LXX – Collectivism Begins In Your Neighborhood

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Those
familiar with my writings know of my eternal hostility to collective
thinking. The key to living well — materially, psychologically,
and spiritually — is to recognize that we are social beings who
need the cooperation of others while, at the same time, retaining
our individual sense of understanding and direction. We need to
maintain an energized awareness that never allows our social needs
to preempt our individual judgments about the propriety of our actions.

There
is nothing so destructive to decent society as the tendency to relax
our psychic energies and let our thinking dissolve into mass-mindedness.
Wars have long been the vehicle for transforming peaceful, principled
individuals into brutish automatons whose standards of conduct become
whatever collective authority defines for them. Wars are destructive
enough, in terms of lives, property, and foregone opportunities.
But there is a hidden cost not only to wars, but to all forms of
collective behavior, that is rarely examined: the diminution of
the qualities that make for a free, creative, and humane civilization.

It
is to the interplay between the individual and the group that I
focus my attention. Let me emphasize, again, that I am not setting
the values of individualism apart from our needs for social organization.
Without some form of society — if only the family – none of
us would have survived to become individuals. As long as
these needs reinforce one another — as they do in the marketplace,
for example — there is no necessary conflict between the two. It
is when the interests and purposes of a group are seen as predominant
over those of the individuals who comprise it — when the group becomes
an institution, in other words — that this balance is lost
and conflict emerges. When our individual autonomy, uniqueness,
and principles are squeezed out of us and extruded into a collective
mindset, our personal and social needs are placed in opposition.

The
confrontation between the individual and the collective has long
been the topic of literary and philosophic examination. Socrates
taking the hemlock; Galileo forced to recant his scientific discoveries;
Gulliver being tied down by the Lilliputians; or John Galt forced
to retreat to his Colorado gulch, are among the more vivid examples
of individuals repressed by collective forces. Artists, writers,
and other intellectuals are ever on the alert to warn of threats
to the kinds of creative conduct in which they deal. But the virus
of collectivism insinuates itself into our lives long before men
and women are beheaded or sent to gulags for their politically incorrect
opinions.

If
our minds are to become fully collectivized, we must learn the catechisms
upon which the existence of institutions depends. Having severed
the consistency of purpose between individual and social needs that
is implicit in all voluntary behavior, the state — largely through
its school systems — has conditioned us to believe that we are
the state; that political systems are but an extension of our
will; that politicians and bureaucrats are our "agents,"
desirous not only of defending our liberties and advancing our interests,
but ever mindful of their status as public servants to our
will.

We
eagerly embrace this doctrine as a way of silencing those inner
voices that whisper to us the falsity of the proposition. We are
inwardly troubled by the thought that we might be nothing more in
the scheme of things than institutional chattels, to be employed
as best suits our owners. We attempt to resolve such a dilemma by
reciting the dogma that the institutional order exists to serve
us. Many of us still pretend that politicians, judges, bureaucrats,
police officers, members of the military, and other government officials,
go off to work each morning with no more paramount purpose than
the elimination of barriers to our sense of self-fulfillment.

Just
how fallacious this notion is was made quite clear to me one morning
as I was walking along a Los Angeles street. My attention was first
attracted to the flashing red lights of two police cars parked in
the middle of the street. As I got closer to what seemed like a
major criminal arrest, I saw four burly policemen standing around
a shabbily-dressed man — perhaps in his forties — who had been handcuffed
by the officers. What might this man have done to arouse the attention
of these state functionaries? Had he just held up a liquor store?
Assaulted young women on the street? Grabbed the purse of an elderly
woman? Gunned down a helpless stranger? Then my eyes caught sight
of what was the apparent cause of his arrest: an old grocery cart
filled with neatly folded cardboard boxes, old newspapers, bits
and scraps of things, and a plastic bag filled with empty aluminum
cans.

In
fairness to the police officers, it might be that his arrest was
for suspicion of being in possession of a stolen grocery cart, although
I have witnessed other incidents in which police have restrained
homeless persons sans such carts. This man's crime, to outward appearances,
was to be one of the many poor people who regularly inhabit the
streets of major cities. Like bag-ladies, beggars, skid-row winos,
and people who sleep on park benches, this man's apparent wrongdoing
consisted of being impoverished; a form of energy not useful to
the institutional order. Just as he had spent his daily hours collecting
refuse from the streets, parks, and trash containers, this man was
being collected by the state's people-pushers with the efficient
dispatch of SS officers or KGB agents rounding up the persona non
grata of other regimes.

