Anatomy of Collectivism: Social Body, Philosophical Collectivism, Institutional Collectivism, Communalism

Left-libertarians tend to use “collective” or “collectivism” in a number of distinct and perhaps idiosyncratic ways which could be confusing to someone new to the subject.  Below, I’ve tried to distinguish between the different types of collectives.  As far as I know, this subject has never been studied in-depth within the context of left-libertarianism.  I start with a simplest component of collectivism which is simply a group of people and then speak about whether these social bodies have an element which I’ll refer to as communal.  I then broach the subject of philosophical collectivism and ask whether left-libertarians adhere to the philosophy.  Last, and perhaps most importantly, I discuss what kinds of social bodies left-libertarians reject and advocate. 

Social Body

A “collective” is simply a group of people or a social body.  This can include things such as a family, workplace, town, village, association, sports team, friends, a free market, race, church, civic group, internet forum, school, creed, et cetera.  We are surrounded by collectives in our everyday life and the vast majority of people are a part of some type of collective.  People freely chose to join collectives because in many cases, they make life enriching, allow individuals to pursue their own goals, and give a sense of fraternity.  Collectives don’t just make individual lives healthier but enrich society as a whole.  For instance, one may choose to join an association that rebuilds homes for victims of a storm because they feel a deep desire to help others while also making personal connections.  At the same time, the homeowner receives the benefits while the neighborhood and community at large are rehabilitated. 

A social body can  be described by its size and the intensity of the relationships involved.  For instance, a family is a small collective involving very few individuals while the relationships can be said to be more intense, that is, the bond of the collective tends to be stronger.  Friendships tend to have more members but the intensity decreases slightly.  We can then move to the workplace and then on to neighborhood, to the community, to the region, to the nation, and finally the earth.  Recognizing the importance of this characteristic in social bodies is valued within left-libertarianism because it recognizes the individual first and that these individuals should have influence over the things that directly affect their life.  This simply means that the region isn’t prioritized over the individual but that the individual should affect the region. 

Communalism

There are times when left-libertarians use the term “collectivism” in the sense of communalism rather than a type of organization or a philosophical belief.  Sociologist Robert Putnam describes communalism as “social capital” as opposed to physical capital (tools, machines, computers, etc.).  He makes an analogy that “Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.”[i]  To make this clearer, Putnam is saying that social contacts don’t only allow for human flourishing but also allow for collective growth. 

Social bodies can be defined along a gradation from very communal to very fragmented.  What creates communalism in many cases is proximity and opportunity to communicate or affect others.  In a communal social body, members are tied to each other in some way which could be spiritual, ideological, locational, et cetera. Communalism can take many different forms such as fraternity where members share a common goal or a neighborhood community where members care for one another.  This should not be confused with group think for community and fraternity “does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future.  Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.”[ii]   

In a fragmented social body, members have very little in common and in many cases feel little or nothing toward other members.  For instance, we could say a small tightknit community is communal but a home located in suburban sprawl where members rarely interact could be said to be fragmented.  Left-libertarianism views communalism as being fundamental for human development and well-being.   People are social animals and we find meaning when we connect with others.  Research on the subject finds that social bonds have an effect on stress levels, personal happiness, mental states, and even physical health.  Communalism gives a sense of value, of belonging, well-being, and communalism helps us to achieve goals.   On the other hand, fragmented communities tend to lack social support, civic or community organizations, social bonds, and thereby create social alienation, ill health, isolation, and lack social engagement. 

One should always realize that there is a flip side to communalism and one should not overly praise or romanticize the subject.  Communalism has the ability to produce negative side-effects such as, create “in groups” and “out groups,” become ripe with gossip, and even produce hierarchical relationships.  Communalism isn’t necessarily a type of organization, so it isn’t something to reorganize and expel these negative occurrences.  All organizations can have negative qualities but there are techniques to overcome them.  One way of dealing with negative consequences is to allow members to express their concerns, dissatisfactions, beliefs, and air concerns of injustice.  These can be informal meetings and once members express these opinions, they tend to feel better while others can take action to correct the problem(s).  Secondly, there are groups that we could say are communal with fraternal ties such as the Church of Scientology and the KKK.  Just because a collective is communal doesn’t automatically mean they are a healthy part of society.  Left-libertarianism fights against groups that decay the well-being of the larger social body as I discuss later and in my last post on the Anatomy of Power and Authority. 

