The Individual vs. The Collective

Americans often like to say things like, “I’m an individual,” or, “I’m an individualist.” I would have to imagine much of the western world feels this way.  It seems like the east and south are more communal, but I doubt these people say, “I’m a communitarian,” or, “I’m a collectivist,” all that often.  I have always thought of myself as an individualist, of sorts, but whenever I have this thought I am immediately stopped by my communal side.  I would like to be myself at all times and all places.  I would like to choose only that which I would like to choose.  But, I can’t.  There are people I love and that means I must sometimes choose what they want over my own desire.  My individualism is stopped dead in its tracks.

There has been many philosophers that advocate a certain radical individualism.  Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand Come to mind.  Both writers argued that the good life comes from the individual and not the community. Ayn Rand, and many classical liberals, believe that an individual’s good is synonymous with the good of the whole.  Everyone stands to benefit from self interest. I agree with this point, but everything has its limits.  While radical individualism is a philosophy I would like to accept in whole, I just can’t.  I have found too much reason to look for the good in the community.  Not just for my own sake, but the sake of community itself.

This problem of the individualist versus the collectivist extends to politics and economics as well.  Much of the second half of the 20th century was consumed by this battle.  In fact, it literally almost consumed the world in fire.  While individualistic capitalism won the battle, many, in the wake of the recession, have already begun to question its principles and practices.  I tend to agree that economic self determination is a good thing.  However, capitalism, as it is practice in the west, does seem to have a lot of victims.  Many of the goods we enjoy are built by workers laboring under slave like conditions and, on the other end of spectrum, relatively well to do  members of the middle class often complain that the demands of this system are both tedious and unfulfilling.  These feelings often lead to anxiety and depression.  I certainly would not prefer some soviet style system to replace a free market, but this does not mean I have not found this system seriously wanting.

In my journey to find my way out of the forest of conjecture that is ideology, the battle between individualism and collectivism keeps finding its way to the forefront of my mind.  As in every battle, my tendency is to pick a side and take it as far as it can go.  But is taking one side over the other the right choice?  Every human is an unique individual with his own idea on how the world should work.  At the same time,  every human is a social being looking for some kind of connection with another.  When we find this connection, we are ready to sacrifice a bit of ourselves to keep it.  The dualism between the individual and the collective is unavoidable.  It is of our nature to want both and struggle for a balance, both in thought and practice.

 

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6 comments

  1. arcade1775 · February 12, 2015

    It’s very situational, I think.

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  2. Stefan Nikolic · February 12, 2015

    Hey, nice post. However, I would like to challenge your idea of individualism…individuals don’t actually exist, and I think this is partly why capitalism ‘feels’ so wrong. The idea of an individual is an ideal for the capitalistic mentality, and I believe it functions to reinforce the ideology that capitalism relies on. Without an individual, capitalism would cease to exist in the way it does – it would no longer be justifiable to have such a divide between the rich and the poor.

    Now, the common belief is that if you work hard, you get more money. This, of course, is a myth from the get-go, but most people believe it because of the underlying myth of individualism, which makes it seem fair that some people are on top while others are not. This also gives rise to the hope that ‘you can make it too if you work hard,’ which again, is bull****. It is this hope that is the most dangerous – if you believe it, then you don’t want to complain about the rich being so rich because you think that you might be rich one day. And so you stay quite and keep slaving away in a delusion of your own creation. If you didn’t see yourself as an individual, you wouldn’t fall for this myth.

    As I say, individualism does not actually exist in any shape or form in the real world whatsoever – it only exists as a figment of the imagination. Think about this – where do your clothes come from? Your food? Who built your house? Who gave birth to you? Who built the roads you use everyday? etc. We all rely on each other. None of us would even exist if humans could truly be ‘individual.’ We need to stop believing in the myth of individualism if we are to break away from the capitalistic ideology, which is actually just a sophisticated form of slavery.

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    • jayfel354 · February 19, 2015

      I tend to agree with your description of capitalism up to a point. It’s difficult to pin point the problems of capitalism because so many have it so good, while others are left with dismal, hopeless situations. Many of the problems I find with capitalism come from my individuality, or at least what I perceive as individuality. Modern capitalism has created endless categories, by which people define themselves. Many people define themselves by their profession, rather than as an person with rights and dignity. Thus, any exploitation of people under this system becomes easier. It is a lot easier to exploit someone who thinks themselves a mere coal miner, or office assistant than someone who thinks them self a free individual with dignity. With this being said, even if capitalism is replaced, I doubt I would want to live in a society without a strong concept of individuality. 20th Communism tried to construct such a society with bleak and sometimes evil results.

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      • Stefan Nikolic · February 19, 2015

        Have you ever been to India? That is a so-called collectivist society, and the people there are much happier than in the West. Also, the majority are not materialistic and capitalism does not exist in the way it does in the West. I’m not saying that they have a perfect society (far from it), but we can nonetheless learn from them.

        Who has it “so good” in Western society exactly? What is your definition of a good life?

        The idea of individualism is nothing more than the ultimate version of the age-old divide and conquer tactic – someone who thinks of themselves as a coal miner at least belongs to the group ‘coal miner;’ Someone that thinks of themselves as an individual is on their own, and can very easily be influenced through things such as social pressures (for example, being self-conscious all the time leads to anxiety, which you naturally want to alleviate because you are a social being. This is done by ‘fitting in,’ not disagreeing, keeping your opinions to yourself if they don’t fit the accepted majority opinion). Thus, the idea of individualism leads to slavery, not freedom. What is ‘freedom’ for you by the way?

        Read ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer if you haven’t. It’s a difficult read but well worth it – it will blow your empathy for capitalism, and your mind, to smithereens 🙂

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  3. Fernando Karl "Fehhstylez" 遠山フェルナンド · February 17, 2015

    Everything works according to mutual silent consensus.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. http://psalmboxkey.com · February 20, 2015

    In a system under anarcho-sydicalism, it is possible to have individualism and collectivism. In this way every worker has a voice in their job and running the enterprise; yet, they work as a group to find the best solutions.

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