Recent feedback on the blog has raised the interesting topic of collectivism versus individualism. The subject is particularly relevant in light of the grassroots Tea Party movement, which expresses as its basic premise a belief in the importance and responsibility of the individual over government, which they view as a collectivist establishment. Hence, a cry for smaller government, lower taxes and even the repeal of certain Constitutional Amendments, which are felt to infringe on personal freedoms are the Tea Party’s answer to what they feel is a government growing in authority and in conflict with individual freedom.
The internet abounds with interpretations of both ideologies slanted towards obvious political biases, but basically and without attempted prejudice, collectivism is an ideal which holds the welfare of society above individual self-interest, while individualism holds the values of personal liberty and self-determination above all else. In terms of gender archetypes, individualism is viewed as identified with the masculine Logos, and collectivism is associated with the feminine Eros.
It can be argued that the United States is a nation founded on the principles of both collectivism and individualism. The document which declares our independence from the perceived tyranny of King George III proclaims a common belief in the self-evident truths of the equality of individuals and inalienable Rights including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (all capitalized by the founding fathers). Our democracy was founded to protect individual freedoms by enacting the collective will of the majority through the voting process. This apparent idiosyncrasy has served us well for over 200 years.
Contrary to American History class doctrine, the United States is not the first democracy on Earth. Many pre-historic and indigenous cultures like the Iroquois Confederacy practiced democracy for hundreds, if not thousands of years prior to the founding of the United States; however, the United States was certainly the first entity within the western, Christian world to embark upon the democratic experiment. Above all the lofty ideals of democracy, the United States reveres individual freedom. Private property, freedom of speech and self-determination are all expressions of American individualism, and unprecedented advances in human rights have spread across the globe with the rise of western democracy. Americans and other citizens of western democracies are encouraged to express their opinions, foster personal independence and develop their own uniqueness. At its best, individualism fosters creativity, productive competition and human rights. Unfettered individualism results in sociopathic self-aggrandizement, monopolistic economies, and extreme social and economic inequality.
Collectivist ideals are prevalent throughout the eastern cultures of Japan, Korea and China, parts of Latin America and various other countries across the Eurasian continent. Collectivism promotes concern for the common welfare, and the idea of the welfare of the group over the individual. In collectivist cultures, people are concerned with fitting in and abiding by the rules of the group. Contrary to some contemporary political rhetoric, collectivism does not diminish democratic ideals. The Iroquois Confederacy was famously collectivist in its doctrine that every action was to be approved only if determined to have no ill effects on the seven proceeding generations. At its best, collectivism ensures that the most vulnerable members of society will be provided for, that resources are equitably distributed and that the welfare of all is not compromised by the selfish interests of any individual. At the negative extreme, collectivism stifles originality, limits freedom of expression and inhibits individual liberty.
A perfect system would take the best of both ideals and mold them into a society where the rights of the individual exemplified in the U.S. Bill of Rights are extended to include new communal rights. All the people of Earth should all have the right to clean air and water. An individual (or corporation) should not be allowed to contaminate or sequester resources that are common to all living organisms without being charged the full cost of mitigating his environmental impact. All the people of Earth should have the guarantee that a full day’s work (even a day of work in the home) is rewarded with a living wage, affordable healthcare and a secure future in the form of a well-funded pension. An individual or corporation who uses another’s labor for personal profit should be required to provide the above minimal compensation. Sentient beings are not a resource to be exploited. The Earth and her entire living mantle of organisms should have the right to an equitable share of habitat. An individual organism, Homo sapiens, should not be allowed to appropriate and use up all of Earth’s resources for his own personal gain. Imagine such a world.
Currently, we do not live in the perfect world outlined above largely because the balance of power in the globalized capitalist world leans sharply towards individualism with the predictable negative consequences outlined previously. Creating a more equitable and just Earth does not mean that the rights of individuals need be compromised. On the contrary, by balancing individualism with elements of collectivism, we can create a world in which the rights of a single individual do not impede the rights of any other. That would be real democracy.