Collectivism is a vague term referring to almost any kind of sociopolitical/economic organization that gives precedence to the group over the individual. In other words, the individual is at all times expected to subordinate his or preferences for the greater good of the larger unit. The trouble with collectivism is that while the justification for decision-making is the greater good, inevitably there is usually one dominant person (perhaps several) who is actually making the decision that is presented to the “community” as the greater good.
Certainly, the theory of collectivism sounds good. The idea is that which benefits the individual also benefits the group. Thus, if decisions are taken based on creating group benefits, society will be fairer in that all will prosper rather than just a few.
Collectivism as a philosophy has been used to support numerous movements, many of which were popular in the 20th century, including socialism, communism and fascism. Within this context, socialism would be seen as the least coercive while communism, with its emphasis on radical redistribution, would be seen as the most. Ironically, there are other variants of collectivism such as anarchic collectivism and even anarchic communism.
However, such a contradiction in terms actually proposes combinations of competitive and collectivist solutions that allow individual communities to compete against one another. None of these hybrids (which have been rarely established) can be seen as offering the kind of purer collectivism of, say, communism.
This brings up a larger issue of collectivism as it has been proposed and applied. There are two kinds of collectivism generally acknowledged: In the first, all resources are owned in common. In the second, various groups own common property. The second form of collectivism has actually made a good deal of progress in Western societies. Such collectivism is known as the “public sector.” In the public sector the “government” owns resources on behalf of individuals and the government structure administers the resources.
As an example, given that the US federal budget is some US$3 trillion, one can see how vast are the inroads of collectivism-by-another-name. So much of what the US and indeed the West provides to citizens is offered through the mechanism of government that it can be said that collectivism is actually the hallmark of modern capitalist societies. Whether concerning public schools, municipal support for infrastructure or “first responder service,” the government itself provides the service on behalf of the affected population.
Collectivism is anything but a theoretical term. It has been put in practice in the West with efficiency and vigor and is a defining characteristic of many people’s lives. The more extreme forms of collectivism have claimed the lives of millions in the 20th century and there is no reason to doubt that such political structures would do so if re-imposed. In the meantime, the soft collectivism of the West has not murdered nearly so many but is responsible for a steady diminishment of lifestyles and standards of living.
This is for two reasons: First is the tragedy of the commons. If everyone is responsible, no one is. Second, collectivism is in its application a fraud that inevitably allows a few powerful people to loot others while hiding behind the concept. Collectivism at best is a kind of exploitative mercantilism. At its worst it creates the conditions for genocide.
Today’s Western-style democracy is showing itself as the transparent cloak that it is for the powerful elites standing in the shadows behind Western collectivist societies – thanks in large part to the enlightening power of the Internet.
Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group—whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.”
Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective—society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc.—is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it.
Collectivism holds that the individual has no rights, that his life and work belong to the group . . . and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests. The only way to implement a doctrine of that kind is by means of brute force—and statism has always been the political corollary of collectivism.
Fascism and communism are not two opposites, but two rival gangs fighting over the same territory . . . both are variants of statism, based on the collectivist principle that man is the rightless slave of the state.
Modern collectivists . . . see society as a super-organism, as some supernatural entity apart from and superior to the sum of its individual members.
The philosophy of collectivism upholds the existence of a mystic (and unperceivable) social organism, while denying the reality of perceived individuals—a view which implies that man’s senses are not a valid instrument for perceiving reality. Collectivism maintains that an elite endowed with special mystic insight should rule men—which implies the existence of an elite source of knowledge, a fund of revelations inaccessible to logic and transcending the mind. Collectivism denies that men should deal with one another by voluntary means, settling their disputes by a process of rational persuasion; it declares that men should live under the reign of physical force (as wielded by the dictator of the omnipotent state)—a position which jettisons reason as the guide and arbiter of human relationships.
The political philosophy of collectivism is based on a view of man as a congenital incompetent, a helpless, mindless creature who must be fooled and ruled by a special elite with some unspecified claim to superior wisdom and a lust for power.
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.
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.”)