Individualism versus Collectivism

We are currently seeing a standoff between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, which is being portrayed in the West as a threat to Russia against a former Soviet territory that Putin supposedly sees as his sphere of influence. However, many point to the promise Gorbachev claims to have heard in February 1990 that NATO would not extend “one inch to the east.” The spokesman is said to have been U.S. Secretary of State James Baker. This clearly contradicts what has happened, but it is left to historians to debate whether this promise was really made. For Russia, it is enough that they think it was.

But is that really the problem? From what one hears from Russia, it seems to be the issue. It is quite clear that there are major differences between Russia and the West, but it is no longer about capitalism or communism, even if some of the structures of the Soviet past are still used. Rather, it seems to be about individualism versus collectivism, or, from a Western perspective, liberality versus restriction. It seems restrictive to be subordinate to a social collective rather than living in a society where the rights and interests of the individual are paramount, but a large majority of people live in societies where it is normal to give priority to the interests of the state, as the term collectivism suggests.

The idea behind collectivism is understandable. It aims to increase cooperation to solve common problems and boost solidarity between members of society. It can lead individuals to be guided by the opinions of others and can lead to mediocrity, i.e., individuals seek only comfort, food, and entertainment for themselves and seek security in the group. There is also the aspect of authoritarian rule that suits certain personalities who can become very defensive for the group and relentlessly attack criticism. It can then be difficult to suggest corrections or improvements in such a society, and conformity and harmony become ideals, and a collective narcissism can lead to an overestimation of the group. However, it is a society that is easier to rule and to mobilise in comparison with a society in which everything has to be discussed at length before a decision can be made. It is therefore comprehensible that Putin and his friends are very defensive of their kind of society.

Individualism in the West seems to threaten its own livelihood. The lack of concern for survival or the betterment of the whole, making everything relative and truth trivial, is not a recommendation for individualism. The fact that we become hostile to anything that seems to threaten our individualistic ideas is an indication that our society is quite fragile. If truth is relative, there is no basic substance on which to build society, and the idea that “if it feels good, it is good” often failed us when we were growing up. Therefore, there is a feeling that individualism is a rather juvenile ideal and is not up to the conflicts that our existence presents us with. This also seems to be the attitude of Russia and China toward the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we once thought we were superior, but perhaps the West is going the same way.

There is an element in the West that seems to have a similar idea, which is very vocal against the rise of extreme individualism, expressed in a militant “cancel-culture” that was also seen in communist societies in the revolutionary period. But this element is also critical of far-reaching rights, even human rights, which were drawn up after the war, and human rights courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights (based in Strasbourg). This is basically the kind of opposition that Russian civic groups, independent media, journalists, and especially political opposition currently face, which in the West has so far only been threatened by right-wing governments. One aspect of collectivism is that the protests we are currently seeing against the Covid measures have been crushed in authoritarian societies.

What would happen if the authoritarian elements in western politics were able to gain control? Would they prefer to enforce an authoritarian collectivism, like countries outside of the West do? Was that the idea that made Trump warm up to Putin? But what would that mean in countries in which individualist freedom is held high and people are prepared go to the streets to protect their individual rights against an authoritarian government? In America, where individualism finds radical expression, we have seen the violence of ‘Black-Lives-Matter’ demonstrations and people turning out with weapons to ‘protect themselves’ against demonstrators (who also looted in the process). We have seen an insurrection on the 6th January 2021, where protestors were prepared to storm the Capitol to “take their country back”.

It has been suggested in various medial outputs that Russia and China are instrumental in radicalising people in the West, undermining those aspects which make society strong. It is said that the European Union is also under attack, because it is one of the more stable areas of individualism, with pockets of dissent being excited out of context, so that it ignites into violent protest. Conspiracy theories and ‘alternative facts’ are spread to propagate distrust in authorities. In this way, if it were true, opposition would be using individualism against itself. I think we have to take this into account more.