The modern, uniquely Western outlook on man’s relationship to others as well as the environment around them can be summarized as an individualist one. In recent years, I have come to the realization that individualism should not be the be-all end-all for the self-actualized person. This statement might run in contrast with statements I have made in the past which, although not entirely missing the mark, take an extremely simplistic view on the way in which one ought to interact with society. That being said, I will still leave those opinions written some years ago unedited, as it seems counterproductive to retroactively change the thoughts of my former self, as we are not entirely the same person. I will therefore not be changing articles I have written in the past at any point in the future unless they contain inaccurate statistics. Lastly I would also add that the term collectivist as used in this article is not entirely in adherence to the “official definition” of the term. If we search “collectivism” on a dictionary website, it returns:
“The political principle of centralized social and economic control, especially of all means of production.”
However, I would like to make things simpler and define collectivism as something like:
“The principle by which any defined group of peoples may interact with one another for the purpose of advancing their own interests.”
I guess one could try and break this down ad infinitum and say “there’s no such thing as defined groups of people,” and that “definitions of groups are made arbitrarily.” These statements often go hand-in-hand, and we can call them out for what they are – fallacies – the continuum fallacy to be more precise. There might be jagged edges around categories, but that does not cease the categories themselves from existing. I know everyone cites this as an example, but it’s the best, so I’ll use it anyways; look at the color spectrum.
Maybe we don’t know precisely the point at which blue becomes green or yellow becomes red, but that doesn’t necessitate that there is no blue, green, yellow, or red.
You don’t have to “deconstruct” everything.
There is one notion that I’d like to address as a precursor to a critique of individualism. This is the notion that group cohesion (i.e. collectivism) and individualism are mutually exclusive. We have reached a point in history 28 years removed from the existence of the U.S.S.R. – what is often seen as the inevitable outcome of an embrace of collectivism in any of its forms. No, this is not an assertion that “real collectivism hasn’t been tried yet,” or even that “collectivism is good.” It is only an assertion that collectivism ≠ communism. More among older generations, but present still in many younger generations is the mutually exclusive dichotomy between capitalism and communism; individualism and collectivism; the Western way or the Eastern way. I dispute the merit of this dichotomy, not to be a subversive, not to make others follow a doctrine of exclusive collectivism, but rather to express that this dichotomy is outdated.
For better or worse, many Western capitalist countries are protectionist, nationalist, or prioritize the growth and happiness of their own peoples before the GDP or currency value. Does this make them wholly collectivist? Of course not. Yet the former examples (protectionism, nationalism, populism) are a sort of strain of collectivism.
The natural inclination of many is to assume that if one maintains a stake in group interests – particularly political group interests – one is a radical. This inclination is one of many which bring out some inherent issues with this sort of hyper-individualism.
I don’t believe that there is a soul on earth that thinks that all individualism is bad, so for the sake of what I’ve written, it might be easier to call this phenomenon “hyper-individualism.” Obviously individualism is a critical part of being. Man cannot be truly self-actualized if his degree of actualization is determined by the group. Put more simply, no human being is equal (naturally speaking) to another. All humans are equal before God. All citizens of a country (should) be equal before the law. Equality, however, is a false god. People are not “naturally” equal, and they never will be. The more one tries to forcefully equalize, the more harm one does. It is for this precise reason that communism or “true socialism” will never be attained. Human beings are not equal, and trying to make them equal will not turn out well.
Either way, it seems that one needs to be an individual, yes, but to coerce one away from his group is a mistake. Let’s take an example that we can see in America. I won’t be specific about it, so I hope it’ll be obvious. There are several groups, but for the purpose of this example, let’s say that Group X and Group Y are categories which easily fit over portions of the American population. Group X believes in hyper-individualism while Group Y decides that group cohesion will get them what they want. Whereas Group X may (within the group) vote for different candidates, consume different product, speak different languages, or live in geographically distant areas, Group Y does the opposite. Group Y clusters in geographical areas, they speak the same language, consume the same product, and vote for the same candidate. Group Y, as a constituency, has far more leverage over politicians, zoning, corporations, etc. precisely because they can function as a unit.
I do understand the appeal to individualism. Stop grouping together. The less you group together, the more efficiently this thing will run. If you consider yourself only a group member, you’re only an automaton. Choose your own ideas, don’t follow the herd. Generally speaking, I agree with this idea in theory. However anyone with a brain can see that this appeal simply does not work. There will always be people who will conform to a group, and that group will use their unity (or perceived unity) as leverage against you. It is useless to continue to try and convince everyone to just be an individual for one reason – nature. Human beings are tribal animals. It is in our DNA. Everything we do reflects an interest in one group over another. This cannot simply be reasoned out of people, and any attempt to will fail just as much as forced Soviet equality did.
Not to mention, what we’re beginning to see with the hyper-individualism promoted in the West is a total breakdown of community. Even the most ardent of individualists would agree that the family is the very cornerstone of a nation. Yet what has become of the family? Absent fathers, neurotic single mothers, hedonistic and self destructive daughters, and drug-abusing sons consumed by video games? How is this family supposed to work? We can take this concept to the ‘macro’ scale and see that no community exists anymore. Who even knows their neighbors now? Who’s still in a bowling league, a sewing club, or a football team? All of these things are broken, and I would wager that a lot of it has to do with an atomized populous, addicted to drugs and Netflix because no one else wants to go outside. It is not the recipe for a stable society.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other causes of unhappiness and alienation in society. For many an explanation, I would highly recommend Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam as it utilizes statistical information and comes to reasonable, demonstrable conclusions.