The Individual and the Collective

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Paraphrasing one of my literary heroes, H.L. Mencken, my last words on the gallows will be to condemn collectivism in all of its forms. In the continuing struggle between “individualism” and “collectivism,” you will always find me in the company of the former. I recall a discussion I had with classmates back in high school, wherein I uttered what I then considered a cute phrase: “I distrust any form of organization from two-handed poker on up.” In later years, I have modified the thrust of that comment, coming to the conclusion that we need one another’s cooperation if we are to live in a condition of liberty wherein each of us is free to pursue our individual “bliss” (to borrow from Joseph Campbell). What we have in common with one another, is a need to come to the defense of one another’s individuality, a truth now made evident by the police-state hurriedly being assembled by the Bush administration.

In varying degrees, every political system is collectivist in nature, each being premised upon the centralization of state authority over the lives and property of individuals. Communism is only the more aggressive and far-reaching form of state socialism. But every political form is grounded in the belief that the state may rightfully preempt the decision-making authority of individuals.

Most of us have been conditioned to confine the range of permissible thought about the nature and extent of political authority to an arbitrary continuum running from the “Left” to the “Right.” The assumption underlying such thinking is that if you are dissatisfied with a “Leftist” (or “liberal”) government’s policies, you can switch your preferences to “Rightist” (or “conservative”) candidates. But such thinking clouds the fact, as noted by a friend of mine, that the “Left” and “Right” are but “two wings of the same bird of prey!” All political groups want power over others, a point noted in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: “Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” An awareness of this fact is found in the growing dissatisfaction of people with both major political parties, along with the sense that, no matter who they vote for, the government always gets elected!

The alleged “polarization” of viewpoints along this political spectrum does not delude those whose interests are driven more by a desire for coercive power over others than by any deep-seated philosophic principles. That so many 1930s Marxists could so easily have become conservatives by the 1950s, while some “Leftist” radicals of the 1960s have become darlings of modern neoconservativism, illustrates the fungible nature of all political systems.

It is an inner need to forcibly control the lives and property interests of others that motivates men and women of all political persuasions. Philosophic “principles” or “basic values” are no more to the politically ambitious than propaganda with which to create and solidify a base of power. Like commercial advertisers who declare “we do it all for you,” politicians thrive on getting individuals to align themselves with their (and the state’s) interests. Have any of you bought into George Bush’s promises of “enduring freedom” — words not even he can mutter without breaking into his used-car salesman’s grin?

All political systems are dependent upon the generation of mass-minded thinking, to persuade each of us to lose our sense of individuality and responsibility in the collective herd. We condition our minds to accept identities for ourselves, to think of ourselves not as self-directed, self-responsible beings, but as members of various groups, whose interests are not only mutually exclusive, but antagonistic. Whether we identify ourselves by race, religion, nationality, lifestyle, ideology, economic interests, gender, geography, or any other category, we put ourselves into a state of conflict with others. Political systems then promise to protect us from “them,” and most of us are too dull to recognize that our alleged “protectors” are the very ones who induced us to play the games that now threaten us! If you haven’t yet figured out that the events of 9/11 and their aftermath are but extensions of the decades-old politicogenic conflicts manufactured by political systems, then you have been watching too much cable television!

Look at the consequences of losing our sense of individuality in collective herds. Events in your daily life should confirm to you that individuals are generally more decent, peaceful, cooperative, loving, and humane than are political collectives. It should be clear to you that all political systems depend upon a modus operandi that is completely contrary to what most of us experience with other individuals; methodologies that none of us would tolerate from friends, associates, or even strangers. Politics attracts and mobilizes the basest qualities of humanity: a penchant for coercion, intimidation, warfare, and deceit; a willingness to destroy others; and an obsession with forcibly controlling the lives of others.

I once defined “government” as “a system of murder, rape, extortion, coercion, theft, intimidation, and terror, the absence of which, it is said, would lead to disorder.”

If you doubt this characterization then confront these hard facts: during the 20th century, governments managed to kill 200 million men, women, and children in wars, genocides, and other acts of formalized violence. During that same century, how many people were killed by individuals acting without political authority?

The 20th century revealed to us how easily the “dark side” of our unconscious minds can be energized toward violent and destructive ends. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and American lynch mobs demonstrated how easy it is to manipulate herd-oriented people. It is the individual who is difficult to control.

Just as we try to ignore the presence of a naked man at a social gathering, most of us tend to consciously repress the uncomfortable truths about the nature of collectivized systems. In the aftermath of September 11th, most of us have learned to recite the state’s catechism that these attacks had nothing to do with policies or programs of the American government, but were simply peevish acts carried out by men who envied our way of life! That these men came from a part of the world that has become an abattoir produced and directed by various political systems, influenced by a mix of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian doctrines, with costuming (and armaments) provided by the United States, seems not to have tweaked the consciousness of most.

