Collectivism is a vague term referring to almost any kind of sociopolitical/economic organization that gives precedence to the group over the individual. In other words, the individual is at all times expected to subordinate his or preferences for the greater good of the larger unit. The trouble with collectivism is that while the justification for decision-making is the greater good, inevitably there is usually one dominant person (perhaps several) who is actually making the decision that is presented to the “community” as the greater good.
Certainly, the theory of collectivism sounds good. The idea is that which benefits the individual also benefits the group. Thus, if decisions are taken based on creating group benefits, society will be fairer in that all will prosper rather than just a few.
Collectivism as a philosophy has been used to support numerous movements, many of which were popular in the 20th century, including socialism, communism and fascism. Within this context, socialism would be seen as the least coercive while communism, with its emphasis on radical redistribution, would be seen as the most. Ironically, there are other variants of collectivism such as anarchic collectivism and even anarchic communism.
However, such a contradiction in terms actually proposes combinations of competitive and collectivist solutions that allow individual communities to compete against one another. None of these hybrids (which have been rarely established) can be seen as offering the kind of purer collectivism of, say, communism.
This brings up a larger issue of collectivism as it has been proposed and applied. There are two kinds of collectivism generally acknowledged: In the first, all resources are owned in common. In the second, various groups own common property. The second form of collectivism has actually made a good deal of progress in Western societies. Such collectivism is known as the “public sector.” In the public sector the “government” owns resources on behalf of individuals and the government structure administers the resources.
As an example, given that the US federal budget is some US$3 trillion, one can see how vast are the inroads of collectivism-by-another-name. So much of what the US and indeed the West provides to citizens is offered through the mechanism of government that it can be said that collectivism is actually the hallmark of modern capitalist societies. Whether concerning public schools, municipal support for infrastructure or “first responder service,” the government itself provides the service on behalf of the affected population.
Collectivism is anything but a theoretical term. It has been put in practice in the West with efficiency and vigor and is a defining characteristic of many people’s lives. The more extreme forms of collectivism have claimed the lives of millions in the 20th century and there is no reason to doubt that such political structures would do so if re-imposed. In the meantime, the soft collectivism of the West has not murdered nearly so many but is responsible for a steady diminishment of lifestyles and standards of living.
This is for two reasons: First is the tragedy of the commons. If everyone is responsible, no one is. Second, collectivism is in its application a fraud that inevitably allows a few powerful people to loot others while hiding behind the concept. Collectivism at best is a kind of exploitativemercantilism. At its worst it creates the conditions for genocide.
Today’s Western-style democracy is showing itself as the transparent cloak that it is for the powerful elites standing in the shadows behind Western collectivist societies – thanks in large part to the enlightening power of the Internet.