mischief to others. And yet for Mill this is a principle under constant threat.
If it were felt that the free development of individuality is one of the leading essentials of well-being; that it is not only a coordinate element with all that is designated by the terms civilisation, instruction, education, culture, but is itself a necessary part and condition of all those things; there would be no danger that liberty should be undervalued, and the adjustment of the boundaries between it and social control would present no extraordinary difficulty (1929, p.,68-9).Individuality is under threat because it is caught between conservatism on the one hand, and radicalism on the other. The spontaneity that becomes possible where individualism is allowed to flourish is greeted with suspicion by conservatism because it challenges the sanctity of that which already exists. And for the proponents of radical reform, because they already know what's best the messy chaos of individualism presents an obstacle that could frustrate their plans. However, this isn't to say either school of thought or custom in general threaten to snuff out individual liberty altogether - it is rather a question of degree. Very few would think copying one another's conduct is a good idea. There is an expectation one's life is stamped by one's individual character. Similarly it is generally accepted one has the freedom to interpret the history of human experience in our own way. The problem for Mill is the extent to which custom encroaches upon liberty is starting to have deleterious effects on the development of the species.
Society may allow us our own understanding, but it frowns upon those elements of our character founded on desire and impulse. For Mill it is one of society's ironies that it should be fearful of the very thing that made it possible. Here, society is the history of struggle between excess individuality and spontaneity - the existence of strong passions and desires was eventually tempered by the development of strong wills. From the contradiction between them flowed the laws and disciplines that lay claim to the entire individual being. But the checks society has placed on desire has eroded its strength. As Mill puts it "from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship" (On Liberty 1929, p.74).
To illustrate the point further, individual decisions are more likely to be governed by a herd mentality than from what is suitable and appropriate to one's own position.
This has led to a situation where a "Calvinist" social mentality has become more assertive - a mode of mind that celebrates authority and decries individuality. This is a reversion of the condition bestowed on humanity by nature - a well developed and cultured humanity presupposes a fulfillment of the conditions where individuality can flourish. For example, according to Mill it is persons of genius who are the essential precondition for social and technological advances, and they can only reach their potential in free conditions. But modern society with its herd mentality militates against it. The extension of the franchise and the growing social power of the masses has rendered government the organ of their interests - the state and its politics are forced to pander to the lowest common denominator, which is always average. When change does occur it's because exceptional individuals have managed to break through this crust and use the available organs to assume authoritative positions. But the continued repression of the passions and slavish following of custom conspires to make the emergence of inspired political leadership of this stripe more difficult.
Mill however is not for the complete disposal of custom. It is quite correct for society to enforce the natural limits of liberty - just being of a "superior" cast is no license for trampling on the liberties of others.
Nevertheless the very imbalance in the liberty/custom dialectic in the latter's favour is starting to produce a mediocrity of passion. This has become such that a pervasive automatic suspicion exists towards anyone who dares to be different. In Mill's day this found its expression in the heavy emphasis on public morality and the elite's concern that the recipients of their philanthropic activities were worthy enough to receive it. These strictures repress strong desire and permit only weak energies and weak feeling, which is to society's detriment.
For Mill there was a contemporary warning against the absolute victory of custom - the societies of the East. Oriental despotism has completely destroyed liberty. This secured the power of the emperor and his court but at the price of no originality or improvement. As a result they have or were on the road of coming under the hegemony of the more "vigorous" empires of the West. Europe itself managed to avoid this fate not because it was intrinsically superior to China but because of its division into a patchwork of competing nations. But recent developments threaten this naturally fertile ground for liberty by eroding the differences between them. In effect, Mill's anxiety reverses the Marxist dictum that advanced nations show backward ones a glimpse of their future.
Mill describes the processes at work:
The circumstances which surround different classes and individuals, and shape their characters, are daily becoming more assimilated. Formerly, different ranks, different neighbourhoods, different trades and professions, lived in what might be called different worlds; at present, to a great degree, in the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed at the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them. Great as are the differences in position which remain, they are nothing to those which have ceased (p.89)Unfortunately, though for Mill the erosion of liberty and the cultural levelling of the social body is a result of policy and is theoretically reversible, the herd-like hold public opinion has over the state makes it unlikely their representatives will reverse this state of affairs.
This chapter of On Liberty is probably Mill at his most questionable. Leaving aside the long-discredited 'great man' assumptions underpinning his philosophy, what's on offer here is an understanding of liberty rooted in the actions of the elite - a celebration that found an echo a few decades later in Nietzsche's work. Mill's anticipation of the standardisation of culture was an accurate forecast but at the same time it grossly underestimates the capacity of mass culture to renew, innovate and change - which is unsurprising considering his failure to grasp the basic dynamism of capitalist societies.
There is one point that needs tackling, and that's his rather sniffy attitude toward "mediocrity". His cultural pessimism blinded him to the changing and growing capacity of the average person. In Britain today the average individual is more healthy, skilled, has more free time, and is better educated than the Victorian middle and 'respectable' working class of Mill's day. The social mean is head and shoulders above that that haunted Mill's darkest moments. But what places fetters on this are capital's insatiable appetite for labour - greater free time for the overwhelming majority of working class people is purchased at the price of unemployment or wage cuts. Only a complete reorganisation of society and the jettisoning of class will allow the dream of liberty for the many to become a reality.
Edit: A complete list of posts on On Liberty can be found here.