Philosophical Collectivism

Philosophical collectivism is the belief that one should submit themselves to a group or institution in the belief that the group’s goal should triumph or be superior to the individual.  All left-libertarians reject philosophical collectivism.  As Iain McKay explains, “the idea that individuals should sacrifice themselves for the “group” or “greater good” is nonsensical.  Groups are made up of individuals, and if people think only of what’s best for the group, the group will be a lifeless shell.  It is only the dynamics of human interaction within groups which give them life.”[iii]  At the same time, left-libertarians realize that all human action can have an effect on others, that groups are interdependent.  Interdependence means that humans are intricately tied not only to other members but the environment for our very survival.  As Kropotkin states, human beings have “a tendency towards the fullest freedom of the individual in the prosecution of all aims, beneficial both for himself and for society at large.”  In other words, what might be best for the individual can be healthy for society as a whole.  At the same time, what is good for society, might be good for the individual.  Therefore, the left-libertarian “considers society as an aggregation of organisms trying to find out the best ways of combining the wants of the individual with those of cooperation for the welfare of the species.” [iv]  While left-libertarians reject philosophical collectivism, they do realize that there are some legitimate aspects behind the ideas such as interdependence and that individuals can influence the whole and vice versa.   While left-libertarians reject philosophical collectivism, one should not automatically assume that they adhere to philosophical individualism because they ultimately reject both (this is a subject I’ll cover in another post).  It might be better to say that left-libertarianism synthesizes elements of both while discarding many of the negative aspects of philosophical individualism and collectivism. 

Institutional Collectivism

Left-libertarians are often accused of being philosophical collectivists.  One might sympathize with this misunderstanding because some left-libertarians refer to themselves as “libertarian-collectivists” and some refer to “collectivizing the workplace.”   However, whenever left-libertarians refer to “collectivism” or to “collectivize,” they are referring to institutional collectivism.  The word “collectivism” has become a tainted word, akin to Stalinism.  However, there are a number of types of organizational collectives that we’ll discuss below which have nothing to do with philosophical collectivism or state socialism. 

Organizational collectivism determines how the group or social body is internally organized.  There are three main collective organizations: authoritarian collectivism, self-management, and irrational collectivism.  These three organizations can also be said to have a corresponding feature with authoritarianism being centralized, self-management being decentralized, and irrational collectivism being fragmented.  Left-libertarians reject authoritarian collectivism and irrational collectivism and advocate self-management.  In each case, there is a distribution of power and the distribution of that power affects the dynamics and interactions of the individual’s within the organization.  Because each member is affected in some way, we can say that a particular organization have tendencies to produce certain traits within individuals.

Authoritarian collectivism:  The vast majority of organizations both in the US and around the world are based on authoritarian collectivism (sometimes called vertical collectivism).  If we were to use a diagram, they all use hierarchical pyramid where power is concentrated on the top.  There are two main features of the hierarchy.  First, all of these organizations are centralized with very few members at the top while the vast majorities below have little power.  Second, there tends to be a gradation of power.  At the lowest level of the hierarchy, individuals could be considered mere pawns and they tend to have larger numbers.  As we travel up the hierarchy, members gain more power but membership also decreases.  To move up the hierarchy (or ladder), one must conform to the wishes and orders of the people who sit at the summit of the hierarchy.  Let’s use the workplace as an example.  The owner(s) who sit on top of the pyramid are few in number (perhaps even one) and have the most power which is centralized.  Underneath them are top managers, also few in number but have gained a degree of power over the many.  They have gained their power because they conform and carry out the wishes of the people who sit at the summit of the pyramid.  However, one should realize that this power is simply delegated.  While managers do have some autonomy, their organizational function is to provide control because owner(s) can’t be in all places at all times.  In almost all cases, the majority, the pawns, just do as they are told.  Therefore people on the top can then use social coercion to control its members.  When members do not conform, punishments are used to make members comply.  Other organizations that use authoritarian collectivism are the military, police, sports teams, educational system, most non-profits, government, capitalism, organized religion, et cetera.  Simply put, almost all of our existing organizations are based on authoritarian collectivism. 

One byproduct of authoritarian collectivism is that hierarchy creates bureaucracy.   Bureaucracy can be defined as “the existence of some kind of specialized administrative staff.”[v]  As Kathleen P. Iannelo argues, “hierarchy is the key component of bureaucracy, around which channels of authority, systems of communication, and performance guidelines have developed.”[vi]  Not only should we consider politicians as bureaucrats but clerics, managers, teachers, CEOs, et cetera.   

As stated above, members toward the bottom tend to have certain traits while members at the top remain exempt.  For instance, because members lack autonomy and knowledge, they tend to be prone to paternalism, group think, collective guilt, collective identity, alienation, blind trust, nationalism, et cetera.  For instance, the lack of autonomy and knowledge means that one must constantly rely on superiors who don’t lack autonomy and knowledge.  As Max Weber says, “Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge.”  One of the many reasons for this is that information and commands become directional.  With a hierarchy, the information starts from the top and makes its way down.  An autocrat makes the decisions and they make those decisions in their own self-interest without joint action.  In essence, one has entered into a parent/child relationship.  In order to act, one has to be told what to do and how to do it because they become reliant on superiors.  Not only does information and knowledgeable tend to be directional but so does resources such as wealth, money, power, prestige, and privilege.  While information and knowledge may flow down authoritarian collectivism is a distributional structure where resources, wealth, money, power, prestige, and privilege tend to flow toward the top. 

Rarely do subjects within the organization question these relationships because the organizations themselves have become normalized.  This type of relationship can create a servant identity without critical thought.   In many cases, the superior establish a relationship that becomes internalized by the subject.  By internalization, I mean the subject has come to psychologically integrate particular social norms, beliefs, attitudes, opinions which then cause them to carry out particular behaviors.  The military epitomizes such an organization.  However, workplaces, organized religion, states, patriarchy, sports teams, and education all suffer from these deficiencies.  We can now see a clear flow:

Group –> distribution of power (distributed and centralized at the top) -> Vertical –> Authoritarian –> Bureaucratic –> Servant Identity 

We start with a social body (a group of people) and the type of organization that internally distributes power.  In a vertical collective, power is distributed and centralized toward the top with fewer members having most of the social power.   We have now established an authoritarian collective.   As a byproduct of having a vertical relationship, we create bureaucracy.  Members then tend to internalize certain traits such as paternalism, lack of autonomy, and can become prone to group think, alienation, and blind trust. 

Irrational Collectivism:   An irrational collective is a group of people where members lack sufficient knowledge to make decisions.  Decisions that are made tend to have unwanted consequences that are externalized without the full knowledge of the individual.  We can also say that an irrational collective is fragmented since information tends to be lacking or nonexistent and power tends to move haphazardly.  The classic example of an irrational collective is the movie theater on fire but these cases are rare.  A more popular example of irrational collectivism is pollution.  What happens at the micro level (the individual) might be perfectly rational but at the macro scale could be completely irrational.  For instance, the individual alone has very minimal impact on the environment but collectively they could destroy every species on earth including themselves.  Irrational collectivism is also prevalent in the case of the stock market.  We have thousands of people, none of which have sufficient knowledge who make major decisions.  At the individual level, it might be rational to move money from the stock market but if everyone does it, it leads to collapse.   This also applies to individuals who save.  One person saving is fine and highly rational but when huge numbers of people do the same thing, you could have a lack of demand which can cause businesses to fail throughout the economy.  We can say that such instances produce a paradox because the assumption is that what benefits at small scales (the individual) will be duplicated at larger scales (society) when the opposite might be the case. 

