About a decade ago, I wrote an op-ed column entitled "Socialism Is Dead, Collectivism Isn't". Doing so made me sensitive to the hegemony of the collectivist concept, and I continue to be amazed at how many facets of modern culture can be traced back to a collectivist mind set. By "collectivist" I mean simply the viewing of humans as a collective rather than as individuals.
It is related to the broader philosophical concept of the Universal: "an abstract object or term that ranges over particular things." A universal can only be known by the intellect, not the senses. Individuals are the real elements of any human collective. Only individuals feel better or worse offcollective abstractions about individuals do not. Once one crosses to the slippery slope from the individual to the abstract universe of the collective, individuals and their well-being are submerged and traded against one-another in an endless game of redistribution to satisfy some collectivist view that exists only in the mind of the viewer.
Where the collectivist view originates is a little puzzling, and is oblique to the discussion. But I think it comes from a view that emphasizes, and looks for, elements of commonality among individuals. Commonality implies sameness and equality in some dimensions, and since humans have these elements of commonality, they can be treated as groups based on these. Of course, such groupings are wholly an abstract, mental, activity devoid of real human beings.
Note that there are two sides to collective, or group, identity. On the one hand, individuals choose to belong to, or identify with, some group, because of some self- perceived common characteristic. This is a self-identified classification. On the other hand, there is the tendency of others, from the outside, to classify individuals into various groups, whether or not those involved want to be so classified. It is the latter kind of collectivism that so clearly submerges individuals. However, on the other hand, this classification from the outside has a self-perpetuating aspect because it encourages individuals to view and classify themselves as members of groups, and thereby give up their individuality in favor of group identity. But at bottom, there is really little difference between these two aspects of group identification or classification. Whether done by the individual member, or from the outside by others, the idea of group identity is still a mental construction that submerges the individual.
The collective or universal view, of course, is not confined simply to humans. For example, I find it amusing that many are deeply offended by the terms "socialist" and "fascist" at the same time they support government ownership and controlthe very elements that define these collective terms.
Personal and Collective Guilt
Let us first take a look at the idea of guilt. Normally, guilt is the feeling that one has done wrong as defined by some moral or ethical standard. (In order to feel guilt, at the outset one has to have some moral standards which can be violated. No morality, no guilt. But I put this issue aside for the moment.) What has happened in modern culture is that guilt has made the transition from being based on one's personal behavior to one based on the behavior of some group to which some belongs or is classified. At bottom, this collective guilt based on the illogical notion that groups, or collectives, act as some kind of unit, and therefore one member of the unit should feel responsible and guilty about the transgressions of other members of the same group. Of course, groups are created solely in the mind of the viewer, and do not, and can not, actonly individuals can choose and act. Some individuals act badly, but then others, imbued with the collectivist mind set, and because of some perceived commonness with the actor, feel guilty about what someone else has done. Collective or group guilt has replaced individual guilt and responsibility. This replacement can come from both within and without: some can say, from without, that all white people bear some responsibility for slavery, and others, from within, because they are white, can choose to feel some responsibility and guilt.
Once large numbers of people have made the transition from individual to collective responsibility and guilt, the door is opened to all kinds of guilt entrepreneurs who seek to prosper by currying group guilt from both within and without. Modern society is full of these. Indeed, a good deal of political activity derives its popular clout from the ability to successfully promote group guiltto hang guilt trips on others. Take the entrepreneurs of the holocaust and racial discrimination. By successfully selling the idea that present individuals, who personally have done nothing to further either of these, should feel guilty about these events, whole industries have sprung up designed solely to extract money, either voluntarily or via the coercive power of government, from those with group guilt. And this possibility is exacerbated by the growing tendency of some to self-identify themselves with others and become receptive to such guilt trips.
Personally, I am astounded by the current and popular suggestion that I, who was not alive during US slavery and none of whose ancestors even lived in the US during the slavery period, should feel personally guilty about slavery and pay retribution to other individuals likewise four or five generations removed. Moral transgressions can only be committed by individuals against individuals. I will accept responsibility for what I do and have done. I will not accept responsibility and feel guilty about what other individuals do and have done, as much as I abhor it.
Right now, in popular culture, if you do not accept collective guilt for the situation of others and advocate retribution either directly or by voting appropriately, you are a moral outcast. Presently, there is no faster way to become branded a racist than for one to suggest that affirmative discrimination is illogical and stupid. Similarly there is no faster way to be viewed as both an anti-semitic and a racist than to suggest that foreign aid to Israel and/or Africa is counter-productive and wasteful. The only reason the Holocaust Memorial is located in Washington, D.C., which had absolutely no connection with the event, is to further the selling of group guilt to the American public and Congress by the powerful Holocaust industry.
