Individualism and Communalism
B.W.Wojciechowski, July 2017
All humans are subject to a profound dichotomy: the inescapably-individual inner life we experience and the equally inescapable need to cooperate with others. The first leads to the desire to exercise our free will and is a hallmark of individualism. It makes us responsible for our actions but also capable of original thoughts and actions. The second leads to communalism which demands that we give up some portion of our individual freedom in the interest of forming a community whose combined efforts create opportunities an individual cannot access. Finding the optimum balance within and among individuals and within societies has led to endless theological and philosophical debates, and to physical conflicts which persist to this day. The search for workable balances has led to a spectrum of solutions, ranging from anarchy for the most extreme individualists, through constructive cooperation and to suppressive despotism in the case of extreme communalists.
Individualists and communalists are constantly at loggerheads, both with one another and within their own ranks. However, most tend to align themselves with one or the other aspect of this dichotomy. When engaging in dialogue, each camp tends to present offensive caricatures of the other, complicating the achievement of a balanced common ground. Communalists tend to see individualists as deluded willful hindrances to social progress. They portray individualists as selfish and unconcerned about the “common good.” Individualists see communalists as a drag on individual efforts. I need not go into all the other accusations since they can be found at every turn of the debates.
There is no denying that individualism has deep roots in our animal nature. Biologically we are all different and we clearly perceive this. But not only are we different in our appearance, we cannot fully grasp the mental processes of anyone else; we are not telepaths. The physical pain that someone suffers is only vaguely perceived by his sympathizers. The ambitions and dreams of another are hidden from his closest friends. The rational or irrational feelings of an individual are usually incomprehensible or at best vaguely understood by others, even those who share the same mind set. We say we understand these things, but in fact we cannot fully grasp the influence they have on the individual’s perception of the world. Contrary to a favorite saying of communalists (citing John Donne’s writing of 1624) that: “no man is an island,” every man is in fact an island, separated from others by a sea of incomprehension while firmly connected with others at depth by being part of a drifting plate of social interactions.
Medical science has long known that individuals have their own unique susceptibilities to disease and responses to medication. Allergies are perhaps the most familiar examples, but today it is becoming clear that even diseases such as cancer will be best treated with personalized protocols. The days of dispensing broad spectrum antibiotics are at an end. Infections are increasingly treated with specifically efficacious drugs and even then must be checked for compatibility with the individual.
We live alone and we die alone. While we live we interact with others, always in terms that we understand but which may surprise others. It is also a fact that people change. An individual is malleable and his world view, dreams and even allergies may change with time and circumstances. This malleability can be used to direct world views to some extent and is the characteristic which communalists try to shape. But human individualism is not infinitely malleable and those who think it is often distort reality in pursuit of their goals.
We are all individuals and in an ideal world we would each be treated as such to the maximum extent possible. That, and not unquestioning conformity, is the essence of an ideal society. Individuals generate new ideas and display unique skills. Group-think is not a replacement for talent. One size does not fit all. Individualism is natural, not a regrettable mental condition.
Since each of us is an individual, each communalist is unavoidably an individualist to some extent. Yet they express their individualism in a different way than do those individualists who give high priority to the freedom to pursue their own inclinations. Communalists are individualists who are driven to organize: not just things, but people. In the pursuit of these ambitions they may display profoundly individualist traits such as self-interest and feelings of superiority. Although firmly in denial of these traits, practicing communalists wish to dominate fellow individuals by submerging them in regimented structures that they proclaim to be for the “common good.” Prickly individualists of the “let me be free” mindset fail to appreciate this; they feel put upon by forces not of their choosing. And this is the flash-point of both personal and social conflicts.
Communalists are focused on the “struggling masses” and expect society’s assistance for many or most aspects of their survival whereas free-spirited individualists are focused on individual freedom to pursue their own survival. Both views need to be considered for societies to thrive. However, while free spirits demand little beyond their freedom, communalists see no limit to the demands they can make on others in the implementation of their ideology. They see all forms of regulation and regimentation as essential and beneficial for the common good. They see unlimited levies on the wealth of citizens as justified for the funding of what they define to be the “common good.” And most dangerously, they busily create dependencies among the masses by fostering the least-admirable traits of many humans: sloth and lack of initiative.
