Shirley Galloway
Original publication:

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty: Only for the Exceptional Few (1993)

Shirley Galloway taught English literature and composition at the College of San Mateo in California.

Karl Marx writes in The German Ideology: “The division of labor…manifests itself also in the ruling class…so that inside this class one part appears as the thinkers of the class…its active, conceptive ideologists, who make the formation of the illusions of the class…”. [1] John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) aptly fits this description as a “thinker” of his class. A brilliant economist, philosopher and writer, Mill nevertheless rarely questioned the basic premises on which 19th century English society rested (the subject of religion is the one notable exception). On the contrary, his Principles of Political Economy was both a practical and ideological handbook for rising industrial capitalists, (as a key stockholder of the East India Company, Mill was included in this number). Many of the capitalist concepts which Mill developed in this treatise also found their way into his social essays.

Such is the case with On Liberty. Widely held as a seminal text on the rights of the individual, upon closer examination On Liberty reveals itself to be a euphemistic re-stating of Mill’s economic ideas as applied within the social realm. In short, he advocates a cultural class system governed by an intellectual elite. “Individualism” is, it turns out, a concept that can only be utilized by a lucky, talented few. As Mill’s delineates in the essay, “individualism” as an ideal must be sacrificed to economic interests if the two conflict. Furthermore, individual expression is deemed more important for “the exceptional” rather than the “commonplace” lower classes or colonial populations. Therefore individual liberty, as Mill’s defines it, can only be enjoyed by those fovored by material status. Thus the individualist concept, so deeply intertwined with the capitalist system, cannot, and indeed is not meant to, be universally enjoyed; instead it is enjoyed mostly by the sector of the society it benefits the most, the owner/bourgeois class.

My brief analysis will deal specifically with Chapter 3. Here, Mill’s “individual liberties” include those of conscience, thought, opinion, and pursuits. Yet he qualifies: “The liberty of the individual must thus far be limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people”. [2] Mill continues, “An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard”. [3] From Mill’s perspective, a more recent analogy to the scenario he outlines might be the limits on free speech the U.S. Supreme Court has outlined in which it is unlawful for someone to cry “Fire” in a crowded theatre — unless there is indeed a fire! In other words, such speech is not protected for its own sake since it puts people needlessly in harm’s way. But Mill is not suggesting free speech should be limited in only those cases when such speech can bring physical harm to others. Rather, he also speaks of protecting property. Such limits on liberty designed to protect private property are consistent within a capitalist society where the legal system privileges private ownership. In Mill’s scenario, the rights of the corn dealer to do business trumps the free speech rights of the “mob,” (a word choice for protesters that in itself reveals Mill’s sympathies). Thus an individual’s liberty is limited if the freedoms which it entails pose a threat to the prevailing capitalist system.

Mill goes on to quote German philologist, Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt, that “the end of man … is the development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole,” and that the two requisites “…are freedom and a variety of situations”. [4] Mill elaborates and considers how von Humboldt’s ideas might be put into practice, but nowhere does he address how each individual could gain access to a variety of situations. Neither does he describe any institutional or societal changes that could make favorable conditions widely available — especially to the poor or those deprived of leisure or education. Therefore, it seems logical to infer that Mill intended his philosophy for those who already had access to freedom and a variety of situations, i.e. those in the more privileged classes. Here again, in Mill’s conception, individualism is not an over-arching, let alone universal, cultural value, but is at most an adjunct value. The concept of individualism is meant to reinforce the economic and social relations within capitalist societies, not to widen or subvert them.

Just as the economic relations of capitalism can, at its simplest, be said to consist of “owners” and “workers” — in which the owners usually hold most of the power — Mill takes a similar approach to social relations. Mill is very clear in setting up an antagonistic relationship between “exceptional” individuals who should be allowed to develop fully and those who, in his opinion, don’t have the capacity or other special qualities to enjoy these freedoms. Firstly, Mill addresses himself to other nations. He speaks of China: “…a nation of talent and, in some respects, even wisdom…” yet, its progress has become stationary by making its people all alike and “…if they are ever to be further improved, it must be by foreigners”. [5] Indeed, Britain is doing the populations of non-European nations a favor (he mentions India) by maintaining them as colonies because Britain “…of all in existence, best understands liberty,”. [6] This is a clear articulation of the ideological justification for 19th century English imperialism. Not only does Mill’s individualist ideal of development not apply to colonized peoples, but bringing “freedom” to these societies is the duty of Britain. But I argue that such “improvement” of colonized populations isn’t the main point of foreign intervention but is rather a euphemism for incorporating these non-Western societies into Britain’s capitalist mode of production. “Bringing freedom” to these populations simply gives a moral veneer to what is essentially an economic mission. Marx: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere”. [7] Here is a clear example of how Mill’s economic ideas are applied to his social theories with very little change.

Mill continues his discussion of a “class-based” individualism, turning his attention to the domestic population of Britain. Ironically, he spends some time lamenting the conformity and vulgar materialism that industrial capitalism has wrought in England, claming it is death to individual expression. Yet he goes on to argue that a society must continue to encourage liberty so that people of exceptional character may develop. “People of genius … are always likely to be a small minority … and are more individual than any other people”. [8] He maintains that when these people are allowed to develop, the whole society benefits because they can lead and instruct the masses. “The general average of mankind are … moderate in intellect” [9], so “the initiation of all wise or noble things comes and must come from individuals”. [10] Mill is clearly arguing for a social elitism in which liberty should only be extended insofar as it allows special individuals to emerge. Again, Mill argues liberty and individualism are not intended for all but only for these exceptional few.

