Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Still Pondering the Meaning of China's Coming Out Party

Sitting in the cool quiet of a California night, sipping his coffee, Liu said that he is not willing to risk all that his generation enjoys at home in order to hasten the liberties he has come to know in America. “Do you live on democracy?” he asked me. “You eat bread, you drink coffee. All of these are not brought by democracy. Indian guys have democracy, and some African countries have democracy, but they can’t feed their own people.

“Chinese people have begun to think, One part is the good life, another part is democracy,” Liu went on. “If democracy can really give you the good life, that’s good. But, without democracy, if we can still have the good life why should we choose democracy?”

-- The New Yorker: Angry Youth: The new generation’s neocon nationalists

Tai Chi Together-in Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony

I've never been attracted to libertarianism. Furthermore, I can't stand Ayn Rand's philosophical influence and her objectivist offspring. As an admirer of FDR and the old New Deal American Consensus, I've always thought of myself as more of a communitarian.

While I cherish this country's constant defense of the rights and dignity of the individual, I do think there have been radical elements that have always overemphasized "rugged individualism" at the expense of the common good. This would include George Bush's concept of the "ownership society" which would destroy the last vestiges left over from the New Deal. In essence, under the ownership society, whatever happens to you, you're on your own.

I love this country, but when I look at this nation's inequalities, seemingly intractable prejudices, its high incarceration rate, gun violence, drug use, the dumping of the mentally-ill out onto the streets, its crime, and the evidence of intense social alienation, isolation, and anomie being found across large segments of the population, I tend to think that individualism in the USA is overemphasized and overindulged.

On the other hand, in the wake of the Cold War and the brief "end of history" interregnum that we saw between then and now, I'm wondering if fascist totalitarianism is going to be a resurgent model for the 21st Century. Russia tried a parliamentary democracy and failed as they sank into a kleptocracy. Now they are flush with petro-dollars and a popular strongman is in charge. The Chinese leaders, seeing Nicolae Ceauşescu gunned down in a filthy backyard after he lost power, decided they wouldn't even risk going down the parliamentary road. They too enjoy a sort of popularity as they have spurred economic growth while keeping the lid firmly on both political and religious expression.

Objectivists see in altruism the very seeds of totalitarianism. Libertarians might not go quite that far, but do they have some valid points about the dangers of statism? In this age of Globalization/Terrorism/Radical Capitalism/Fundamentalism/Peak Oil/Pre-emptive War/Waterboarding/Suicide Bombing/Extraordinary Renditions, are people willing to trade freedom for security and comfort, as the quote at the top of the post suggests?

I read a couple of interesting takes recently on the opening ceremony for the Olympics in Beijing. One was by an Israeli IDF Colonel named Yehuda Wegman, and may be the kind of agitprop you'd expect from a military man looking at a potential adversary. The other was by David Brooks, a conservative writing for the New York Times. I found his take somewhat intriguing and surprising, in that he seemed to be almost extolling the virtues of collectivism over individualism. I'm not exactly sure what he was trying to get across.

Wegman: Horror show in Beijing: China's fascist tendencies, as displayed in opening ceremony, should concern us all

The fireworks and show at the Olympic stadium in Beijing Friday made it clear that the opening ceremony was a production on behalf of a regime showing fascist tendencies, on all this entails. In an era that is characterized by historical ignorance combined with obsessive focus on the "here and now," it would be advisable to make the public aware of the dangers to the Free World represented by the ceremony.

In the not-so-distant past we saw regimes that were able to produce stunning shows based on the movement of thousands of people with inhuman precision. The last two such regimes were the Nazis and the Communists. The perfect obedience to orders and the complete precision of the performance that were used to produce giant displays by these regimes were the same ones that enabled them to embark on wars or engage in domestic "purges" that killed millions of people and brought great destruction...

Shows where the individual is no more than a small cog in a giant machine that operates with stunning accuracy are a well-known indication of a regime that conditions its citizens' right to exist on them being obedient servants of the regime's and ruling class' needs. Such regimes have no room for diversity of opinion, political parties, and freedom of expression which constitute the basis of the part of the world that refers to itself as "free." History taught us a frightening lesson about the conduct and terrible demise of such regimes...

The Chinese regime chose to display its power and impress the entire world with a show based on thousands of gymnasts and dancers who moved in harmony that imitated a giant monster, which changed its shape and colors constantly. The event conveyed a message of complete control not only over the bodies of the thousands of participants, but also over the bodies and souls of the millions of people living outside the Chinese stadium.

The opening ceremony on behalf of the Chinese government conveyed a clear message - this is a regime whose value system must arouse great suspicion before we applaud and praise its performance. The excited viewers would do well to ask themselves about the human and government motives that led organizers to put on a show that, based on historical lessons, may be referred to as the "Beijing horror show" in the near future...

David Brooks: Harmony and the Dream

The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.

