There is at present a war of ideas between individualism and collectivism. The two isms are mutually exclusive concepts: whereas the former places the rights of the individual before those of the group, the latter places the rights of the group before those of the individual. History testifies that individualism is infinitely preferable to collectivism, both for the individual and the group. Despite this reality, it seems that at the time of writing it is the collectivists who are winning the war.
First, a point of reason. The human being exists as an individual, not as a group. This point may seem obvious but it cannot be overstated: we live our lives as individuals; collectivism subsumes our rights into a collective and, in so doing, subsumes our every existence into that of the group. Studies in social psychology have proven this much: membership of a group alters individual behaviour.
Consider a rioting mob. An individual member of the mob may, together with their fellow counterparts, vandalise private property via the looting of shops and the burning of cars. Driven by the animated spirits of the mob, they may even kill those who stand in their way. How much of these heinous acts would they have committed if they had been acting alone and not in concert with others? Reason would suggest they would have done much less, if not none at all.
The will of the group supplants that of our own. That which the group thinks we think. That which the group strives for we strive for. Both the individual and the group are worse off for it. To quote the 19th century liberal philosopher and advocate of individual rights, J.S. Mill:
‘He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used. The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing merely because others do it, no more by believing a thing because others believe it.’
The subordination of the individual to the group leaves the individual worse off because it deprives them of initiative. This then leaves the wider group worse off because without initiative there can be no progress.
By definition, the subordination of individual rights to group rights creates the possibility for the infringement of individual rights by the group, in turn rendering the individual un-free. Individual liberty is an intrinsic good, that is to say, it is a good in itself and therefore ought to be something worth preserving. The violation of the rights of a single individual violates the rights of all individuals, since for one individual to suffer this indignity means that every other individual must be on guard unless they suffer the same.
Second, an appeal to history. Societies that have favoured collectivism over individualism, and not the other way round, have all committed terrible acts against the individual. As aforementioned, when the rights of a single individual are violated, so too are the rights of all individuals. That is as much the lesson of Hitler’s Third Reich as it is of Stalin’s Soviet Union. The former described itself as a fascist system and the latter as a socialist system, yet both were simply sides of the same coin that is collectivism. Their equal disdain for individualism was well articulated by Mussolini’s maxim:
‘The more complicated the forms of civilisation, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.’
So it was that individuals could no longer voice their opinions openly. So it was that individuals could no longer practise their faith openly. So it was that individuals could no longer be themselves openly.
The war of ideas that is individualism versus collectivism manifests itself in the contemporary world in manifold ways, all of them disconcerting. Chief among them is the appeal to ‘identity politics’ on the part of certain elements of the modern political left, guided as it is by ‘neo-progressivism’. Under this doctrine, the actions, beliefs and very life of a person can be explained only with reference to the group to which they are seen to belong. The fatal flaw of this is that it presupposes, first, that all persons belong to a group and, second, that their very being is determined by virtue of their membership of said group.
So it is, according to the proponents of identity politics, that all ‘white people’ essentially think and act the same way and, through their actions, perpetuate a system of ‘oppression’ against ‘non-whites’.
One case example would be apt here. Earlier this year, students at Evergreen State College in the United States called for a day ‘without white people on campus’. Professor Bret Weinstein refused to vacate campus, rightly calling the event ‘an act of oppression in and of itself’. His non-compliance subsequently led to his being branded a ‘racist’, seemingly a staple attack by those on the left who subscribe to the anti-individualist scourge that is identity politics.
It is anti-individualist precisely due to its insistence that individuals can only be understood in terms of group identities. Hence the propensity of some leftists to fill their discourse with appeals to labels. Those labels can describe anything from the colour of one’s skin to the nature of one’s socio-economic background to much else besides. It is then insisted, or at least presupposed, that every individual who fits a label is the same as every other individual who fits that label. Thus, all white people are engaged in acts of oppression. All males perpetuate misogyny. All rich people cheat the system. The list goes on and on, seemingly ad infinitum. This politics of identity would be totally anathema to Martin Luther King, who looked to a day ‘when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ To King, it was not group membership that defined a person but the individual character of the person.
The danger of neo-progressivism is that it subsumes individuals into groups. As argued above, when this occurs the rights and initiative of the individual are removed. Individuals are no longer individuals at all, but rather homogeneous units that form part of a wider whole. To the Nazis, the Jews were all innately evil. To the Bolsheviks, the Bourgeois were all innately evil. Individuals did not exist. Only group members did, and their membership of the wrong group sealed their fate.
We are witnessing the same discourse that consumed collectivist societies of the past return to us today. The warning that fascists would come to America in the guise of anti-fascists seems all the more prescient. The politics of collectivism, as articulated in the past and as articulated now, is inherently divisive: it divides mankind into arbitrary collectives whose members have no will of their own and who exist in competition with the members of opposing groups. Herein lies the recipe for the racial strife and social breakdown we are witnessing in the United States.
‘The smallest minority on earth,’ explains Ayn Rand, ‘is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.’ Collectivism oppresses individuals by treating their rights as inferior to those of the collective. Individual initiative is obliterated, the prospects for progress compromised and all mankind finds itself in a perilous place.
Individualism, in contrast to collectivism, preserves the liberties of the individual and in so doing, far from endangering the prospects for progress, preserves it. To their credit, societies that favour individualism over collectivism have better secured the old principle that all sane minds strive to defend: freedom.