Barely a day after my decidedly negative post about Collectivism, I came across a good counter-point. My last words on the subject:
The catch: to be truly collectivist and erase all individuality is to become totally removed from what we can consider “human society” and be closer to an insect hive. Very successful, very efficient, very alien.
Well, David Brooks reporting from Chengdu, China thinks very differently. To David Brooks, the important thing to consider when comparing Collectivism with Individualism is context:
This is a divide that goes deeper than economics into the way people perceive the world. If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.
Reading David’s article brought to mind Nassim Taleb, whom we featured recently, and his fallacy of history. When we consider criticisms of Collectivism, we almost automatically associate it with the past experiences of Communism, Socialism, and Fascism, and how the societies based on these collectivist systems we’ve seen have either failed or stagnated. However, that individualistic societies have performed better in history is only half an insight–and by no means completely rules out the value of collectivism. However, this half-insight is practically the empirical basis supporting all anti-collectivist rhetoric.
David is quick to remind us of this, and of the alternative that we have all been quick to rule out, and more importantly, in 2008 he already has a historical context: China.
We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.
But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.
The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through Western, liberal means, but also through Eastern and collective ones.
From here we can appreciate that hindsight bias may be 20/20 but it is also hopelessly myopic about future developments. Meanwhile, David also brings to our focus other thoughts that are helping to support a second look at Collectivism:
For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts.
Scientists have delighted to show that so-called rational choice is shaped by a whole range of subconscious influences, like emotional contagions and priming effects (people who think of a professor before taking a test do better than people who think of a criminal). Meanwhile, human brains turn out to be extremely permeable (they naturally mimic the neural firings of people around them). Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.
The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.
Taleb calls history a fallacy and history is the only case against Collectivism. This only makes it more poignant to be students of history, and of the wide possibilities for how society can develop.
In my previous post I mentioned that the critics of Collectivism and Individualism seem to have a common fear: that of society degenerating to serve the interests of a minority. This suggests that both lines of thought are capable of creating that horror.
Thankfully, what David’s article shows is that just as importantly: both lines of thought are just as possibly capable of creating a better world instead.