The Individual and the Collective
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
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
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
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."
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
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 screen," intoned the Wizard of Oz as Toto
exposed to his friends the fraud that had been perpetrated upon
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
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
Your efforts will be energized by influences which, as collectivized
people, we have long forgotten:  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.
 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.
© 2002 LewRockwell.com