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Friday, March 15, 2013

Individualism vs. Collectivism

It seems obvious to me now—though I was slow coming to the conclusion—that the institution of private property, the dispersion of power and importance that goes with it, has been a main factor in producing that limited amount of free-andequalness which Marx hoped to render infinite by abolishing this institution.

— Max Eastman
The most materially and spiritually depressing systems of social organization are those that embrace the mechanistic and degrading premise of collectivism. Mankind has, for thousands of years, suffered under these most oppressive and dreary social systems. In its political manifestation, it provides society with a herd-oriented image. Perhaps it is genetic memory—certainly not pragmatism—that is recapitulated in the appetites of so many moderns for collective systems.
The twentieth century demonstrated to thoughtful men and women the totally inhumane nature of any system premised on political collectivism. A sign on a church in the former East Berlin that read “nothing grows from the top down,” succinctly identified the anti-life nature of all forms of institutionallydirected, collective control over people. Collectivism is the ultimate expression of the pyramidal model of the universe. It is the epitome of power-based thinking (i.e., that it is appropriate for some people to exercise coercive authority over the lives and property of others). Judged by its own materialistic premises, collectivism is unable to withstand any rigorous economic analysis. If the twentieth century resolved anything, it is the superiority of free market economic systems over commandand-control state systems in the production of goods and services. And when measured against such spiritual needs as the sense of personal dignity and self-worth that come from having complete authority over one’s life, collectivism is even less attractive. It was so thoroughly discredited in the Iron Curtain countries as to help bring about the collapse of those regimes, and remains held together in China only through vicious military repression. It has proven itself both an economically and spiritually bankrupt system.
As suggested at the outset of this book, in discussing collectivist thought and systems, one must clearly distinguish collective and cooperative behavior. As social beings, cooperation is both natural and essential to our well-being. None of us would have survived birth for more than a few hours without a family—or someone filling the family role—caring for us. We might otherwise have been dropped beside a trail or, currently, placed in a dumpster shortly after having been born, a practice which, if generalized, would have led to the extinction of our species. Cooperative undertakings arise when individuals freely choose to associate and “work with others in a common effort.”1 The focal point for cooperative efforts is individuals coming together, voluntarily, to further mutual purposes.
A number of our allegedly “primitive” fellow humans have developed some sophisticated tribal forms of group cooperation which, at the same time, inhibit the development of political power. Tribal chiefs, far from being coercive authorities over others, are often the means by which centralized power is discouraged. Tribal chiefs—a role that does not even exist in some tribes—have been burdened with so many ceremonial functions as to deprive them of opportunities to pursue power over their fellows. His failure to perform the prescribed rituals would cause him to lose face within the tribe.2 As Pierre Clastres has observed: “Humble in scope, the chief’s functions are controlled nonetheless by public opinion. A planner of the group’s economic and social activities, the leader possesses no decisionmaking power; he is never certain that his ‘orders’ will be carried out.”3 Such cooperative, non-coercive forms of social organization contrast with the systematized violence of the modern nation-state, whose very existence depends upon the inculcation of an enforced collective mindset.
Collectivism is “a social theory or doctrine that emphasizes the importance of the collective (as the society or state) in contrast to the individual.”4 By definition, the collective entity is the focus, both as to purpose and direction. With the exception of voluntarily organized communal societies such as the religious or philosophical communities that sprang up across America in the nineteenth century,5 or twentieth-century cooperatives, collectivism has generally been coercively constituted. In comparison with the mutually-supportive, face-to-face relationships in smaller, cooperative groups, modern institutionalized collectives such as the state have had to rely on artificial, abstract identities through which total strangers can be compressed into contrived multitudes. As we saw in the discussion of “ego boundaries,” collective entities are comprised of persons who subordinate themselves to a group identity. Organizations, particularly the state, encourage and exploit such behavior in order to channel the energies of individuals into group-serving purposes. It would be impossible to organize massive forms of social destructiveness such as wars and genocides unless sufficient numbers of people first had their sense of identity mobilized into the collectivist mindset. When we so organize ourselves, we become alienated not only from all who do not share our abstract identities, but from any inner sense of self that cannot be harmonized with group purposes.
