Collectivism doesn’t exist

It’s amazing for people to work together and help each other. But “collectivism” is something else, typically a sneaky euphemism for the personal interests of a powerful few.

Usually, fuzzy phrases such as “bigger society”, “community”, “solidarity” and “public interest” are weasel words used to obscure selfish agendas, and their real meaning is “Do as I say” or “Give me money”.

Every time you hear something like that, listen carefully to the substantial message. Is it about mutuality or centralisation? Network or pyramid? Those are dramatically different concepts.

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Collectives are obviously only abstractions. As all abstractions, they’re useful tools for dealing with complex realities, but are themselves NOT real, and calamity ensues whenever the distinction is lost. All costs and benefits of social organization ultimately go to specific, individual people.

There is only one human happiness, one prosperity and one flourishing. If it isn’t with individuals, it isn’t anywhere. It’s impossible to have a good society composed of unhappy, beaten-down, emaciated drones. Individual and social wellbeing cannot be systematically at odds, because they’re fundamentally the singular and plural forms of the same thing. 

If they clash, someone is doing it wrong.

In a just system, there is no principial (non-particular) conflict between individual and group interest – when we do one right, it automatically translates into the other.

The critical error and the root of totalitarian thinking is the substantialisation of the abstract, notably the collective.

When abstractions are treated like real things (even as more real than real things), they can be abused to obscure the fundamental nature of what’s happening.

“Public interest” is what people in power call their own interests.

What a sociopath or narcissist means by “community” is everybody serving them. Not each other. Them.

To them, the dissolution of individuality and personal goals “for the good of the whole” is what everyone else should be doing for their benefit.

This explains why nominally egalitarian ideologies produce rigidly hierarchical arrangements. That’s their real point.

For a contemporary example, Chinese communism is a tool for the party bosses to amass vast wealth and send their sons (not daughters, who were aborted) to private Swiss lyceums. The “good of the workers” doesn’t enter into it.

The principle is at work beyond politics – like in corporate culture, where “Being a team player” is code for “Advance my career instead of yours, don’t publicly disagree with any stupid plans or report me when I do shady stuff, and one day, it might be your turn to benefit, but we both known it probably won’t”. In other words, it’s a way to make being a habitual rape victim sound good, commendable and desirable. As all “collectivism”.

Collectivism is individualism of the rulers. 

Important disclaimer: This is not some radical individualist argument. I think it’s desirable for people to work together, help each other and maintain a high ethical standard. In fact, it’s the only rational option.

When you pursue your best interest rationally, you have to recognise that living in a functioning, reasonably altruistic society is just better than the alternatives. An average Swiss citizen is infinitely better off than a free-as-the-wind hunter-gatherer covered in leeches in a soggy forest somewhere.

Cooperative individualism, where people pursue their best interests together in a functioning, reasonably altruistic society, is the only sensible option.

But that’s just teamwork and cooperation. Everyone benefits. Nobody in their right mind would object to this.

Whereas “collectivism” is a subsumption of individual interest to an abstract whole divorced from its constituents and treated as a separate (and for the crucial philosophical error, more real) entity, and usually simply translating to the thinly disguised selfish interest of whoever is in charge.

Teamwork is the plural of intelligent individualism.

Collectivism is exploitation.

Arguments for economic and political collectivism as the “more ethical” option are disingenuous. Real ethics is “agoraphobic”, it lives in people’s everyday interactions, not in politics. It can be with people and “bubble up” into politics, but it can’t be imposed onto people by politics. You can only connect cart and horse in one way and expect to get anywhere.

It’s how we treat each other a hundred times every day, not how much we sacrifice ourselves to “the whole”, which, again, is usually an euphemism for some Kim Jong character (or a gang thereof) concentrating the benefits.

Political and economic “collectivism” is only one particular approach to social cooperation, and one that has been conclusively shown by history to be wholly incompatible with human nature. My “rational aligned individualism” is just better.

Here’s an axiom: In politics, everything becomes a tool of self-interest. Even nominal altruism.

Especially nominal altruism, which is an extremely convenient platform, because almost nobody can object to it unless he has balls of steel, heroic intellect and complete rhetorical dominance (you’re welcome). Ask the cunts defrauding billions of dollars from the United Nations how many serious intellectual or political challenges they faced in the last half century. Even though the organisation is monumentally, peerlessly corrupt, it’s almost impossible to make a moral high ground argument against, say, UNICEF or UNESCO without looking like a total dick. And yet, they differ from your local city hall kleptocrat only in magnitude, and from the Kremlin only in sophistication. They have about as much in common with children and mankind’s shared heritage as FIFA has with football.

The state is not, as naive people imagine, a counterbalance, but the most potent tool of self-interest. Crooks just use whatever means are available – and with a vast collectivized machinery, the means available to them are massive. As heft of weaponry goes, the state is by far the biggest stick around.

Ergo the incomparable damage done by its abuses, as opposed to the relatively (relatively!) mild consequences of private moral failures.

Look, this is self-evident: the worst CEO in the world can’t do a measurable fraction of the damage of a Stalin.

Of course, a bad CEO can collude with politicians to do huge damage, but then politics is the enabling factor again, and we’re talking about cronyism, not “capitalism”. And cronyism, the collusion of state and business, is one of those rare things that good people from all parts of the political spectrum agree is The Problem.

Which makes the collectivist suggestion to solve it by promoting it to the organising principle of society extraordinarily piquant.

Which is to say doublethinky.

When you think monopolies and collusions are bad, you have to think that about big government too, to say nothing of socialism, because it’s simply the ultimate monopoly.

