It does not follow from individualism that there are no collectives, or from collectivism that there are no individuals. But generally speaking, all political positions favour either the individual over the collective or the collective over the individual. I think this bifurcation provides the clearest and most useful heuristic for understanding a great many contemporary issues that otherwise appear insurmountably complex and confusing. As for useful idiots, I will get to them.
Individualism includes liberal democrats, libertarians, conservatives, classical liberals, and — although its roots are firmly in Judeo-Christianity — also many atheists and rational thinkers who take after the tradition of the Enlightenment. Individualists believe that the individual is of supreme value, possessing dignity, sovereignty and autonomy. The more theological among individualists will go further to say that the human individual is divine, made in God’s image, and that it is from this axiom all liberal ideas of freedom and democracy derive. But all agree that the sovereignty of the individual provides the foundation for an ordered and free society, and that consideration for groups and communities is of secondary importance. Western civilisation is built on individualism.
Collectivism, beginning with Hegel, sees the world in terms of group identities, and minimises the value of the individual beneath that of certain of these group identities. This raises the immediate problem of an almost infinite number of possible categories of group identity. Race, sex, religion, economic class and age are merely a few of the most obvious. Height, weight, sexuality, hair colour, attractiveness, family background, intellectual aptitude, athletic ability are a few more. The list could go on forever. How do collectivists decide which groups are the most important? Communism — the most obvious instance of collectivism — seeks to construct a society based on just one of these categories: economic class. Through this prism, communists view history as a struggle between classes and seek a solution whereby the upper class is overthrown on behalf of the lower class, following which, income and land will be redistributed and equality will be achieved. It has been tried in many places, notably Russia and China, and the result is tens, probably hundreds, of millions dead.
Postmodern critical theory emerged in the late 20th century and expanded the collectivist prism to include more group identity categories that could conceivably yield an interpretation of historical power dynamics between groups. Accordingly, all history came to be viewed through this prism of oppression by one group against another, taking many forms beyond just economic class. It is communism augmented. Rich against poor, man against woman, white against black, straight against gay, etc. An individualist might agree that historically there has been such oppression, but that is not the issue. The question is whether such an inexhaustive analysis of historical collective oppression can justify overriding individual sovereignty in a politically driven correction of the perceived problem. For when that comes it will be the end of liberal democracy.
Yet that is the crisis we face. And we got there by a philosophical shift that many people are unaware of, creating the perfect conditions for widespread useful idiocy. I do not claim to be an expert on the history of postmodernism, but it appears that an ever increasing number of intellectuals, untethered in the post-Christian West, stepped out of modernism, through Marxism, and into postmodernism. Canadian philosopher Stephen Hicks explores this process in detail in his lectures and his book Explaining Postmodernism. Once there was God, then there was cold hard reason, then there was relativism and subjectivism and deconstructionism. Objective reality and the autonomy of the individual were the chief casualties, and collective oppression was all that remained. Thus, did individualism yield to collectivism.
Over the past 60 years, the ideology of collectivism has gradually taken over universities, schools, the media, the government, and the law. The results are far enough removed from the core philosophical question that most people become supporters of collectivism without knowing it. These people are useful idiots, technically. It is not a term of derision.
Useful idiots likely never have asked themselves whether they are individualists or collectivists. Most people, after all, are not philosophers, ideologues or political activists. But, being upstanding citizens these privileged inheritors of individualism probably disapprove of certain beliefs and actions on an individual level, such as racism, sexism, fascism, pollution, greed. Collectivist groups deliberately and deceitfully use these wrongs as fronts for their collectivist agenda, and as their names alone imply, force an acceptance of the parameters of a false dichotomy before one is able even to choose sides. For instance, if you do not support Extinction Rebellion, the implication is that you must be in favour of the extinction of humanity. If you do not support Antifa you must be a fascist. If you do not support Black Lives Matter (BLM) you must think black lives do not matter. It is a deliberately manipulative use of language which makes it difficult to take a nuanced stand without being accused of being a racist, a fascist or a denier. And without a full understanding of the devious nature of the collectivist ideology, confusion results, and the first instinct is self-preservation.
