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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Individualism vs. Collectivism II

All political power is premised on the unequal distribution of authority in society, for some people (e.g., politicians, judges, bureaucrats, and the special interests who enjoy the use of such power) are permitted to exercise control over not only themselves, but others. The allegedly “classless” Iron Curtain countries, with government officials living in comparative luxury and enjoying special privileges vis-à-vis their so-called “comrades,” were a clear example of this phenomenon. But the practice prevails in every political system, by virtue of the coercive nature of politics itself. Thus, an egalitarian principle, in which each of us exercises 100 percent authority over our own lives and property, becomes corrupted into an elitist undertaking, in which our personal autonomy is reduced to, let us say, 70 percent, while the effective decision making of state officials, along with those who advance their special interests through political means, is increased far beyond the range of their own self-ownership. This is why a politically based equality is both self-contradictory and totally incompatible with a condition of individual liberty.
Egalitarian thinking squeezes such nonlinear factors as individual uniqueness, spontaneity, and autonomy out of the meaning of life. Inquiries into the quality of life become subjected to a quantitative analysis, with linear calculations and comparisons dominating and standardizing the mind.
As long as we conceive of the world in reductionist, mechanistic, fragmented ways; as long as we accept Cartesian mind/ body dualism as part of our understanding of “reality,” we are inclined to look upon life in behavioristic ways. We are then disposed to the operant conditioning of systems intent upon exploiting us for their purposes. From there, it is easy to consider ourselves as little more than a given organic mass that goes through life acting, and reacting, on the basis of causal factors lying outside us. At the same time, we see one another as human billiard balls, responding to forces that we neither influence nor direct, and delude ourselves that our movements around the table are the products of “free will.” It is just such a dreary, Skinnerian view of life that has sustained the institutionalized slaughter and human degradation that defined the twentieth-century and works to stamp its imprimatur upon the twenty-first. Whether political regimes parade under the banner of “communism,” “socialism,” “God,” “fascism,” “Keynesianism,” “corporate statism,” “Allah,” “democracy,” “welfare statism,” or the “New World Order”—systems whose superficial differences mask their fundamentally synonymous nature— they all share in the collectivist premise that existing lives and property are subject to a superior claim of rightful authority by the state.
Our institutionalized training has conditioned us to fear individualism, to assume that it equates with isolation from and antagonism toward others. The “individualist” is often portrayed as the “loner,” the misanthropic recluse who exhibits no regard for the interests or well-being of others. We are told that, only through collective agencies—the state, the church, the corporation, the labor union, etc.—can we find a sense of cooperation and wholeness. The debate between individualism and collectivism has arisen out of our willingness to allow institutions to insinuate themselves into our thinking and our lives.
We ought to have learned from basic biology that the individual is not only the carrier of DNA (hence, life itself) from one generation to the next, but also the carrier of the values upon which a civilization depends if it is to retain its vigor. Individuals have produced the art, music, literature, philosophies, scientific discoveries, inventions, and engineering and technological innovation that underlie great civilizations. The statue of David was conceived and sculpted by Michelangelo, not by an artists’ guild. The Mona Lisa derived from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, not from some corporate “paint-by-thenumbers” kit. Philosophic and religious thinkers—from Plato and Aristotle to Locke and Marx, and from Zoroaster to Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Martin Luther—continue to have their personal influence upon the minds of subsequent generations. Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and numerous other composers, discovered deep within themselves musical compositions that have greatly enriched the human spirit. The writings of Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante were the products of individual minds, not a writers’ workshop. It was Thomas Edison, not a local labor union, who worked in his simple workshop for long hours, often at subsistence levels, to invent many of the technological underpinnings of modern civilization. Entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill, Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and countless other creative individuals produced the commercial and industrial “instruments of expansion” upon which the American civilization has depended for its material well-being. In turn, merchants and other tradesmen exchanged such wares with the rest of the world, extending their benefits to others and receiving the goods of other peoples in return. None of these works were mandated by state coercion; they arose out of the liberty of individuals to pursue what their minds and spirits drove them to accomplish.
Even the most well-intentioned collectivists have never been able to divorce their genuine desires to benefit others from their need to exercise coercive power over the lives and property of their fellow humans. To such minds, “good” motivations excuse harmful behavior. Nor are their egalitarian sentiments able to transcend their collective leanings to embrace the individualistic sentiments in e.e. cummings’ observation that “equality is what does not exist among equals.”12
The holographic model provides a fitting metaphor for ending the institution-serving division between our individual and social natures, allowing us to see that they are complementary aspects of the same dynamic of self-interested behavior. The boundary lines in our dualistic thinking that help to separate us from one another, begin to dissolve once we see them as fabrications of our minds. In their place, perhaps, may arise the vision of ourselves and our neighbors as interconnected individuals. Each of us is a biologically and experientially unique person who, at the same time, needs the companionship, support, and cooperation of others in order to survive. We are neither isolated hermits nor fungible cells in some monstrous, sixbillion headed leviathan that moves about the earth in response to an imagined collective will. The individual and the numerous are manifestations of the wholeness that lies hidden beneath our dualistic divisions of reality. A jar of beans, for instance, can appear to us as an individual bean-filled vessel, or as a combination of individual beans, whose absence leaves only an empty jar. Recall how the examples of Seurat paintings or newspaper photographs remind us of the interconnected nature of the singular and the general.