We can also experience a sense of alienation from the material world in which we live as a result of allowing coercive collectives to usurp control over our lives. The defining characteristic of political collectives is the centralized authority over property within the group. This, in turn, produces within people a fragmented, depersonalized relationship to property. We learn to think of property as something apart from, rather than a part of, our lives. We babble political catechisms that “human rights are more important than property rights,” not being aware that such thinking strips away any real world meaning to the exercise of liberty, leaving us clinging to empty abstractions for an understanding of what it means to be free. In embracing such hollow bromides, we participate in the Orwellian delusion that we can enjoy liberty even as the state directs, regulates, and confiscates what we like to pretend is “our” property. The debate over private, individual ownership versus collective, political control of property, has nothing to do with “social responsibility,” or “greed,” or “economies of scale,” or “fairness,” or “public goods” analyses, or “equality,” or protecting the environment, or ending racism, or helping the poor. Such purported ends are simply the sales pitches used to rationalize the transfer of authority from individuals to the state. The real debate, which institutionalists do not want to see staged, has to do with where the locus of control over our lives and property is to reside. All “human rights” are property rights, the issue always turning into the inquiry: who has the “right” to do what, and with what?
We become collectivized not through force of arms, but by our willingness, brought about through years of careful conditioning begun in our childhood, to identify ourselves by reference to one or more abstractions. We are, by nature, social beings with need for companionship, cooperation for the achievement of mutual benefits, and a sense of community. Such needs, however, have been exploited by institutional interests desirous of having us organize ourselves around abstractions that serve organizational purposes. Through words, ideas, symbols, and other images, we develop the “ego boundary” identities discussed in chapter four. By reference to nationality, race, gender, religion, language, or any of a number of other abstractions, we come to think of ourselves not as individuals, but as members of some collective. Although we still act within and upon our world in order to further our survival— activities that necessitate decision making over property—the purpose of our action shifts from enhancing the well-being of specific persons (e.g., our selves, spouses, children, parents, etc.) to that of various abstract entities (e.g., the state, church, corporation, etc.). This depersonalizing, collectivizing process is nowhere more evident than in the methods used by the military (e.g., shaving one’s head, wearing uniform clothing, and formal training to get the soldier to repress his individuallydirected behavior in favor of obedience to constituted authorities) to mold troops into an institutionally-cloned mold of fungible robots.
As we move from personal, individualized priorities in our lives —David Riesman’s “inner-directed” person6—to abstract, collectively-defined persons, our relationships to property also change. In becoming “other-directed,” we make ourselves subservient to institutional interests, transferring decision-making power over our lives and other ownership interests to such entities. By creating “individual” versus “collective” divisions within ourselves, we experience both internal conflict, and conflict with the “others” who are behaving as we are toward the objects of their ego-boundaries. This is how our world got into its present mess, and only a reversal of our thinking will get us out of it. But just as we cannot end conflict without privatizing our sense of self, i.e., by withdrawing our energies from institutionally-managed ego-boundaries; we cannot move to a system of privately owned property without dismantling the divisive, conflict-ridden thinking that has collectivized our sense of who we are. Our sense of humanity is not to be found in either an isolated hermitage, or as undifferentiated members of a herd.
It would be gratuitously generous to the state of intellectual discourse in this culture to imagine that there has been a significant debate over the competing values of “individualism” and “collectivism.” To undertake such an inquiry would force a close examination of the nature and importance of property, including the central question of self-ownership. Ideologues and members of the institutional establishment would find such a focused discussion destructive of their principal purpose: to promote their respective interests through the control of human beings. This, in turn, would necessitate asking the most spiritually relevant of all social questions: does life belong to the living, or to institutional collectives? It is the Dred Scott question again: is each of us our own property, or the property of others?
Institutions provide the most poignant examples of behavior that is highly energized yet lacking in the spiritual dimension of life. Their energies are supplied by men and women who, in order to advance their individual interests, largely have to repress those values that do not serve the institution. While a kind of ersatz spirituality is provided to people as an added inducement for their participation in organizational purposes (e.g., “patriotism,” “comradeship,” “holiness”), such values are always secondary to the paramount interests of the institution. They arise from outside rather than from within the individual. Any display of spiritual dimensions that arise from within the individual as an expression of his or her independent sense of being may be tolerated by established authorities, but not if they are taken seriously so as to interfere with preeminent systemic purposes (e.g., “conscientious objection” to participation in wars). The temptation to experience or express such inner energies is discouraged by admonitions such as “don’t get emotional.”
While people often express their spirituality in association with others, such sentiments have transcendent meaning only if they resonate within the individual independently of any purposes external to the person. Just as emotions such as love, happiness, or excitement can occur only within individuals, spiritual expression arises from inner voices speaking from both the collective unconscious of mankind and the personal experiences of the individual. We may share our endeavors with one another, our transcendent experiences are peculiar to each of us. There is no more of a “collective spirit” to mankind than there is a collective DNA, an endless cloning of some idealized person. Furthermore, experiencing our spiritual nature necessitates that each of us have a realm of authority in the world that is inviolate from the intrusions of others. Only as we insist upon the liberty to actualize our “inner” being in the “outer” world, can we end the conflict-ridden division in our lives and discover a genuine connectedness with others and the rest of nature.
