Resistance is NOT Futile – Part 3 (Involuntary Assimilation)
“Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
Conservatives are promoters of the rights of the individual while also recognizing a higher moral order such as Judeo-Christian teachings or some philosophical understanding of moral law. The individual is not supreme in the conservative’s worldview, but the rights of the individual are superior to the whims and desires of any group of individuals.
But that does not mean conservatives see individualism as somehow opposed to community. “Individualism is not the opposite of community, it is in fact a principal for organizing community,” noted the blog Philosophical Conservatism, “It dictates that human community is to be freely chosen by the individual. It favors the organic communities of family, neighborhood, and local organization over distant political institutions.” As we saw in Part 2, the ability of individuals to freely chose their associations is paramount to genuine community.
It’s about Dignity
Both community and collectives are ways in which groups of individuals may form; but their similarities end there. Collectivism—the practice of giving a group priority over each individual within the group—ultimately destroys both community and individuality. The collectivist approach harms genuine community by removing each individual’s voluntary decision to participate within the group. But collectivism further harms our individuality by robbing us of human dignity.
In recognizing a higher moral order, the conservative knows that human dignity is anchored in either a religious belief that human beings are sacred or certain Western philosophical teachings (such as Lockean liberalism) that arrives at nearly the same conclusion through natural means. Both paths firmly hold that human life is deserving of the rights to life, liberty, and property beyond the perceived desires of any group, sect, or government.
The conservative’s view of humanity is that humans possess inherent worth, regardless of their usefulness to any larger cause or group. This stands in stark contrast to the collectivist impulse, which sees individuals as valuable to the extent they may contribute to some greater good for the group as a whole. The dignity of the individual is sacrificed for the utility of the individual. The measure of a person’s worth is the degree to which that person may contribute to the goals of the collective.
If the collectivist is right—if we are nothing more than cogs in a machine—then even the most heinous genocide could be said to be morally justifiable if it could be demonstrated it served the greater good of the group. If the conservative’s understanding of human nature is right, then collectivism not only robs us of our dignity, it robs us of our very humanity.
The Allure of the Collective
Why then would anyone prefer a collective over a community? I believe there are two primary reasons. First, collectivism may be enticing to those who believe some central authority could do much good if only they could direct all of our actions simultaneously. This belief is manifested in modern calls for socialism to vanquish the perceived evils of a free market. This is something I addressed in Part 2, so I won’t belabor the point here.
Second, in a society with crumbling communities, collectives will naturally emerge to fill the gap. As churches, families, and other forms of traditional institutions deteriorate, we will naturally turn to something to provide us with a greater sense of purpose. Purpose, belonging, and meaning are natural desires that have historically been met by the communities we’ve formed. In their absence new associations emerge.
We millennials pride ourselves on attaining a level of inclusivity greater than previous generations of Americans and, likely, unimaginable to most civilizations throughout human history. No other civilization has achieved the level of equality, inclusion, and tolerance across a wide variety of groups from race to gender to age to religion to sexuality. British philosophy Roger Scruton observed this in his book How to be a Conservative, “In place of the old beliefs based on godliness, judgement, and historical attachment, young people are given the new beliefs based on equality and inclusion, and are told that the judgement of other lifestyles is a crime.”
Why are these new beliefs “in place of” the old? The Left has successfully promulgated the message among America’s youth that much of our bigotry, misogyny, and hatred has its roots in traditional Western institutions, particularly the church and the family. And, while it is true shameful examples of extreme prejudice can be traced to elements or teachings of wayward churches or authoritarian families, it does not serve us well to restrict our vision to that of a radicalized ideology. For instance, we might find fault with Western institutions because they enabled slavery (and well we should). But we should also be mindful of the fact that, while all civilizations had slaves, Western civilization was the only civilization to abolish slavery.
Meth for Breakfast
Clearly a defense of Western institutions is a big topic and I don’t want to get lost in that digression—I have written more about it here, if the reader’s interested. The point is that the Left has found fault—some justifiable and some fallacious—with Western institutions of church and family and has successfully convinced a great many young Americans that those institutions are to blame for the sort of bigotry young Americans stand against. As such, many young Americans have abandoned the church and traditional family models in search of a more inclusive path.
But this is an alienating and dehumanizing choice. “If the purpose were merely to substitute one belief system for another it would be open to rational debate,” continues Scruton, “But the purpose is to substitute one community for another…However, there is no such thing as a community based in repudiation. The assault on the old cultural inheritance leads to no new form of membership, but only to a kind of alienation.” The substitution of communities rooted in traditional Western institutions isn’t like picking Kellogg's brand of breakfast cereals over General Mills. It’s like substituting breakfast for meth.
And even where seemingly viable alternatives exist, it may be impossible for an individual to recreate a sort of ad hoc community by their lonesome. We might find solace in likeminded people who find fault with the same communities we were raised in. But, unless those likeminded people are also capable of providing us with a new community, it is doubtful these surface-level relationships are going to provide for our need to belong.
In Part 2 we acknowledged there are times when collectivist efforts are ideal. When the group, society, or entire nation is focused on a single-purpose goal, collectivism may be useful. The United States won World War 2 thanks, in large part, to the collectivism mandated by the Federal government that oversaw everything from economic output to production to enlisting fighters to the Manhattan Project. But there are many who draw the wrong lessons from America’s successful group endeavor and conclude the same collectivist force could be used to solve an enormous array of societal ills from poverty to obesity to bigotry.
They are forgetting that the collectivist impulse ultimately destroys both community and individuality because it doesn’t fit with human nature. Humans aren’t cogs in a machine. Humans are spiritual animals with individual needs and desires. Collectivism might help a nation win a war (a single-purpose goal), but it is an ineffective tool for directing an entire economy where decisions ranging from where to invest to what hand soap to buy are better left in the capable hands of each individual’s needs and desires. No collective, no matter how benevolent or intelligent, can speak for us all in every way.
G. K. Chesterton brilliantly remarked on the dangers of this line of thinking:
“A correspondent has written me an able and interesting letter in the matter of some allusions of mine to the subject of communal kitchens. He defends communal kitchens very lucidly from the standpoint of the calculating collectivist; but, like many of his school, he cannot apparently grasp that there is another test of the whole matter, with which such calculation has nothing at all to do. He knows it would be cheaper if a number of us ate at the same time, so as to use the same table. So it would be. It would also be cheaper if a number of us slept at different times, so as to use the same pair of trousers. But the question is not how cheap are we buying a thing, but what are we buying? It is cheap to own a slave. And it is cheaper still to be a slave.”
Ultimately, collectivism makes slaves of us all. What begins as an innocent enough desire to rid the world of poverty, or warfare, or products that harm the environment, may only be achieved by forcing individuals to behave differently than they would if left to their own devices. That doesn’t mean that conservatives don’t have a great deal to say on the subject of how individuals ought to behave. But behavioral changes must come about by the free choices individuals are making apart from some central authority robbing them of their right to make such a choice.
Collectivism destroys communities, human dignity, and individual liberty. But there is one more affliction collectivism brings: it destroys the responsibility that individuals within a community have to one another. And that is where we’ll pick up in our fourth and final part to the series.