Collectivism vs Individualism

The primary political struggles throughout history are about striking the balance between individual and collective interests. When it comes to economic and political policy the two extremes are the central planning of totalitarian communism and the “free market conservative” position of no regulation of economics at all. As is typical in this country, the argument is somewhat nebulous.

While the Democrats tend to believe in more government regulation of essential industries services people basic needs and more freedom regarding personal behavior, Republicans tend to focus on controlling people’s personal behavior and giving individuals and corporations untrammeled ability to impose their economic and political will on others in the name of personal freedom. Any attempt to limit this ability to exploit, repress or subjugate and balance it with the collective good, is quickly declared an imposition on personal freedom and property rights, and of course soviet style socialism.

This argument is not new, the founders were certainly aware of it, and while denying rights to women, slaves and the landless, certainly recognized the necessity of both individual freedom and collective responsibility. Currently, we hear constant cries from right wing radio hosts and pundits about how the election of Barack Obama will lead to a socialist state with central planning. I have searched and searched, with no luck, for any indication of an attempt or proposal by Obama and other Democrats for this plan or goal to transfer all private property to the state. I would join them if I did. What he is proposing is bringing back into balance is economic freedom with collective responsibility.

The fact is that most of us already accept some “socialist” concepts in government when it comes to the “common welfare.” From garbage pickup, education, police and fire protection to Medicare and Social Security we accept the need for collective concepts as a part of our form of government.

What ought to be disturbing is that every industrial country that is performing better than us in healthcare, per capita income, freedom and economic growth is a socialist democracy with a stronger collective framework than us. The politically charged terms socialist and communist are quickly attached to any common purpose in an attempt to discredit it, which would limit the control of the wealthy over government.

Our History of Collectivism

The fact is that our form of government and history all indicate the founders’ intent of a collective responsibility. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” (Declaration of Independence) in other words, a collective purpose for the common good, the very definition of “socialism”. The founders obvious commitment to this is simply the act of forming a representative democracy, squarely the first attempt to put a government in the “collective” control.

They emphasized the purposes of collective action in the declaration and the constitution, the equality of men in the eyes of government being the first recognition of the governed having the right to prevent despotism from injuring the common good for individual gain by forcing consensus decisions. From the declaration “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Then they went on to describe the common purpose of government to guarantee, “certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They said the purpose of government was to “organiz(e)ing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”, in other words, to balance their collective safety and individual interests.

There is not enough room in this article to review the parallels between George Bush and the colonists’ proofs of “Tyranny” they “submitted to a candid world” against King George in order to justify their rebellion. This quote that they used in summary of their requests for relief from the burdensome mandates disregarding their persons and property and unheeded pleas for redress might say it however, “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

They ended the Declaration with this, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” In other words, a recognition of a collective interest greater than themselves or their personal property.

Again in the Constitution, the collective purpose is defined for our government in the preamble. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The Constitutional separation of powers was set up specifically to prevent government from being tipped towards the concentration of power in special interests and insuring that government acted for the collective purpose.

This discussion throughout our history spawned the bill of rights, the repeal of slavery, the equal protection clause and the vote for women. The founders originally were primarily concerned about protection from government tyranny; after all it was a time when kings dominated.

They saw the national economy as one in which they were jointly invested in and their principal fears of possible economic dominance being that of external empires, hence the war of 1812. They felt so strongly about this that while there was funding for a navy to protect trade and defense there was no plan for a standing army, (which Washington warned against in his farewell address) one they feared would be used by the government against its own people or for wars of aggression.

While there were regional rebellions, rent strikes, arguments over banking and other protests against the tyranny of wealth in the young country, wealth disparity was relatively small and not of concern to the government. Concentrated wealth was unable to shift the purpose of government to special economic interests until the Civil War grew many corporations to a size where they were influential shapers of policy.

The Consequences of Unbridled Individualism

Abuses of economic power in the form of government subsidies, suppression of worker rights, and the destruction of small farms and businesses rode the excess of post-war railroad expansion and the rise of the great monopolies. The unbridled growth resulted in repeated severe economic swings, rife with wild speculation, often using “watered (overvalued) stock.”

This dominance of the expression of unfettered economic freedom resulted in wild fluctuations in the economy. From the 82 years from 1857-1939 had 17 recessions and three depressions, (1873-79, 1893-94, 1929-39) while the 70 years after progressive regulation came into play had 11 recessions and no depressions.