Our
political and business system has long been annoyed by those who
choose to be unsettled and unmotivated by the material allures of
corporate capitalism. Hoboes, vagrants, gypsies, people who sleep
in their cars, panhandlers, and other poor, homeless wanderers,
have always been regarded as proper objects of abuse by the criminal
law system. The city in which I grew up once had an ordinance —
which I played a part in getting repealed — making it a misdemeanor
for "ugly or deformed persons" to appear on its streets.
The ordinance had been enacted at the behest of retailers desirous
of ridding crippled beggars from panhandling on sidewalks outside
their stores.

To
be "without visible means of support" — which means to
be without a substantial amount of money that can be taxed or spent
in business establishments — has long seemed enough justification
for locking up a man for ten to thirty days. This is not to say
that all forms of poverty have been targeted for attack by the state.
It is quite all right to be poor in America as long as one is willing
to be institutionally poor. If poverty can be made useful
to the institutional order — particularly the state — it no longer
represents entropy to the system, but a form of energy available
for institutional purposes.

Various
institutions — such as state welfare systems, job training programs,
homeless shelters, and charitable organizations — thrive by maintaining
sizeable constituencies drawn from the ranks of the unemployed and
impoverished. A major field of legal practice is bankruptcy law
— which should tell us something about the overall nature of our
corporate-state dominated economy — which allows people to have
their impoverishment institutionally certified by bankruptcy courts.
As long as the poor are prepared to live as part of the clientele
of such agencies, they will likely be left alone. They become an
indispensable part of the system for the institutionalized control
of people; examples of the collective domination of individuals.
Like willing slaves, men and women who consent to remain dependent
on established authorities for their livelihoods will remain docile
enough to pose no threat to the ruling order.

While
one may remain part of the class of the institutional poor,
the corporate-state alliance wars against people being independently
poor. To be independently poor is to be outside the system,
unattached to an institution, a walking advertisement that one may
reject the established order and its values and yet survive. To
be on the outside trying to get in is quite permissible, even if
one never succeeds: it demonstrates a commitment to the collective
order. But to be on the outside by choice; to be content
living without a permanent home, a telephone or television set,
an automobile, a computer and cell phone, mortgages and insurance
policies, and all those other trappings of the "American way
of life," is a threat to the system itself. The independently
poor, who choose to wander the highways and sleep on sidewalks and
in parks, are living denials of the commitments the rest of us have
made to the system and take for granted.

Andrew
Carnegie — a man who rose from humble beginnings — recognized the
threat such persons pose to the institutional order. "One man
or woman who succeeds in living comfortably by begging," he
declared, "is more dangerous to society, and a greater obstacle
to the progress of humanity, than a score of wordy Socialists."
Recent criticisms of judicial decisions that have freed men and
women involuntarily held in mental institutions reflects this same
concern. In identifying many of the homeless as people who should
be institutionalized — even the verb form expresses the collectivist
processes at work — such critics implicitly recognize state-practiced
psychiatry for what it is: a coercive system for punishing the heretics
of a consensus-defined social consciousness.

Please
do not misinterpret my point. I am not suggesting that there is
a sense of spiritual or intellectual awakening, or an exalted life
purpose, to be found in living in a piano crate on Wilshire Boulevard.
Neither am I espousing a life of alms-seeking at busy intersections.
I have no desire to live that way, nor would I find pleasure in
any of my children surviving in such a manner. What I am suggesting
is that the collectivist mindset is the most dangerous social condition
mankind faces, whether it finds expression in the form of suicide
bombers, a willingness to become a cog in a government's war machinery,
or simply in resigning oneself to a lifetime of control by institutional
bureaucrats. State collectivism does not begin at the point
of a gun, but culminates there. Its origins are to be found
in our attitudes about the independence of individuals who choose,
for whatever their reasons, to live outside prescribed herds. It
is only in our willingness to accept the autonomy of the hobo that
our own individuality will find protection.

Such
were the thoughts that came to my mind as I witnessed this collector
of other people's throwaways being herded into a police car for
what was, presumably, but another of his numerous trips through
the criminal justice system. Local retailers were no doubt relieved
that such an unsightly soul was no longer around to discomfort customers
as they came in to shop. Still, I felt a sense of sadness that people
who have a preference for the footloose life, and who want nothing
more than the opportunity to continue their wanderings from place
to place, must be hunted down and jailed by a system that seems
so threatened by their examples. I could only wonder at the priorities
of a society that must harass those least capable of resisting the
well-organized, well-armed powers of the state. Such practices hardly
represent a societal commitment to the liberty and self-ownership
of any of us. Nor could I help recalling the speculations of Eric
Hoffer that, perhaps, those we are fond of calling the "rugged
pioneers" who forged this nation, were nothing more than the
tramps of earlier days; men and women who gave up what little they
had in favor of treks into an uncertain, uncivilized, unstructured
world.