A free market is another irrational collective because individuals participating have very little knowledge what they are doing.  One of the reasons for this is that products tend to function within a web of other companies.  For instance, you could buy a purse not realizing that it came from a pre-industrial country where a 13 year old girl was locked into a sweatshop and can’t escape the work conditions or country because her passport had been taken by the company.  The leather that was used to make the purse comes from poorly treated cattle from Brazil where clear cutting of forest where used for grazing to pay off national debt by corrupt politicians.  The machines that are used to assemble purses where made from a mine in Colombia where workers experience harassment and threats from death squads just for asking for safer conditions, more pay or trying to freely associate.  What the individual consumer might not realize when they buy the purse is that they are contributing, in fact, propelling and solidifying such organizations and institutions.  They lack knowledge or even the ability to gain access to knowledge to know such information and are therefore externalizing those costs onto society.  This barely touches surface because we are talking about entire webs where thousands of interconnected parts are functioning within layers of unaccountable companies that keep information private. 

Decision making is heavily affected by irrational collectivism and people are much more likely to make immoral or anti-social decisions.  “Prof. Dr. Armin Falk from the University of Bonn and Prof. Dr. Nora Szech from the University of Bamberg, both economists, have shown in an experiment that markets erode moral concerns. In comparison to non-market decisions, moral standards are significantly lower if people participate in markets.”[vii]  The new research on the subject is starting to show that individuals “ignore their own moral standards when acting as market participants, searching for the cheapest electronics, fashion or food.”   Members within the market may be against child labor, sweat shops, pollution, animal cruelty but these moral obligations may fall to the side once the effected member becomes a third party.  In other words, out of sight, out of mind.  Interestingly enough, the idiom “out of sight, out of mind” describes irrational collectivism perfectly because “out of sight” implies a lack of knowledge and “out of mind” describes insanity or irrationality. 

Just as members of an authoritarian collective can have certain attributes so can members within an irrational collective.  These organizations tend to incentivize irresponsibility because those who act to their own benefit fail to see the consequences of doing so.  An example is the individual who is morally opposed to pollution but benefits from driving.  This type of organization can also produce alienation because members rarely act in fraternal or communal ways.  While these organizations might be called disorganized, order usually emerges from such chaos.  However, the results are usually unpredictable while there tends to be negative consequences.  Although, it should be mentioned that at times, there can be progress to emerge.  Let’s look again at the flow from the social body to its repercussions.

Group –> distribution of power (lumpy results) –> Irrational –> Emergence

We start with a group of people who are usually acting with little knowledge and in many cases work in their own self-interest.  There is a distribution of power, but that distribution tends to be “lumpy,” scattered, and unpredictable.  We now have an irrational collective which lacks centralization and information can be said to be fragmented.  From the chaos of such an organization, order usually emerges although in many cases with unwanted consequences.  Members of such organization tend to be irresponsible, disorganized, confused, act in their own self-interest, and fail to see their own irrational behavior or the consequences they produce. 

Self-Management:  The last organizational collective I’ll cover is self-management.  In a self-managed organization, all members share the same amount of power while information tends to be freely available to all members.  This means that the organization can be said to be horizontal because it lacks hierarchy.  This type of horizontal organization of the social body encourages freedom, autonomy to work on their own projects, and open sharing of ideas.  In order to distribute power evenly, each member has a say either by consensus decision making or by the vote.  Because members are equals, they tend to have stronger social bonds and fraternity grows throughout the group.  Examples of self-management are many friendships because they don’t have a hierarchy but also lack the disorganization of irrational collectivism.  No one member of a group controls the rest by threat of non-compliance (at least in a healthy relationship) and individuals are encouraged to participate while fulfilling the needs of the group.  Another example of a horizontal organization would be workers’ self-management.  With workers’ self-management, all members of a firm have equal ownership in the company.   One of the main features of self-management is that the entire organization is transparent which is different from authoritarian collectivism where information is usually hidden and irrational collectivism where information is too fragmented to make sense.  Self-management allows individuals to make informed decisions without relying on distorted or insufficient knowledge.  In order to make clear and concise decisions, information needs to be known and transparent.  Those affected should be the ones to decide what to do with that information. 

Unlike authoritarian collectivism and irrational collectivism, self-managed members have more autonomy, have access to information, share power, lack feelings of alienation, make self-directed goals, and use their own critical thought.  At the same time, creativity, individuality, self-actualization, empowerment, fraternity, and well-being flourish in this environment.  With that said, we should also use precaution.  One should not assume that self-managed groups can’t fall into group think or even have some of the negative attributes of irrational and authoritarian collectivism.  Left-libertarians are not utopians.  Self-managed groups are based on the decisions of people which means you can’t predict or even model how they will function.  It is only in the real world can these experiments be tried as they have in the past.  Negative elements will crop up from time to time so it is important to confront these issues.

Group –> distribution of power (power is distributed evenly to all members) -> Horizontal –> Self-management –> Rational Fraternity 

Self-management is the social body where power is evenly divided among all members making the organization horizontal, transparent, and a tendency for stronger bonds between individuals.  These groups tend to be more rational and fraternal while creativity, autonomy, self-directness and well-being are maximized.

Conclusion

There are two other types of collectivism which I’ve chosen not to mention here because they merit a much longer discussion.  The first is methodological collectivism and the second is collectivization of land or resources.  As one can readily see, the word “collective” can have a number of meanings depending on the context.  To conclude, left-libertarians recognize that social groups do gather and people join them freely in order to accomplish their own goals.  Humans are social animals; communal relationships are not only healthy but mandatory for well-being.  Left-libertarians desire to minimize fragmented organizations because they tend to foster alienation, loneliness, helplessness, anti-social behavior, and don’t allow individuals to fulfill their own self-interest.  Left-libertarians also reject philosophical collectivism because no one should submit themselves to the goals of the powerful, privileged, the organization, or hive mind.  Only when individuals have full autonomy do they make groups more vibrant and purposeful. 

Left-libertarianism rejects authoritarian collectivism because it restricts human action, produces paternalism, dumbs people down, creates an unnecessary bureaucratic class which wastes resources, and has negative effects on individuals.  Irrational collectivism is also rejected because information becomes fragmented while individuals make decisions that have unwanted consequences that are not obvious.  Left-libertarians believe that self-management is a better type of organization because it mitigates the negative effects authoritarian collectivism such as alienation and paternalism and allows decisions to be made by those affected.  Self-management also deters the negative aspects of irrational collectivism such as having a lack of knowledge and acting irrationally.  Self-management produces what might be considered positive human qualities such as autonomy, critical thought, creativity, self-realization, and well-being. 


Notes

[i] Putnam, R. D. (2001). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. (1st ed., p. 19). New York: Simon and Schuster.

[ii] Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion. (1st ed. ed., p. 189). New York: Routledge.

[iii] McKay, I. (2008). An anarchist faq. (p. 43). Oakland: AK Press.

[iv] Kropotkin, P. (2002). Anarchist communism: Its basis and principles. In Dover Ed edition (Ed.), Anarchism A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (2 ed., p. 47). Mineola: Dover Publications.

[v] Richard, S. W. (1981). Organizations. (p. 4). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

[vi] Iannello, K. P. (1992). Decision without hierarchy: Feminist interventions in organization theory and practice. (p. 26). New York: Routledge, Champman and Hall.

[vii] von Johannes Seiler, E. (2013). Markets erode moral values . Unpublished raw data, Department of Economics, Retrieved from http://www3.uni-bonn.de/Press-releases/markets-erode-moral-values

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