Wealth disparity and economic exploitation grew during the earlier cycle until it exploded in a backlash. In 1877 the great railroad strike marked the beginning of a populist uprising referred to as the progressive era that lasted through almost 1920 before being destroyed. Mostly by using the acquired legal power of government the wealthiest had secured as a weapon against the common man.

The collective actions, including strikes, organizing and political action citizens tried to use to rebalance the collective interests with those of individual or corporate wealth was destroyed by government assistance of almost every president of the era, with Wilson doing the most damage and Coolidge using the red scare to finish the job. They were continually labeled, reds, socialists, communists and anarchists.

What they really were citizens with a collective desire for democratic input into the economy decisions making. Even reformers like Theodore Roosevelt used the power of the government in the interest corporations, hammering “radicals” for political purposes. The failure of government co-opted by wealth to adequately regulate the growing power of selfish economic interests only ended in the self-destructive excess that led to the great depression.

A similar growth of economic self-interest over government policy has repeated itself on a much greater scale since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the systematic idolatry of the deregulation of corporate behavior and worship of greed. Once again we are facing the collective consequences of extreme self-interest dominating government.

As in the great depression it will take a government that provides for the common good over the individual interest to restore the balance intended by the founders. It will only happen if we have the ability to believe in something bigger then ourselves.

On this Independence Day it might be important to remember what Benjamin Franklin is reported to have said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock after Hancock talked of the need to maintain unity in support of the declaration with a dubious future, “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,”

John M. Kelley is the Managing Editor of We the People News, a monthly progressive newsmagazine in based in Corpus Christi, Texas. He can be reached at: Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on July 2nd, 2008 at 8:09am #

    A third way – Anti-Authoritarianism. It would eliminate the fradulent notion of “leadership” in DC over the lives of 6 billion people not to mention the over 300 million on this land mass known as the USA.

    I would re-constitute the USA into non-existence. We’d address North America – Canada and Mexico and United States and divvy up into 9 or more regional areas with self-governance. these could be “wrapped” into a coalition or federation much like EU but reflecting an envigorated culture and sustainble economics (something we have by default and its pretty murderous).

    The old schisms and top-down, left/right dichotomies need to be rethought – tossed out. This issue of individual rights and collective or community well-being can readily be synthesized. It only becomes an endless conversation when we stay within the nation-state paradigm that has become totally unworkable in terms of participatory democracy and self-governance that matches the needs of local indigenous peoples (I know we can argue indigenousness of the residents, but we are traveled at one time or another from some other place).

    Screw socialism and capitalism. They’ve been killing us ever since we tried to make use of them. Re-invent an economics which may or may not use elements of so-called socialism and capitalism without dwelling on the horrid legacy (socialism as it was tainted by the Soviet Union and capitalism as it’s destructive preditoriness dominated the globe in endless war and destruction).

    Is it possible? Not if we keep swashing around with McCain/Obama and the Repub/Dem parties and DC as villian/saint. That’s deadend thinking.

    The Declaration of Independence is nothing if we just stay with this nation-state which is beyond anything the DoI addresses. Also, remember this was an expansionist empire for its inception. So while the DoI is a radical document it is there mostly for posterity rather than governance. It’s a great reference but so far inadequate.

  2. evie said on July 2nd, 2008 at 9:06am #

    I believe we may be headed in your direction.

    That “wrapped” coalition/federation would of course be led by pretty much the same line of folks who run the show now.

    We have EU, AU (Africam Union), recently the SAU (South American Union) and possibly NAU coming (Americanamex).

    Onward one world plantation empire. Our union or regional “deciders” eventually so far removed we won’t know who to credit or blame for all that expansive democracy.

  3. joeblow said on July 2nd, 2008 at 10:37am #

    Superb commentary, Mr. Shields. Please – write some essays, as we could all benefit from more exposure to such thinking. I’m serious, you’re a very interesting fellow, and I’d like more…
    Evie – I often very much enjoy your comments. I wish you’d write some essays, also. Sometimes, I’ve felt, you’re so quick to pounce upon what you read, that I’m left wondering whether or not I’ve understood your point. But, I’d like to. Write!

    Mr. Kelley – A thoughtful piece, thank you. I’d just like to turn your attention to a portion of one of your early sentences:

    “…and while denying rights to women, slaves and the landless, certainly recognized the necessity of both individual freedom and collective responsibility.”