Moral and Guilt Relativism
Come back to the point that guilt is impossible without some moral standard to define it. On the one hand individuals have come to accept personal guilt for what others do. But the schizophrenic side of this is that some standards of morality in popular culture are based not on personal standards, but on morality relative to what others do. How often do we hear the reasoning that it's all right to do something simply because others are doing it? For many, Bill Clinton's moral transgressions were "justified"by pointing out that Thomas Jefferson may have behaved similarly. And further, what clearly violates personal moral standards, suddenly becomes OK when done by a big enough group. It's not OK for me to steal, but it is OK if the state does it. It is the cult of mob morality. Further, in many ways, "copy-cat" activity has become the mantra of popular culture.
Note that this majoritarian kind of moral standard differs from common moral relativism based on differing cultural standards. The latter argues that morality should be based on the cultural norms of society and that these can vary widely across cultures. In this view, there is no such thing as an absolute standard of morality: if murder and cannibalism are culturally accepted, it's OK. On the other hand the kind of moral relativism I am talking about is based simply on whether others are also doing it, regardless of any cultural basis for the act.
This leads to a related kind of collective guilt, one based not on what has been done to others, but based solely on one's relative position among others. This comes from the hegemony of the intellectual and cultural idea that the only way anyone can acquire wealth is by taking it from others. In the West, Leftist intellectuals have succeeded in selling the idea that there is no such thing as production: there is only redistribution, and the unequal results of the productive marketplace are therefore undeserved and exploitive. They cannot admit production because that justifies the fact and deservedness of the unequal results of the marketplace. In much of the world, this same view is not an intellectual phenomenon, as it is in the West, but a cultural one. It is very unpopular and politically incorrect to say so, but much of the underdeveloped world is doomed to stay that way simply because its culture places redistribution far above production. The current turmoil in Zimbabwe comes immediately to mind.
In this context, the fact that someone has acquired anything is evidence that he has taken it from someone else, and he should feel guilty about it. Normally guilt is based on what one has done. In this instance, guilt is based solely on where one is relative to others. If you have something, even though you got it through your own talent and hard work, with the voluntary and mutually beneficial cooperation of others, you should feel guilty because it has placed you in some kind of illegitimate superior position relative to others. Nothing is so pitiful as watching a creative and productive individual, consumed by guilt about his own accomplishments, adopt a collectivist view of the world. It also lies behind Hayek's observation that it is often a very difficult task to convince businessmen that what they do is morally correct. Many successful businessmen ooze guilt about what they have accomplished.
One must admit, Leftists have successfully fomented social discontent against the market system by simultaneously currying envy from below and guilt from above.
On Being Offended
Being offended is another industry of our popular culture. Again, it comes down to collectivism, this time group identity. Individuals now self-identify themselves, not with what they, individually, are and do, but with what others are and do, a group often conveniently defined by others. In popular culture, people get, and are encouraged to get, their identities from without, not within. When one gets his identity from associating with, or belonging to, something other than himself, he then becomes offended by any perceived questioning or attack on these other things. It is the group identity syndrome: an attack on others with whom a person identifies is viewed as an attack on that person.
This whole idea of being offended is a double-barrelled exercise in collectivism. To indiscriminately attack a group defined solely by the fact that they have something in common is, of course, often an exercise in illogical collectivism to begin with. Groups don't act, individuals do, and to attack a group for what individuals do is often logical only from a collectivist perspective. But this mistake is compounded on the other end when individuals self-identify with some group, and then take personal offense in an illogical attack on that group.
And even if one really does not take personal offense to something done to others, the group identity syndrome makes it beneficial to feign such offense. What is it that gives one the opportunity to gain the approval of others by feigning offense? It is, of course, because these others also get their identity by association with the feigner. And why would one want this approval of others by feigning offense? Again, it is because one's identity is tied not to one's self but to what one has in common with others identity from without rather than from within: collectivism. And, again, popular culture has spawned whole industries based on real or feigned offense.
Finally, to bring things up to date, the militant muslim mind set is the ultimate in collectivist thinking: the complete subjugation of the individual to an abstract collective cause and directed against another abstract collective where, in both, individuals don't matter.
John T. Wenders is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at the University of Idaho. His e-mail address is email@example.com.