To be radical, we must reject collectivist ideas outright.
Something is rotten in the state of American politics. On both left and right, an old idea is making its way back into vogue. On the right, nationalist and quasi-fascistic politics, the old school us-versus-them thinking that once came neatly packaged in black-and-red armbands over Hugo Boss-designed uniforms worn by goose-stepping soldiers, are back. On the left, socialism, Marxism and associated dogmas are coming back, all with talk of empowerment rather than of gulags and concentration camps. But all of this is essentially one idea: collectivism.
There is precisely one thing that ties together each of the most abhorrent political systems in the world. Fascism, communism, the Indian caste system, mercantilism and the chattel slavery it engendered, ultranationalism, religious extremism, the worst excesses of socialism and of course unfettered markets, which will inevitably lead to some form of monopolization and the creation of a ruling class: they’re all pages of the same book that goes on and on, reappearing in new, ever-shifting forms as part of a multi-faceted assemblage of horrors. Each of these systems relies on the human vice of groupthink: the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, us versus them, one religion against another, one race against all others. These systems rule by putting people into groups, by establishing subsets to society and the polis.
The most galling part of these new — or rather, quite old — ideologies is that they are presented as “radical.” These concepts, fomented in the collectivist Apollyon, are in fact fundamentally un-radical. They are old ideas that have been tried and tested time and again. Radicalism comes with fresh thought, and these belief systems had their day decades ago. We do not need to revive these ghosts. But of course, more explanation is needed.
Collectivism is inherently antithetical to radicalism, insofar as “radicalism” can be taken to mean “those ideas that seek greater wellbeing for the bulk of society through large-scale systemic change.” Collectivism, based as it is upon groups and attendant groupthink, can never be, in any of its various pernicious forms, a truly radical ideology, since it always rests upon creating benefits not first for the individual as a unit within society but instead through a top-down approach of various social groupings. The old saying that “a Marxist is someone who loves humanity in groups of one million or more” is in fact well-applied to all schools of collectivist thought, which by their nature tend toward utilitarian outlooks and disregard the needs of individuals.
Almost all collectivist ideologies are guilty of extreme cruelty in one way or another. The violence of fascism is well-documented; the racist violence perpetrated in society after society also is well known (if not well known enough). More easily forgotten by today’s left are the untold millions who have died at the hands of Marxist-inspired regimes. Marxism-Leninism, of course, got its start with the murder of innocent children in a country house in 1918. The Soviet regime’s next 70 years were little more than an extended riff on that theme, with as many as 61 million dying under the rule of Joseph Stalin alone.
So what is “radical” in the 21st century? An actual reimagining of social structure would not be collectivist in the slightest. In fact, to overthrow an existing social order, one would have to reject collectivist ideas and reimagine the political reality around a different construct. And that means empowering individuals; collectivism and empowerment are antonyms. It is not possible to empower individuals within a society when the extant system is more focused on accumulating a collective power. To focus wholeheartedly on improving the lives of all — as a statistic, as a collective, as a union — is, inherently, to improve the lives of none, for only individualized thinking and government that focuses on the empowerment of individuals can do that.
Rejecting the sort of ideology that treats individuals as statistics in favor of one that treats us each as a person, with unique needs and desires, and focuses on empowering each individual would mean treating all groups — from a high school group project to the state itself, and everything in between — as essentially legal and social fictions, minor things designed to expedite the process of empowering individuals.
This means organizing a state that provides its citizens with a freedom to shape their own lives, to make their own choices. It means creating a culture that fosters the opportunities to grow and develop. It would reject both the right-collectivist demands that the economy ought to be ungoverned — which necessarily creates monopolies and the domination of various cabals — and the left-collectivist clamoring for a state that ought to itself shape the market, creating a system by which individuals cannot chart their own courses.
Radicalism means the creation of a society in which each person has the potential to chart their own course, free of the obligations of pre-imposed groups. That means a society that ensures basic needs are met in some form, not because it is kind or good in the abstract but because it is necessary for individuals in the here and now, so that they may better build their own lives to fullness as they see fit. Collectivism, in its various forms, calls on many things to be strong: strong markets that lead to the creation of a privileged elite; a strong state to manage the lives of its citizens; strong tribes and nations to assure the rise and power of demographic groups; and so on. But a radical society would reform, focusing instead on creating one empowered entity: the individual.
So perhaps we can call this radicalism of the 21st century, though the joke is a sour one that references an authoritarian socialist regime still in full swing. Perhaps, instead, it can be called eleuthrism, from ἐλεύθερος, meaning “free” in both a civil and moral sense.