There is a popular notion, so long unquestioned as to rise almost to the level of a settled truth, that individuals are motivated, in large part, to preserve and promote the well-being of the species. In his book The Selfish Gene,13 Richard Dawkins proposes a more realistic explanation of behavior: we are motivated at an unconscious level by a desire to perpetuate our individual genes. Just as the member of any other species acts to advance its own interests, our genes seek to perpetuate themselves from one generation to the next. To accomplish this, of course, requires the cooperation of another individual equally driven by this need. Such individual self-interests combine, through sexual reproduction, to produce the uniqueness of each child. This, in turn, fosters genetic diversity, an unintended consequence of which is to enhance the resiliency of the species itself. Just as we see in the dynamics of the marketplace, self-interest driven behavior can, without anyone intending to do so, bring about the well-being of an entire species or society.
The collective model upon which pyramidal systems are grounded prefers the institutional entity (e.g., the corporation or the state) as the fundamental reality, the “person” for whom human beings function as little more than subservient, fungible units. Those who would discourage the separation of the individual from the numerous do so solely as a means for gaining collective control over human beings. Through the divisions generated by thought, we come to distrust others, save those who, in exchange for the authority they demand over our lives, promise us protection from these contrived fears.
A holographic system of social organization, on the other hand, is one in which both the purpose and the authority for decision making is distributed throughout the social system through the principle of private ownership. Only as decision making is horizontally distributed can a peaceful and creative social order emerge from the boundless diversity and imaginations of free individuals and autonomous groups each seeking the full expression of their sense of being.
The fanciful nature of collectivist thinking has kept us confused in such matters. The holographic model presumes all of us to be composed of a seemingly endless variety of traits, dispositions, preferences, values, beliefs, ambitions, and other qualities. It presumes that in the pursuit of individually defined interests we are likely to bump into one another on occasion, or to desire the same resource, and that, in order to accomplish our purposes, it is desirable for each of us to minimize the conflicts and injuries we might have with one another in these pursuits. This holographic paradigm is premised not on some collectively defined undertaking, but on a recognition of the limitless diversity that inheres in the individualized nature of our being and, as a corollary, the common interest we share in a social environment that allows for the full expression of such diversity. It is the spontaneous, autonomous, and diverse nature of our individuality that is spread across the holographic film, not the homogenized image of some make-believe “common man.”
Because institutions have set their purposes apart from and superior to those of people, their existence depends on an e pluribus unum, “melting pot” mentality that turns otherwise decent and responsible individuals into masses to be manipulated and directed toward dehumanizing, collective purposes. In the words of Doctor Murnau in the motion picture Kafka: “A crowd is easier to control than an individual. A crowd has a common purpose. The purpose of the individual is always in question.”14
It is the uniqueness and energy of life, as reflected both in the singular nature of our respective DNA’s and our autonomous and spontaneous character, against which collectivism wars. What is both remarkable and ennobling about life is its personal and insistent struggle against the inevitability of the second law of thermodynamics. It is another example of the interconnectedness of what, to our dualistic thinking, appears to us as contradiction: we live in a terminal state and yet are open systems who can take in energy from outside ourselves as we valiantly act to overcome, or at least delay, our fate. Though our lives may have no greater purpose beyond what we give to them, we search for some transcendent meaning to our existence that we hope will have eternal significance. But our pursuit of such ends requires us to be open to and supportive of this creative process, including having an awareness of the conditions that make possible such responses to our entropic destiny.
By eliminating distinctions among individuals, egalitarianism fosters the centralizing thinking and practice of dividing people into exclusive groups, within which people are expected to find meaning and direction for their lives. The increased centralization of authority in institutions has come about as a consequence of the enlarging of our “ego-boundaries” to embrace various abstract collectives. Because most of us have not found a capacity for generating transcendent experiences within ourselves, we enlarge our ego identities in the hope of realizing a fuller life experience in the greatness we imagine to lie in certain institutions or other abstractions. As we have seen, however, in attaching ourselves to a collective identity, we increase the likelihood of bringing ourselves into conflict with others (i.e., those who identify themselves with other abstractions). Because we now have an expanded boundary definition of ourselves, usually in forms that assume national or worldwide dimensions, “our” interests are bound to confront a much wider range of persons. When our boundaries become enlarged, we experience an increase in trespasses by others. As wars and genocides amply demonstrate, millions of men, women, and children, with whom we have never had a personal dispute, can suddenly become our sworn enemy, not because of anything they have personally done, but because of our respective ego attachments. Wars and other conflicts are most likely to occur along the boundaries that separate us, whether geographical, religious, ideological, or economic in nature. This makes the ego-boundary game a much more confrontational practice than relating to others from an individually-centered perspective.
