Collectivism vs. individualism isn’t about morality — it’s about ontology.
What this means is that being in favor of individualism or collectivism isn’t really about what you value in the world, but is instead about what you think is real.
Individualism is thinking that people are more real than groups. Collectivism is thinking that groups are more real than people.
Individualists think that individuals are easily separable from their social contexts, and that groups are simply convenient ways to refer to multiple individuals.
Collectivists think that individuals are constructed by their social contexts, to the point where it isn’t meaningful to ask what an individual want s— after all, what they want is simply a manifestation of their surroundings. Further, they see groups as having their own collective wills, desires, and agencies.
These ways of seeing the facts of the world before they are strategies, moralities, ideals, or anything else. Which of these realities you believe in will determine what your moral intuitions and political strategies can refer to. Despite this, you can reach surprisingly similar concrete plans of action from these diametrically opposing views of reality — you can be right-wing for individualist or collectivist reasons, just as you can be left-wing for individualist or collectivist reasons.
That being said, the collectivist-individualist friction within a mixed organization can never quite be eliminated. Coops and unions can both be justified using either individualism or collectivism, but how you think that people are morally obligated to behave within them absolutely will change depending on whether you think that they are:
- social infrastructures where-by we align our incentives
- or, material expressions of class solidarity
In fact, one of the ways that cooperative projects I’ve seen have failed is when people come in with very different moral expectations for what they are doing.
New Yorker Magazine recently said something semi-intelligent: that young people in America are both cynical and left-wing:
Voters who trust their government — and each other — are more supportive of ambitious welfare states than those who do not. Across nations, high levels of social trust correlate with high levels of social spending…
All of which makes these recent findings from Pew Research a bit startling. By now, you are probably aware that the millennial and “Gen-Z” generations are far more supportive of “socialism” and redistributive economic policies than any of their elders. And yet, according to Pew’s new survey, Americans under 30 are also way more distrustful of their fellow citizens and government than any other age group. Some 73 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say that “most of the time, people just look out for themselves,” while 71 percent believe “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance,” and 60 percent contend that “most people cannot be trusted.” Among Americans over 65 — the most conservative cohort in the U.S. — those figures are 48, 39, and 29, respectively.
…Pew’s research suggests that America’s most socialistic age bracket is also its most misanthropic. Sometime between the “end of history” and the onset of climate disaster, our nation ostensibly birthed a generation of “dystopian socialists” — Americans whose comfort with state intervention derives less from faith in human goodness than fear of our species’s rapacity. Interpersonal distrust might have fueled antipathy for “big government handouts” among the boomers.
As a libertarian socialist — specifically, an individualist libertarian socialist— I have a somewhat different interpretation of this: that the left has never intrinsically been about altruism, but has always had elements centering around enlightened self-interest — and, beyond even that, being able to protagonize oneself in a greater narrative. Of fighting capitalism because, in the words of one anonymous commentator:
In a society that has destroyed all adventure, the only adventure left is to destroy that society
Socialism can be and should be individualist — it shouldn’t be about some abstract idea of kindness or niceness, but about building alternative bottom-up institutions.
This is hardly an innovative point, of course: individualist anarchism has a long and storied history, including such luminaries as Benjamin Tucker, Josiah Warren, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lysander Spooner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Max Stirner, Herbert Spencer, and Henry David Thoreau — as well as, into the modern era, my ex-colleagues at the C4SS.
I once attempted to set-up a writer’s cooperative, as a way to provide an ad-funded platform for radical science fiction and fantasy. I wanted payment to be from to our monthly income after operating expenses with payouts to writers being in proportion to their share of the total view-count for that month.
Most of the writers agreed with me.
Two (perhaps three, as they invited in a friend of theirs before departing) did not — they wanted payment to either be equal for all writers regardless of actual output or quality or at least to be flat, based around word-count, and be calculated to ensure a $25-an-hour wage (they insisted that this was a ‘living wage’).
I pointed out that this payment structure would necessarily imply much tighter editorial standards, to avoid paying for substandard work that the writers themselves would have no particular incentive to improve on or even to promote to their own individual audiences — and that, if they went with the more extreme payment structure, there would need to be decisions on actually firing people for turning in lower quality work or less work than average. This idea seemed to sincerely confuse them — they seemed to honestly not understand the idea that, if they adopted a business model meant for a managerial top-down workplace, they would then need to in some way take on a managerial role or foist such a role on someone else. As I expected that role to be foisted on myself, I especially objected to the increased workload.
Even more importantly, I asked them where they expected to get the money for that every month.
The two of them were uncertain, til they hit upon the idea of having a Patreon and a Kickstarter for the project. I pointed out that this was unlikely to raise enough money for the payment structure that they wanted, and they countered that we should only publish semi-regularly, when we had enough money to pay writers on the payment structure that they wanted. I said that that seemed like a horrible idea for a publication that was trying to build an audience for itself, and they said that I was a secret anarcho-capitalist and stormed out.
This is a classic example of the individualist/collectivist split: the minority wanted the group to be a vehicle for itself, with well-defined boundaries of in-and-out. I, and the majority of the other writers, wanted the group to merely by a platform for our individual careers.
Most working-class people don’t particularly care about a leftism-from-altruism: who wants to listen to people who constantly scream at them about how they are morally obligated to make sacrifices for strangers? Framing things that way is off-putting.
The real question is why so much of the left has embraced this idea of collectivism — and at least part of the answer, I think, is that the Left (in America in particular and the West in general) regularly allows the Right to frame all political debates. Leftists hear a Right-wing politician say that individualism is good, and conclude that collectivism must be bad. They hear a Right-winger say that Right-wing policies are just ‘basic economics’ (they are, generally speaking, not) and conclude that economists are evil. The Right says questionable things about the Soviet Union, and many anarchists seem to feel the need to defend a project that they almost all agree was both failed and monstrous.
Rightists ask the question, and supply the answer. Leftists insist that the offered answer is wrong — when they should be insisting that the offered question is wrong.
We shouldn’t insist that self-interest is wrong, or that human nature doesn’t exist: we should talk about how we should build institutions that channel self-interest towards better ends, not about attempting to brainwash people into some idealized love of all humanity.
For more on this subject: