These days, when we think about collectivism vs individualism, we do so in terms of left vs right. However, painting the ideologies as simply being left vs. right assumes that one is correct and the other isn't.
Instead, ideologies aren’t so much right or wrong as they are well-suited to certain points in time. As society changes, so too do the ideologies best suited to it. For example, individualism was a reaction to the technological changes of the Industrial Revolution.
Thus, as humanity evolves, so do the reality of which ideologies can best serve us.
So, the question is, which one is best suited for our current situation?
It’s hardwired into our DNA. Even from a young age, we know we can accomplish more with someone else than we can by ourselves. Moreover, the survival of our species depended on our ability to work together. Without high levels of cooperation, we never would have made it out of the jungle. There were just too many things that could kill an individual.
Even after civilization developed and we moved into towns, the world was still a very dangerous place. Threats like war, disease, and famine kept pushing us along the path of collectivism and, for millennia, a person’s worth was only what they could contribute to their direct community. There wasn’t much attention paid to personal development.
But that all changed with the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution and the technologies it brought with it, radically changed humanity. One of its most influential features was giving ordinary people the ability to amass huge fortunes and the power that comes with it.
No longer was a person's worth dependent upon what they could contribute to their superiors. Rather, a system was now in place whereby, the more an individual developed themself, the bigger the influence they could have on society.
It quickly became obvious that the more you empower the individual, the better shot you have at unlocking the full potential of society. Thus, over about 100 years from the middle of the 18th century, individualism rose as a political and social philosophy to describe and support the new reality that the world was seeing.
Over time, individualism became gospel and the idea of someone willingly surrendering any of their newly guaranteed rights for the good of society became one of our biggest taboos.
Unfortunately, it’s also our Achilles heel.
The problem with individualism is that it limits what our species can accomplish.
While humanity hasn’t faced an existential threat in a longtime, technological advances mean that we are quickly becoming a threat to ourselves. From artificial intelligence to genetic engineering, or even climate change, the future promises many threats that will require us to cooperate in order to get a good outcome.
Beyond threats though, humanity can achieve far more if we pool our resources. Any civilization that hopes to even reach Type 1 on the Kardashev scale, will first have to act in a highly collective way. However, if we do, the possibilities for our advancement are endless.
As it stands, if the whims of the individual keep getting more weight than the needs of society, then not only will we fail to achieve great things, we might end up killing ourselves first anyway.
Just as the Industrial Revolution took us from collectivism to individualism, the pendulum will swing back the other way as technology gets more advanced.
Unfortunately, if the response to COVID restrictions is anything to go by, that transition will be as painful as it is necessary. After all, for the past 200 years we have been told that individual rights are sacred. Yet, while the empowered individual has, and will continue to be, humanity’s biggest asset, there is an upper limit to what society can achieve with a purely individualistic mindset.
This is true not only in terms of safety from threats, but also in the general progress of our species. Just like in the Stone Age, we can accomplish more if we work together.
So, as time goes by, and we see what our species is really capable of, human beings are going to have to evolve in the way we view society and our role in it. Otherwise, our forward progress will stop and, if we’re not going up, then the force of gravity will quickly take over.
What's more important, the survival of the species or the fulfillment of the individual?