05 December 2012

Collectivist individualism in theory and practice

In past posts I've noted a seeming paradox in Republican attitudes toward the consequences for individuals of their economic principles. For the most part, Republicans espouse individualism, and they're nearly unanimous in favor of individual liberty in the economic sphere. At the same time, they abhor "collectivism" of any kind, apart from whatever they can fit under the more palatable rubric of "patriotism." Yet the inescapable consequence of their economic agenda is that some (or many) individuals must suffer, either from having government benefits cut or by having jobs taken from them for efficiency's sake, in order for the economy -- a collective entity if ever there was one -- to remain healthy and "competitive." All of this becomes less paradoxical as we appreciate how Republican individualism is conditioned by the concept of "personal responsibility" and their rejection of what we can call material entitlements. But I bring up the paradox again to note an apparently mirroring paradox on the other side, among Marxian communists. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels describe communism as a condition in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." That seems to contradict the common notion of communism as a condition in which, to use Star Trek terminology, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." Marx and Engels seem to say the exact opposite, taking a Search For Spock  rather than a Wrath of Khan stance. Their idea of communism seems to be a system that benefits every one rather than an abstract collective, not the sort of system many anti-collectivists fear -- and in which they actually seem to live -- in which the good of a more nebulous whole requires individual sacrifices and suffering. Yet most avowedly Marxist governments in modern history have behaved in a manner confirming the anti-collectivist stereotype, treating individuals as so much stuff to be sacrificed to a supposed higher good that usually boils down to the perpetuation of rule by the Party. Interestingly, apologists for Marxist (or Leninist) regimes justify individual suffering on "personal responsibility" grounds similar to those employed by Republican polemicists. In bluntest terms, whether or not they accept the truth of Stalinist or Maoist charges against their victims, communists tend to take a "whoever isn't with us is against us" stance toward their own people. They might argue that every one has to actively committed to building communism in order for every one to benefit from it, and they definitely argued that failures on the road to communism could be traced to individual acts of sabotage or bad faith. In the final analysis, neither Republicans nor Communists are hedonists. Despite the avowed dedication of each group to individual "free development," each places a burden of performance on individuals, requiring each one to earn his or her spot by purportedly objective but essentially ideological standards and essentially dismissing individual suffering as the individual's fault for failing to follow the "party line." Since existence requires effort, it would be impossible for a political philosophy not to set conditions for individual existence within a polity. Individuals must be expected to contribute to "the free development of all" in some way, but some way should be found to keep that requirement from annihilating "the free development of each" espoused by Right and Left alike. If individuals must contribute, society should do all in its power to enable them to do so, and if individualism is valued, society should enable individuals to contribute in ways that don't obliterate their individuality by reducing them to interchangeable drones or compelling them to disproportionate drudgery. A society in which no one is dissatisfied with what they have to do is probably a utopian ideal, but no other ideal gives us a goal that lives up to the lofty rhetoric of "the free development of each" as the ultimate end of social and political life. Only if we believe that such an ideal can be realized can the moral impulses of individualism and collectivism possibly be reconciled.


Anonymous said...

Without reading more than the opening of your post, one thing strikes me immediately. The economy affects every single individual. So therefore, every individual should have a say in the economy, how it runs and who it benefits. This repugnican ideal that the economy should be strictly out of government hands simply shows (again) that repugnicans don't believe in democracy or any of the basic premises of democracy such as equality.

It is about time that the left became as audibly loud in condemning this aspect of the right as the anti-social, misanthropic trash that it is.

Samuel Wilson said...

Depends on what a "say" is. Some will say everyone has a say because they all participate in the economy in multiple ways. But I think you agree with me that having a "say" includes making the rules, while others claim that you can only get into trouble trying to consciously make rules. That attitude sounds like denial, to be generous about it.