This
man did not appear to be pushing drugs, but only an old grocery
cart, and judging by the neatly ordered collection he had amassed,
he had doubtless done much to make the streets of Los Angeles a
cleaner place. Like the hoboes who, years ago, used to trade their
labor for food at my uncle's farm, this man had eschewed panhandling
in favor of supporting his meager wants by work, albeit work not
high on college grads' hierarchies of status jobs. His was the work
of the scavenger, the lowly recycler of the entropy that we define
as "trash," a role one finds throughout all of nature.
But offsetting the meager material rewards of his efforts was the
fact that he apparently enjoyed what hoboes, gypsies, and other
vagabonds of human history always enjoyed: the opportunity to wander
freely without a commitment to the formal acquisition and consumption
system of our institutionalized world. It was this freedom that
was being shackled by the brutes who had been hired to pursue, through
the streets of our cities, those whose wanderings outside institutional
confines might cause the rest of us to ponder alternatives to our
own commitments.

Many
of those who live in this fashion support themselves through the
sale of merchandise or services on city streets, parks, and sidewalks.
In many cities, men and women have been run off such facilities,
or even arrested, for selling trinkets, food, clothing, souvenirs,
or artwork, to the public. The defense of such police behavior has
been, among other arguments, that such government owned property
"belongs to everyone," and that private persons ought
not use it for monetary gain. But herein lies the fallacy of collectivism,
for if each of us "owns" the city streets or parks, how
can any of these alleged "owners" be denied their use?
The argument is further contradicted by the fact that established
businesses routinely use city streets and sidewalks for the
delivery of their wares.

At
a time of high unemployment, homelessness, and minimum-wage restrictions
that prevent many inner-city young people from earning a living
other than through the sale of illegal drugs, one wonders at the
wisdom of placing legal barriers in the way of men and women desirous
of engaging in even such informal businesses as operating pushcarts,
braiding hair, or selling toys or T-shirts. While we continue to
mouth slogans about our wondrous "free enterprise" system,
as well as the liberty to live our lives as we choose, we ignore
the numerous restrictions that foreclose many low-income people
from entering the marketplace as entrepreneurs, thus reinforcing
their ties to government welfare systems.

The
collectivization of our society has all but enervated any meaning
of "free enterprise" premised upon an individual's liberty
to enter the marketplace. It is a confusion that has led most people
to find no distinction between the business system (as a
corporate entity) and the free market (as a legally unrestrained
process). In our modern, corporate-state world, it seems that one
is "free" to enter a trade or business only if the established
political and corporate interests are first paid off: government
agencies sell permits and licenses, exact other fees, and collect
taxes along the way; landlords must be paid rent for business space;
in many lines of work, one must procure a license — issued by a
state-enforced association of one's would-be competitors — before
lawfully entering a trade or profession; and banks and other lending
institutions must get their cut. In order to assure compliance with
local zoning, building, and business codes, licensed construction,
plumbing, and electrical contractors must build or remodel the facilities;
insurance companies must be paid expensive premiums for all the
insurance and performance bonds these other institutional interests
will insist upon to protect their positions; while accountants and
lawyers must be paid to assure that all of these formalities have
been followed. Against such an array of political and economic interests,
is it surprising that local governments seek to restrain those who
have the audacity to try to enter the world of business without
making these legally mandated payoffs?

There
was a time when entry into the marketplace was not so severely restricted.
My grandfather was one of the founders of a still-existing town
in Nebraska. He built and operated a hotel and opera house in this
town with, I suspect, virtually none of the governmental restraints
that would attend someone trying to do the same thing in this town
today. Modern requirements for conducting business have less to
do with the demands of a free market, than with restrictions imposed
upon the market by the corporate-state forces that have come to
define the business sector.

Even
in my youth, I recall a daily parade of vendors — from bakeries,
cleaners, dairies, ice and coal companies; to farmers with their
fruits, vegetables, and eggs; encyclopedia, brush, and vacuum cleaner
salesmen; photographers and peddlers of various notions — going
through neighborhoods selling their products or services. Even garbage
collection was a competitive business, rather than a state-run monopoly.
Our streets were alive with men and women buying and selling, and
haggling over prices and the quality of goods.

I
had the sense that, had I wanted to enter this exciting marketplace,
I could do so without having to get anyone else's permission, except,
perhaps, that of my parents. Indeed, I did enter this market when
I was nine years old, obtaining a newspaper delivery route through
this same neighborhood, and even managing to mow lawns and shovel
snow from sidewalks. At the same time, some of my friends were going
door-to-door selling magazines, seeds, or other products. We were
able to learn something of the realities of the marketplace by operating
our own lemonade stands or collecting scrap metal for resale, while
other kids produced a neighborhood newspaper, and a circus on a
vacant lot. Such freedom provided us the opportunity to experience
a sense of both productive and existential independence. While these
earlier practices were subject to some amount of governmental regulation,
there was also more of an attitude evinced then, than now, that
the marketplace was not the private preserve of institutional interests,
but was open to any individual who wished to participate.