Part of the declared ideology of communalists is egalitarianism: “all men are created equal” is their usurped but misunderstood slogan. In the view of theologians this is true, as it was for the writers of the American Constitution, but for the communalists it has a very different meaning. For theologians as for the founding fathers, equality is in the eyes of God and involves individual responsibility to lead a life deserving of a glorious eternity. But neither claims that all humans are the same in any general sense.
To communalists, equality means something entirely different. Communalists interpret equality to apply not only equality in the face of secular judgement but in the right of all to enjoy an ever-growing list of human rights and entitlements. It begins with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That is fine even with the most ardent individualists, but communalists leave out the essential qualifying phrase: “the pursuit of.” When the right of citizens stretches to the communal provision of income equality and unconstrained health care, one can see danger. When the rights of convicted felons to public support, voting rights and creature comforts that innocent poor can ill-afford, we begin to see folly. And when governments have no limits on claiming citizen’s resources to fund ever-growing and politically-inspired “rights,” disaster is before us. Ideologically inspired “rights” are nothing less than a defiance of nature-mandated reality. The only true “common good” that nature recognizes is the survival of the species. The most basic right is to self-preservation.
Individualists who seek freedom claim few rights and these are generally not a serious financial burden on society. Nor do they infringe on rights or well-being of others in the community. These differences between the “freedoms” sought by individualists and the rights or “common good” proclaimed by communalists have a profound influence on the world views of the two groups and the societies they wish to construct.
Social organizations are a necessity, not evil or wrong. Depending on population density and the availability of technology, some level of organization is essential for our success as a species. In today’s crowded world, urban dwellers are clearly in need of a common supply of water, transportation, health services, distribution of food, recreation and so on. A city like New York could not exist without a great many services provided as “common goods,” but at the price of a significant surrender of individual income and freedom of action.
Even then, a complex civil body such as a big city can be purposefully structured to permit as much individualism as common sense and technology will allow. We do not need to be denied 20-ounce bottles of cola in the name of a “common good.” There are other ways to combat obesity. The same communalists who applaud such restrictions are intemperate believers in liberalism in other matters; for example, they do not accept the idea that those who refuse to take care of their health could be denied certain aspects of publicly-funded health care. Some life styles are harmful, but the whole community does not need universal strictures to combat the self-inflicted problems of a few.
Egalitarianism is a human invention and has no basis in nature. The communalist drive to achieve this usually descends to compulsion, and to denying basic rights to some portion of the population, often the majority. In the name of equality, communalists will enforce strictures that infringe on the freedoms of many but are demanded by a vociferous minority. Incompatible life styles are protected in communalist societies in the name of freedom, but result in restrictions on the freedom of other individuals who lack the courage to stand up for their own rights. Whether a net increase in social freedom by such policies is achieved is never quantified.
In places where population density is low, such as farming communities on the vast plains of continents, the range of individual preferences can be greater and the degree of regimentation less. There will still be social structures and constraints, but these will be applicable to a smaller and more homogeneous group of individuals. The ideal situation is when such self-selected groups are allowed to set up their own enclaves under mutually-acceptable constraints.
Intuitive understanding of this has throughout the ages resulted in the formation of self-selected groups embedded in larger societies. Individuals who come to feel the need to escape the rules within such groups are free to leave and find a place for themselves elsewhere, but are not allowed to break the rules of the group. Medieval monasteries and more recent collectives have provided such refuge from the turmoil around. There are communities scattered round the world willing to pay a price for their isolation, in order to shield a group of like-minded individuals. The imposition of communal strictures is gladly borne by the participants because they choose them, but they are free to choose other societies if they decide that they do not like the one they are in.
Communalists depart from reason and defy nature by trying to force the homogenization of populations and impose common regulations on disparate populations. You might say that they try to put pegs of all shapes and sizes into standardized holes. Communalists pretend this to be egalitarian and that they are intended for the common good. But at the same time, the leaders of communalist groups normally excuse themselves from their own egalitarian principles and acquire a disproportionate share of wealth and power in the community. In highly structured communalist societies, the inherent individualism of their leaders leads them to unaccountability, corruption and inequality, no matter what their proclaimed goals may be.
