Collectivism

October 22, 2017

 

[Excerpts from this book.]

 

Collectivism comes in both noble and evil forms. In the former, the principle of the individual is paramount; in the latter, the principle of the mass. The one means the rule of mutual self-actualization, self-respect, sympathy for others, democracy, human diversity—“an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” to quote Karl Marx. It is, in short, authentic community and sociality, healthy equality, a state of society in which, to quote Hegel, individuals recognize the self in the other and the other in the self, humans as human, rational beings as rational—freedom and dignity personified, one’s desire for the other’s recognition calling forth one’s own powers and potentialities. Perhaps never fully realized on a large scale, this anarchist ideal of free and dignified (though not conflictless) community can at least be approximated—as it is, for example, in many grassroots-democratic activist groups, not to mention families, friendships, and relationships between lovers—and must so be in order for the social animal called homo sapiens to really belong to himself and be at home in the world.*

On the other hand is the all-too-common kind of large-scale collectivism, the reducing-to-the-common-denominator kind. This is often present to some degree—along with the “good” kind of collectivism, existing in tension with it—even when a small group of people, be they friends or acquaintances or strangers, interact socially. One is pressured, almost imperceptibly, to conform to the ideas and norms that emerge from the group’s behavior, the senses of humor, the opinions that command the most assent, the reactions to particular charismatic or uncharismatic people in the group. Even on this innocuous level of everyday sociality, the group spontaneously develops something like a collective consciousness that molds and guides one’s own consciousness along the path of uniformity. All participants must recreate in the common space that has been cleared, drawing from the common touchstones, the tropes, social techniques, group interests—sports, television, movies, popular music. Defying the accepted norms, however slightly, gets one ostracized—frequently by being ignored, an effective method.

           

Collectivistic coercion takes more pernicious forms, however, in institutions and institutionally determined mass thinking and action. Here is where the real crimes against all that is good in life take place. Examples have already been given; let us only quote a few thoughts from the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who fathomed the depths of modernity’s extreme collectivism:

 

Our lives and habits, our behavior and manners, even our thoughts and feelings are pressed into a uniform mould and fashioned into sameness. The spirit of authority, law, written and unwritten, tradition and custom force us into a common groove and make a man a will-less automaton without independence or individuality… The authority of the past and present dictates not only our behavior but dominates our very minds and souls, and is continually at work to stifle every symptom of nonconformity, of independent attitude and unorthodox opinion. The whole weight of social condemnation comes down upon the head of the man or woman who dares defy conventional codes… In science and art, in literature, poetry, and in painting this spirit compels adaptation and adjustment, resulting in imitation of the established and approved, in uniformity and sameness, in stereotyped expression.

 

While tendencies of repressive collectivism exist in all social life, outside institutional contexts they are not truly repressive, per se. It is only with stultifying institutional authority, market relations, policing and soldiering, and the professionalizing of the mind that one gets…the mass holocaust of individuality. Personally, having spent much time in academia, I am most familiar with intellectuals’ collectivism, and so will focus on it here.

           

I must confess to an emotional disgust with the “stereotyped expression,” the cowardly uniformity of the intellectual world in all its crannies, from the mainstream media to the cobwebbed corners of academe. It’s hard for me to be objective about something with which I am so intimately familiar. It’s gotten to the point that the very idea of being published in a scholarly journal or by a traditional publisher makes me uncomfortable, because it associates me with the Machine. To submit to being “polished” like a pretty pebble in the tumbler of bureaucratic culture seems to me a violation. The benefit to it, of course, is that it’s the only way to be taken seriously—although if you dissent too much from favored dogmas, even having the imprimatur of a respected institution or publisher won’t be enough to earn you the good will of most intellectuals. 

