Collectivism and Individualism II: Examples

TL;DR: In this article I provide simple examples of collectivist and individualist thinking to provide clarification on the previous article in this series. A collectivist viewpoint often overlooks important aspects of what is going on in a given situation. With this said, collectivist generalization can be very useful by greatly simplifying the situations that we are analyzing. We should always be aware of how our ideas are simplified and be ready to utilize a more accurate individualist understanding when necessary.

Last time we covered the basics of collectivism and individualism in the senses that I use them. In this article I will further explain these concepts and provide different examples of types of individualism and collectivism.

To return to one of the most useful examples that I proposed last time, let us take “a country”, such as the United States, and think about the role of the United States in terms of foreign affairs. Consider the claim that “The United States wanted to invade Iraq”. What does this phrase mean? For collectivists, this represents a “black box”. The most enthusiastic collectivist would interpret this in a similar way as one might interpret the statement “The dog wanted to bite the man”, where the acting agent was entirely, or almost entirely, united in its desire.

To try and make sense of this on a national scale, it would have to mean that nearly all individuals wanted to invade Iraq. In reality, of course, there were a large number of people who opposed the war from day one. This fact is what helped to end the occupation as quickly as it ended, and caused the United States Military to behave in the way as it did. This fact is important. If the nation was really full of hawks, then the occupation of Iraq may well have been more intense and probably longer lasting. Within groups, the divergence of opinions and power have an important role in how events occur.

This does not mean, of course, that the statement “the United States wanted to Invade Iraq” is without use, so long as it is properly understood. For what it means when reasonably interpreted is simply “the prevailing consensus among high ranking officials within the United States Federal Government, with enough support by relevant sections of the public, wanted to launch a military invasion of Iraq”. This in turn could be further broken down into distinctions of which parts of the public supported the war and who in the Federal Government supported the war. This would be messy, difficult to articulate, and extremely time consuming. Simply saying that “America wanted to invade Iraq”, communicates much of the above information in an articulate and concise manner, so long as one interprets it correctly.

As another example of how collectivist concepts can hide important realities, let us consider the statement “the decline in the cost of food will be good for America”. What does this mean? Once again, from a collectivist standpoint it would appear to mean that Americans unequivocally benefit from the fall in food prices. The statement wipes away the different conditions and experiences of individual participants, leaving only the conditions of “America”. Yet a further examination shows that this is obviously false.

Take farmers, for instance. The decrease in the price of food may well harm them, since now the crops that they sell are not worth as much as they once were. This decreases their incomes and quality of living. On the other hand, however, for many American families are indeed better off, for the cost of a large portion of what they spend money on has now decreased. This is just one clear example of how collectivist thinking obscures reality.

Generalization, or the act of making many individual cases a collective unit, is incredibly important. As I will outline elsewhere, it is the very essence of what allows our language to work. But when we overgeneralize and fail to understand the meaning of our generalizations, then we are bound to make serious errors. Sometimes, when dealing with something like intricate discussions of international politics or the economy, it is far, far, simpler to perform a relatively collectivist analysis where nations appear as singular pieces on a chessboard. This is because what is lost in accuracy is made up in simplicity and ease of discussion. But even this will oftentimes yield errors if we take our collective abstractions too seriously.

One thought on “Collectivism and Individualism II: Examples

  1. Darthbobber

    Aah… one of your first comments.
    I’ll unpack this one a bit, and gratify my inner pedant:
    “To return to one of the most useful examples that I proposed last time, let us take “a country”, such as the United States, and think about the role of the United States in terms of foreign affairs. Consider the claim that “The United States wanted to invade Iraq”. What does this phrase mean? For collectivists, this represents a “black box”. The most enthusiastic collectivist would interpret this in a similar way as one might interpret the statement “The dog wanted to bite the man”, where the acting agent was entirely, or almost entirely, united in its desire.”

    I must never have met that “most enthusiastic collectivist” you refer to, so I’ll have to take your word as to what that hypothetical entity might think.

    Words are often merely a useful shorthand, and it would be very time-consuming to embed an entire theoretical discussion from a pluralist, elitist or other theory of social power everytime one wanted to refer to the actions of a nation-state. (not just “a country” btw. The entity created by first the Articles and then the Constitution is a legal entity with a wide range of defined rights and obligations).

    Surely how one treats such a statement depends at least as much on what one is trying to understand as it does on a bias towards collectivism or individualism.

    An specialist on international law, for example, would easily make do with the bare statement as it stands. (Except that they’d dispense with “wanted” and just say “the United States invaded Iraq.” Which is just fine FOR THEIR PURPOSES, because they’re just dealing with the abstract entity, not its components.)

    If we dispense with “wanted”, and assume (as most people do) that punching somebody in the nose is a pretty good prima facie case that you wanted to do that, you can dispense with the question of desire.

    If you’re interested in determining how foreign policy decisions get made in the United States, you’ll be attempting to define a wide range of interest groups and hopefully order their level of interest in some fashion. This would involve a significant, but manageably finite, number of groupings with an impact on policy at that level. (Or in the case of the Iraq war, you might plausibly isolate the decision to maybe a dozen or so individuals. Then, if you’re interested in how it got sold and consent was obtained, you can take a nice detour into media/power nexuses.)

    Or if you’re interested in any of the theories of legitimation, (natural law, social contract, discourse theory, Kantian imperatives minus the categorical), the question of “wanted” comes back into it and you become interested in how a nation’s decisions do or do not link up with the views of its citizens/subjects, and what it means to say that those decisions have or lack legitimacy.

    In any of these cases you will have to break your entity into different component parts, and sometimes literal individuals, depending the problem situation you’re trying to deal with.

    Like

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