Consumer Collectivism and the Inauthentic Individual

Individualism can be authentic and it can be inauthentic. To be authentic, the acts of an individual must originate from the individual. This is far from the case in modern Western societies where individualism is assumed to reign. In actuality, Western societies are mostly forms of consumer collectivism in which marketers load the individual with cultural symbols representing lifestyles that revolve around their products and brands. The value laden individual then acts on impulse within the framework of this cultural charade, living a life they think they have to lead rather than the life they choose to lead because at an instinctual level true choice is never an option. To really choose one must first have the options and then the reason to make sense of those options. In consumer collectivism the options are all constructed around short term profit motives and the individual is never given the philosophical and historical education to make sense of the culture in which they live. Consumer collectivism thus denies the choice of the individual, turning people into homogeneous mass markets and demographics, to be shaped and moulded by the hands of marketers and charlatans.

Authentic individualism requires the capacity to choose, and to do this one must be aware of one’s options and have the ability to evaluate them. Authentic individualism is thus the empowering of individual minds to make sense of the world around them and to act on this world in a rational manner, or, simply put: authentic individualism is a philosophical way of life. And yet, in our so called individualist societies philosophy is not taught at schools and in higher education humanities are on the decline. The Western “individual” instead pursues the life of specialization, exploiting the power of division of labor to make the most of material comforts, but in doing so they sacrifice the very thing that these comforts were designed to serve: the sovereign mind of man. Thus the individual mind gives itself up to the torrent of the collective, a collective forged not by an ideology but by the blind forces of consumer society.

But just as there are authentic and inauthentic forms of individualism, there are authentic and inauthentic forms of collectivism. Ironically, Eastern cultures that assume themselves collectivist are in actuality forms of inauthentic collectivism. Those “collectivist” societies are typically based on a herd structure in which the people are ordered around by force, as in the case of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, or deceived into servitude, as in the case of organized religions. Such forms of collectivism are inauthentic in that the people are subordinated to a few strong or cunning individuals without being able to make a rational and voluntary choice to do so. To put it bluntly: a slaver cannot make a collective of his slaves. Authentic collectivism, on the other hand, assumes voluntary participation by all involved. Such collectives exist only when the participants are volunteers and have the rational capacity to make their own choice to be there (i.e. rather than being tricked into it). These are typically organizations of people, but may sometimes rise to the level of a peoples at decisive moments in history (e.g. war for independence).

Individualism and collectivism are always presented as opposites, but this is not actually the case. Authentic individualism is wholly compatible with authentic collectivism, and in fact, authentic collectivism is only possible through authentic individualism. On the other hand, inauthentic forms of either can just as easily co-exist. Traditional forms of collectivism, in which the will of the individual is said to be subordinated to the people are simply illusions peddled by those who get to set the agenda. The “people”, as a collective entity, have no collective brain, no computational power that will make the decisions at a level beyond the individual. Decisions are always made by individuals. In societies that favor the subordination of many to the few, these decisions are made by a small power elite. In an organization with voluntary participation, these decisions may still be made by a few, but because the participation structure is voluntary, the rest will either agree with them or they won’t. A disagreement can be expressed by leaving the group, in which case a successful group will be one where the leadership demonstrates the most cohesion with the rest of the people involved. The ability to make rational choices is what makes individualism or collectivism authentic.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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