I decided to write about this topic because its one that gets little attention, yet it is the source of much heated debate and polarisation in our societies. I often hear those around me asking questions such as “why are we invading Syria” or “why do regulators allow glyphosate on our foods” or “why is Snowden a traitor when he simply shared with us constitutional individual rights being violated” .. but few seem to engage in a broader philosophical discussion at the epicentre of all these questions: Collectivism Vs Individualism, i.e. are we individuals a sovereign entity, living life as we see fit, acting on our judgment and keeping and using the product of our effort .. or are we just part of the group, with no rights, sacrificing our values & goals for the group’s greater good? Do we have irrevocable individual rights or only to the extent that society permits us to enjoy?
This conflict lies at the very core of our political philosophical differences. The left leans towards the group, the right towards the individual. The difference may seem trivial, but its implications run deep. Focusing on the group legitimises for example the many wars we regularly engage in. Or Hitler’s holocaust extermination of millions of Jews, presumably for the greater good. Middle East invasions have also been justified for the greater good (to bring democracy).
But let’s stop and think for a second. Does it make sense killing millions of individuals in the Middle East for the “group”? What is actually a group? Can we touch it? Does it even exist or is it simply a social construct we made up? How can we prioritise a social construct versus actual human beings? What if you’re one day at the losing end .. can we simply take away your rights/property/life if the group deems appropriate? Where do we draw the line? Snowden and Assange exposed the many ways in which the “group” (i.e. Government) violated the individual rights of its citizens. Yet, they are largely perceived as traitors because the group seems to be all that matters, even if it means breaking constitutional laws.
Are we individuals prepared to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good? We all say yes, but that’s more aspirational than reality. At the end of the day ..the vast majority of us want to pay as little taxes as possible, no one wants to volunteer for the war .. or pay higher energy bills to save the planet. We all SAY we want the best for the group, but only to the extent that it does not interfere with our individual rights/preferences. The problem is .. if everyone’s individual rights were to be taken into account .. it would be impossible to form a group policy.
As a consequence, the group (i.e. government) is forced to build imaginary narratives to force us to give up individual rights and work for the collective .. without us noticing we’re doing so, or shaming us if we don’t. I should add that its not only Governments that manufacture reality, everyone at the top of any social construct (companies, nations, religions) does so in order to maintain power, instil confidence, maintain cohesion and give the illusion that all’s well. They say “power corrupts” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. There certainly is some truth to it .. but what we perceive as corruption may simply be measures that prioritise the collective. If only the leaders could tell us as it is… most of us have a hard time dealing with the truth anyway .. so they are forced to manufacture reality.
Lets look at the numerous current examples where this conflict takes place and what narratives the group built to convince the individual:
1. GMO foods: In order to feed the 7.4 billion people (and growing rapidly) and avoid social unrest / wars … we have no alternative but to engineer ever cheaper ways to feed the world. We can’t all eat organic or the same way our grandparents did 60 years ago (when we were 2.5 billion people). Its hard to imagine why would the group (i.e. Government) allow for pesticides and chemicals to be added to our foods .. but do we have a realistic alternative as a group (if we are to feed everyone)? If you don’t go along with the group .. you’ll be called an anti-science as a deterrent.
2. Mainstream media: The role of the mainstream media is NOT to inform the individual but to act in the best interest of the collective, and that often means manufacturing reality. As a society we can’t have everyone successful, healthy, vibrant, creative, rich. We need to have someone looking after the sewage, cleaning the houses, farming, preparing our foods, policing the streets, etc. So the news (and reality) are manufactured to serve the larger group’s, not the individual. Imagine what would happen if Japan would inform its citizens the extent of the Fukushima nuclear radiation disaster. Millions of jobs from its fishing industry would disappear overnight, many coastal cities would be deserted, causing chaos. We have to understand why the Japanese Government lied for so long to its own citizens. Social cohesion and stability is the goal. If millions of people get radioactive contamination in the process…that’s collateral damage and the price to pay for social stability. If one wants information to help the individual, we’d have to watch alternative media or the so called “fake-news”. If you don’t go along with the group .. you’ll be called a conspiracy theorist as a deterrent.
3. War: Wars are part of human history and popular amongst politicians as they solve many of societal problems (inflate away the accumulated debts, unite the divided citizens, reset happiness levels, etc). So wars are necessary for greater good (its debatable, but lets just assume that for the sake of the argument!).. but no one wants to be the one scarifying itself. So we’re forced to manipulate the public opinion and appeal to patriotic feelings in order to get any individual to sacrifice. If you don’t go along with the group .. you’ll be called unpatriotic and a coward as a deterrent.