In practice, somebody is always in control of the “socialist property”, so you end up with the same principal-agent problems as in “capitalism”, except with added complete identity (rather than rivalry) of political and economic power, making corruption and abuses of power much easier, larger and indeed systemic, as well as completely unpunishable – and with gulags for dissenters.

Many (reasonable) libertarians, classical liberals, liberal conservatives and conservative liberals, in general right-of-center non-statists – are those things precisely because of risk management. Yours truly included.

Lean government is about circumscribing the lebensraum of assholes.

Individualism ≠ selfishness. This is how we can have civilisation.
Collectivism ≠ selflessness. This is our lesson from the 20th century.

We are individuals, and collectives are only convenient abstractions. They have no independent existence. I know this may sound banal, but you’d be surprised how many people intuitively have it the wrong way around.

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Collectivists are idealists, in the philosophical sense that they assume abstractions come before and cause realities – that the four dots are secondary to the square that is (to them) so obviously there between them.

That is also how they perceive the relationship of individual to society.

In reality, the square owes whatever degree of existence it has to the dots.

Just listen to romantic glorifications of race, nation, class or any other arbitrary abstraction in the 20th century, how they were extolled, and how individual humans were considered irrelevant motes of dust in the grand story of things “more real”. See how that went.

The collective identities and group “memeplexes” are more often than not harmful and parasitic.

When I suggested to some American friends over beers that the rise of Sandersian socialism in their country was worrying to post-communist eyes, one of them replied with the kind of deflecting sarcasm that’s a dead tell for cognitive dissonance: “Yeah, god forbid we should start caring about people.”

This was surprising for two reasons: 1) Americans are already some of the most caring people in the world, and 2) socialism doesn’t mean caring about people, it means state ownership of the means of production, and centralised control of the economy. And you can’t do that without being emphatically NOT nice to people.

Socialism isn’t a moral, but an economic system – though a large part of its marketing consists of claiming (falsely, as evidence shows) the moral high ground.

This is important, because there is no necessary connection between “collectivism” and “being nice”. Economic systems are ethically agnostic. Centralised economies are fundamentally about concentration of economic and political power, which can then be directed towards any goals you can imagine (and many you can’t, because you’re probably a good person), and most if not all of their goals have historically been cosmically far from “nice” indeed.

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So much for the “inherent morality of collectivism”.

Not only is “caring about people” not exclusive to socialism, I have never seen it happen earnestly in socialism, devolving instead into token shows and virtue signalling devoid of real human sympathy, a mist-thin veneer of camaraderie over a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Caring for people is perfectly compatible with a system of voluntary transactions – that is to say, a market, because letting people choose for themselves is part of genuinely caring about them. 

I am in favour of applying the highest ethical standards to a system of voluntary exchanges between sovereign individuals, instead of using fuzzy communitarian buzzwords to fuck everyone in the ass with a hammer and sickle and ending up with suspicious, backstabbing douchebags who spy on their neighbours to get an extra banana ration or even a pair of jeans (!) for the kids at Christmas.

Another thing, people are really, really bad at judging what the “common good” even is. Personal interest inevitably colours (in fact completely determines) notions of public interest.

This isn’t some marginal issue reserved for a minority of habitual hypocrites – most people will bullshit themselves, OVERWHELMINGLY, about what constitutes the common good when there’s something to gain.

That’s how people are wired. We can’t differentiate between “good for me” and “good in general” without heroic effort, and even then imperfectly. We’re a bunch of selfish cheating monkeys with a preternatural capacity for hypocrisy and self-delusion where even marginally profitable, and public institutions have to be designed with this in mind.

Which is to say, around minimisation of possible damage, and checks and balances.

Unfortunately for those among us who would prefer to maximise the possible benefit of social organisation instead, that precludes most forms of “collectivism”. Turns out that software just won’t run on this hardware.

It’s unlikely to ever be different, except perhaps under an omniscient machine superintelligence. “Centralise everything and then ensure only good people are in charge” is a suicidally naive idea, because its necessary condition is simply impossible. If modern behavioural economics has explicitly shown us one thing, it’s that once in charge, there are no more “good people”, because ethical doublethink will sooner or later kick in for everyone.

Even I would probably yield, at least partly, but we should still try it and elect me world president.

“Enlightened absolutism” has a tendency to quickly become very short of “enlightenment”, and devolve into profoundly unenlightened absolootism. Whoever may think that’s a pessimistic view is well advised to read up on history.

Working together is good, but humans are not insects. Cooperation and collectivism are different things. Mutual goodwill of sovereign individuals on one hand, and centralisation and submission to authority on the other are essentially opposite concepts.

The choice is yours.

  • Ben Koshar

    Very well written essay! I agree with your argument when it comes to economic matters, but disagree that:

    “The critical error and the root of totalitarian thinking is the substantialisation of the abstract, notably the collective.

    When abstractions are treated like real things (even as more real than real things), they can be abused to obscure the fundamental nature of what’s happening.”

    Consider a nation engaged in a brutal total war. If the war is lost, the end result will be the enslavement of the nations people and the destruction of its national identity.

    In order to win the war, lets say that 10% of the young men in that nation will die. On the other hand, if they just surrender, no men will die.

    If the people of this nation have no abstract concepts of “community” “nation” “people” and so forth, they surely will not be willing to risk dying and will simply surrender. The end result will be better for the 10% who get to keep their heads, but worse for the remaining 90% and probably for all their progeny for generations to come.

    For this reason I would say that the “substantialization of the abstract” is in fact a necessary condition to sustain any nation, and at this point all peoples who could not do this have likely been erased from the earth by nations which could and did.

    Therefore, whether or not this is an “error” in reasoning, it is entirely necessary. It may be the root of totalitarianism, but it is also at the root of all modern societies.

  • Vinícius Alves Hax

    Wow! This is a great article. Congrats!