All societies which adopt communalism, egalitarian as well as dictatorial ones, come to grief when the patience of large numbers of their subjects becomes exhausted because they recognize that the declared ideals do not conform to reality. Generally there seems to be no remedy besides violence. At some point people realize that they have lost more freedom than they care to give up for the common good, and conflict erupts. Think of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and more recently, Venezuela
The dissolution of the Soviet Union with little violence seemed to set a rare counter-example of how a communalist regime can be peacefully overthrown. Unfortunately, this was accomplished at the cost of leaving the same elites in charge of the “restructured” societies. In essence, the former elites revolted against themselves, seeing that the population had had enough, and assumed power in the “liberated” societies. The new societies then turned to a revised form of communalism under the leadership of the discredited elites of yore. For those in search of individual liberty, the problem was not solved.
Societies Designed for a Specific Purpose
Just as individuals have special needs, so societies must be constructed to take account of their purpose and requirements. No cookie-cutter “democracy” will satisfy the needs of all communities. That said, are there any requirements that are universally desirable? When it comes to large civilian societies, the first one is: a civilian society must be designed for the maximization of individual freedom. The “common good” must vigorously embrace individual freedoms. This principle is applicable to large heterogeneous societies, but certain small social groups require very different principles.
Small Highly Interdependent Societies
Let us look at a hypothetical future small community. Take for example the case of an interstellar ship on a multi-year voyage. Communalists would argue that the population of “Spaceship Earth” has a great deal in common with such space voyagers, but that is sophistry; there are great differences between these two spaceships. Spaceship Earth has a vastly larger population, living in greatly varied settings and weighted by diverse heritages and viewpoints. Its people thrive on their differences; all that they need is tolerance. The Earth is a social bouillabaisse, while even a large spaceship must form a society more like a clear broth.
The problems faced by small and highly interdependent societies have already been encountered by military or scientific sea voyagers. To create a social clear broth in a military context it is necessary to impose strict discipline; in a civilian space vessel as well, we need to assemble a crew filtered for compatibility. One does not want to pre-destine the voyagers to conflicts in a collection of ill-adjusted individualists. The initial pool of civilian candidates will consist of a large number of individuals with appropriate talents who must then be winnowed by screening for physical and mental compatibility.
After departure, the society on board a civilian space vessel will have to govern itself and make decisions on various options that may arise. This will require a governing structure. Since the travelers will contain crew and various scientific and social personnel there will ab initio be a range of highly-interdependent competences, interests and responsibilities. Some of the responsibilities and competences will be more critical to the success of the voyage than others. One-man-one-vote in the government of such groups will not do. Classical democracy is a non-starter.
Separate departments of responsibility need to be recognized: for example, the ship’s operations crew consisting of a captain, deck officers and crew. A second group might consist of logistics personnel looking after supplies, provisions and accommodation. A number of other groups, would be constituted, each with its own hierarchy and specialists. However, the ship’s complement is not a loose federation of groups. The various groups have to coordinate their efforts and do not have unrestricted “states’ rights.” They must accept a commander-in-chief and agree to contribute to the common good.
Within the groups, there would be specialists whose opinions should carry more weight than those of others. Their votes should be weighted in some way. There would also be the general population which would be affected by decisions of the specialized groups. This population is largely not a party to the discussions of a given group but may well be affected by their proposal; what weight should their opinions carry? And what body should exercise oversight and define the appropriate policy?
The solution is to submit all decisions and options to discussion by the whole community; even non-experts may have valuable inputs in arriving at the final decision, and all feel that they want to know what decisions will affect them and why. However, the preferences of the ship’s complement cannot be the deciding factor in arriving at the policy which will be implemented. The final decision must be evaluated by objective means before implementation; only well-programmed computers, trained in AI, can be trusted to do that. Human beings can be misled by misunderstandings, emotions, or prejudices.