This is a divide that goes deeper than economics into the way people perceive the world. If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts.

When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow. They’re both animals. Most Asian people, on the other hand, would pick out the cow and the hay, since cows depend on hay. Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships.

You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other.

The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts...

Either way, individualistic societies have tended to do better economically. We in the West have a narrative that involves the development of individual reason and conscience during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and then the subsequent flourishing of capitalism. According to this narrative, societies get more individualistic as they develop.

But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? What happens if collectivist societies, especially those in Asia, rise economically and come to rival the West? A new sort of global conversation develops.

The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through Western, liberal means, but also through Eastern and collective ones.

The ceremony drew from China’s long history, but surely the most striking features were the images of thousands of Chinese moving as one — drumming as one, dancing as one, sprinting on precise formations without ever stumbling or colliding. We’ve seen displays of mass conformity before, but this was collectivism of the present — a high-tech vision of the harmonious society performed in the context of China’s miraculous growth.

If Asia’s success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge.

For one thing, there are relatively few individualistic societies on earth. For another, the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the Western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts.

...Relationships are the key to happiness. People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide...

The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.

It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.


crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I agreed more with the first essay. I thought the second one was wrong about some things. Another name for acollectivist mentality is a huve mentality and that's not pretty - any individuation, any excellence, even any oddity (like Apple's "think different"), as well as perceived weirdness (like gays), or weakness, like the disabled, is destroyed before it has a chance to imperil the whole, just as insects kill others in the hive that they think are mutants before they can replicate :)

He says of countries like Japan ...

People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts

My sister lived in Japan for 7 years - they actually have a word there for people who work themselves to death. Yep, that's something to emulate.

I think a society can be both democratic and also "socialistic" rather than individualistic in a negative way. Nothing describes better the good stuff about being a democracy compared to the downside of being totalitarian as Pericles' Funeral Oration

Sorry - just babbling :)

crystal said...

Also sorry for all the typos

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

A word for people who work themselves to death? Marvelous.

"The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." -- Japanese proverb.

Thanks for the education on Pericles' Oration. That was pretty cool.

Garpu said...

I think the hive mind/collectivist comments are dead-on, though. We've had several Chinese academics come and speak at UW (giving guest lectures) and they're all completely in support of the Chinese state, oftentimes using their research as apologetic.

Jeff said...

Do you know what I think is really sad, Jen? Apparently, the guy who stood up in front of the tank back in 1989 isn't really thought of as a hero in China anymore. In that first New Yorker article I linked to it said,

The date, we both knew, was June 4th, nineteen years since soldiers put down the Tiananmen uprising. The overseas Chinese students’ bulletin board had been alive all afternoon with discussions of the anniversary. Liu mentioned the famous photograph of an unknown man standing in front of a tank—perhaps the most provocative image in modern Chinese history.

“We really acknowledge him. We really think he was brave,” Liu told me. But, of that generation, he said, “They fought for China, to make the country better. And there were some faults of the government. But, finally, we must admit that the Chinese government had to use any way it could to put down that event.”

My gosh.

The article also describes a bright student in western philosophy who put a video together using Movie Maker and eventually posted it on Youtube - 2008 China Stand Up! Check it out. According to the article,

In its first week and a half, the video by CTGZ drew more than a million hits and tens of thousands of favorable comments. It rose to the site’s fourth-most-popular rating. (A television blooper clip of a yawning news anchor was No. 1.) On average, the film attracted nearly two clicks per second. It became a manifesto for a self-styled vanguard in defense of China’s honor, a patriotic swath of society that the Chinese call the fen qing, the angry youth.

Garpu said...

What the heck is that music from? I'm drawing a blank...

I had to shut the video off. It was just too much, and nothing I haven't heard before from visiting scholars. I remember reading in UW's newspaper about the protests surrounding the torch relays, and a few students admitted to being paid by the chinese government to stage counter protests. They knew what they were doing was wrong, and didn't agree with it but said they needed the money. I'm not sure what's worse, to be honest.

Jeff said...

The music is from Vangelis - 1492.

For a soundtrack, he typed “solemn music” into Baidu, a Chinese search engine, and scanned the results. He landed on a piece by Vangelis, a Yanni-style pop composer from Greece who is best known for his score for the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Tang’s favorite Vangelis track was from a Gérard Depardieu film about Christopher Columbus called “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” He watched a few seconds of Depardieu standing manfully on the deck of a tall ship, coursing across the Atlantic. Perfect, Tang thought: “It was a time of globalization.”

Garpu said...

and disease, and colonization, and...guess he forgot about what happened to China as a result of that globalization.

Jeff said...

guess he forgot about what happened to China as a result of that globalization.

Yeah. Well, they did have it pretty rough. "What do you mean you won't let us sell opium in China anymore? You'll let us in or else!!"