30 Different Flavors of Collectivism

All of the noise about Ron Paul being a racist untouchable has gotten me thinking deeply about racism as it maps to individualist and collectivist approaches to the human condition. I maintain that libertarians have talked far too little about racism. I say this not only because we take positions that are often (mistakenly) assumed to be cryptoracist, but also because we can make a far more principled and consistent argument against it. As individualists, we necessarily find the categorization of people distasteful, especially when the State is the one doing it.

Now, that's not to say that we don't have racists among us, as clearly we do (just as every political group has their particular varieties). Nor is it to say that we don't make generalizations or categorize people, although I'd like to think that we feel the need to back up our assertions in so doing, rather than leaving them dangerously implicit and unspoken. Especially as a left libertarian, I see a common thread of resistance against all sorts of collectivist trends since the 19th century, framed in terms of opposition to the State's collectivist, organizing interventions into the otherwise peaceful society - but that's my opinion, and certainly not a universal libertarian position.

I suppose that in making all of these arguments about how libertarians eschew collectivism, I'm being notably collectivist myself! But there is utility in looking at people in groups; it just depends on what your purposes are. If I want to understand the political philosophies of people, I may generalize over a large group in order to effect a model about how to categorize the schools of thought. These categories are arbitrary, and the membership in the groups are based on assumptions I've made and the distinctions I happen to have drawn. If one remembers that the discrimination occurs to effect an abstraction on the infinitely nuanced reality, then one can adopt and discard collective judgments according to an evenhanded view of the evidence.

I've determined, based on what I've read and experienced, that virtually all of the distinctions between the races in America end up coming down to either issues of culture and class, or they aren't genuine issues whatsoever. This is purely my opinion, and I don't argue that it has some special "truth" to it. One can certainly look at my radical individualist politics and infer a bias towards less collectivist models. That would be an entirely sound conclusion: it is contrary to my chosen view of the world to put primary emphasis on the categories to which people belong. Because I choose to hold that individuals are the fundamental sources of the social configuration, I see collectivist discriminations as a second-order deviation from the uniqueness of each person - and, unlike most people who may generally agree with that sentiment, I mean it.

The key point I'm making is that these categories comprise a model of the world that relies on the values and chosen priorities of the modeler. The unconscious premises and subconscious decisions have consequences, and they are worth analyzing - which is something libertarians do far too rarely, preferring to leave it "up to the individual" as if that's all there is to it. As staunch an individualist as I am, even I acknowledge that there are forces outside of the individual that exert influence.

For a racist in the traditional south, who grew up with all sorts of silly and ugly notions of black people, a model that looks at the population's racial differences as a significant data point is reasonable. It's not pleasant, and I don't believe it's an accurate model, but it is a rational conclusion from arbitrary (and incorrect, IMHO) premises, when the latter are left unquestioned. That's why I think libertarians need to go deeper than just talking about individualism in response to legitimate concerns about race in this country - the more we make these assumptions explicit, however uncomfortable they are, the more consistent our libertarianism. Yes, the bigot does have a right to bigoted, but he doesn't have the right to escape critique and examination by his fellow man. It's not just about him - there are trends in society that reinforce or play down his beliefs, and we can talk about them (incidentally, this is an area where I think a behavioral vocabulary could help).

Most troubling is the vulgar libertarian approach of seeing capitalism as the great liberator of peoples. In many cases, this has been true: rising standards of living, expanding markets, and less socially interventionist governments contribute to a levelling effect where racism otherwise remains the cultural status quo. But what's left out of this analysis is that capitalism achieves this outcome through an even larger collectivism. Noam Chomsky illustrates this alternative model that prescribes the new, homogeneous category we're being lumped into:

...Mass public education was introduced in the United States in the nineteenth century as a way of training the largely rural workforce here for industry -- in fact, the general population in the United States largely was opposed to public education, because it meant taking kids off the farms where they belonged and where they worked with their families, and forcing them into this setting in whcih they were basically trained to become industrial workers. That was a part of the whole transformation of American society in the nineteenth century, and that transformation is now taking place for the black population in South Africa -- which means for about 85 percent of the people there. So the white South African elites, and international investors generally, now need a workforce that is trained for industry, not just slaves for the mines. And that means they need people who can follow instructions, and read diagrams, and be managers and foremen, things like that -- so slavery is just not the right system for the country anymore, they need to move towards something more like what we have in the United States. And it's pretty much for that reason that the West has become anti-apartheid, and that the media will therefore tend to give anti-apartheid movements a decent press.

I mean, usually political demonstrations get very negative reporting in the United States, not matter what they're for, because they show that people can do things, that they don't just have to be passive and isolated -- and you're not supposed to have that lesson, you're supposed to think that you're powerless and can't do anything. So any kind of public protest typically won't be covered here, except maybe locally, and usually it will get very negative reporting; when it's protest agaisnt the policies of a favored U.S. ally, it always will. But in the case of South Africa, the reporting is quite supportive: so if people go into corporate shareholder meetings and make a fuss about disinvestment [withdrawing investments from South Africa to pressure its government], generally they'll get a favorable press these days.

Of course, its not that what they're doing is wrong -- what they're doing is right. But they should understand that the reason they're getting a reasonably favorable press right now is that, by this point, business regards them as its troops -- corporate executives don't really want apartheid in South Africa anymore. It's like the reason that business was willing to support the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. American business had no use for Southern apartheid, in fact it was bad for business.

See, capitalism is not fundamentally racist -- it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn't built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist -- just because its anti-human. And race is in fact a human characterstic -- there's no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangable cogs who will purchase all the junk that's produced -- that's their ultimate function, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevent, and usually a nuisance.

The vulgar libertarian argues that capitalism is individualist, and in some ways it is (selling brand identity as some way to "be different", or allowing a person more consumer choices). But it sells an individualism that has been pre-fabricated for a mass population and that fits in with its agenda and bottom line (it also uses privilege to achieve the bargaining position it holds with the individual, but that's better covered elsewhere). This mass population didn't "just happen" - it was carefully cultivated.

The primary motivation for corporate capitalism is to achieve a model of the population where people are fungible, both as workers and consumers. This allows for predictability in the economy and for central planning, promoting the continuous consolidation of capital and control that has informed the corporate agenda since its inception. Differences among the population then don't just become circumstances of the market - they are impediments to efficient and stable management and planning for the economic machine. Of course, the consolidation is never seen as the problem - the human beings are.

Whether or not capitalism is fighting against racism per-se, it isn't promoting individualism. One would expect a society that placed maximum emphasis on individuals to promote decentralization, greater self-sufficiency, and far more tolerance than we currently enjoy. An individualist order would break down along functional distinctions, as any useful model does - but those functions would be chosen on an individual-by-individual basis, and it's likely a thousand different agendas would emerge from this highly diverse population. By contrast, capitalism is blatantly hyper-collectivist, on par with those societies we've lamented in countless anti-communist polemics. Homogeneous populations are easier to sell to, easier to plan for, easier to control.

Race is not an important distinguishing characteristic between individuals, true. But there are other important distinguishing, human characteristics worth acknowledging, and they may or may not correlate with the ends of business because - surprise, surprise! - human life is deeper and more subtle than any commercial mindset can model. Distinctions are therefore drawn according to the agenda of the distinguishing agent - in other words, what is worth dividing people up by depends on what your purposes and beliefs are. When we discover the categories of population that are most useful to big business, the fact that capitalism largely ignores the variety of the population makes perfect sense. When the status quo accuses us of ignorance, provinciality, and general human flaws, simply because we don't buy into their monocultural domination, remember that they're not simply making a philosophic observation.

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Written on Monday, January 21, 2008