I have started to look at Mill's arguments in On Liberty with my philosophy students, and to set some context we looked at three views on the relationship between individuals and society: Individualism, Collectivism and Pluralism. Here's how I outlined each view:
Individualism makes the individual the basic unit of society. This is based on a view of the individual as essentially independent and self-sufficient and so takes the social dimension of being human as secondary. Individualists argue that society could not exist without individuals and so individuals are more basic than society. Individualism has contributed greatly to a sense of the importance and uniqueness of each person, yet each person is not fundamentally alone but is rather always involved in a web of social relationships. Individuals are always parents/children, students/teachers, sellers/buyers, employers/employees etc.
Collectivism in contrast emphasises the organic wholeness of society, and tends to see one institution (usually the state) as the most essential expression of the unity of the whole. Collectivists argue that individuals could not survive without society. Individuals are merely parts of the whole, and the "lesser" institutions are subgroups that only have a purpose in the way they support the primary unifying institution. Collectivism emphasises the need for belonging, and for working together for the benefit of everyone, however it is also prone to disregard the views of dissident individuals, and tends to obscure the identity and integrity of the many different social structures that coexist with the state.
Pluralism is no mere compromise between these two views for it adds an important reality, that of a plurality of associations and institutions. Pluralism holds that neither the individual nor society can exist without the other, both exist in co-dependence. This view against individualism denies that there are pure isolated individuals because each person always stands in a variety of social relations. Against collectivism it denies that there is an all embracing social structure. Instead it recognizes that there are different institutions with their own distinct identity and sphere of influence, authority and responsibility. With individualism it accepts that these institutions are made up of individuals and with collectivism it agrees that the state plays an important role in balancing the interests of the various institutions. In pluralism there are no individuals totally outside of such structures however marginalized, nor does the state have either the authority or responsibility to fulfil the functions unique to each institution.