Language matters. Collectivist groups like to smuggle in new collectivist definitions of words, and then switch back and forth between the new and old definitions as it suits their arguments. Racism can mean either an individually held belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another or it can mean a structurally produced pattern that is demonstrated only by outcomes. The latter is a modern invention and a fallacy, an unprovable hypothesis, because there could be many explanations why the outcomes are whatever they happen to be — unless collective oppression is the only possible determining factor for any outcome, which is what the postmodernists claim. But the shifting definitions are convenient for avoiding logical criticism, and perpetuating confusion. And it allows BLM to label as racist anyone who does not criticise society in the way they demand — denouncing ‘white privilege’, for example. Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept. This is because they are thinking in individualistic terms. For collectivists, white privilege is not something an individual is guilty of, but something he is infected with — a collective virus — if he happens to have the immutable characteristic of white skin.
There are many bizarre consequences of collectivism. Collective ‘guilt’ is one of the most absurd. Individual guilt prompts an individual to apologise for something that he or she did personally. It leads the devout Catholic to enter the confessional and speak aloud secret individual sins to receive individual absolution. Collective guilt leads the Hollywood celebrity to post a video on social media taking responsibility for the collective ‘sin’ of being white or to feel good about himself for acknowledging the collective sin of humanity against the environment. Collective guilt is not real guilt. The resemblance is superficial. It costs the individual nothing.
Collectivists do not deny the individual entirely. They still are individuals after all and like to be gratified as individuals when they eat, have sex, or seek out other pleasures. But they abdicate responsibility as individuals and want to construct a system that takes on that responsibility for them. Conversely, individualists do not deny the group either. But they recognise that any given individual can be put into an infinite number of groups, all intersecting with each other. Each person is ultimately unique in the particular combination of groups into which he or she can be categorised and should never be limited to one group based on race or sex. When group categorisation is taken as far as it can go, collectivists will discover approximately 7.8 billion groups of one. The only important group is the universal human group, of which we are all equal members.
Here’s the practical problem for individualists: collectivists come from all sorts of different places of purported victimhood — black, poor, female, gay, trans (and new minority victim groups are appearing all the time) — but all aim at the same thing: destruction of individualism. And by extension liberal democracy. And therefore Western society. Individualists, on the other hand, all come from the same place — the belief that individual human beings are sovereign and autonomous — but branch out in all directions. This is why societies built on individualism prosper, whereas societies built on collectivism fail. But it’s also why collectivism is succeeding at present in a confrontation between the two. There’s a decentralised unity to destruction. But being decentralised it’s rather amorphous and the individualists are struggling to see what it is that they need to unite against.
And so we have politicians, police, archbishops, professional athletes and media personalities taking the knee to BLM, whose stated aims include ‘to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately harm black people’. Are all those kneelers in full agreement with abolishing capitalism? BLM also seeks to defund the police and abolish ‘prisons and detention centres’ in favour of ‘investment in communities’ in order to ‘root societal problems that lead to crime and discriminatory incarceration.’ Because all crime is a side effect of structural oppression of certain groups. Again, no personal responsibility because no individual autonomy. Do the kneelers all agree with that? Do the police support their own abolition? Or do they just think that by kneeling, the problem will go away? It won’t of course, because in their desperate efforts to show that they’re not racist (definition 1) they acknowledge their collective guilt of racism (definition 2) which is extremely useful to the collectivists, who will neither be satisfied nor go away, until their aims are achieved. That’s how useful idiocy works.
If you are a collectivist, perhaps you will want me cancelled after reading this. If you are an individualist, hopefully some of this has been helpful to you in articulating something you already knew to be true. If you’re a useful idiot, wake up. That’s really all it takes to cease to be a useful idiot. Useful idiots are the only hope — useful idiots are not idiots. They just aren’t paying attention. A few of them might be collectivists when they wake, but the overwhelming majority will discover that they are individualists once they look with open eyes. That is in fact why they aren’t paying attention — they are busy living their individual lives, with their individual burdens and responsibilities, caring for their children, paying for their homes, pursuing their careers, working to put food on the table. But their ability to do those things freely, to live their lives however they please, is the very thing that’s in jeopardy.
The battle lines have been drawn and too many people haven’t bothered to look.