Jump to content

Being collectivist in a hyper-individualistic society

Recommended Posts


This may be the root of my many controversial opinions, and I frequently forget the vast majority of users here come from very much individualistic societies (esp. English-speaking countries) as opposed to more collectivist societies (e.g. certain indigenous populations, welfare states, or communist countries). Somewhere between the end of high school and graduating with a sociology degree I became entirely fixed on the idea that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." as Spock would say. I guess after getting a close look at how different systems in society work and how they are interdependent, I've likened it to cascade failure... when one group is doing poorly, or one social institution is completely inadequate for the needs of the people, other groups/institutions have to take up the slack where they otherwise should not have to, which puts excess strain on them. When enough groups or institutions fail, society ultimately fails.


That's why I believe certain mental illnesses (and even some physical illnesses) are and should be the problem of society, and society should be held responsible for helping those suffering rather than putting it all on individuals. Depression and suicide especially is where I encounter friction. So many people I talk to believe if a person is depressed that their situation is entirely unique and that the onus is on them to seek psychotherapy, that they alone have to want to get better. I have never understood this logic. The main symptom of the illness is hopelessness and lack of motivation to do anything. How can you suddenly want to get better from an illness that makes you not want anything? And it's hardly an individualistic phenomenon... if 10 people in my country were diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, fine, that sounds like an individual problem. But about 16.1 million adults here are diagnosed with MDD in a given year, almost 7% of the population. Societal causes are pretty easy to target: social isolation, financial trouble, poor work conditions or overworking (often the result of greedy employers and lack of decent labor laws), lack of access to enough (healthy) food, lack of access to high-quality mental healthcare, and most controversially, poorly-designed infrastructure. It's so much easier for us to say a depressed person needs to fix their own problems because it takes the responsibility off of us to fix the larger overarching problems that, if solved, would make society run much better.


If even two people out of a group of 100 people takes their lives, it reflects on that group, as a matter of potential. If two of us couldn't find any more reasons to go on, we must not have enough reasons to offer, and it could happen to any of us. Individualistic society tells us that when a person takes their life that it's their "fault", not ours, and that there's nothing we can do if a person really decides to end it. BS, there's a lot we could do, namely try. Even having a total stranger go to that person's house and say "How are you holding up?" might be enough, because maybe nobody's asked them that in months. Maybe auditing workplaces for employee's mental health and job satisfaction and sanctioning workplaces with toxic environments would be enough to make employers shape up. Maybe if local governments had programs that placed people who're struggling to even get interviews into jobs, more people wouldn't be living paycheck-to-paycheck. But no, my country would never adopt such things, because they're anti-American. "American" means manifest destiny and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and not working 40 hours a week in a job that makes you at least $40,000 a year means you've failed and are lazy and it's all your fault. "American" means everyone for themselves (especially during hurricane season... it's a nasty tragedy of the commons). 


What do you think? Anybody else feel this way and struggle to explain your position to others because of deeply-ingrained concepts of individualism?

  • Like 2

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I think when we discuss individualism and collectivism in a modern western context, we separate them into a sort of false dichotomy, and say that each exists completely separate from the other. I would argue that collectivist social arrangements are at their most functional and beneficial when they recognize many of the core aspects of individualism, and that human beings as autonomous individuals more often than not seek out collectivist social arrangements to solve problems and live better lives. 

Since human being are fundamentally individualist in their natural function, individualist ideas cant simply be discarded as a system of social organization, but rather a natural reality since we aren't a hive mind species. On the other hand, we cant also discard the ideas of collectivism, because human being are social animals and engage in social activities as a group or collective to survive and prosper. For example, even in the United States, people engage in collectivist behavior through the establishment of housing and business cooperatives, or simply in the formation of clubs, philanthropic societies, and unions. Simply having a society at all is itself a form of collectivism.

I think the American style conflict between individualism and collectivism is not exactly rooted in opposition to the fundamentals of either, since we can identify both as being fundamental to the human condition and the reality of all human beings irrelevant of where they live. I would say however that opposition to "collectivism" in very "individualist" societies is when that collectivism is coercive in its basic establishment.

Article 20 of the UN Deceleration of Human Rights guarantees the right to peaceful association, and the right of all people to not be compelled to belong to an association. It recognizes that individuals have the self ownership to choose how they wish to form collectivist social arrangements, but strictly forbids the use of violence or coercion to force an individual into an association they would not freely choose to be a part of on their own. This is where the dilemma you mentioned comes in to play regarding those with depression. At what point does it become acceptable to violate a persons self ownership to impose my own subjective values and decisions on them? Especially when doing so requires the use of, or threat of, some form of violence. 

This is where I go back to my original point about how I think collectivism is most effective when it respects the individuals that enable it. We have the power to help others through mutual cooperation, understanding, and persuasion through dialogue and exchange. When people join forces in a peaceful way to solve problems through collective action, its incredibly empowering. However, you aren't going to see the same empowerment, respect, or raw productivity when your collective is based on coercion and force, even when the ideals and motivations seem morally just or righteous from the top down. 

Edited by SMoose

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites
Galactic Turtle

I'm going to start off by saying I know absolutely nothing about this topic and never even heard the word "collectivism" until right now. Nonetheless, I have thoughts about your post so this will be a commoner's take on it.


As an American it has been programmed within me from birth to only associate communism with bad if not evil things. It can be an appealing concept but for whatever reasons from what I know historically applying it to large populations has never worked. I can't tell you why it didn't work - whether it was the fault of those in charge or if the system is simply that flawed past a certain population count or whether it has worked but I'm American so I simply don't know about it - but looking around it seems like capitalism is any large country's best bet even if it also sucks... just sucks less than communism.


As for mental illness, another topic I know close to nothing about, there was a time when you could make people get treatment. It's what pretty much any thriller movie with a mental hospital in it is based on (though I'm sure those exaggerate things). You could get relatives committed for mental treatment, carted off with little to no say in the matter. Of course back in those days some of the practices they used can be considered questionable at best. In pop culture everyone knows about stuff like lobotomies. Husbands could commit their wives to a mental hospital simply because they argued a lot. Even if you did have a mental health issue I'm sure many places didn't have the resources to properly treat people. Like prisons these days, they put you in and permanently remove you from any chance at functioning in society. Rehabilitation is an ideal rather than a reality. At some point they probably changed several laws regarding the ability for others to commit a relative to a mental institution and in its wake homelessness skyrocketed. The whole topic is really an ethical conundrum. 


The other fantasy programs you mention I'm pretty sure all have nonprofit equivalents. It's when you get the government involved that things get tricky especially in America. Many people don't like it when private endeavors change into government funded or controlled ones. But yes, I am 100% sure there are nonprofits out there that help with homelessness, support for the mentally ill, and job placement for those that can only function in specific environments. Personally I'm used to these things coming from smaller neighborhood communities or churches. 


  • Like 1

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...