The spiritual and emotional bankruptcy that affects so many of us is reflected in our inability to integrate psychic and materialistic needs so as to live without contradiction and be able to express a sense of wholeness in our daily lives. We cannot discharge our bankruptcy and learn to live with a sense of integrity until we assert the will to be the owners and controllers of our own lives. It is in this sense that the personal ownership of property becomes inextricably intertwined with an emerging spiritual renaissance: if we regard ourselves as a sufficient reason for being, we will enjoy a realm of unfettered authority —as defined by our property interests—with which to express our personal sense of being.
Because such inquiries threaten the reduction, if not total withdrawal, of our energies from institutional purposes, there has been an understandable resistance to this spiritual reawakening. Institutionalists bleat their contempt for what they label the “irresponsibility” of the “me generation,” hoping, thereby, to shame us back into our assigned organizational stalls. The statists condemn us for our preoccupation with acquiring material wealth, all the while scheming to despoil that which we have accumulated. We are urged to limit our sense of wonder to institutionally crafted technologies, and to confine our inquiries to those amenable to the scientific method. Admittedly, science does a wonderful job answering the kinds of questions science is willing to ask. But more and more of us understand that the kinds of questions we are in greater need of asking are those that offer little in the way of material, quantifiable answers.
Whether we approach our understanding of economics from a socialistic or free-market perspective, very little inquiry is directed to anything but materialistic considerations. Marx’s “dialectical materialism” seems to have set the tone for most modern comparative analyses of “command-and-control” versus market-driven systems. There appears to be an implicit agreement, even among most free-market advocates, that quantitative “bottom-line” outcomes are sufficient to measure the superiority of one system over another. But mankind’s material prosperity, important as it is, is not the only factor in the equation. The collapse of state socialism did more than alter the means by which material values are best provided for in our world. It also raised the question about how we regard both ourselves and our neighbors; do we see ourselves as autonomous but cooperative individuals, or as interchangeable “units” in one or another collective?
From the perspective of institutions, individuality becomes a form of entropy (i.e., energy otherwise unavailable for their productive purposes) that they insist on repressing. Liberty is a very volatile condition, conducive to all kinds of uncertainties and unpredictabilities. Institutions prefer uniformity, standardization, and the sense of security that comes from knowing that their interests will not be upset by diverse and spontaneous influences that cannot be exploited for organizational ends. A society of free-spirited, self-interest motivated individuals cooperating with one another for their own productive purposes will be quite vibrant, but unsettling to established entities that regard their interests as ends in themselves. For such reasons, since institutions regard the fate of both civilizations and human beings as secondary to their own purposes, individuality must be quashed in favor of a more standardized and controllable humanity.
Collectivist systems have depended upon the mechanistic, reductionist paradigm represented in Newtonian thinking. A belief that nature is structured in relatively simple patterns capable of being reduced to identifiable and measurable calculations, is essential to hierarchically planned and controlled societies. To a collectivist, the world consists largely of “matter”— human beings included—whose qualities and differentiations are largely confined to chemical or mechanical description, and whose essence is to be servo-mechanisms in some giant, institutional purpose. Thus does the soldier become little more than expendable cannon fodder,7 whose appearance and behavior is uniform in every respect; while other individuals are vulgarly dismissed as “the masses.”
As we saw in chapter five, most collectivists find comfort in such self-contradictory sentiments as Pierre Proudhon’s “property is theft,”8 and George Bernard Shaw’s “property is organized robbery.”9 Were their thinking more focused, they would have become aware that for “theft” and “robbery” to occur, there must be an owner to be despoiled. From whom do they imagine such property to have been taken, and upon what basis did these phantom prior owners base their claims? If the answer is some amorphous “mankind,” how is control exercised by an entire species, and what are the boundaries by which such interests are defined? Is it not clear that these very statements negate the legitimacy of the alleged earlier claimants? If it is an act of “theft” for a specific individual to assert a claim of ownership over a precise item of property against an undefined “owner,” how does a “claim”—and made by whom?— advanced on behalf of a nonexistent collective over undefined property, rise to a level worthy of respect? Such is the confused and wholly abstract base upon which collectivist thought rests.