There should be a mechanism which allows less-than-optimal policies to be implemented if the travelers so wish and are willing to accept the consequences. Such policies must be constrained by safety factors and other considerations that the goal of the journey entails. An advisory/supervisory computer program should be empowered to deny authority to dangerous or counterproductive decisions, but be able to accept sub-optimal solutions that do not threaten the objectives of the society yet contribute to satisfaction on board.
This kind of society is neither an Athenian democracy nor a communalist society governed by someone’s concept of a common good. It is closer to a meritocracy, where competent individuals and groups propose solutions which are evaluated objectively for their consequences and benefit to the success of the society. It is an example of a communalist society where the interests of the enterprise inexorably outweigh individual preferences.
Large Inhomogeneous Societies
The Earth’s population as a whole presents a very different problem. It is not a single homogeneous society. History, tradition, religion and physical circumstances are among the many factors that differentiate segments identified as clans, ethnic groups, countries and stateless factions; all of them have a great deal invested in their identities. Modern technology has made mingling and detailed interaction of such groups not only easy but necessary.
World-wide organizations, beginning with empires from ancient to recent and international bodies like the League of Nations and the United Nations have worked assiduously to homogenize societies under their purview and bring the benefits of “civilization” to all. The results have sometimes been good and sometimes bad; they have frequently been unwelcome and not cost-effective. Societies that benefit have welcomed the services made available without contributing to intelligent discussion or critical review of the ideas being espoused. The wealthy sponsors who funded these “civilizing” operations initially benefited from them, but eventually became stressed by the increasing financial burdens and demands, and by the ingratitude of the non-contributors.
The egalitarian, democratic, liberal concepts evolved by the Enlightenment have been played out, and a new direction has to be found to take account of progress in technology and world views. Those who doubt this necessity can reasonably be consigned to the legions of previous “status quo” defenders of outdated societies. Recently the “establishment” that resisted change was the aristocracy; today it is the bureaucracy and its dependents. In both cases, the establishment is the source of resistance to change. Today’s establishment is the mass of citizens that work for or are dependent on the bureaucratic structures of communalism. Every establishment is an agent of stability, or at best of continuing along a familiar path, but none welcome change no matter how necessary.
How to Structure Future Societies
Perhaps the most important and most revolutionary concept of new societies involves self-segregation. This goal is diametrically opposed to that of the homogenizing policies of today’s communitarians. It can be achieved by establishing peace and security and utilizing the increasing ease of communication and travel which will make it possible for individuals to locate in communities to their liking rather than be forced by circumstances to live elsewhere. They might commute from their home communities to work locations, or work from home. People with similar tastes and life styles would be free to enjoy their preferred milieu at leisure and would not have to make invidious choices in private matters.
To satisfy the many idiosyncrasies that exist, there will be many such communities accommodating a great variety of preferences. This in turn means the communities will generally be small and incapable of independent operation. The next requirement is therefore aggregation of these communities into larger units.
Individual communities would have to federate in ways that allow members of a federation to travel and seek employment wherever they wish within the federation. The only demand would be that whenever an individual finds himself in a community as a tourist or employee, he is obliged to obey its laws. The laws to be obeyed by visitors might be fewer than those for citizens, and should be such that the community would prosper due to its interactions, rather than wither in isolation.
Federations would in turn assemble into larger units to the extent that commerce and common interests dictate. A pyramid of these associations would come to a peak at a Global Council whose role would be regulatory rather than legislative. More-local governments would have most of the legislative powers in their communities and govern according to the wishes of their self-selected citizens. The Global Council would be empowered to deal with issues of global concern: assignment of the electronic spectrum, water-sharing across boundaries, communications, global health monitoring, transportation regulations, disputes between constituent units, and so on, leaving the details of subordinate structures to lower levels of government.
Such a modern society would provide comfortable living and working conditions within the groups forming the basic units, and require tolerance beyond them. To me it seems a solution which addresses the difficulties faced by modern democracies and their proponents.
These issues and more are considered in my books “Human Societies” and “Democracies,” which are part of a series called “Zamora Texts” available on Amazon.com.