Collectivism is back in fashion at the moment, particularly with the young in the West, who have no experience of living in collectivist societies and who are a generation or two removed from the experience of their effects in the political sphere, and also with those who are enamoured of the moral kudos that comes with being associated with collectivist rhetoric but are largely insulated from the effects of collectivist economic systems, such as the wealthy who can move their assets to places where they are secure. Collectivism can be defined as any ideological, political or economic system that posits a greater good than the individual good and, additionally, commands allegiance to that good through a central authority. Collectivist systems range from authoritarian to totalitarian and can include every social institution from the smallest up to an entire society. Collectivist societies are those in which all the important functions of society are centralised in the state and, typically, in a single person. Collectivist societies include those in which the dominant ideology is religious and those in which it is secular or, more commonly today, atheistic. There are those which allow some economic freedom and those in which the state controls all economic activity. Political freedoms, if allowed, are barely tolerated and there is little respect for human rights.
Regarding the definition I have given, it could be objected that there are actually goods which are greater than the individual good, and that may well be the case. But if ten or a hundred people were asked to say what that greater good was, we may not end up with ten or a hundred different answers, but there would be a range and certainly not a convergence on one. In other words, a decision about a greater good is almost by definition an individual decision; therefore, by what logic could we justify imposing a single definition on an entire population, except by the logic of power? Naturally, people do not arrive at a decision about the greater good in a vacuum, but usually through some pre-existing institutions, such as religions and political parties, on which common interests converge, and shared customs. But the point is that there is still a range of options, which could not coexist with a single allowed definition. So, although most people arrive at an individual position that there are greater things than the individual, it does not follow that there is one thing that must be so.
Just as we can individually decide that there is such a thing as a greater good than the individual good, we can individually subject ourselves to the rules, principles and values that flow from that decision. However, we cannot with consistency insist that the path which we have chosen individually must be enforced on others. I might choose to be religious because I believe that serving God is a greater good, but I cannot insist that everyone be so. I might believe that society would be better if wealth were shared equally, but I cannot force people to do so. This is, of course, the central paradox of all forms of collectivism: that they fail to reason universally from an individual decision about the greater good that there must be equally valid – on the basis of preference at least – competing visions of the good in the world. This creates a dilemma for the collectivist: the existence of alternative visions of the good throws their certainty into doubt and if there is one characteristic common to all committed collectivists it is their intolerance of uncertainty. The resolution to this dilemma is the anathematising of alternative visions of the good, which then justifies, permits and even lauds the use of coercive measures to ensure conformity.
For the individualist, at the political level, there is no problem with competing visions of the good. The fact that one cannot always ‘have one’s way’ might be personally galling, but there is recognition that there is always the possibility that one might be wrong and that there are alternative ways of seeing things which are better. In other words, for the individualist we could say that the existence of competing ideas it itself a form of the good. The individualist, for this reason, is tolerant of uncertainty as a fundamental attitude towards the world.
That is not to say that individualists are total relativists. They start from the same assumption as collectivists that there is no greater good than the common good, but rather than assume that that good is what they personally believe, they have the humility to accept that understanding what makes for the common good is not easy and is certainly not easily attainable. Ideas about the greater good, like all ideas that in fact serve the common good, must meet certain criteria: have an internally consistent view or logical structure, be able to withstand criticism, and have evidence in their favour. The form of society that facilitates the greater good, in the eyes of individualists, is precisely that which allows an ongoing debate about what constitutes the greater good, even as people individually and collectively pursue their own personal vision of the good together with those of like mind.
In fact, on analysis, we see that individualism and collectivism are exactly the opposite of what collectivists purport them to be. For collectivists, individualism is about selfishness and collectivism about the good of all and, therefore, self-evidently morally superior. What we see in reality is that individualists – certainly those who follow through their individualist perspective to its logical and moral conclusions – are committed to the greater good, but are prepared to endure some uncertainty about its exact nature and construct their social and political institutions to reflect the view that as a society we are always learning and that to the extent that we must rely on certainties and stable features in order to meet the requirements of the day, they should be ones which have met the criteria described above. Collectivists, on the other hand, being intolerant of uncertainty, are far more likely to insist on their personal (i.e., individual) views and preferences and band together with like-minded individuals to enforce their point of view. For this reason, collectivist cultures are always dominated by a committed ideological minority, are characterised by conflict – because collectivists cannot tolerate dissent – and ones in which the majority acquiesce through fear.
While individualists believe that the good of the individual is a great good, a consistent individualism must, paradoxically, posit the highest good to be the collective good of all individuals and can only accept a political and social settlement in which that principle is embedded and affirmed. This is a logical inference from the suppositions of a consistent individualism; individualism is not philosophical or emotive solipsism. In a reworking of Rawls’ famous thought experiment, rather than considering one’s place in society behind the “veil of ignorance” and assuming that the outcome of such an experiment must be the advocacy of some form of social justice mediated through state organs, one can empathetically identify with the value that another places on their own life and the desires they have for achieving happiness and arrive at a concept of the common good that respects those things above all. The outcome of this thought experiment is that the good of the individual is realistically only achievable in a society in which individuals support each other and the political culture supports them in the realisation of their desires.
This differs from collectivism in two ways. The first is it does not assume that the conditions for the common good are known and perhaps only not implemented because of some systemic evil; on the contrary, as already stated, individualists believe that the knowledge needed to create a society that serves the interests of all is rather hard to come by and that it is incremental. Second, it does not intellectually defer the responsibility for the discovery – or, more likely, the proclamation – of those conditions to authority, be those religious, political or intellectual; rather, it falls to each individual, drawing, of course, on the wisdom and opportunities accumulated within our cultural institutions, to make some headway in discovery of those conditions.
It is no big step to realise that the form of social settlement and political system which accommodates both the individual desire for self-betterment and fulfilment and our desire to belong collectively is one that prioritises freedom. With a few rare exceptions, all individuals choose to belong in various manners in collective contexts. A polity that prioritises freedom implies two things in contradistinction to collectivism. One is that the belonging and the subjection to the authoritative dictates of the collective is a matter of choice; if there are persuasive or coercive forces at work, such as family or community, they are at least local and escapable. The second is that in a culture that prioritises freedom, one is free to belong in multiple ways, both in different forms of life – even if logically, ideologically, or aesthetically incompatible – and with different degrees of commitment.
In summary, both collectivists and individualists believe in a greater good and that this is defined more or less by what we can call the common good. Collectivists, by definition, know with certainty that the common good accords with their individually preferred or shared collectivist ideology. The only problem is to convince others of their correctness; if persuasion does not work, coercion is certainly justified. Once the intolerability of uncertainty is admitted, there are no limits to justified authority or measures to ensure conformity. For individualists the greater good is the good of the individual, but this means the good of each individual, not just what is good for the sole individual. The common good emerges from a consideration of the individual good and the only reasonable inference is that this is served by a form of society that both allows and facilitates the pursuit of the individual good. This is a far more complex proposition, one which we see rudiments of but which is incomplete and likely to remain in a state of perpetual becoming.