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Collectivism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the group and its interests. Collectivism is the opposite of individualism. Collectivists focus on communal, societal, or national interests in various types of political, economic and educational systems.
Collectivism has been characterized 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.
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Collectivism is often portrayed as the polar opposite of individualism, 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.
Research has proposed that collectivism and individualism came about through an evolutionary adaptation, which resulted from the need to be protected from parasites. This theory is commonly known as the parasite-stress theory, whereby different pathogens in different geographical locations will lead to residents of those locations having an immune-system specifically designed to protect against diseases in those particular areas.
Culture and politics
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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).
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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. A 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 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
- Collective ownership
- 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:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168.
- 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, pp. 112, 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