    Well, while some of the “Founders” may have been deeply troubled by slavery, they were collectively sanguine about forming a new nation in which a significant portion ( perhaps 1/7) of the population was legally considered to be nothing more than property.
    They also excluded from the social and political process – women of all races and colors, all Indians, all people of color, and all white males without serious money and property. These folks, in a political and social sense, were “unpersons,” with virtually zero control over their own lives.

    Who is left?
    Rich, powerful white guys. The country was designed to be owned and controlled by rich, powerful white guys, almost exclusively concerned with their own liberty, their own rights, their own opportunities, their own, their own… And, obviously their design was a good one, for the country is STILL controlled by such folks – and their sycophants, such as Obama and Oprah, et al. Such folks DO have considerable rights and opportunities… ( lots of “individual freedom” ), while the rest of us are still… unpersons ( with lots of “collective responsibility.” )

    One can search long and hard for a government – any government, anywhere, which actually cares about the needs and desires of its ordinary citizens. This is because, methinks, governments have never been designed with ordinary folks in mind. Governments seek to preserve, and whenever, however possible – to enhance the power and wealth of the already powerful and wealthy, while simultaneously attempting to convince the rest of us that the converse is true.

    I’m inclined to agree with Max Shields: Screw the old schisms; screw capitalism and socialism, screw governments as we’ve always known and understood them… Everything must be re-examined, rethought, and most of what we know – discarded. You and Max and Evie and all of us are infinitely more than what these social and economic systems are able to recognize or accept.

    Presently, we all live in a gulag, or like caged cattle to be preyed upon by our owners / eaters. We’re not who we think we are because we’ve never been free, never even seen freedom… We don’t need the old “founders,” and we don’t need new “founders.” We need each other. We need to respect and care for each other despite the fact that we’re all supremely fucked up… Somehow, we need to see “through” all this dreadful, anti-human programming and propaganda, to the good people that lie underneath. But, I admit, I don’t know how, except to begin where I am, in the midst of these people, these circumstances, this little corner of the planet…

  4. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 2nd, 2008 at 12:23pm #

    What USA needs is a socialist united party

    Hello all: What USA needs is a socialist united party, that would work as a vehicle in which the masses, the majority of americans who would like a real social, democratic system in USA for workers, by workers and in favor of workers and people, would have an organization in which to caste their votes every 4 years. However there is a catch-22 with this solution. The catch-22 problem is that the USA corporate fascist system thru the media and its other evil things it has, will not permit a United Socialist Democratic party. The media apparatus would denounce it as a cult or an evil organization, and would spread dirty propaganda against it, just like it did and it has done many times against Ron Paul, Howard Dean and now against Obama.

    But We first need: An educational-propaganda campaign

    In order to create a third united socialist party we would first of all need an educational campaign in order to spread knowledge to the masses about the evils of capitalism, fascism and imperialism and the only alternative to it is participative democratic socialism. The American masses are real confused and ignorant about how the world works. Trying to wake up the masses from their delirium would pose us as a threat. I read the biography of Hugo Chavez and that’s how he started his political program in order to change Venezuela. He first tried to wake up Venezuelan poors about the evils of neoliberalism, he talked about the importance of teaching the masses about capitalism vs. socialism. And then when Venezuelan’s poors learned about capitalism, Chavez started to do his thing (To overthrow the fascist capitalist venezuela system)
    And here in USA we gotta do the same thing that Chavez did, teach the US poor for some months or years what is capitalism and what is socialism before trying to do form any political party. Almost nobody in USA have taught the masses the evils of neoliberalism, not even Kucinich, Ron Paul or any other candidate. Ron Paul was the only one who talked about the US constitution and nobody listened to him, because he didn’t teach the masses about the evils of capitalism, because of the fact that Ron Paul was a capitalist, not a real alternative for poor people. Only socialist and marxists parties do that in USA and they don’t get much coverage in TV. So before starting a third party, i suggest to spend some months or years trying to teach the poor people of America about the evils of capitalism and the wonders of a participative democratic socialist system, a people’s system

  5. Tennessee-Socialist said on July 2nd, 2008 at 12:39pm #

    “The dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the organization of the vanguard of the oppressed as the ruling class for the purpose of suppressing the oppressors, cannot result merely in an expansion of democracy. Simultaneously with an immense expansion of democracy, which for the first time becomes democracy for the poor, democracy for the people, and not democracy for the money-bags, the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. ” -Vladimir Lenin

