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.

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