Considering that at the time Mill was writing, the aristocracy still retained some power in English society as landowners, I contend Mill is protesting against what he sees as the dissolution of aristocratic values through that class’ slow absorption into the powerfully emergent bourgeoisie. (Of course, the working and peasant classes are discounted altogether in Mill’s discussion of individual liberties.) Marx argues the bourgeioisie must constantly battle with the other classes, “…first with the aristocracy; later on, with those portions of the bourgeoisie itself, whose interests have become antagonistic to the progress of industry”. [11] Though a bourgeois captialist in practice and theory, Mill still seems dismayed by the transition from a three-class to a two-class system. He wants to retain the notion of a cultural elite while maintaining support for a market economy and much of his discussion in On Liberty involves his intellectual search for ways to reconcile these two competing social ideals. The solution that emerges is practically a mirror image of the economic divisions of owners and workers. The individual ideal is clearly not meant for members of the working class. Rather, “The honor…of the average man is that he is capable of following [the] initiative…of a more highly gifted…one or few”. [12] Thus we have a cultural class system where the “masses” are lead by the “individuals.”

Mill’s ideas on individual liberty are not intended to be universal; foreign populations and the lower classes in his own society are excluded. Instead “individualism” is for the bourgeoisie with a nod toward the vanishing aristocracy. This is not surprising since “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e … The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations”. [13] So although the full enjoyment of “individual liberty” is not meant for most in the society, it has become an idealised value of capitalism. No matter what their function or class, every person in a capitalist society seems to feel he or she can aspire to be a fully-developed individual even if never enjoying that liberty in his or her day-to-day lives. Such has been the success of the concept of individualism as a prime propaganda tool. Though Mill clearly states individual liberty is for the exceptional few, since the ideals of these few become the dominant ideals of the entire society, the myth that everyone in a capitalist society can enjoy the fruits of individualism is sustained and reinforced. Just as millions of Americans vicariously feel connected to the wealthy when they view shows like “The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” these same Americans vicariously feel connected to bourgeois ideals of individual liberty when they cash their paychecks and eat at McDonald’s. [14] We may feel we are equal players in this one system but it is clear that many fewer individuals enjoy the prime fruits of that system more than the rest of us. But the promise of individualism is that we may one day become one of those few. As Mill says, liberty is needed so that the exceptional individuals can emerge. This is the enduring myth of individualism in the capitalist society, that one of us, or one of our children or grandchildren, will become one of the exceptional few. Of course, very few do and the game is rigged from the start.

In this age of global capitalism, individualism has been extended in a way that I’m sure Mill would have approved of. In 1980 in the Belotti ruling, the US Supreme Court granted free speech first-amendment rights to corporations, thus equating an economic entity with an individual. [15] Such enhancement of corporate power only further diminishes individual liberty, while highlighting clearly who the concept truly serves. As such the capitalist conception of individualism as articulated by Mill in On Liberty is part of the ideology of capitalism. Marx argues that one of ideology’s functions is to obscure reality. In On Liberty, Mill discusses the ideal of “individual liberty” and offers reasons why society should encourage it, but he defines it in such a way that it can only be enjoyed by the ruling class, i.e. the owner class. Contrary to popular conception, the essay is not so much a treatise on universal freedom as it is an ideological framework for maintaining class divisions and furthering capitalist development. As Noam Chomsky has observed, “The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance is a wondrous trait and a prerequisite to success in the ideological professions”. [16] [17] Mill, buoyed by cognitive dissonance, succeeds in obscuring the true, sorry state of individual liberty in a capitalist society by sanctioning the inevitable inequalities and exploitation as the price of “freedom” and “individual liberty” for those rich and exceptional few.


  • Chomsky, Noam. Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the post-Cold War Era. San Francisco: Pressure Drop Press, 1991.
  • Marx, Karl. A Reader. Ed. Jon Elster. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1986.
  • Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Politics and Society. Ed. J. M. Robson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.
  • Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1947.

  1. Marx, p. 303. 

  2. On Liberty, p. 55. 

  3. On Liberty, p. 55. 

  4. On Liberty, p. 57. 

  5. On Liberty, p. 72. 

  6. Essays, p. 565. 

  7. Marx, p. 227. 

  8. On Liberty, p. 64. 

  9. On Liberty, p. 69. 

  10. On Liberty, p. 66. 

  11. Marx, p. 233. 

  12. On Liberty, p. 66. 

  13. Marx, p. 302. 

  14. For an interesting critique of this approach to consumerism that nevertheless dovetails with the general thesis of this essay, see Ishay Landa’s “The Negation of Abnegation: Marx on Consumption” (2018). [web] — R. D. 

  15. Schiller, p. 54. 

  16. Chomsky, p. 46. 

  17. I think Chomsky is a dubious figure to cite in this context. For a critique, see “On Chomsky” (2020). [web] — R. D.