Individualism and collectivism. Autonomy and authoritarianism. These are opposites, right? Maybe not.
Julian Jaynes argued that humans, in the earliest small city-states, lived in a state he called the bicameral mind. It was a shared sense of identity where ‘thoughts’ were more publicly experienced as voices that were culturally inherited across generations. He observed that the rise of egoic consciousness as the isolated and independent self was simultaneous with a shift in culture and social order.
What was seen was a new kind of authoritarianism, much more brutally oppressive, much more centralized, hierarchical, and systematic. As the communal societies of the bicameral mind entered their end phase heading toward the collapse of the Bronze Age, there was the emergence of written laws, court systems, and standing armies. Criminals, enemy soldiers, and captives were treated much more harshly with mass killings like never before seen. Social order was no longer an organic community but required top-down enforcement.
One evidence of this new mentality was the sudden appearance of pornographic imagery. For thousands of years, humans created art, but never overtly sexual in nature. Then humans apparently became self-conscious of sexuality and also became obsessed with it. This was also a time when written laws and norms about sexuality became common. With sexual prurience came demands of sexual purity.
Repression was the other side of rigid egoic consciousness, as to maintain social control the new individualized self had to be controlled by society. The organic sense of communal identity could no longer be taken for granted and relied upon. The individual was cut off from the moral force of voice-hearing and so moral transgression as sin became an issue. This was the ‘Fall of Man’.
What is at stake is not merely an understanding of the past. We are defined by this past for it lives on within us. We are the heirs of millennia of psycho-cultural transformation. But our historical amnesia and our splintered consciousness leaves us adrift forces that we don’t understand or recognize. We are confused why, as we move toward greater individualism, we feel anxious about the looming threat of ever worse authoritarianism. There is a link between the two that is built into Jaynesian consciousness. But this is not fatalism, as if we are doomed to be ripped apart by diametric forces.
If we accept our situation and face the dilemma, we might be able to seek a point of balance. This is seen in Scandinavian countries where it is precisely a strong collective identity, culture of trust, and social democracy, even some democratic socialism, that makes possible a more stable and less fearful sense of genuine individuality (Anu Partanen, The Nordic Theory of Everything; & Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism). What is counter-intuitive to the American sensibility — or rather American madness — is that this doesn’t require greater legal regulations, such as how there is less red tape in starting a business in Scandinavia than the United States.
A book worth reading is Timothy Carney’s Alienated America. The author comes from the political right, but he is not a radical right-winger. His emphasis is on social conservatism, although the points he is making is dependent on the liberal viewpoint of social science. Look past some of the conservative biases of interpretation and there is much here that liberals, progressives, and even left-wingers could agree with.
He falls into the anti-government rhetoric of pseudo-libertarianism which causes him to be blind to how Scandinavian countries can have big governments that can rely more on culture of trust, rather than regulations, to enforce social norms. What Scandinavians would likely find odd is this American right-wing belief that government is separate from society, even when society isn’t outright denied as did Margaret Thatcher.
It’s because of this confusion that his other insights are all the more impressive. He is struggling against his own ideological chains. It shows how, even as the rhetoric maintains power over the mind, certain truths are beginning to shine through the weakening points of ideological fracture.
Even so, he ultimately fails to escape the gravity of right-wing ideological realism in coming to the opposite conclusion of Anu Partanen who understands that it is precisely the individual’s relationship to the state that allows for individual freedom. Carney, instead, wants to throw out both ‘collectivism’ and ‘hyper-individualism’. He expresses the still potent longing for the bicameral mind and its archaic authorization to compel social order.
What he misses is that this longing itself is part of the post-bicameral trap of Jaynesian consciousness, as the more one seeks to escape the dynamic the more tightly wound one becomes within its vice grip. It is only in holding lightly one’s place within the dynamic that one can steer a pathway through the narrow gap between the distorted extremes of false polarization and forced choice. This is exaggerated specifically by high inequality, not only of wealth but more importantly of resources and opportunities, power and privilege.
High inequality is correlated with mental illness, conflict, aggressive behavior, status anxiety, social breakdown, loss of social trust, political corruption, crony capitalism, etc. Collectivism and individualism may only express as authoritarianism and hyper-individualism under high inequality conditions. For some reason, many conservatives and right-wingers not only seem blind to the harm of inequality but, if anything, embrace it as a moral good expressing a social Darwinian vision of capitalist realism that must not be questioned.
Carney points to the greater social and economic outcomes of Scandinavian countries. But he can’t quite comprehend why such a collectivist society doesn’t have the problems he ascribes to collectivism. He comes so close to such an important truth, only to veer again back into the safety of right-wing ideology. Still, just the fact that, as a social conservative concerned for the public good, he feels morally compelled to acknowledge the kinds of things left-wingers have been talking about for generations shows that maybe we are finally coming to a point of reckoning.
Also, it is more than relevant that this is treading into the territory of Jaynesian thought, although the author has no clue how deep and dark are the woods once he leaves the well-beaten path. Even the briefest of forays shows how much has been left unexplored.