The basic point is simple and obvious: institutions select for obedience and conformity, such that if you act independently you will almost certainly be kicked out or ostracized. If you’re slavish, you will meet with greater success. The essence of any large institution is thus collectivism, submersion in the mass and subordination to impersonal rules. Contemporary conservatives who decry “socialist collectivism” (amusingly accusing Obama and other such center-right politicians of it) are unaware that the institutions and behavior they adore, namely corporations, market-determined behavior, and acknowledgement of other people only as instantiating the types “employee,” “manager,” “executive,” etc., are the most collectivistic of all. In the truest sense of individualism, it’s impossible to imagine a more anti-individualistic structure than the market or its corporate apotheosis, in which people’s individuality is (ideally) erased. Because of this erasure, though, these institutions do exemplify a perverted individualism, in the same way that bureaucracy and totalitarianism do: all that exist are atoms, windowless monads of suppressed humanity.

           

Being farther from the operations of power, academia is less pathologically fragmented and collectivistic than the market economy or the corporate world. The difference is fairly marginal, though, given that every facet of academic culture embodies fragmentation and collectivism. Scholarship is intensely specialized, people spending entire careers studying subtopics of a subtopic; the fetish of “expertise” reinforces the notion that all that matters is familiarity with a specialized and conventional scholarly literature; careerist imperatives overwhelm any interest in truth, realistic understanding, or genuine originality (at least in the humanities and social sciences). Economics, for example, is a particularly egregious case, because its main functions are to mystify and to provide ideological idealizations of capitalist behavior. Already in the 1980s, economists were complaining that

 

Economics has…become so broad and so complicated that, within the fields, one group of specialists barely speaks the same language as the Ph.D.s across the hall. And so much of what is published seems more to proselytize for an ideology than to make sense of the chaotic world… It’s no wonder that a single economic development can be interpreted as a godsend or a disaster, depending on the interpreter’s frame of reference.

 

Even in more serious disciplines than economics, though, the worship of ideology—i.e., collectivism—over intellectual integrity is so obvious that only the blindly indoctrinated could fail to see it. In history departments, for instance, the “fashionable theory of economic nondeterminism” of politics and society about which Gabriel Kolko complained in the 1960s, and which has reigned since at least the 1950s, now takes postmodern forms of obsession with gender, sexuality, and “discourse.” As a result, the incredibly important work of Kolko and likeminded New Left historians, like that of other materialist scholars such as the political scientist Thomas Ferguson, is almost never mentioned among academics. Indeed, it is unmentionable, because of its subversive implications and its implicit critique of postmodernist idealism. A radical like Kolko is not “one of us,” he is not mainstream enough, and so is to be ignored. The fact that his work explains the sources of American foreign and domestic policy is irrelevant; what matters is that other academics don’t mention him, so it would be impolitic to do so oneself.

           

We tend to forget that intellectual artifacts are not simply produced by individuals pursuing their own idiosyncratic interests; they are, in most cases, expressions of institutional priorities and configurations. They are collective products, testaments to institutional agendas, power-relations, and the kinds of work that can make it through academic, media, and publishing filters—which of course tend to filter out anything that is challenging to their own power and interests. In forgetting this institutional context and background, we forget that there are overwhelming pressures for only innocuous and conventional work to be rewarded, and for critical voices to be marginalized. The vast majority of people in an elite institution will be successfully indoctrinated with its ethos and agendas, so that the interests of the institution become their own personal interests. As a result, they react with extreme emotional hostility to anyone who doesn’t follow the rules with utmost fidelity—thereby revealing the essential meanness and smugness of collectivism. All may be pleasant and polite on the surface, as long as norms are followed, but scratch this veneer and an abyss of petty hate and contempt opens up. Whether you’re a scholar booted from academia for criticizing Israel or a graduate student who incurs the wrath of professors for not submitting to hyper-specialization, the “herd of independent minds” will brook no dissent.

           

