Collectivism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the significance of groups—their identities, goals, rights, outcomes, etc.—and tends to analyze issues in those terms. Collectivism is a basic cultural element that exists as the reverse of individualism in human nature (in the same way high context culture exists as the reverse of low context culture), and in some cases stresses the priority of group goals over individual goals and the importance of cohesion within social groups (such as an "in-group", in what specific context it is defined).
Collectivists usually focus on community, society, or nation. It is used and has been used as an element in many different and diverse types of government and political, economic and educational philosophies throughout history and all human societies in practice contain elements of both individualism and collectivism. Some examples of collectivist democracies include Portugal, India, and Japan.
Collectivism can be divided into horizontal collectivism and vertical collectivism. Horizontal collectivism stresses collective decision-making among relatively equal individuals, and is thus usually based on decentralization. Vertical collectivism is based on hierarchical structures of power and on moral and cultural conformity, and is therefore based on centralization. A cooperative enterprise would be an example of horizontal collectivism, whereas a military hierarchy would be an example of vertical collectivism.
As a consequence of the Cold War, and poor social science education in some places, a popular conception interprets collectivism as mandated adherence to a state or other entity opposed to individual autonomy. This belief however may more precisely refer to Leninism, nationalism, fascism, Maoism, etc. which in the 20th century were considered the only forms of collectivism. Collectivism has in actuality been observed throughout history and has existed independently of Soviet Stalinism or fascism for thousands of years, and has been noticed at the very founding of human societies until now.
As an example of a collectivism before then, the societies that existed along the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States before the Revolution during the 1600s and 1700s were both individualist and collectivist. Hybrid systems such as this, are the most common type of societies seen by social scientists if cultural history is examined world wide by comparing societies side by side, both then and now.
A direct example of Collectivism, would be Minnesota nice. "Minnesota Nice" is a Social Code that all individuals within the State of Minnesota are expected to follow; however, at no time do people go to jail if they break it, the penalties for doing so are minor, and social in nature, but never legal. Military ranks in any military system in the world are also an example of collectivism. Notice that military ranks are backed legally, but "Minnesota Nice" is not. It simply implies to everyone that they should act a certain way (rather than any way they choose, which would be Individualism), and therefore expresses group orientation within a society, and is considered a well-functioning example of Collectivism by Social Scientists.
Collectivism has been used to refer to a diverse range of political and economic positions, including nationalism, direct democracy, representative democracy, monarchy, and communism. Collectivism does not need a government or political system to exist (another example of that would be a religious organization that stresses "group goals" within it that is not backed by a government like American or Canadian society), but it can also exist within a political system rather than simply "on the ground". Primarily, Collectivism describes how groups orient themselves naturally within a society.
Collectivism can be typified as "horizontal collectivism", wherein equality is emphasized and people engage in sharing and cooperation, or "vertical collectivism", wherein hierarchy is emphasized and people submit to specific authorities. Horizontal collectivism is based on the assumption that each individual is more or less equal, while vertical collectivism assumes that individuals are fundamentally different from each other. Social anarchist Alexander Berkman, who was a horizontal collectivist, argued that equality does not imply a lack of unique individuality, but an equal amount of freedom and equal opportunity to develop one's own skills and talents.
Horizontal collectivists tend to favor democratic decision-making, while vertical collectivists believe in a more strict chain of command. Horizontal collectivism stresses common goals, interdependence and sociability. Vertical collectivism stresses the integrity of the in-group (e.g. the family or the nation, for example), expects individuals to sacrifice themselves for the in-group if necessary, and promotes competition between different in-groups.
Collectivism and individualism
Collectivism is often portrayed as the polar opposite of individualism, which is usually characterized as the economic, political, social or cultural autonomy of the individual within society; but given the different interpretations of individualism, from egocentric perspectives to more integrative ones, this apparent opposition is not necessarily true. For example, worker cooperatives operate on a collective basis but require the direct input of each individual member. While the ideas of holism posit that a sum is greater than its parts, this does not necessarily imply that a collectivity is greater or more powerful than the individuals that make it up, but instead that the collective energies of all individuals involved produce something that goes beyond each person (whereas, in authoritarian collectivities, power accrues to a person or group who is supposed to embody the collective). Theoretically, collectivism goes beyond considering the individual as the prime mover of society, but instead considers the numerous associations individuals voluntarily form as society's basis. In doing so it recognizes society as a collection of individuals and so remains with the understanding that any collective organization is fundamentally composed of individuals.
