We all seek meaning in our lives. For some, meaning is simple; for others, we feel a need to prove ourselves. Most of us find meaning in our own achievements. We feel proud when we overcome adversity and act bravely in the face of challenges. Others, however, have meaning forced on them from outside. They accept what they are told are virtues because people around them think the same; and meaning, to such people, comes from the pursuit of other people’s virtues.
Individuals who come to their own conclusions understand that opinions must come from facts, not from fiction. Their identities are based on personal beliefs about what is right and wrong, not on where they were born, what language they speak, what religion they were born into, and so on. They refuse the offer of what Stefan Molyneux calls “the straitjacket of false meaning” because they know it is not where the truth lies, only where soft feelings of belonging are offered. Those who flee the straitjacket are individualists. Those who seek it are collectivists.
Before going any further, let us define the two key terms of this six part series, Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal. Individualism means that the individual is an end unto itself. The individual occupies the highest moral ground. The individual is inviolable, meaning that his or her rights always trump the interests of the group. The individual is not obliged to pay any loyalty or duty to any group he or she belongs to but may pay it willingly. Collectivism, by contrast, means that the group is the end, and the individual is merely the means by which to further the interests of the group. The group could be a nation, a civilisation, a race, a sex, the followers of a religion or an ideology, a club or other any other organisation. To a collectivist, the group’s rights trump the individual’s; and pursuit of the group’s interests is the highest of callings.
The individualist versus collectivist debate is not just an abstract, philosophical one. It is at the core of our legal system, education, culture and the cause of all the world’s most complicated conflicts. Many would tempted to avoid intellectualising on the subject by a la carte reasoning: there are some things I am individualist about and some things I am collectivist about. And yet, when forced to make a choice, most people show their true colours. That choice, as I will show in this series, means life or death, civilisation or chaos, good or evil.
If individualism vs. collectivism makes you think of the divisions between communism and capitalism, you are correct, at least to a point. It would be wrong to say that communism was purely collectivist, nor is capitalism in practice purely individualist. Indeed, some of capitalist countries’ biggest problems stem from problems of collectivism, which we will come to later. But in general, the assumptions are correct. Communist society was planned to consider its members as nothing more than contributers to the aims of the government. The members of the government were the power elites, but even they were replaceable. No one had any rights. Capitalist societies, on the other hand, were not planned, and could go on existing indefinitely because of their greatest strength: each person was an end to him or herself.
The message I bring is one of freedom. It is understandable that many are uncomfortable losing their chains, as freedom can be scary. Where is the security of the old master? At least he ensured I was not killed. He gave me a place to direct my loyalty. Now my identity is at risk of theft, invasion, death. This series will argue that, not only is your identity worth losing, but you grow stronger when you become a true individual.
Individualism is not something that people from all cultures will rush to embrace. It is not something that goes down easily, as it sounds like selfishness, greed, indifference to the problems of others. The myth states that collectivist cultures are more sympathetic to the people as a whole than individualist ones. But to be sensitive to the problems that an individual can have, one must understand the individual. Collectivist cultures, except for very small groups such as bands, tribes and chiefdoms, actually have trouble understanding difference, because they believe that they are monolithic. Your group is not one big unit of people with small, insignificant differences, as you might believe. It is a group of differently skilled, differently creative and different thinking people who could reach amazing potential if they were given their freedom.
Unfortunately, there are many in the world that want to belong. They are driven not by a desire to make themselves better but a desire to do what others tell them to do. These people are the employees, the churchgoers, the soldiers, those who unquestioningly follow traditions and charismatic leaders. They are humanity’s sheep. And some places are full of them.
Because of the danger of being a sheep, this series does not simply attack the most dangerous collective feelings of nationalism, racism and cults. It attempts to bring down all sources of collective identity, including diehard sports team fans, deeply bonded fraternal organisations, loyalty to a political party, town pride, and so on. All feelings of collectivism lead to the abdication of the person in favour of the advancement of the group.
But the problem lies not with an individual’s paradoxical choice to give up his or her individuality. It lies in the fact that collectivism forces itself on others. It is an idea that everyone under its influence is forced to adopt. If one is born in Greece to a Greek Orthodox family, there is little chance of being shown all the nationalities and religions before being told that you are Greek Orthodox and accepting it for life. One is not offered membership but force fed it from birth. One must abide by the collective’s laws, even ones whose purpose we have forgotten, such as that state that pigs cannot be eaten on Wednesdays while praying to the golden man statue that must always be facing north because he protected us during the viking invasion. In this way, collectivist loyalties are a kind of hereditary chain gang: people are born in chains, they labour for the chain gang their whole lives, and attempts to break free could mean death.
An individualist culture, however, is one where people evaluate things based on how they will affect the people that undertake them, not the group. The individualist argument seems selfish because it becomes a fair question to ask, why should I give something up for the group? Why should my son go to war when you do not have to go? If I am poor, why should I donate to the food bank just because everyone else I know is? If I can think for myself, why should I do what everyone else is doing? Perhaps there is a better way.
The good news is that individualist identities are very slowly reappearing. Transnational business, global media, internationalism, anti nationalism, free thinking and the internet are all forces bringing the dangers of collectivism down, one new individualist at a time. This series delights in this trend and advocates the tearing down of all feelings of collectivism to make individualism the norm. It will do so by showing where collectivism comes from and its consequences, while showing why one should and how one can become an individual.