The Human Paradox: Individualism vs Collectivism
Individual liberty and interdependence are both essential for life in society.
- Mahatma Gandhi
Human beings are very social animals. Human beings are also fiercely individual, perhaps more so than any other animal. Is it any wonder, then, that human society is riven with so many contradictions and conundrums?
Capitalists often seek to portray capitalism as the guardian of individual liberty and individualism in general. It's an understandable, and effective, tactic. Appealing to people's egos is always going to be successful (the world of advertising is testament to this), but is there something more to it than that? Do those who do not adhere to capitalism perhaps miss something when they call for more collectivism?
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
- Spock (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)
In the most basic terms, I would hazard a guess that most people agree with this. Be it a choice between saving one hundred people instead of one person, or be it going with a majority decision in a vote. And yet even the most progressive movements in society are replete with advocacy for the needs and rights of individuals and minority groups.
In our closely interconnected modern world, the idea that an individual, or a family, can simply shut out everyone else and think only of themselves is unviable. It may never, in fact, have been viable in an human society in history. We all depend on each other, whether we like it or not. Even the rich and powerful who so often disregard the plight of those beneath them often depend on those very workers and voters for the wealth and power they so desperately cling to.
The freedom to be yourself, however, and express yourself, especially artistically, should not be something which is considered selfish or antithetical to collectivism. That some collectivist societies have curbed the ability of individuals to do so is both regrettable and diminishing to the human spirit. The entire purpose of a fairer, more egalitarian society should in fact be to allow all individuals to have the opportunity and resources with which to express themselves more fully.
Like many aspects of the human condition, the paradox of balancing our inherent egoism and sociability is no easy task. And when entrusted to those elected to govern us, it becomes all the more complicated. That's no reason to give up on it, though. Indeed, it is essential we learn to live together as individuals.