Furthermore, in identifying ourselves with such large-scale collectives, we greatly restrict our felt sense of purpose in, and control over, our lives. Collectivism deadens the spirit and, in so doing, helps to produce a passive humanity. People succumb to the mass of power that confronts them in the form of an external, collective body and, feeling overwhelmed, may simply give up trying to discover a deep meaning and purpose in their lives. A more inner-directed man or woman, on the other hand, might find the designing of a building, or the raising of a child, or the creation of works of art, or the competent performance of one’s work, or the development of a centered base of awareness, sufficient to satisfy their needs for transcendent, spiritually-grounded experiences. Because such ends, and the means of accomplishing them, are more narrowly focused, the achievement of their purpose is more within the capacities of the individual. Such man or woman has the power to develop a personal sense of order by acting upon the resources within his or her immediate control. The woman who seeks fulfillment in sculpting need only improve her skills, discover more interesting materials with which to work, or continue her own insightful explorations as to what is meaningful for her to express in her work. She need not concern herself with satisfying legislative committees, or getting the right candidate elected to office, or hoping that others will experience a change in consciousness.
But once we identify ourselves with an abstraction, the focus of our activity shifts from our individual selves to collectives. The externally-directed feminist who can find satisfaction only in changing what she perceives as male-dominated cultural patterns; or the “God-fearing American” who will not be content until his religious and political visions are enforced upon all; or the animal rights advocate who will not rest until the lives of all animals are respected by all humans, will eventually discover that the conditions necessary for their sense of accomplishment are not within their power to control. Having projected their sense of self onto abstract collectives over which they have no genuine control, they are left without the resources upon which to act in furtherance of their desired order. The “butterfly effect” illustrates how effective we can be when the focal point of our actions is more individualized. But most of us still cling to our collective image of “self,” basking in the reflected light of some institution, a practice that generates personal frustration and infuriation. Such anger, partially explained by the “frustration-aggression” hypothesis,15 has been a major contributor to the modern environment of confrontation and violence that accounts for so much of our social—and all of our political— lives.
By its very nature, collective ownership generates confusion and conflict due to the bifurcation of the elements of claim and control. Who is entitled to make decisions over property, and who is responsible for the consequences of such decisions? When property is privately owned, these elements are integrated in the hands of the owner, and we know to whom to look for answers to both questions. In a system of collective ownership, by contrast, there is uncertainty as to who the “owner” actually is and, as a consequence, confusion in answering both these questions. Who does own Yellowstone Park? Is it the President of the United States, or the Secretary of the Interior? Is it the head of the United States Park Service, or perhaps the camp rangers who are actually in control of the park? Presumably not, since none of these people could sell the park and pocket the proceeds. If the answer is the abstraction, “the United States of America,” what human decision-maker exercises his or her ultimate will on behalf of this entity?

If you were to telephone the Park Service and ask them this question, you would probably get one of those high school civics class answers that “the American people” own the park. And if you go on to ask: “does that mean that I am an owner?,” you will probably receive an affirmative reply. But, if you then ask the Park Service to identify your portion of Yellowstone so that you can exert your control over it, you will quickly discover that your alleged interest does not, in fact, exist. Should you insist on entering “your” park at times contrary to the posted admissions signs, you will probably be arrested for the crime of “criminal trespass.” If you were to engage in an activity prohibited by park officials, you would likely be arrested for this offense as well. The absurdity of the arrangement regarding collective property ownership was reflected in a sign in a city park somewhere in Kansas that declared: “No loitering! No bicycle riding! No picnicking! No ball-playing! REMEMBER: This is Your Park!”
The idea of collective ownership explains why there is so much conflict and confusion over the policies and curricula of government schools. First of all, by being taxed to support these schools, taxpayers erroneously believe that they have some property based interest that entitles them to control what “their” schools are doing and teaching. Once again we are reminded of the conflicts over government school curricula and methodologies that have become a regular topic in news reports and on radio talk shows.
Like two children fighting over a CD player given to them jointly, the parents of government-school children angrily insist that their schools teach their values to their children. Privately-owned schools experience fewer conflicts, not because they have more intelligent administrators or better curricula, but because there is no illusion as to who owns the school. The owners announce school policies, curricula, and other matters of interest to parents who then make decisions as to whether to enter into a contract with the school for the education of their children. If the school later decides to change its policies, the parents can freely enter into a contract with another school that is more to their liking or, if no such alternative meets their standards, they may decide to home-school their children.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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