Posts Tagged ‘Individualism’

Contrast the two clips below, one is a statement of individualism from the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. The second is a clip about God complexes from Malice. In essence they are the same, but they are different somehow. What makes one aspirational while the other despicable?

If money is a reward in society, what does it reward? Talent, skill? Your job, profession? What you know, your education? How about reputation, citations? Does a person that possesses all of the these epitomize our ideal?

More importantly, consider how these ideas manifest in our current society–which is in crisis from all sides. Consider also how our society has rewarded politicans, CEOs, and bankers–who have all contributed to placing our entire society at peril.

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Alan Greenspan was on C-Span in October testifying before a congressional committee on the root of the financial crisis. In this video, he is interrogated by Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

It is important to note here that Alan Greenspan is a proponent of market deregulation and personally subscribes to the philosophies that espouse individual rights and freedom. What I find interesting is how the market crisis has seemingly shaken Greenspan’s ideas on capitalism and self-interest.

Note at 3:36, when Rep. Waxman asks: Where did you think you made a mistake?

Alan Greenspan’s somber reply:

I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organizations, specifically banks and others, was such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms. And it’s been my experience, having worked both as a regulator for eighteen years and similar quantities in the private sector especially ten years at a major international bank, that the loan officers of these institutions knew far more  about the risks involved about the people to whom they lent money than I saw even our best regulators at Fed were capable of doing.

So the problem here is something which looked to be a very solid edifice and indeed a critical pillar to market competition and free markets did break down and I think that, as I said, shocked me I still do not fully understand why it happened and obviously to the extent that I figure out where it happened and why, I will change my views.

The facts change, I will change.

The critical error I get from Greenspan’s admission are that his ideals of individualism and capitalism are based on an assumption of perfect information, especially on the part of bankers. In a way, he took it with some faith that the banking system was best qualified to police itself, and which led to the excesses that led to the bubble and subsequent crash. Greenspan deferred to the authority and credibility of bankers, which he now admits was not entirely accurate.

The latter comments of Rep. Waxman is representative of the backlash against free market ideologies because of the crisis. The caution here is that we are in danger of discrediting ideals (i.e. free-markets, individualism) when we should be criticizing the execution of those ideals (e.g. flawed capitalism). Greenspan’s execution of his ideologies was based on a critical flaw: he presumed the market and its participants sufficiently knew and compensated for the risks. Challenging his premise is the fact that no one expected the crisis to be as long and as deep as it is.

Being constantly critical of deeply held premises is the only defense against false reasoning. Even in face of seeming success, we should never waver in our evaluation of ourselves. Sadly, we only learn of the value of critical self-assessment after the crisis has already struck.

Always check premises. Or get shocked, like Greenspan, when a Black Swan strikes.

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I previously touched on some points about collectivism: how it has been criticized and praised at the same time, but more importantly how it relates to individualism as a paradigm. I’d like to shift the discussion to individualism for a change, since arguably it is the dominant philosophy being pushed in capitalist societies, but I’ll take a more fun approach and use Hollywood as mine for ideas. The film clips will vary in scope and ideas, but there’s a little nugget in each clip about the self in society that will be useful to examine.

Part 1: Individualism As Virtue

Ayn Rand’s thoughts on selfishness are some of the most potent expressions of Individualism I’ve read:

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.

The last phrase “motive power of his life” is the key phrase–because it implies drive and movement. One of the closest expressions of this movement is the already classic speech about greed of Michael Douglas playing corporate raider Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street:

The key insight that resonates with Rand’s quote is one of Gekko’s last lines:

Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the esssence of the evolutionary spirit.

Greed, in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind;

If Gekko’s speech is the expression of a virtue, let’s see this virtue being preached this time in the movie: Ben Younger’s Boiler Room. Ben Afleck plays Jim Young: a recruiter for a fledgling stock brokerage where Seth Davis, played by Giovanni Ribisi is a new recruit:

The clip highlights materialism (e.g. Ferrari, ridiculous house) as an element of selfishness, but these lines from Afleck I think represent the popular reduction of selfishness to a simple statement of morality: one’s individual happiness. Compare the tone of Afleck’s statements with the objective quality of selfishness mentioned by Rand above:

We want winners here, not pikers. A piker walks at the bell. A piker asks how much vacation time you get on the first year. Vacation time? People come and work at this firm for one reason only, to become filthy rich, that’s it. We’re not here to make friends.

In David Mamet’s Glengary, Glenross, Alec Baldwin gives a “motivational talk” to a real-estate sales agency run by Kevin Spacey to spur the sales performance of his sales agents played by Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, and Alan Arkin. While the speeches of Douglas and Afleck above highlight the moral ideal, this scene shows how oppressive that ideal can be, especially to individuals who have trouble living up to it:

Baldwin’s lines reprove the lack of self-motivation amongst the agents, and again highlight the reduction of selfishness to a simple ideal:

You know what it takes to sell real-estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate. Go and do likewise gents, the money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours; you don’t–I got no sympathy for you. You wanna go out in those sits tonight and close. Close, it’s yours, not–you’re gonna be shining my shoes.

