Saturday, 29 December 2007

A Philosophical Chasm

In my second exploratory post, I take a look at a dichotomous view of political philosophy - The idea that a primary source of political disagreement is a fundamental division between collectivism and individualism.

I was spurred on to write about this by two things that happened this month. The first was a discussion at my local with a few other politically argumentative people, including one former Labour councillor who described himself as a 'collectivist' and made the philosophical statement that forms the premise for this post.

The second was a debate that took place on Radio 4 between civil liberties campaigner and Observer writer Henry Porter, and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, which concluded with a remark by the latter concerning the 'danger' of individualism.

This sort of post is not the place for excoriating Toynbee, other than to say that in my opinion she is largely wrong here and Porter is largely right. That is to say (as you may well have realised already if you've read much else here on QT), I tend to see things from the individualist's point of view (here represented by Henry Porter and those who argue on similar lines) much more.

So what does all of this actually mean? What are 'individualism' and 'collectivism'?

Like almost any word that ends in 'ism', different people's definitions of these words have small but important distinctions between them. This is where I like to make use of Wikipedia entries; not because it is a uniquely reliable source of information, but because (at least for articles of reasonable general interest) it is built on consensus*.

Wikipedia on individualism: Individualism is a term used to describe a moral, political, or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty. Individualists promote the exercise of individual goals and desires. They oppose most external interference with an individual's choices - whether by society, the state, or any other group or institution.

Wikipedia on collectivism: Collectivism is a term used to describe any moral, political, or social outlook, that stresses human interdependence and the importance of a collective, rather than the importance of separate individuals. Collectivists focus on community and society, and seek to give priority to group goals over individual goals.

It strikes me that, although I come from the opposing side of the debate from him, my ex-councillor friend's statement to the effect that most modern political division comes down to this fundamental difference of viewpoints. Everything from this point on is conjecture - food for thought from one person's viewpoint...

The terms 'left-wing' and 'right-wing', with one significant exception that I will come to a bit later on, can be mapped quite neatly onto the concepts of 'collectivism' and 'individualism'. Any time those dread words 'left' and 'right' are used with regard to politics, a hefty dose of generalisation is automatically being dumped onto the discussion.

This post, unavoidably, is barely different, but I don't think it's unreasonable to say that in a discussion about crime, or poverty, if you see someone talk about 'personal responsibility' or occasionally 'parental responsibility' (not necessarily using those exact words, of course), they can probably reasonably described as right-wing. If they talk about 'societal responsibility', it's probably safe to say they are left-wing.**

So far so good. Where things get a little more interesting is when you ask for a definition of 'society'. Does society consist of every human being in the world? Typically not, and here is where the exception I mentioned previously comes in and things can get rather contentious. By the definitions given previously, as well as the obvious (socialists, communists, social democrats, some types of anarchists), nationalists and fascists are also collectivists - they seek to subordinate individual interests to those of the state. However, we call these people 'right-wing', often 'far-right'.
What is interesting about this isn't so much that the terms 'left' and 'right' are used in the way described (they have their roots in 18th century revolutionary France and have been extended and twisted every which way since then). It's that, when you look at political positioning in this way, the same people can hold seemingly contradictory viewpoints.

To me, the individualist viewpoint and accentuation of personal responsibility and aspiration is intuitive, while the collectivist viewpoint, well, isn't - it requires rather more thought and analysis to see where they are coming from. From reading responses to the likes of Polly Toynbee's writing, it is clear I am not the only one. So I wonder: Are some people collectivists by inclination, who could unhesitatingly write the first sentence of this paragraph the opposite way around?

I decided in connection with this post to start a side blog aiming not to attack collectivists (goodness knows there's enough of that in the blogosphere already), but to aim to develop a greater appreciation of and understanding of the basis of collectivist ideas. Bridging, or at least narrowing, this philosophical chasm can only be a good thing (and I'd welcome the appearance of a similar blog from the 'other side', as it were). The side blog, with only a test post up at the moment, is at Collective Interest.

*Wikipedia is almost entirely volunteer-edited and administrated. Some contend that the lack of accountability means it is untrustworthy and even close to useless. Others, myself included, consider frequently-edited articles to constitute as near to a cross-community consensus on that topic as it is possible to get (with a couple of caveats, for instance the somewhat US-centric view often apparent in political philosophy articles).

**Go on, have a look at the writing of some bloggers or commentators you consider 'right-wing' and some you consider 'left-wing' (taking into account the caveat regarding nationalism) and see if this assumption holds. If I had more time I would survey Comment is Free and analyse how often these arguments as delineated come from the same people as traditionally 'rightist' and 'leftist' arguments on other issues.

1 comment:

Saltburn subversives said...

I think there is some potential for confusion here and I think it's necessary to make a couple of distinctions in order to avoid it.
We are all collectivists of one kind or another. There are many things that are best done collectively. You may be a member of the RAC or your local amateur dramatics group but these organisations are voluntary in nature. I presume what you are talking about involuntary collectives such as the state.
Also I think it is necessary to to distinguish between society and the state. When anyone says: "We as a society have to do something about..." what they mean is the state. I always answer by saying something like, "yes, but why does it have to be the state when the state always messes everything up."

Peter Horne