Friday, April 5, 2019

Notes for a quadriformist manifesto — #8: rubbish-nonsense from the Right about individualism versus collectivism

This post is about a specific arch-conservative saying, and thus may seem to have little to do with quadriformism. But it is pertinent, for it shows that some arch-conservative mindsets are so devoted to old binary formulations — like individualism vs. collectivism — that they may be unable to accept new ideas about shifting from triform to quadriform visions of the future.


Conservatives often say they’re for individualism and against collectivism. Plainly stated, as a tendency, that seems sensible. But that’s rarely how it’s stated. Instead, I’ve heard for years the aphoristic claim that conservatives are for individualism, whereas liberals (i.e., lefties) are for collectivism. That’s a divisive insensible canard — and it runs deep in right-wing thinking.

The people saying so are always arch conservatives, most vociferously the NRA’s head Wayne LaPierre in speeches at CPAC and NRA conferences. Another example is Craig Biddle, writing in 2012 in The Objective Standard, a magazine that reflects Ayn Rand’s thinking, where he says that “The fundamental political conflict in America today is, as it has been for a century, individualism vs. collectivism” — from which he concludes that collectivism is evil, immoral, “utterly corrupt from the ground up,” and will lead Americans “down the road to statism and tyranny.” This view also crops up on Fox News shows now and then, implicitly if not explicitly — probably on some AM radio talk shows too, but I’m not as aware of them anymore. (See

Ayn Rand is evidently a leading source of this strain in right-wing thinking. As I found at a website devoted to her thinking, “In her novel The Fountainhead [1943] (and in her other writings), Ayn Rand challenges the doctrines of collectivism and introduces a radical new conception of individualism. She rejects the tribal mindset at its deepest roots and offers a vision of human existence in which we are not interchangeable members of some collective, but sovereign, independent individuals, whose true interests align.” It’s even said that “her philosophy of individualism can serve as the antidote to our era’s increasing tribalism.” (See and

But while she may be a famously extreme proponent, this view is found in some mainstream conservative thinking as well. For example, William Buckley, when he was a college student who would later write God and Man at Yale (1951), reportedly “hoped to find "allies against secularism and collectivism" — but instead … he found himself fighting against "those who seek to subvert religion and individualism."” (See

Fortunately, not all conservatives fall for this right-wing saw. I don’t hear it being voiced by the Burkean conservatives I read and admire; they know the limits to individualism and how to keep it in balance vis à vis other isms. For example, NYT columnist David Brooks has often criticized the spread of excessive individualism throughout American society, as in noting that true love-of-country nationalism is “threatened by extreme individualism — people who put the needs of the individual above the needs of the community.” However, thoughtful Burkean conservatives are outnumbered these days by Faustian conservative leaders, as well as by ordinary supporters of President Trump. (See

By itself, this aphorism may not seem too significant; I don’t hear it voiced very often. But as a thread in a tightly-woven fabric of right-wing binaries — big government vs. free markets, capitalism vs. socialism, “us vs. them,” etc. — it is significant, perhaps particularly so for alt-rightists, arch libertarians, and anarcho-capitalists, not to mention some Tea Party and Freedom Caucus members. They help hold that fabric together by divisively contrasting individualism and collectivism; for its notional and emotional content interlaces with many other themes that comprise the right-wing “memescape.”

Partly because of this positional significance, voicing the aphorism may trigger enthused responses — e.g., head nods, fist pumps, shouts of agreement, as occurs when the NRA’s LaPierre rouses a crowd of conservative gun-rights proponents with his fiery orations. I have the impression that, whenever this aphorism is deployed, ordinary conservatives, say those who listen to Fox News and AM radio talk shows and who attend pro-Trump rallies and CPAC conferences, tend to react positively. The aphorism appears to fit with years of conditioning to assure a tribal mindset. It would be difficult to undo belief in it through logic alone.


This aphorism is rubbish-nonsense. Its divisive binary framing, pitting individualism against collectivism, may suit tribally correct thinking on the Right, but it cannot withstand outside examination.

