Individualism and Collectivism: Pick your Poison

The value of individualism is under fire. I don’t understand why.

The idea of individualism: you can navigate through life without needing to rely solely on other people. You choose from whom and from where to derive the meaning of your life. You act as if free will exists. You don’t need mommy and daddy to tell you if the bread is expired.

The value of individualism: you will never fall prey to the terrible mistake of letting other people think for you. Your schedule. Your habits. Your thoughts. You’ve seized the means of producing the life you’d like to live. Marx would be proud.

High degrees of individualism frighten some people. The more progressive leaning people I’ve met tend to raise an eyebrow at high individualism. I’ve tried to understand their point of view, but I’m still confused. Critics of high individualism seem to think that the more individualistic one gets, the more they become racist or negligent of marginalized people’s day-to-day suffering. Thus, the progressives will warn us not to fly too close to the sun.

Some people choose to be racist jackasses. Some people, sociopaths, are born without empathy, and, as their life progresses, become the jackasses they dreamed of becoming. Some people choose to be more productive, more conscientious. And others are naturally more conscientious because of their personality. The choice of the individualist is considered in the name of a higher spiritual power. Call it God, or Buddha, or the soul. The choice of the collectivist, of the proponent of a completely fair and equal society, is considered in the service of the state — something material, earthly, inflexible and unchanging.

People contain multitudes. This is why I think equality and collectivism are ideas either too impossible to actualize, or just dumb enough to work (with horrible results). And when we run simulations of completely equal and collectivist societies in the real world, we’re left with nothing but a stack overflow of famine and a runtime error of starving families. Individualism, on the other hand, allows us the supreme gift of choice. And when we run simulations of individualistic societies, like we have in the west, do we get a pristine utopia? Of course not. Not literally, at least. But you end up with America — a very nice place to live, all things considered.

I might be making the same mistake as those who posit that Stalin’s Russia wasn’t ‘real communism!’ Imagine somebody who values individualism, but they happen to be a racist jackass. I’m tempted to say that that’s not real individualism. But, let me contradict myself. Maybe that is real individualism. They used their agency, their free will, and decided, on their own, to become a racist jackass. But guess what? Racist jackasses will exist whether you have an individualistic or collectivist society. Who’s to say you can’t end up with racist jackasses in a collectivist society? Didn’t the Nazis organize themselves, in some sense, as a collective? Is that too extreme a question to ponder?

Or maybe the Nazis were too individualistic! Remember, the Nazis did take Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman to heart. But is the idea of the Superman the prime example of “too much individualism?” Nietzsche’s Superman is what one get’s when they believe they’re too cool for the school of moral principles, of earth-tethering values that prevent us from hurting and killing others. In Zarathustra, the Superman has transcended all values. The Superman’s conscience is wiped clean, thus the Superman could do whatever the hell he wants without any moral finger-wagging from his conscience.

Let me compare the Nazi to the ‘hero’ of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov never would have turned himself in if it weren’t for his conscience’s reminders of his crime. No Supreme Body forced Raskolnikov to murder. At the beginning of the story, Raskolnikov is an agent with no values. At the end, he repents and weeps and prays to God for forgiveness. And that’s my point: people contain multitudes. The Nazi “body” was supposed to be above values, was supposed to be a Superman. Always. It could not change. It could not repent for its sins because the sins committed were not perceived as sins. But at the individual level, yes, there were in fact people, with the label of “Nazi”, who knew exactly which sins they were committing, but couldn’t stop themselves because their free will, their agency…any possibility they once had of individual ownership or responsibility for their actions was tied to the “Nazi” label like the submissive to her dominatrix. Raskolnikov acted as an individual. He both murdered and turned himself in of his own free will, guided by his own conscience.

Dostoevsky’s story leaves us with a warning: if an individual can will themselves to murder, imagine what a collective could do! Imagine what atrocities millions of people could act out under the banner of a singular identity!

Identity. I am this, therefore I must behave in this manner, because everybody who claims “I am this, as well,” behaves in the same manner. Consider, once more, the Nazis. The ordinary men turned Nazis could no longer behave like ordinary men because of their newly christened identity: Nazi. They had to behave in the manner that one would expect from the behavior of their new identity as Nazi. This is why I believe that identity politics is the worst possible game one could play. Why squeeze yourself into any singular or sectional identity? Why not behave…like a human? I can hear the objection already: isn’t human an identity? Yes, an identity which allows us the freedom to express our multitudes. The worst threat imaginable is when your identity as a human being is at stake. Am I using an extreme example as an excuse to dismiss the value of exterior identity? Well, let me ask you: just how many steps away is the most extreme outcome?

To wrap this long rant up, individualistic societies celebrate the multitudes within us; collectivist and equal societies force citizens to act according to specific expectations. Individualism celebrates choice in the name of higher spiritual powers; collectivist and equal societies boil all ambition down to how one’s productivity benefits the material, earthly powers that be.

And I still don’t understand the attack on individualism. Please help me out.

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