Depending on how conscious a collectivity is of this reality determines how genuinely it maintains respect for individuality. On the other hand, individualism which encourages individuality at the expense of others cannot be considered collectivist, nor even individualist, since individualism is not the same as egotism.
Culture and politics
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Collectivism is a basic element of human culture that exists independently of any one political system and has existed since the founding of human society ten thousand years ago. It is a feature that all societies use to some degree or another and therefore an inherent feature of human nature. For example, monarchical societies often had a system of "social ranks" which were collectivist because the social rank one had or did not have was more important than his or her individual will, and the specific rank in question could only be overridden in very limited cases. An example of collectivism in more modern times are the police and fire departments. All individuals (except in rare cases) are expected to pay taxes to these organizations and their will has been overridden in making them do so under law, thus they are collectivist institutions. We also see, that in regards to a police department, an individual can be detained whether he or she wishes to or not, overriding his or her will as an example of collectivism.
An example of a collectivist political system is representative democracy, as in such systems, after voting occurs and a leader has been chosen by the populace everyone is expected to accept that individual as their leader regardless of whether they voted for them or not. For example, in the United States Presidential election of 2012 Barack Obama received a majority of the electoral college votes cast, and the opposition was expected to submit to letting him lead them whether or not they had originally voted for him. The will of the "collective" (President Obama voters) mattered more and is considered "collectivist" because ultimately, the totality of decision by the voters in the country, expressed through the electoral college system, was more important than the will of any single individual in that context.
Though all human societies contain elements of both individualism and collectivism by definition (if not they would become unstable), some societies are on the whole more collectivist and some on the whole more individualist. In collectivist societies, the group is considered more important than any one individual and groups in such societies are expected to "take care" of their members and individuals are expected to "take care" of the group (usually called an "in-group") that they are a member of. Harmony within these groups is considered paramount. For example, it may be considered "inappropriate" for a member of an in-group to openly criticize another in public (though they are often allowed to do so in private). Collectivism does have its advantages as compared to individualist societies as people in collectivist societies almost always have access to a "group" and as such are known to be considered "happier", "less lonely", and have lower rates of mental illness in studies done by psychologists and political scientists. People in individual societies are known to feel "lonely" at some times or another compared to their collectivist counterparts. Many people also find it easier to live in a society where social harmony is emphasized, and groups by definition remain more cohesive than in individualist societies, where groups are observed to be inherently less stable. However, it depends on the preference of an individual if they wish to live in a collectivist society like Japan or an individualist one like the United States. One type could not be said to be better than another and both are known to come into existence naturally as a consequence of human nature.
Classical liberal criticisms
There are two main objections to collectivism from the ideas of individualism. One is that collectivism stifles individuality and diversity by insisting upon a common social identity, such as nationalism or some other group focus. The other is that collectivism is linked to statism and the diminution of freedom when political authority is used to advance collectivist goals.
Criticism of collectivism comes from liberal individualists, such as classical liberals, libertarians, Objectivists, and individualist anarchists. Perhaps the most notable modern criticism of economic collectivism is the one put forward by Friedrich Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944.
Ludwig von Mises wrote:
On the other hand the application of the basic ideas of collectivism cannot result in anything but social disintegration and the perpetuation of armed conflict. It is true that every variety of collectivism promises eternal peace starting with the day of its own decisive victory and the final overthrow and extermination of all other ideologies and their supporters. ... As soon as a faction has succeeded in winning the support of the majority of citizens and thereby attained control of the government machine, it is free to deny to the minority all those democratic rights by means of which it itself has previously carried on its own struggle for supremacy.
