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.