For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while 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. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now. I've been hearing more and more from a certain strain of conservative, that it's not really about left versus right. It's all about collectivism versus individualism. Of course, they want it assumed that the supposedly evil left is collectivist, and the supposedly courageous, independent right is for individualism.
-- From The German Ideology, by Karl Marx
Much of this distorted, overly romanticized thinking comes via Austrian school influence. Right-wing thinkers such as Von Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, etc. Their legacy has recently been gaining an outsized role in the national conversation, thanks primarily to a number of billionaires who love their ideology and fund university chairs and think tanks to spread the gospel of laissez faire.
I find that extremely troubling, for a host of reasons. First of all, Americans are already besieged, 24/7, with propaganda about capitalism, and our universities are no exception. But they should be. They should be a place of refuge where people can go to think for themselves and develop critical thinking skills to free themselves from societal indoctrination. But more and more corporate influence has crept into our ivory towers, especially economics departments, and too many universities have imitated corporate models of governance. Billionaires for "free markets": the latest evolution in mind control.
But, back to the gist of their argument and why it's so wrong. The left, to the Austrians, wants to kill individualism by forcing people into collectivist activity, while the right upholds individualism by "freeing" man from the collectivist chains of government.
Now, they might be able to make at least part of their argument work, if they weren't also huge proponents of capitalism, which they are. Obviously. They love capitalism, in fact. And what does a capitalist do to make his or her business work? He collectivizes the workforce (and consumers, via marketing) and depends upon government to protect markets, enforce contracts, and provide infrastructure. In short, no capitalist can survive without collectivism. If you have a workforce, you are engaging in collectivism.
As for individualism. As anyone knows who has ever held a job in the private sector, we lose much of our individualism at work -- from one degree to another. We cease being autonomous creatures and instead become cogs in the machine. We don't have a real voice in how things work. We do what we do for the boss, at his or her beck and call, and if we don't, we get fired. For eight to ten hours a day, five days a week, we are not our own selves. We belong to the boss and we work for his or her dream.
(Of course, prior to democratic reforms of the capitalist workplace, we belonged to the boss a lot longer, and work place conditions were a lot worse. They've shifted some, but not all, of that Dickensian hell overseas, away from us, out of sight, out of mind, which also helps blind us to the realities of capitalism.)
That's the essence of right-wing collectivism.
The left-wing version? And by that, I'm not talking about liberal, which, at least when it comes to 21st century realities, is more center-right than left. I'm talking about the egalitarian left. For us, collective activity is incredibly logical, rational and natural. It's what humans have always done. Gather as a people to do together what you can't do alone. And why is the left's version far more rational, logical and natural? Because our collective works for the collective, instead of a boss. Our collective reaps all the benefits of our own work, instead of sending the vast majority of those fruits up to the top of the food chain.
As for individualism. Actually, in a truly socialist society (full participatory democracy, and the people own the means of production), the individual has greater power both during the work day and after. He or she has equal input into what the workplace does, and why it does it, as well as radically reduced hours, which means radically increased free time. Individualism is greatly enhanced and expanded when one is not at work. The capitalist system simply can't compete for free time with a true socialist economy, because working to generate profit for the capitalist means we all have to work many more hours each week, month and year.
Left-collectivism means you work to improve your society, which improves your own lot. Right-collectivism means you work for the boss to improve their lot while you receive a tiny fragment of what you've produced in return. In right-collectivism, you are not an individual for half of your waking hours, at least. In left-collectivism, you have democratic rights of input during your workday and it's far shorter, so you have more time to "to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner . . ."
Sun Aug 12, 2012 at 12:40 PM PT: An additional disturbing aspect of this "individualism versus collectivism" meme that I should have included originally.
Capitalism crushes individualism in another, rather obvious way:
Mass production of consumer goods. Mass sameness of the same. Endlessly, without variety, the same. Carbon copies of carbon copies. Corporate food, clothes, gadgets, cars, etc. Try finding "individualism" in that.
Americans once knew this, too. And we and our European cousins once wrote tons of books and articles on the subject of Mass Man, Consumer Man, The Plastic Society, etc. etc. We both made great movies about alienation from the stifling conformity of the capitalist system, with its carbon copy products and its workplace drone collectivism and its virtual war on the unique, the small, the local.
Rebellion, in the past, was to go against the capitalist system. Today, insanely enough, a new generation sees "rebellion" as a deeper, more complete embrace of that system, unfettered.
We live in flat earth times.