From these clips it is starting to be evident how an objective, antiseptic statement of virtue can turn on itself in practice, like any moral ideal people aspire to but don’t achieve.

More clips to follow in my next post.

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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.

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Collectivism has taken quite a lot of criticism over the years and it might be interesting to know why this is the case.

What Is Collectivism?

In a broad sense, Collectivism can refer to any ideal, social, or political thought that puts emphasis on interdependence and the group above individuality or identity. Collectivists seek to be part of a greater whole–a larger scheme that is greater than the individual parts of that whole.

Nationalism, fascism, even religious and quasi-religious community-oriented fervor, may be said to be exemplary of collectivism as any notion of individuality is given up in these instances in favor of the community or group as a whole. In all cases, the surrender of individual identity is not even given a passing thought–and this act of denying one’s individuality for the sake of the greater whole is extolled as a high moral virtue.

In political and economic thought, collectivist ideas underpin socialist and communist systems–where the state or government acts as a steward of resources on behalf of its citizens as a whole. Collectivist philosophers such as Rosseau justify this form of economic and political structure by implying that there is a social contract that defines society–the general good–and the continued existence of such a society is determined along those lines.

Compelling, Comforting, Collectivism

Sounds all well and good, yes? Focusing on its promise, collectivism is a comforting, even compelling idea. In fact, we are exposed every day to collectivist ideas and we don’t even notice anymore how easily we warm up to them. For many people, Church is the most common venue for collectivism: as Christianity and most major religions preach the virtues of sacrifice for the good of your neighbor and the morality of self-denial of individual wants and needs–not to mention the additional proliferation of religious and quasi-religious organizations and communities all trumpeting the same collectivist mantra.

The media is the next most common venue: with TV, print, radio, and the Internet rife with shows, articles, and advertisements using collectivist rhetoric to promote many causes: among the most common: AIDS Awareness, Environmentalism, Post-materialism. Politicians lobbying for one legislation or another designed to help the greater good, or the society at large. Economists and bankers harping about bailouts, stimulus packages, and additional regulations with the aim of protecting and nurturing the the economy as a whole.

Individualism: Afraid Of The Same Thing As Collectivism?

Now for the critics. Individualists (opposite of collectivists) argue that any form of collectivist ideal destroys individuality and diversity in society by imposing a homogenous and arbitrary identity to a society which is a contradiction since society is composed of individuals with free will and respective identities.

Also history has shown (maybe naively) that collectivist societies breed totalitarian and oppressive regimes–as evidenced by the atrocious communist movements in Russia and China and the Nazi movement in Germany. Many of the vocal critics of collectivism such as Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand trace life experience to these societies.

Proponents of collectivism offer their own criticism to opponents of collectivism, stating that societies being naturally groups of people–are also naturally collectivist whether collectivism is formally adopted as a political system or not. They also criticize individualist thought as inherently elitist–and also prone to abuse and oppression.

Emma Goldman wrote in criticism of individualism:

‘Rugged individualism’ has meant all the ‘individualism’ for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking ‘supermen.’…Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.”

Interestingly, her statements don’t seem to be that different from George Orwell, who was a staunch advocate of democratic socialism and an opponent of collectivism:

“It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of.”

Maybe I’m missing something here: but it seems both the individualists and collectivists are afraid of the same thing: an oppresive minority that gains widespread control of society at the expense of the rights of others. Where the two camps differ is how this oppressive elite comes to fore: either as a result of a deliberate surrender of rights by a collective society, or the selfish unbridled ambitions of individualist elites.

The Borg: The Ultimate Collectivists

Meanwhile, collectivism has also been portrayed quite dramatically in science fiction where one of the most explicit expression and criticism is found in the character of The Borg from the Star Trek series.

One interesting aspect of The Borg Collective is that its development as a race or group of organisms does not depend on individual evolution as would normally be the case but on assimilation of other species with characteristics that are deemed to be beneficial to the collective.

In a philosophical nutshell: these collectivists do not evolve to better themselves, but work simply to acquire and absorb everything else for their collective benefit.

The Borg Collective is portrayed as a virulent and nearly unstoppable villainous force in the Star Trek series and movies–which is interestingly just as collectivist critics would precisely have it.

What the conventional Star Trek viewer easily discounts is that despite the menace The Borg poses in the Star Trek universe–as a species they have been very successful (to the point of efficiently successful) in propagating and expanding its reach. If the Borg hypothesis exemplifies the truest sense of collectivism, the potential benefits to a species are very great (note that The Borg far outclasses the Federation in all encounters).

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.

(see videos below “The Borg Documentary” in 3 parts) (more…)

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