A Confession of Collectivism

In a guest article in The Times of India, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes1

“The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality … You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other. The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts … individualistic societies have tended to do better economically But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? … 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 … it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge … 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. 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. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”
(Emphasis mine)

Note that Brooks sees China’s recent economic success as the sole criterion for deciding whether collectivist are attractive inspite of the fact that China is a dictatorship that routinely violates the rights of its people. By his own observations about the preferences of individualists (“The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first”), that makes him a collectivist (Also note that he does not believe in individual choice). So why does a collectivist need to write an article saying that the ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be attractive? Because he believes in collectivist ideals but also wants the dignity of a society that respects rights and privacy. At some level he realizes that the two are incompatible (Note his cynical final sentence) but he is unwilling to choose one over the other. Even as some Eastern societies are accepting the fact that collectivism does not work and are starting to prosper by slowly embracing individualism, the collectivists in the West are trying to use this prosperity as evidence that their ideals can actually work.


1) Thanks to Aristotle The Geek who alerted me to the fact that there is an extra paragraph in the Brooks original NYT article. That paragraph does not change the essence of his article or my post however.


6 Responses

  1. Use this link, or the one from the NYT.

    What lies behind such articles is the fear that China is upsetting the cold war notion of an individualist and capitalist USA defeating collectivist and communist USSR. People were then fed the propaganda that individualism and hence capitalism is good not because of its relation to rights but because it leads to economic prosperity of everyone (the common good). And unfortunately, a lot of people have bought the argument that progress is an end that justifies any means.

    PS: If you want an article from the TOI epaper, navigate to the page and click on the frame containing the article. A window pop’s up with the text of the article. And its address bar will give you a permanent link, like the one above.

    Another thing, the TOI and the ET eat up whole paragraphs so that they can fit in their adverts or save column inches. They have omitted an entire paragraph which you will find in the NYT version (second or third before last).

  2. aristotlethegeek,

    Thanks for the links and the tip. I have updated the post.

    I was quite surprised that your comment was filtered by the WordPress software. I received an email requesting moderation of your comment inspite of the fact that I have not chosen to moderate comments.

  3. I also read this awful piece and I find his logic mind-boggling bad. Apparently the rise of the standard of living in China, is somehow the result of the collectivistic-holistic psycho-epistemology of the chinese. But whatever the source of this alleged way of thinking, why is it that it didn’t produce anything until China liberalised their economy? Why wasn’t it until the last 20-30 years of increased degree of capitalism, that China finally started to make som real progress? It is impossible for Brooks not to be aware of these pro-capitalistic reforms. Thus David Brooks is guilty of huge, immoral evasions. Also notice that Brooks knows that in order to argue for collectivism, he has to argue against the individuals ego, i.e., the self, i.e., reason. And that’s precisely what he does, using a combination of alleged scientific research which allegedly “prove” that there’s no such thing as a rational and indvidual choice. Why? In order to justifiy his rationalization of a collectivist dictatorship. If there’s no such thing, why put such a emphasis on individual liberty? Individual rights? Individual happiness? Why don’t you know that happiness comes through “human relationships”? Don’t you know that it’s either individualism or “human relationships” (i.e., collectivism)? Etc. etc. This is just so awful and evil!

  4. Sorry for the bad language. I should have checked my spelling before I published it. Once again, sorry!

  5. I think a consideration of context (in this case, environmentalism) is important in criticizing the philosophy (collectivism).

    Interestingly, I’ve recently entertained two views on Collectivism itself. The first is the criticism, the second is a reprise in light of China’s emergence.

    The two hardly satisfy any debates, but the important lesson for me is to be on guard against naively taking history as a final arbiter on anything, and to remain constantly vigilant and critical of ideas, no matter their merit.

  6. Mark,
    I didn’t understand what environmentalism has to do with this. Can you elaborate?
    Thanks for the comment and the pointer to your interesting posts. I have a post in response here and will have another soon.

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