Still, there are inner voices within each of us that insist upon reality. Our emotions, intuitions, and dreams, are some of the more familiar ways in which our unconscious mind — which, if nothing else, seems to have our survival as its central concern — endeavors to communicate with our consciousness. I suspect that many of us become angry at the opinions of others that contradict our own, not because we know them to be false, but because we fear that they may be true. I will receive more hostile e-mails from this article than I would from one in which I developed the thesis that 2 + 2 = 5, or that the earth is, indeed, a flat monolith supported by a turtle. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” intoned the Wizard of Oz as Toto exposed to his friends the fraud that had been perpetrated upon them.

Our obsession with collectivism — whatever form it may take — is destroying both the quality and the existence of human life. While we are social creatures, and need one another’s cooperation in order to survive, we are also individuals who require mutual respect for the inviolability of our respective interests. Only the individual is able to generate thoughts, to be creative, to reproduce, to sense pleasure, to love, and to have transcendent experiences.

The fate of all humanity is in the hands of individuals. If mankind is to extricate itself from the destructiveness of collective systems, you and I must begin to question the collective thinking through which we participate in such madness. There will be no White House conferences, or legislative hearings, or Supreme Court opinions to help us, for these are only expressions of the problem we must overcome. In words attributed to Albert Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

For the same reason that only you and I can protect ourselves from the attacks of others — our delusions about police “protection” to the contrary notwithstanding — only you and I can alter our personal consciousness. You and I can either choose to rethink our sense of “who we are” — and, in so doing, withdraw our energies from collective identities — or simply content ourselves to sit back, as most journalists seem inclined to do, and observe the collapse of society and the destruction of tens of millions of more lives.

Such an undertaking will be neither as lonely nor futile as you might imagine. Consistent with our politicized conditioning, we have been trained to think that only by acting collectively, can we accomplish worthwhile ends. But events are demonstrating to us that collective thinking and behavior are destroying us. It is to you and me that attention must shift if we are to reverse our present course.

Great music and other artistic expressions, inventions and discoveries, and other creative acts and ideas, have always come from individuals. The “butterfly effect” of which students of chaos speak informs us that localized acts can, through being reiterated back into a system, produce global consequences. Lest anyone doubt this, recall how nineteen men, armed only with cheap box-cutter knives, precipitated the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. If individuals can act for destructive ends, isn’t it possible for you and me to act, individually, for peaceful and constructive purposes?

Your efforts will be energized by influences which, as collectivized people, we have long forgotten: [1] first, the demands of life, itself, will support you. Like flowing water, life has a way of insisting upon its own expression. Just as a dammed-up river will eventually surmount, circumvent, or overpower barriers to its free movement, life has a way of insisting upon conditions necessary to its vitality. Belief systems, no matter how staunchly defended, are ultimately no match for the forces of life, a truth made evident by the collapse of the Soviet Union. When biology confronts ideology, it is best to put your money on biology.

[2] The second energizing source is one which, alone, will motivate your initial efforts, and which will then begin to intensify itself exponentially: the rediscovery of the human spirit. It is not to church doctrines or rituals that I refer, but to your experiencing an inner sense of connection with all of existence. Because such transcendent needs and experiences are unavoidably individual in nature, their expressions have a way of helping us withdraw from the lifeless and divisive collective systems that disconnect us from one another and keep us in our state of perpetual war.

We are discovering from many sources, of which the Internet is but one example, that our world is becoming increasingly decentralized. Our needs for both individual liberty and social cooperation are moving us in directions in which our connectedness to others is finding expression more in horizontal rather than traditional vertical forms of organization. It is not “terrorism” that underlies the Bush administration’s war against the American people, but the institutional order’s reaction to the continuing collapse of centralized systems of authority.

It is the desperate effort of established political interests to maintain their waning power that is driving efforts to expand police powers, incarcerate men and women without benefit of trials, deploy the military to control the American people, and to build concentration camps for “enemy combatants” who, in this day, have become us all. In order to accomplish such ends, the state must intensify its efforts to collectivize our thinking so that we will become a manageable herd. Its success in doing so can be partially measured by the flags flown from cars or homes by the “booboisie.”

But if we are to avoid the destructive and dehumanizing consequences of collectivist behavior, we must turn to that one person who has always been the source of the creative energies upon which mankind has relied: the individual. You will find him or her outside the citadel of the state, not attacking it, but quietly walking away from it.

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