4. Education: Is the education system preparing individuals to thrive .. or is it standardising them to fit the group? Its obviously the latter and understandably so. Not everyone can be entrepreneur, creative, rich. For every entrepreneur, there are hundreds of workers, for every rich, there are hundreds of poor. That’s the way it goes and it always will. We need armies of employees to work in our factories, banks, public services, etc. When we send kids to public schools, we are sacrificing our individual children for the benefit of the group (by suppressing their natural abilities, making them submissive, standardising them). This realisation helps explaining the emergence of the homeschool phenomena and other special schools that focus more on the individual (Montessori education for example). If you don’t go along with the group .. you’ll face social pressure from friends/family as a deterrent.
5. Immigration: Developed economies need the constant influx of immigrants/refugees to have functioning societies. If we want our pensions paid, our schools to work, our welfare monthly check .. we need an ever increasing taxpayer base (because somehow thats how we build our economic system, predicated on perpetual economic growth and perpetual population growth). With 1.4 fertility rate in the West .. we have no alternative but to cause instability in the Middle East to drive migrants and refugees to our countries. Of course, we can’t say this out bluntly ..so we need to manufacture reality and appeal to our humanitarian instincts to help others in need. Individually no one wants to host a refugee or migrant in its own house/neighbourhood, but collectively we somehow accept otherwise you’ll be called a racist, bigot and a Nazi as a deterrent.
6. Medical advancements: In order to advance society (and the group) we need to constantly experiment new drugs / treatments on patients. Most of the times we experiment on other animals but it is also often conducted on fellow humans.
We know that ~35% of medical diagnosis today are wrong and 200-400k people die annually from medical mistakes. What we know for sure is a cure today .. tomorrow is likely to be proven totally wrong. Again, this is necessary if we are to advance the human species. Obviously no one wants our sons/daughters to be the chosen guinea pigs of medical industry but is there an alternative? Don’t expect your doctor to tell you you’ll be the subject of an experiment. Understand we all are to a certain extent when you visit a doctor. If you don’t go along with the group .. its because you believe in bogus and quackery alternative medicine as a deterrent.
7. Consumerism: As Tyler Durden puts it in «Fight Club»: “we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like”. Its easy to criticise consumerism and everything that surrounds it (status-seeking, shallowness, planet destruction) but do we have an alternative? What would happen if we started buying things we need, with money we had, to impress people we like? Consumerism is the mantra underpinning our societies and we need it to sustain the “group”. Individually we would be better off consuming less and saving more .. but collectively we’re better off if everyone is constantly buying stuff and spending money .. at least within this economic system we built. Sooner or later we need to redesign the system (or migrate to Mars) given the level of ecological damage to our planet, but that’s another topic. If you don’t go along with the group .. you’ll be seen as uncool, socially awkward.. as a deterrent.
8. Surveillance / cashless societies: Given today’s levels of income inequality, its inevitable that Governments take more from the rich to give to the poor. One of the ways to ensure it .. is to introduce cashless societies (well under way, particularly in the Nordic countries) whereby everything is traceable and the rich and the criminals can’t hide anymore in off-shores or illicit transactions. We lose as individuals (to the extent that we’re no longer anonymous when we transact) but we benefit as a group (to the extent that the Government passes on the additional government to those in need). But remember, the story needs to be sold as benefiting the individual, so what’s the narrative? Oh well, this is to tackle the terrorists and criminals. Same goes for surveillance, we need to spy on you otherwise we can’t protect you from the “terrorists”. Its easy to see how the group actually need criminals and terrorists in order to push for the best interests of the group. The day we have worldwide peace .. may be a worrisome day for the group. If you don’t go along with the group .. its because you have something to hide, you’re doing something illicit..
Whether you lean to the left or right politically .. one has to recognise being at the top is not easy. The balancing act between the group’s interests and the individual .. requires a level of fortitude not possessed by many. We also need to acknowledge there’s a lot of vested interests and those in power always choose the path of least resistance. Most often than not they need to choose for the lesser of two evils, not the optimal solution. The 2008 banking crisis was a good example of that. Probably the right thing to do would be to let the banks fail but our savings would have gone as well and a 20 or 30 years depression would ensue. And depressions are generally followed by wars. So the path of least resistance was to bail out the banks with taxpayers money. That’s incredible unfair, but the alternative was worse. These are the decisions leaders face regularly. And the people at the bottom are so caught up in the rat race trying to make ends meet .. that they’re happy to live in a manufactured reality and be fed bread and circus day after day.