Collectivism is a term used to describe any perspective that stresses human interdependence and the importance of a collective or group, rather than the importance of separate individuals. In this view, the emphasis is on community and society, and priority is given to group goals over individual goals.
How do such seemingly different definitions give rise to the singular phenomenon of human society? More importantly, how can both philosophical definitions be so completely wrong in describing humans? Part of the problem can be seen by the bias that is intrinsic in the definitions themselves. I’ve elected to use some quotes from Ayn Rand to represent the individualist perspective, because her viewpoint is so strident regarding its importance. Interestingly enough, despite our dependence on social groups, most humans do not look favorably on the idea of the “collective”. I suspect that this may be driven by our biological imperative to set ourselves apart and be recognized by the group, so any effort to make us disappear into the group is considered “bad”.
Let’s begin by recognizing that regardless of individual desires or beliefs, we cannot escape our biology. There are many aspects of life that humans can control and will yet control in the future, but our biology is inescapable. Without it, whatever else we may be, it would no longer be human. In addition, we cannot wish away our biology by brainpower. Once again, there are many aspects of human philosophy and intellect that are clearly subject to modification, but we cannot “think” ourselves out of our biological roots.
These roots include the inescapable fact that we are social animals that depend on sexual reproduction to propagate our species. As a result, while philosophical concepts such as self-reliance and independence sound good, in truth, they are meaningless in any real sense.
A concept like independence doesn’t even make sense unless it is placed into the context of the social group. Clearly as individual organisms we can act in absolutely any manner we choose, however truly independent organisms don’t need to assert their independence. Such an assertion only becomes necessary when we’re attempting to convince others and ourselves.
Similarly, humans do not normally operate as a collective wherein each member is simply a contributor to a final action. While this does occur in various settings, it is not the primary mode of our existence. History has demonstrated that humans can survive in numerous different social group configurations, but there isn’t some implicit biological “critical mass” or group size that could be described in any way that resembles something like a collective organism (i.e. “super-organism” like eusocial insects)
Humans operate in both domains, as individuals and collectives, and to favor one over the other is simply myopic. There can be no preferred position from a biological perspective, since both are essential for human survival. This isn’t to suggest that there isn’t a balance, nor does it suggest that humans may not make things better or worse when tinkering with it, but it is impossible to succeed without both.
An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.”Such a view is filled with so many flaws, one hardly knows where to begin. In the first place it requires anarchy and the absence of law. It completely negates the concept of altruism such as that provided by the military, or police and it requires that all individuals confront each other with complete indifference (i.e. no wars of conquest, territory, etc.).
“Textbook of Americanism,” The Ayn Rand Column, 84
While some of these ideas may be worth pursuing as philosophical or moral objectives, most are naively pointless, and represent little more than wishful thinking.
We inherit the products of the thought of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. The cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the process what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The moving force is the creative faculty which takes this product as material, uses it and originates the next step. This creative faculty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single, individual men. That which it creates is the property of the creator. Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival.Once again, this is simply rhetorical nonsense. Products do not exist as thoughts of men. A cart doesn’t become an automobile, regardless of how good someone’s idea is. It explicitly requires the cooperation of hundreds or thousands of individuals that are being used as a collective labor pool to achieve this objective.
The Soul of an Individualist, For the New Intellectual, 78.
This was always the flaw in the heroes of novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There was the quantum leap of assuming that the creativity or innovation of these heroes somehow produced results as a single miraculous act. The major complaint of these characters was invariably linked to their lack of appreciation by the collective, rather than any desire to be individualists. If their intent was to be truly independent and individualistic only, then why even bother to share their knowledge or visions?
The creative faculty being referenced may be the property of the creator, but once it leaves his mind, it becomes the property of the collective. Newton’s laws are not rediscovered by every generation. Human society is built on the collective knowledge of individuals, channeled into productive means, and then made collectively available. There is no single man that can be credited with the computer, or the internet. How do such concepts develop if not for the collective approach of data gathering and synthesis?
In fact, the collective group does attempt to recognize individual achievements by assigning names and giving credit where possible, but it would be impossible to live in the society we have if it consisted of nothing but “individualists”.
A great deal may be learned about society by studying man; but this process cannot be reversed: nothing can be learned about man by studying society—by studying the inter-relationships of entities one has never identified or defined.Since it is impossible for man to exist outside of society, then by what reasoning does it make sense to study the individual only? There simply is no such thing as an individual human being that survives.
“What Is Capitalism?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 15.
Let me also be clear that this isn’t some arbitrary definition of social group, but rather it is the absolute, unequivocal means by which humans survive.
Some species have a much lower need for social interaction. Animals, such as grizzly bears, represent a species that may wander over far-ranging territories and only interact for reproductive purposes, but even this limited lifestyle is beyond the ability of humans to achieve.
True individualistic living is so foreign to human psychology that the concept is used in stories to describe how terrible such an existence would be (consider movies like “I am Legend”/”The Omega Man”). Yet if we neglect the specific circumstances of these stories and focus solely on the lifestyle being presented, the majority of people fail to recognize that this is what living as an “individualist” would actually be like.
Some might argue that that is simply an extreme viewpoint and that they are simply advocating for recognition of individuals and that there is nothing wrong with social interaction. However, this begs the question, since it attempts to rationalize our dependence on the social group by suggesting that we can individually elect to participate and that we only do so voluntarily.
There are many animal species that could rightfully be termed “individualistic”, but humans are not among them.
The values that most humans hold in the highest regard, are meaningless without the context of the group to interpret them. What is fame? Wealth? Achievement? Security? Peace? These are all concepts that mark an individual’s position or relationship within a social group. They have no meaning outside of that context.
Even in economics we have ideas like laissez faire which means "let [the people] do" [for themselves what they know how to do]”
Note that this is not an individualistic policy, but rather one of non-interference. In effect, it is saying that if people are allowed to behave as they wish, then a process will emerge that the collective can utilize. The “free market” isn’t intended to promote individualism. It is intended to ensure that competition among individuals produces a cooperative group of individuals. In effect it’s a form of “taming the beast”, where the “beast” is the mass of people being controlled.
Social animals always engage in internal competition for reproductive mates, so it isn’t surprising when a species that can actually articulate such ideas proposes the notion that the “individual” within a group is all important. After all, just like the peacock with its extravagant tail, that’s how we announce ourselves as the most desirable partner in the biological game of sexual selection. While the arguments about individualism may have a certain appeal, it should be clear that by even engaging in such discussions, we demonstrate how little individualism we possess.