Many socialists, particularly libertarian socialists, individualist anarchists, and De Leonists criticise the concept of collectivism. Some anti-collectivists often argue that all authoritarian and totalitarian societies are (vertically) collectivist in nature. Socialists argue that modern capitalism and private property, which is based on socialized production and joint-stock or corporate ownership structures, is a form of organic collectivism that sharply contrasts with the perception that capitalism is a system of free individuals exchanging commodities. Socialists sometimes argue that true individualism can only exist when individuals are free from coercive social structures to pursue their own interests, which can only be accomplished by common ownership of socialized, productive assets and free access to the means of life so that no individual has coercive power over other individuals.
George Orwell, a dedicated democratic socialist, believed that collectivism resulted in the empowerment of a minority of individuals that led to further oppression of the majority of the population in the name of some ideal such as freedom.
It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of.
Yet in the subsequent sentence he also warns of the tyranny of private ownership over the means of production:
... that a return to 'free' competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state.
Marxists criticize this use of the term "collectivism," on the grounds that all societies are based on class interests and therefore all societies could be considered "collectivist." The liberal ideal of the free individual is seen from a Marxist perspective as a smokescreen for the collective interests of the capitalist class. Social anarchists argue that "individualism" is a front for the interests of the upper class. As anarchist Emma Goldman wrote:
'rugged individualism'... is only a masked attempt to repress and defeat the individual and his individuality. So-called Individualism is the social and economic laissez-faire: the exploitation of the masses by the [ruling] classes by means of legal trickery, spiritual debasement and systematic indoctrination of the servile spirit ... That corrupt and perverse 'individualism' is the straitjacket of individuality. ... [It] has inevitably resulted in the greatest modern slavery, the crassest class distinctions driving millions to the breadline. 'Rugged individualism' has meant all the 'individualism' for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking 'supermen.' ... Their 'rugged individualism' is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.
In response to criticism made by various pro-capitalist groups that claim that public ownership or common ownership of the means of production is a form of collectivism, socialists maintain that common ownership over productive assets does not infringe upon the individual, but is instead a liberating force that transcends the false dichotomy of individualism and collectivism. Socialists maintain that these critiques conflate the concept of private property in the means of production with personal possessions and individual production.
Ayn Rand, creator of the philosophy of Objectivism and a particularly vocal opponent of collectivism, argued that it led to totalitarianism. She argued that "collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group," and that "throughout history, no tyrant ever rose to power except on the claim of representing the common good." She further claimed that "horrors which no man would dare consider for his own selfish sake are perpetrated with a clear conscience by altruists who justify themselves by the common good." (The "altruists" Rand refers to are not those who practice simple benevolence or charity, but rather those who believe in Auguste Comte's ethical doctrine of altruism which holds that there is "a moral and political obligation of the individual to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of a greater social good.").
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- Bureaucratic collectivism
- Collective guilt
- Collective identity
- Collective leadership
- Collective narcissism
- Collective responsibility
- Collectivist anarchism
- Cultural conservatism
- Primitive communism
- Social cohesion
- Social solidarity
- Utopian socialism
- Triandis, Harry C. (2001). "Individualism-Collectivism and Personality". Journal of Personality 69 (6): 909. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.696169.
- Triandis, Harry C.; Gelfand, Michele J. (1998). "Converging Measurement of Horizontal and Vertical Individualism and Collectivism". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74 (1): 119. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11.
- Heywood, Andrew. Key Concepts in Politics. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 122
- The Fallacy of Collectivism
- Capital, Volume 1, by Marx, Karl. From "Chapter 32: Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation": "Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent laboring-individual with the conditions of his labor, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labor of others, i.e., on wage-labor. As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the laborers are turned into proletarians, their means of labor into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialization of labor and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the laborer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers."
- Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists, by Schweickart, David; Lawler, James; Ticktin, Hillel; Ollman, Bertell. 1998. From "Definitions of market and socialism" (pp. 58–59): "The control over the surplus product rests with the majority of the population through a resolutely democratic process...The sale of labour power is abolished and labour necessarily becomes creative. Everyone participates in running their institutions and society as a whole. No one controls anyone else."
- Orwell, George Why I Write
- George Orwell, review of The Road to Serfdom (1944)
- Red Emma Speaks, p. 112 and 443
- Rand, Ayn. The Only Path to Tomorrow, Readers Digest, January 1944, pp. 88–90
- Smith, George H. Ayn Rand on Altruism, Egoism, and Rights