September 2008: The Decline of Collectivity

Triumph of individualism a defeat for society as a whole
September 1, 2008

A few years ago, former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed astonished us by denouncing what he called “the decline of collectivity” in Canada. “We are becoming increasingly Americanized,” he warned, “and this imposes an un-Canadian individualism on our ethic.”

Coming from Lougheed, whose province has spearheaded the country’s Americanization, this concern was completely unexpected. Never considered a Red Tory—or, in the current far-right parlance, a “squishy” one--he nevertheless was alarmed by the extent to which his party’s current leaders were pushing the corporate agenda. He was particularly disturbed by their promotion of the American-style cult of individualism, which puts personal rights ahead of community values.

Like many others on the left, I was surprised that Lougheed used the term “collectivity” so approvingly, as something to be preferred to individualism. Usually conservatives—even “squishy” ones—equate collectivism with socialism or even communism, and the word leaves their lips dripping with scorn and venom.

They have the advantage of being able to point to both fascist and communist states (Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union being the prime examples) where collectivism was taken to the extreme of completely suppressing individual freedom. In the insect world, they can also point to the regimented conformity of the anthill and the beehive.

The consequences of unrestrained individualism, on the other hand, are not so easily demonstrated. Even the social breakdown in the United States is not seen by most people as the result of the glorification of individual liberty, to the detriment of community (i.e., collective) needs. This is largely because, in a capitalist economic system, any constraint on the freedom of individuals—or, for that matter, of individual business firms—is considered abhorrent, even if such limits are imposed in the broader public interest. To contend, in today’s born-again laissez-faire, that the common good should be society’s primary goal is to be guilty of the worst kind of heresy.

But weren’t governments originally established to protect and advance collective interests? And wasn’t such an overriding purpose inherently hostile to the cult of individualism? Indeed it was, and so the corporate, political, media, and academic champions of “individual rights and freedoms” had to reverse this prime government mandate. They had to convert government into a mechanism for promoting private and individual interests instead.

So regulations that had curbed the socially harmful activities of individual persons and companies were weakened or eliminated. Social programs that helped the poor and unemployed—and thus interfered with the free operation of the markets—were gutted. Public services and institutions that allegedly could be provided more efficiently by the private sector were privatized. Taxes that “stifled or discouraged” private initiative were slashed.

“The best government,” we were told by its wreckers, “is the least government.”

Governments have thus been transformed from guardians of the public good to boosters of private profit, from seekers of social justice to destroyers of the welfare state. It matters not at all, apparently, that the main beneficiaries of this anti-government rampage have been the big corporations and the wealthy élite. The other 90% of us should be content that we are now as free as the plutocrats to live in mansions, dine and shop at the ritziest restaurants and boutiques, and spent our winters on the Riviera. And they, for their part, are as free as we are (if we still have jobs) to shop at Giant Tiger, eat at McDonald’s, and spend their winters shovelling snow.

Many Canadians, however, even if they haven’t embraced the cult of individualism willingly, have come to believe they have no choice. They have lost trust in our economic, social, and political institutions—or, rather, have had that trust betrayed.

The glue that holds any society together is faith in its governments, corporations, courts, churches, unions—faith that these institutions, no matter how flawed, will always be committed to serving and protecting people from poverty, unemployment, sickness, and other afflictions. That glue is coming unstuck in a country where governments put private interests ahead of the public interest, when corporations put the pursuit of profits ahead of the well-being of workers and their communities, when unions have been stripped of much of their capacity to protect their members.

No wonder that so many Canadians have come to the conclusion that they’re now on their own—that each of them is in a struggle for survival, with no help from any quarter

Self-preservation is always a powerful motivator, but especially so in a society that seems to be reverting to a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The reaction of people plunged into that kind of jungle-law environment is predictable. If their employers are downsizing and outsourcing work, if their governments keep destroying jobs through free trade and social service cutbacks, if their unions’ rights and ability to help them have been reduced—in that kind of ruthless system, people will feel they are on their own.

Their tendency will be to start looking at their co-workers, their neighbours, immigrants—indeed, anyone outside their immediate family circle—as rivals for the slim pickings of a shrinking economy. Individualism will run rampant. Cooperation and solidarity will be overwhelmed by a single-minded devotion to self-interest.

The erosion of our health care system, unemployment insurance and other social programs spurs this flight to individualism. These programs are the tangible expressions of our willingness to look after one another’s needs, to pool our contributions for the common good. As underfunding dismantles them, we are being thrown back, each of us, on our own resources.

Whether Canadians voluntarily embrace individualism or feel compelled to adopt it, the consequences are equally horrendous. Why? Because it rests on a philosophy that is fundamentally flawed and dangerous.

This is the spurious notion that, if each person and corporation is left free to pursue individual advantage, the “market” (or its “invisible hand”) will somehow make sure that the overall result will benefit everyone. In fact, as we have seen, the outcome is the precise opposite. Only the strongest, the smartest, the luckiest, and the fiercest prosper—at the expense of those less strong, less smart, less lucky, and less unscrupulous.

It is one of the worst flaws of human nature that the actions we take as individuals may benefit us separately, at least in the short term, but harm us collectively. These individual actions may be reasonable, even brilliant, if assessed solely on the basis of their immediate personal gains; but collectively they can prove disastrous.

The invention of the combustion engine was a giant step forward in human mobility, but in millions of automobiles its emissions pollute the air we breathe.

One person carrying a handgun for protection may be acting intelligently as an individual, but millions doing the same thing create a violent and perilous society.

A company that outsources thousands of jobs to cheap-labour countries may increase its profits and please its shareholders; but when most other firms do the same thing, the ensuing collapse of consumer spending cuts their domestic sales and triggers a recession.

A corporate tycoon, free to amass unlimited wealth, enjoys an opulent lifestyle, but the billions of dollars he and other business leaders hoard are unavailable to help the 12 million children who die every year from the hunger and disease that adequately funded programs could prevent.

The basic point is that unrestrained individualism can be much worse for a society than unrestrained collectivism.

Curtailing and humanizing individual enterprise doesn’t mean we have to become like the ants or the bees; but it does mean that some limits, some regulations, some minimum community standards have to be in place to protect collective rights and meet collective needs.

Otherwise we fall back into the worst kind of medieval society, brutalized by huge income disparities, masses of poor and jobless, urban slums, and high levels of crime and social unrest.

This process of social decay is well under way in the United States, and is increasingly discernible in many Canadian communities, too. It will continue and get worse as long as the cult of individualism holds sway in our boardrooms and legislatures.

Surely, if a committed conservative like Peter Lougheed can have that insight, it is not beyond the collective comprehension of most Canadians.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.)