There
were other secondary social benefits to free, neighborhood commerce,
including providing employment opportunities for a number of handicapped
persons: students at a nearby school for the blind manufactured
brooms and doormats, and sold them door-to-door (one of these students
gave me a book in Braille, which introduced me to an alternative
form of my own language); a crippled man sharpened knives and scissors
and sold assorted household odds and ends. The relatively low costs
of entry into such trades gave people additional employment options
and provided opportunities to learn new skills, both of which fostered
a greater sense of independence. Today, such people would likely
either be part of the clientele of state welfare bureaucracies —
reduced to the demeaning state of institutionalized dependence —
or would be standing at major street corners with Styrofoam cups
and plaintive signs that begged for your pity and money.

The
unrestricted freedom of entry into various trades was not only consistent
with ideas of self-ownership — a concept foreign to men and women
of collectivist persuasion — but also served to keep control over
economic decision-making decentralized in the hands of individuals,
rather than centralized in institutions. Because the transactions
between sellers and neighborhood residents were of an arms-length,
personalized nature, such practices reinforced the authority that
men and women held over their own lives.

All
of this contributed to yet another social benefit: the reinforcement
of a sense of community and neighborliness, as residents visited
with one another beside a fruit and vegetable truck, or exchanged
jokes with a milkman who was always willing to share chunks of ice
with children on a hot summer day. Such behavior reflects the point
made earlier, namely, that the marketplace is an expression of both
our social and economic needs. So much of our daily lives was conducted
out on the streets that I managed to know our neighbors far more
intimately than I have since experienced living in other cities.
I suspect that what turned the vibrant neighborhoods of a generation
ago into the more sluggish bedroom communities of today, was not
just the advent of air conditioning and television, but the decline
of the sense of the neighborhood as a social system, one in which
we lived and played, not merely ate and slept. Furthermore, because
of its voluntary and decentralized nature, we rarely experienced
conflict between individual and neighborhood interests.

Collectivism
was not born in congressional chambers or Ivy League classrooms,
but in our willingness to abandon our streets and neighborhoods
to institutional interests. But why did we do so? From whence arose
our trust in collective forces and fear of ourselves as individual
decision-makers? Is it because we believe that autonomous individuals
and voluntary groups could ever match the wholesale slaughter practiced
by governments, a carnage that produced some two hundred million
corpses in the 20th century alone? Do we share with religious
leaders the fear that self-directed and spiritually-inquisitive
individuals are likely to introduce more social discord than the
medieval "holy wars" that are now enjoying a return engagement
in the Middle East? Do we attach ourselves to major corporate systems
because we expect the economic energies of people to disappear,
for enterprise to suddenly cease, or for marketplace business cycles
to become worse than under corporate-state induced and managed depressions,
unemployment, and inflation?

Do
we continue to hand over our children and tax dollars to government
schools because we believe that alternative, voluntary systems of
learning might exceed the government school record for state-certified
ignorance and institutionalized illiteracy? Do we really expect
the costs of alternative systems of health care to come close to
matching the obscene costs of state-certified and defined medicine?
In a world in which so many scientists have become state-subsidized
sorcerers — helping to produce such atrocities as state-run eugenics
programs; systems for the political control of populations; and
the arsenals of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass
slaughter — do we really expect technology in the hands of free
men and women to be a threat to the human species?

It
is time that we "take back the streets," not in the political
or other violent meaning in which that phrase is often used, but
by ending the conflict between our individual and social purposes
that has been generated by a divisive, collective mindset. The "city"
and "community" are not synonymous terms, neither are
the words "precinct" and "neighborhood." The
marrow of our lives is being sucked from us by our continuing acceptance
of collectivist beliefs.
We need to regain the sense of community that we lost when we allowed
political systems to help generate and mobilize fears about our
neighbors.

Collectivist
ideas have largely been advanced by intellectuals, many of whom
preoccupy themselves with creating restraints on the activities
of others, while insisting that their own realms of free
expression be shielded from state coercion. They take great comfort
in the limited definition of liberty attributed to Voltaire: "I
disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your
right to say it." There may be some justice in expanding the
scope of this phrase to include an unrestrained freedom of action
as well as ideas, an effort that would pull the rug from
beneath all collectivist systems. Let us, in other words, extend
these sentiments to all men and women as they peacefully
pursue whatever is of interest to them or provides meaning to their
lives: "I disapprove of what you do, but I will defend
to the death your right to do it."

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