Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Universalist individualism versus identitarian collectivism

@iamcuriousblue got me thinking about universalism, identitarianism, individualism, and collectivism by tweeting this in response to Identitarians versus Universalists:
I replied: "I think the individual/collectivist division cuts across the identitarian/universalist divide." But when @iamcuriousblue responded, "Interesting - please elaborate," I had to reply, "Damn. You would ask about something I haven't thought through. :)"

I'm not claiming to have thought this through yet, but after more twittering with @iamcuriousblue and a night's sleep, I'm ready to try.

Until yesterday, I gave little thought to individualism versus collectivism because fundamentally, humans are collectivists. Armies, sports teams, and businesses fail when their members aren't willing to "take one for the team". Every great human accomplishment has been collectivist: explorers and settlers go in teams, artists and scientists learn in communities. As Donne noted, no man is an island.

So, if we're going to talk sensibly about the role of the individual in society, we should acknowledge that collectivism versus individualism, without adjectives, is a meaningless divide. It's when the adjectives come in that it gets interesting. Maoists and McCarthyites had radically different politics, but they shared a belief that individuals must conform for the good of the community.

In theory, Maoists and McCarthyites were universalists, because, in their purest forms, communism and capitalism are universalist beliefs. The pure communist believes everyone should share the wealth. The pure capitalist believes everyone who is in the position to control capital should be free to use that capital without restrictions. In theory, none of the world's social identities matter to communists or capitalists. And, to be fair to both theories, you can point to examples of people who practiced what they preached. Socialists have a rich history of opposing racism, sexism, and colonialism—feminism got its name from Charles Fourier, a socialist, and Marx observed,"Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded." In the US, the right for gay people to serve openly in the military was won by the Log Cabin Republicans, and Herman Cain was the Republican frontrunner for the presidency until he stumbled over the same thing that has brought down many white politicians, a sex scandal.

So I would happily say the first socialists, like the first Christians, were universalist collectivists, and many contemporary capitalists are universalist individualists.

But identitarianism can creep in anywhere. This isn't the place for a nuanced discussion of whether Nazis were socialists; for now, I'll just say that if they were socialists, they were history's most identitarian socialists, and their full name, National Socialism, should have been reversed, because they were far more nationalist than socialist. Capitalists don't like to do things that limit their profit, yet identitarian capitalists demand the right to turn away people whose social identities they dislike.

Identitarian collectivists believe in limited collectivism: their collectivism does not apply to the people they identify as "other". Identitarians on the right and left believe that punishing their enemies is the proper follow-up to defeating them, and rewarding themselves is a manifestation of their righteousness. At Obama: WTF? A Facebook Roundtable of the Left, Adolph Reed said of Obama, "I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful." (Italics mine.) Identitarian collectivism ends with the social identity that matters most to them.

My favorite people across the political spectrum are universalists. As for a point on the individualist-collectivist spectrum, I'll stay with the people who believe the purpose of a society is to allow individuals to become all they may be. Many capitalists will claim that's where they excel, saying they prefer equality of opportunity to equality of outcome, but only socialists realize that there's no equality of opportunity where there's no equality of means.

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." —Karl Marx

"With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols of things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." —Oscar Wilde