by Michael Parish
Libertarians, movement “conservatives”, and other heirs to the classical liberal tradition view society through the binary opposition of “individualism” and “collectivism”; the two are reified into near-Platonic forms and pitted in a permanent opposition recalling Judeo-Christian dualism. Both are mental absracta, but in a society based on economic reductionism, they are assumed to denote rational self-interest in a free market; libertarians extend it one degree further to include pre-rational self-satisfaction. However, irrespective of their exact definition, they together comprise a false dichotomy, and as such frame a false discourse.
The root of the fallacy is not the difference between two forms of social organization, but in the nature of the terms themselves. Both are abstractions, referring not to concrete objects but to mental concepts; both are employed by virtue of their connotative, rather than denotative value; and both are perceived by a populace unequipped to comprehend the difference. This is why discourse framed within such a perspective never rises above the level of rhetoric; it is literally incapable of it. Rather, it sinks to the same level as all other political dialogue in modern society; ignoring concrete intellectual formulation and instead remaining mired in psychologically satisfying pseudo-fantasy.
The targets of this diatribe may protest that in practice there does exist a concrete difference between the two. That, to instantiate the dualism mentioned earlier, individuals can exist either free from state control to pursue their own ends or be artificially coerced into a collective. However, this is not a rational summation of social options so much as it is an (unconscious) restatement of the levantine God vs. Satan dichotomy. The same as morality cannot be reduced to a simple matter of good and evil, civilization cannot either; the world exists not in black and white but in varying shades of grey.
Those who self-identify as “individualists” all but fetishize the term “liberty,” committing the same aforementioned error of turning an abstraction into a principle. “Liberty” is an open-ended abstraction, one whose elasticity is endlessly negotiable, producing two definitions and and the expected paradoxes. As a foundational principle, it is easily jettisoned; arguments follow from premises that correspond to empirical consideration, not abstract rationalization.
The conceptual dilemma plaguing the “individualist” fervor is the same inherent to all atomism; every cause has an effect, and every effect is preconditioned by a cause. Vacuums are the exception; causal interrelation is the rule. This necessitates the formulation of ideology on a collective level. If we are to accept (as I do) the ontological distinction between the state (artificial) and the civic (natural), and combine it with an organicist conception of society, then the “individual vs. collective” dichotomy vanishes and the correct parameters of civil versus state are revealed.
There will always exist the same quantitative issues to be solved; the question is who will solve them, and how they will do so.
The failure to recognize this reveals another blind spot in the liberal thought process; a misconception of human historical dynamics. History operates dialectically in a domino-like process of cause and effect; factors cause circumstances, which in turn precondition the emergence of yet more factors; never are social agents operating out of free will; rather, they are unconsciously fulfilling historically designated roles. The rise and entrenchment of bureaucracy in Western societies was not a conscious attack on individualism but its inevitable extension; as the individual subject and his rational self-interest was selected as the highest reality, it destroyed the social conditions allowing he and his peers to function rationally in the first place. Those conditions had to be recreated, this time top down supervision rather than bottom up construction. As to be expected of ideologues with linear thought processes, the only answer to over rationalization was yet further rationalization.
The paradox revealed here is that any principle taken to its logical conclusion will negate itself, and in doing so will arrive full circle. And, indeed, it is the circular, rather than linear, conception of the world that we must adopt if we are to adapt.