    “The People’s democratic dictatorship needs the leadership of the working class. For it is only the working class that is most far-sighted, most selfless and most thoroughly revolutionary. The entire history of revolution proves that without the leadership of the working class revolution fails and that with the leadership of the working class revolution triumphs.” -Mao Zedong

    “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the World Unite!” -Karl Marx

  6. John Kelley said on July 2nd, 2008 at 1:16pm #

    Thanks for all the comments. I am in agreement with those of you who would throw out the labels. There is no doubt that this country was set up to favor rich white men. The thought of more advanced thinkers was set though in the constitution for it to be changed, hence the gradual inclusion of more stakeholders in the process of voting.

    The top bottom differentation is the key to successful organizing. Our news magazine has become very popular (over 40,000 readers a month) with people who consider themselves members of both parties. Effective change begins at home on the local scene. We expose government corruption, corporate misdeeds and generally raise hell with the powers that be. We have had considerable impact. We also have a long way to go.

    One of the failures of past worker driven progressive attempts is that they have not included small business owners. Small business is beginning to see corporate power as the enemy as well. A society needs independent (capitalist) small business owners as much as it needs worker owned larger enterprises. When you say socialist to a small businessman he thinks of the little property and inventory he has being taken and runs into the arms of the right. Craftsman, merchants and traders will always be needed and need to have the ability to take a risk and get a return, just the same as factories owned by workers.

    Events will drive change but only those who have a plan and some organizational capacity will be able to give some steerage. As much as I hate to say it, Milton Friedman was right, “when a crises happens, people pick up whatever ideas are handy.”

  7. bozhidar balkas said on July 2nd, 2008 at 3:04pm #

    first of all, u have a plutocratic or aristocratic rule in US. and not just in US but everywhere. this had been so for at least 15td yrs .
    the plutocratic rulers differ on how much a worker earns, etc.
    US rulers appear to me less socialist; ie, US is by far more abusive of its citizens than almost every land in europe.
    amers r less free; more fearful than most people. amers r also disinformed s’mwhat more than many peoples.
    consider? why is in US basic schooling mandatory but colledge or university is not?
    i think we all know why. In US, young people, being children of plutocrats r groomed for leadership role and autocratic/plutocratic life.
    in canada, UK, france and many other countries this strategem may also be applied. thank u

  8. Max Shields said on July 3rd, 2008 at 5:01pm #

    Thanks, Joeblow.

    I would even consider rethinking workers and work. A work of art engages. Working on an assembly line destroys the human heart and soul.

    Wealth is an issue under colonization whereby access to common wealth is privatized. The wealth sucked out of the marrow of the earth to produce material goods that do not satify human needs, but enriches only a few, is the crux of our economics. It is a powerful narrative which requires an alternative. Not because the alternative will be seen and seized today but because when what IS collapses there will be a need for alternative form of survival.

    Tension between individualism and collectivism will co-exist but it can only be a balanced and healthy tension if it is on a human scale. The nation-state as we know it, or as exemplified by the USA empire, is incapable of providing the sanctuary for this tension.

    At bottom we have to think this thing called human life is salvagable, if peace is something natural rather than simply a rest between war. The conflicts that plague the global are based on access to resources (land, water, etc.). Imperial wars stem from the same source but are based on a monopolistic struggle. Nature abors monopolies which is why all empires are doomed from the get go.

    Here’s what I think: within the context of the expansionist US drive, was a great community center whereby problems and solutions and the provision of care was integral to the daily way of life. Over time, and through the industrialization of every aspect of our lives we lost that community. We reduced direct participatory democracy of community to represenational democracy which is literally handing over individual and community power to one person. That process continued until all power was evacuated from the community and given to Washington DC. We handed over the role of community to social services which have one-size fits all solutions and cannot provide care. Only community can do that.

    There is an archeological community buried within us needing to be re-invigorated and made whole. It is not about “empowerment”; it is about shared community power; taking back the power that we, each, gave to representatives and senators who, once elected, assume the role of Authority. We become peons to be pandered to as needed to keep those in “power” in power.

    Our problems are not solved by a set of processes or systems or schisms, but by core prinicples, and emergence through co-creation of our communities – on a living human scale.