Because collectivism presupposes a uniform and undifferentiated treatment of people, it has long embraced the doctrine of “egalitarianism,” a concept wholly inconsistent with the inconstancies and variations implicit in individual liberty. The notions of equality and stability are closely related, each implying a resistance to practices that generate differences among people. Many acknowledge the importance of diversity and pluralism in fostering the life-sustaining adaptability of a species or a culture, and then turn around and embrace a doctrine that erodes the foundations of such negentropic values.
The study of chaos informs us that liberty, which is essential to a diverse culture, is a necessary condition for both producing and responding to the fluctuations upon which far-from-equilibrium systems work to generate the more complex patterns that help resist entropy. Adaptability to turbulence is essential to any vibrant system. Those who insist upon conditions of uniformity tend, much like brain-injured people, to be challenged by complexity and the processes of growth and change that are necessary for creativity and life itself. Creativity necessitates change, and change is a most uneven process. By contrast, the doctrine of equality is premised on a commitment to inflexibility and nonvariation (and with it, the suppression of individual liberty), requiring the maintenance of equilibrium conditions that further the entropic decline of a society.
This is why, contrary to our accustomed thinking, political systems based on egalitarian sentiments (e.g., state socialism, welfarism, social leveling) are inherently conservative in nature. The turbulence that accompanies change is most threatening to those with established interests, many of whom now have an incentive to promote political policies that discourage change. Such programs are focused upon the redistribution of some existing body of privately owned property, and the enactment of governmental policies (e.g., graduated income tax, antitrust or licensing laws, or other regulatory measures) that impede the processes of creativity and change that produce greater diversity. It is yet another example of the paradoxical nature of our world that such political programs, while appealing to the sense of envy and resentment upon which egalitarianism is based and purporting to dismantle the benefits of concentrated wealth, have had the opposite effect. It is no idle coincidence that the most firmly established institutions (e.g., the state, major corporations, churches, and universities), whose well-being depends upon preserving the status quo in order to protect their wealth, have been some of the most vocal advocates of egalitarian policies.
Contrary to such doctrines, liberty, as a catalyst for change, provides the best opportunity for wealth to be both created and subject to a continuing process of redistribution. A condition of liberty is no friend to those allied to the status quo, who see it more as a form of entropy to be eliminated. In the engineering concept of “equipartition of energy,” we get a partial explanation of how energy tends to get evenly distributed throughout systems.10 The way in which heat gets evenly distributed within a pan of boiling water illustrates this principle. It provides a metaphorical example for why, in an unrestrained marketplace, wealth that is produced tends to get redistributed throughout the economy without anyone having intended to bring about such a result. Wealth provides a means for enhancing one’s wellbeing by securing the cooperation of others—be they employees, suppliers, or customers—which will occur only if others expect to better their own conditions in the exchange process.
Such are the consequences of the dynamic produced by the interplay of individual self-interests in a setting in which parties are free to respond to the specific conditions before them. Furthermore, unrestricted entry and free competition would be the most effective means of redistributing wealth out of the hands of those who lack the resiliency to respond to energized rivalry. But by impeding the processes of change, government taxation and regulatory policies have helped entrench the positions of the more established economic interests. Standardization becomes a tool for narrowing the range within which others, who might otherwise emerge as competitive threats—may operate. This is why established institutions have been consistent supporters of the political structuring of the marketplace.11
Even more compelling is the fact that egalitarianism is premised on the illusion that wealth consists of some fixed body of property, and that the rich have taken from the rest of mankind more than their “fair share” of such wealth. Proudhon’s and Shaw’s descriptions of the nature of property are grounded in such fanciful thinking. Furthermore, unlike most other species, humans not only consume wealth, but create it, an attribute that has been our greatest source of resiliency. We have not simply taken from nature, but have transformed resources to produce what did not previously exist! There is, of course, one expression of equality that collectivists are most anxious not to permit. As long as each of us has an unrestricted decision-making control over our own lives and property, there is an equality of authority that prevails among us. This is what institutionalists fear the most, and why there is such widespread hostility to the private ownership of property. It is in the practice of evenly distributed authority throughout mankind that “liberty” and “equality” are quite harmonious. But when egalitarianism was seized upon by the politically ambitious as a tool for gaining power over their fellow humans, the divisive nature of all political systems ended up destroying this harmonious and mutually respectful relationship. Rather quickly, “equality” came to be regarded not as a claim to immunity from state coercion, but as a condition to be conferred upon people by political force! But the exercise of the power to redesign and alter the lives of others—an authority enjoyed by a select few—can hardly be reconciled with notions of equality. If one scratches any egalitarian deeply enough, one finds a very deep-seated animosity to expressions of individual liberty as well as a commitment to totalitarian thinking and behavior.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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