The rule of collectivism also produces a ubiquitous stupidity. I’ll have more to say later about the subject of stupidity in America; for now, I’ll confine myself to the observation that narrow institutional points of view are almost never sensible, self-critical, or grounded in reason and realism. They are dogmatic and stupid, based on myths about the importance and value of the institution in question (and therefore the people who identify with it). So, to the extent that someone identifies with an institution—as most professionals do—he will exhibit traits of dogmatism, stupidity, and self-overestimation. For example, journalists are trained to think that their profession, in its present reality, is both “objective” or “neutral” between opposing points of view and inherently adversarial towards power, two ideas that are obviously false (and mutually inconsistent); politicians are generally convinced of the nobility of their motives and their relative innocence regarding social problems or state crimes; most academics believe the self-glorifying myth that ideas and philosophies, rather than institutional dynamics, are what move the world. And nearly all professionals are basically ignorant of the functions they really serve in the political economy, their complicity in the evils of the world, and the by-no-means-flattering reasons they have been able to rise in their professions (namely because of their obedience, obsequiousness, lack of intellectual curiosity, and willingness not to challenge norms). They often even deny such truisms as that society has a ruling class and that the wealthy have wildly disproportionate control over politics, the media, and mainstream ideologies. In other words, naïve self-deceptions are ubiquitous among the institutional automatons who constitute the “elite.”

           

In addition to an underlying meanness, smugness, and stupidity, intellectual collectivism breeds a remarkable pretentiousness. Whether it’s a philosopher poring over a sentence by Nietzsche, a literary or film critic writing a turgid essay on some little facet of a poem or a movie, a poet laboring for hours and days to come up with the most dense and paradoxical imagery possible, or a postmodernist disguising a trivial idea in jargonistic, pleonastic prose, intellectuals excel in pretense. Academic conferences can be unbearably pretentious, full of stuffy people taking themselves seriously to a comical degree—priding themselves on their vocabulary, their articulateness, their specialized knowledge—subject to the delusion, apparently, that what they’re talking about has some sort of significance (which it rarely does).** The endless “calls for papers!” to submit to yet another conference remind one of how insular and therefore feckless the intellectual world is. But because academia takes itself very seriously, it encourages self-serious behavior in the people who submit to it. “Pretentiousness,” in fact, often just means “institutionally sanctioned behavior.” Since institutions are artificial and anti-human, the behavior appropriate to them strikes us as artificial, even ludicrous (or, sometimes, downright evil, as in the case of the corporate sector).

           

Incidentally, it isn’t only academics. Far from it. One turns on the television, flips to CNN, and sees Serious People discussing issues of high moment, such as whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or a hero, or what to think of the president’s latest rhetorical performance. “Panels” provide “expert” “commentary” on “both sides” of an issue. It is all intensely serious and important, and one is overawed by the intellectual fireworks on display.

           

The ubiquity of such pretentiousness in elite culture serves an important function: it signifies that authority is being taken seriously. That’s generally what elite pretentiousness is, just a taking-seriously of authority, a refusal to acknowledge how absurd and risible are the performative dimensions of authority. The rules about what can be said and what can’t be said, and how to say what can be said, protect the supposed legitimacy of authority, which is to say authoritarian collectivism (for that’s what authority means: a collective submission to power). If you’re forbidden from “questioning the motives” of your fellow politicians, or from asking a scholar “Who cares?” about the (usually uninteresting) thesis of some little article he has published, or, in general, from saying “Come on, let’s be real and admit what we all know but are pretending to deny!,” then institutions can function smoothly and authority can operate without a hitch. That’s the categorical imperative that explains much of what is ludicrous and awful about the world.

           

For all these reasons, I take a different perspective from most people regarding who it is I respect and who I don’t. I’m inclined to respect someone who’s lower on the totem-pole, because he still may have an independent mind (and also is typically not such an asshole as his superiors are); the successful and admired, on the other hand, I usually consider rather contemptible. Ceteris paribus, someone who’s a “top scholar” has already lost most of my respect (unless he or she proves me wrong). Few things are sadder than an institutionalized mind.

           

Certainly there are overwhelming pressures to submit; but one should at least try not to mentally submit too. A little nonconformism is a good thing.

 

 

*See Alexander Berkman’s thoughts on equality in The ABC of Anarchism (London: Freedom Press, 1977/1929), 25: “‘But will not life under anarchy, in economic and social equality, mean general levelling?’ you ask. No, my dear friend, quite the contrary. Because equality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity… Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. True anarchist equality implies freedom, not quantity… Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality. Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development. For human character is diverse, and only the repression of this free diversity results in levelling, in uniformity and sameness.”

**The one question that doesn’t exist in their otherwise amply stocked arsenal of interrogatives is the most important one: “Why does this matter?

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NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright