Individual versus collective

In the West, we have been groomed on “individualism,” as though the isolated person were the basis of society. Yet the truth of human nature is rather different. We are fundamentally social creatures from the start, whose success as a species depends entirely on our remarkable ability to cooperate. Over thousands of generations, the natural selection of this capacity for collaboration, unique among primates, required a compromise of individual will. Conformity is the baseline of human sociality and the context for any concept of individual identity and freedom. Personal identity exists in the eyes of others; even in one’s own eyes, it is reflected in the identity of the group and one’s sense of belonging. One individuates in relation to group norms. Personal freedom exists to the degree it is licensed by the group—literally through law. In other words, the collective comes first, both historically and psychologically. The individual is not the deep basis of society but an afterthought. How, then, did individualism come to be an ideal of modern society? And how does this ideal function within society despite being effectively anti-social?

But let us backtrack. The ideology of individualism amounts to a theory of society, in which the individual is the fundamental unit and the pursuit of individual interest is the essential dynamic underlying any social interaction. But if there currently exists an ideal of individualism, there has also existed an ideal of collectivism. It was such an ideal that underwrote the communist revolutions of the 20th century. It is only seen through the ideology of individualism that communism has been anathema in capitalist society. The collapse of communist states does not imply the disappearance of the collectivist ideal. For, as soon as patriotism calls to libertarians, they are more than willing to sacrifice individual interest for the national good. Ironically, libertarian individualists typically derive their identity from membership in a like-minded group: a collective that defines itself in opposition to collectivism. In other words, the group still comes first, even for many so-called individualists and even within capitalist states. This is because collective identity is grounded in evolutionary history, in which personal interests generally overlapped with collective interests for most of human existence. Yet, there has been a tension between them since the arising of civilization. In modern times, to reconcile the needs of the individual with those of the collective has long been a utopian challenge.

There are deep historical precedents for the antinomy of individual versus collective in the modern world. These become apparent when comparisons are made among earlier societies. Ancient civilizations were of two rough types: either they were more collectivist, like China and Egypt, or more individualist, like the city-states of Mesopotamia and Greece. The former were characterized by central rule over an empire, government management of foreign trade, and laws that vertically regulated the conduct of peasants in regard to the ruler. There was relative equality among the ruled, who were uniformly poor and unfree. The state owned all, including slaves; there was little private property. In contrast, Greece and Mesopotamia were fragmented into more local regimes, with merchants plying private trade between regions with different resources and with foreigners. Laws tended to regulate the horizontal relations among citizens, who could own property including slaves. These societies were more stratified by economic and class differences.

A key factor in the contrast between these two types of civilization was geography and natural resources. The collectivist (“statist”) regimes formed in areas of more homogenous geography, such as the flat plains beside the Nile, where everything needed could be produced within reach of the central government. The individualist (“market”) regimes tended to form in more heterogeneous areas, such as the mountain and coastal areas of Greece, with differing resources, and where trade between these regions was significant. Countries that used to be ruled by statist systems tend today to have inherited a collectivist culture, while countries where market systems developed in the past tend to have a more individualistic culture. In market systems, the role of the law would be to protect private property rights and the rights of individuals. In other words, the law would protect individuals from both the state and from each other. In contrast, in statist systems the law would serve as an instrument to ensure the obedience of the ruled, but also to define the obligations of the ruler toward them.

In those societies where geography permitted centralized control over a large region, a deified emperor could retain ownership of all land and absolute power. In other societies, geography favored smaller local rulers, who sold or gave land to supporters to bolster their precarious power. Thus, private ownership of land could arise more easily in some regimes than in others. The absolute ruler of the statist empire was duty bound to behave in a benevolent way towards his peasant subjects, on pain of losing the “mandate of heaven.” Hence the aristocratic ideal of noblesse oblige. Individualist (market) society tends to lack this mutual commitment between ruler and ruled; hence the greater antagonism between individual and government in societies with a propertied middle class. In individualist culture, prestige measures how the individual stands out from the crowd; the larger the size or value of one’s property, the more one stands out and the higher one’s social status. In collectivist culture, prestige measures how well one fits in: how well one plays a specific fixed role, whether high or lowly. Being a loyal servant of the Emperor or State and fulfilling one’s duties would be rewarded not only by promotion but also by social prestige.

It is no coincidence that capitalism arose in Western Europe, which is characterized by the paradigmatic market city-states that fostered the Renaissance. On the other hand, the aristocracy and peasantry of Russia, as in China, did not favor the arising of a merchant middle class. It is no coincidence that these traditionally statist regimes were eventual homes to the communist experiment. The inequities of the system motivated revolt; but the nature of the system favored cooperation. Even now that both have been infected with consumer capitalism, individualism does not have the same implications as in the West. In China, the collective is still paramount, while Russia has effectively returned to rule by a Tsar. Given the chance, a large faction in the U.S. would turn effectively to a tsar, paradoxically in the name of individualism. History has patterns—and ironies.

In modern times, the individualist ideology has permeated economic theory and even the social sciences, as well as politics. (These, in turn, reinforce individualism as a political philosophy.) The reason is clear enough: in the absence of a religiously sanctioned justification of class differences, individualism serves to justify the superior position of some individuals in opposition to the well-being of most. They are the winners in a theoretically fair game. In truth, most often the contest is rigged and the public is the loser. Like the addiction to gambling, the ideology of individualism naturally appeals to losers in the contest, who want to believe there is still hope for them to win. Of course, it appeals to winners as well, who seek a justification for their good fortune (they are naturally more fit, hardworking, deserving, etc.) Above all, it helps the winners to convince the losers of the “natural” order of things, which keeps them in their place while promising social mobility. In other words, individualism is the opiate of the people! Economists endorse this arrangement by considering private property a natural right and with theories based on “rational” self-interest, where a player in a market “naturally” is motivated to maximize personal gain. (This is how a so-called rational player is defined—implying that it is not rational to pursue any other goal, such as collective benefit.) Corporations are dedicated to this premise and legally bound to it. Modern politics is more a competition among special interests than the pursuit of the common good.

Of course, many other factors besides geography play a role in the divergent heritages of collectivism and individualism. Not least is religion. Confucianism emphasizes duty and social role in the hierarchy of the collective. Buddhism encourages individuals to lose their individuality, to detach from personal desires and merge with the cosmos. These Eastern philosophies stand in contrast to the individualism of Greek philosophy and the Semitic religions. Greek philosophy encourages individuals to compete and excel—whether as soldier, philosopher, politician or merchant. Christian religion emphasizes individual salvation with a personal relation between the individual and God.

Along an entirely different axis, regions where there was historically a strong presence of disease pathogens tended to develop more collectivist cultures, where social norms restricted individual behavior that could spread disease. Now that disease has no borders, a dose of that attitude would be healthy for us all.