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Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse
by Timothy P. Carney
Two Sides of the Same Coin
“Collectivism and atomism are not opposite ends of the political spectrum,” Yuval Levin wrote in Fractured Republic, “but rather two sides of one coin. They are closely related tendencies, and they often coexist and reinforce one another—each making the other possible.” 32
“The Life of Julia” is clearly a story of atomization, but it is one made possible by the story of centralization: The growth of the central state in this story makes irrelevant—and actually difficult—the existence of any other organizations. Julia doesn’t need to belong to anything because central government, “the one thing we all belong to” (the Democratic Party’s mantra in that election), 33 took care of her needs.
This is the tendency of a large central state: When you strengthen the vertical bonds between the state and the individual, you tend to weaken the horizontal bonds between individuals. What’s left is a whole that by some measures is more cohesive, but individuals who are individually all less connected to one another.
Tocqueville foresaw this, thanks to the egalitarianism built into our democracy: “As in centuries of equality no one is obliged to lend his force to those like him and no one has the right to expect great support from those like him, each is at once independent and weak.
“His independence fills him with confidence and pride among his equals, and his debility makes him feel, from time to time, the need of the outside help that he cannot expect from any of them, since they are all impotent and cold.”
Tocqueville concludes, “In this extremity he naturally turns his regard to the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement.” 34
The centralizing state is the first step in this. The atomized individual is the end result: There’s a government agency to feed the hungry. Why should I do that? A progressive social philosophy, aimed at liberating individuals by means of a central state that provides their basic needs, can actually lead to a hyper-individualism.
According to some lines of thought, if you tell a man he has an individual duty to his actual neighbor, you are enslaving that man. It’s better, this viewpoint holds, to have the state carry out our collective duty to all men, and so no individual has to call on any other individual for what he needs. You’re freed of both debt to your neighbor (the state is taking care of it) and need (the state is taking care of it).
When Bernie Sanders says he doesn’t believe in charity, and his partymates say “government is the name for the things we do together,” the latter can sound almost like an aspiration —that the common things, and our duties to others, ought to be subsumed into government. The impersonality is part of the appeal, because everyone alike is receiving aid from the nameless bureaucrats and is thus spared the indignity of asking or relying on neighbors or colleagues or coparishioners for help.
And when we see the state crowding out charity and pushing religious organizations back into the corner, it’s easy to see how a more ambitious state leaves little oxygen for the middle institutions, thus suffocating everything between the state and the individual.
In these ways, collectivism begets atomization.
Christopher Lasch, the leftist philosopher, put it in the terms of narcissism. Paternalism, and the transfer of responsibility from the individual to a bureaucracy of experts, fosters a narcissism among individuals, Lasch argued. 35 Children are inherently narcissistic, and a society that deprives adults of responsibility will keep them more childlike, and thus more self-obsessed.
It’s also true that hyper-individualism begets collectivism. Hyper-individualism doesn’t work as a way of life. Man is a political animal and is meant for society. He needs durable bonds to others, such as those formed in institutions like a parish, a sports club, or a school community. Families need these bonds to other families as well, regardless of what Pa in Little House on the Prairie seemed to think at times.
The little platoons of community provide role models, advice, and a safety net, and everyone needs these things. An individual who doesn’t join these organizations soon finds himself deeply in need. The more people in need who aren’t cared for by their community, the more demand there is for a large central state to provide the safety net, the guidance, and the hand-holding.
Social scientists have repeatedly come across a finding along these lines. “[G]overnment regulation is strongly negatively correlated with measures of trust,” four economists wrote in MIT’s Quarterly Journal of Economics . The study relied on an international survey in which people were asked, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” The authors also looked at answers to the question “Do you have a lot of confidence, quite a lot of confidence, not very much confidence, no confidence at all in the following: Major companies? Civil servants?”
They found, among other examples:
High-trusting countries such as Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries impose very few controls on opening a business, whereas low-trusting countries, typically Mediterranean, Latin-American, and African countries, impose heavy regulations. 36
The causality here goes both ways. In less trusting societies, people demand more regulation, and in more regulated societies, people trust each other less. This is the analogy of the Industrial Revolution’s vicious circle between Big Business and Big Labor: The less trust in humanity there is, the more rules crop up. And the more rules, the less people treat one another like humans, and so on.
Centralization of the state weakens the ties between individuals, leaving individuals more isolated, and that isolation yields more centralization.
The MIT paper, using economist-speak, concludes there are “two equilibria” here. That is, a society is headed toward a state of either total regulation and low trust, or low regulation and high trust. While both destinations might fit the definition of equilibrium, the one where regulation replaces interpersonal trust is not a fitting environment for human happiness.
On a deeper level, without a community that exists on a human level—somewhere where everyone knows your name, to borrow a phrase—a human can’t be fully human. To bring back the language of Aristotle for a moment, we actualize our potential only inside a human-scaled community.
And if you want to know what happens to individuals left without a community in which to live most fully as human, where men and women are abandoned, left without small communities in which to flourish, we should visit Trump Country.