For starters, all the liberals and progressives I know strongly favor individualism, even though they may also favor government solutions to many policy problems. Indeed, classic liberalism was founded on Lockean principles of individualism, including that the state should serve to protect and promote individual freedoms. As Gideon Rose notes, handily for me, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “The United States began as a radical experiment with grandiose ambitions. Its founders believed in Locke’s idea that free individuals could escape the perils of anarchy by joining together and cooperating for mutual benefit — and they created a country to show it wasn’t just talk.” So much so that, far to the Left, even socialist icon Eugene Debs praised individualism. (See

More to the point, the notion of individualism voiced in this arch-conservative saying is very broad, but the notion of collectivism is very narrow. It refers mainly to “big government,” and in most usages only to big government. Lately, it’s code for denouncing socialism, just as the term “socialism” spells “collectivism” in conservative thinking. But if we put individualism and collectivism on similarly broad conceptual footings, then collectivism means far more than statism. Then, family and community become expressions of collectivism, and so do military institutions, business corporations, farmers’ co-ops, evangelical and other churches, and sports teams, not to mention patriotism, and “collective security” — all of which most conservatives rightly favor, but fail to rightly acknowledge when subjected to this tribal meme. More to the point, pro-conservative organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation, Liberty University, and Bikers for Trump represent collective endeavors, even though they oppose ideological “collectivism.” Maybe it would help if ”mutualism” or “institutionalism” or “groupism” were substituted for “collectivism” — but I don’t see that happening.

Plus there’s the irony that tribalism, both its healthy and toxic manifestations, corresponds to a kind of collectivism. And few phenomena nowadays are more collectivist than the malignant political and cultural tribalisms that keep growing on the Right as well as the Left; for tribalists often demand group conformity and oppose individualized expression. This pattern shows up in Republican rules (e.g., the Hastert Rule, also the practices of Gingrich and McConnell) that no Republican shall speak ill of another, nor negotiate independently with a Democrat. It also shows up in litmus-test culture-war issues — e.g., about marriage, abortion, gun ownership, voting rights, etc. — where conservative call for collective solidarity among themselves, and seek to deny individual rights inside and outside their fold. And it shows up in episodic desires among conservative Republican to institute the so-called “unitary theory of executive power” — a collectivist notion.

Which leads to a second irony. The aphorism supports individual freedom and liberty. But by encouraging “memetic tribalism,” it thereby turns to stifle individualism and induce collective conformity. This is contrary to the correct functioning of liberal democracy, a true expression of individualism. Instead, the aphorism may help rally people to accept a more authoritarian, more collectivist forms of governance where their tribe dominates — even neo-fascism, or short of that, to unitary executivism. Compounding this risk is knowing that President Trump’s own inclinations lean toward corporatism (along with tribalism), not liberal democracy. (See

In sum, far-right conservatives depend on collectivism as much as anybody, far more than their rhetoric allows them to recognize. Indeed, today’s crop of tribalized conservatives is the most ominously collectivist I’ve ever seen.


I could go on, for this arch-conservative aphorism is not only philosophically fraught, it’s also scientifically unsound. There are vast writings on the roles of individualism and collectivism in the social sciences. Of particular note is the point that all societies combine expressions of both, to varying degrees. Individualism and collectivism co-exist symbiotically — healthy societies cannot have some of one without also having some of the other.

All four TIMN forms (Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks) entail different mixes of both isms — a point I should elaborate someday. In the meantime, let’s note that sociologist Geert Hofstede’s “cultural dimensions theory” is particularly renowned for modeling and measuring how societies vary according to six values — one being individualism-collectivism. According to Wikipedia, “This index explores the “degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups.” Individualistic societies have loose ties that often only relate an individual to his/her immediate family. They emphasize the “I” versus the “we.” Its counterpart, collectivism, describes a society in which tightly-integrated relationships tie extended families and others into in-groups. These in-groups are laced with undoubted loyalty and support each other when a conflict arises with another in-group.” Points made elsewhere show that, in Hofstede’s view, “Individualism is the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.” And collectivism “means that one "knows one's place" in life, which is determined socially.” He even offers a metaphor from physics, whereby “people in an individualistic society are more like atoms flying around in a gas while those in collectivist societies are more like atoms fixed in a crystal.” (See and

If I/we were to go through this scholarly material carefully, it would only reinforce my earlier points: The polarized aphorism at hand is insensible and dysfunctional. Arch conservatives, while claiming to be solely for individualism, are plainly collectivist as well, in their own way. All of which goes to show that there is much merit to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation decades ago that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The aphorism fails this test.

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