Collectivism is an important concept in both economics and politics. Similar to individualism it is a foundational principle to understand many different ideological systems. At its heart, collectivism is a set of principles centered on the belief in the idea that the goal of any society is to achieve the best common good for all or most citizens. This means, that economic or political systems based on the principles of collectivism favor policies that allow for a high degree of government intervention in the economy in order to promote the greatest good for most people.
On the economic or political spectrums, collectivism is positioned on the left side. This is because the left side of the spectrum is most often associated with a high degree of government intervention in both economic and political affairs. Therefore, people who support the principles of collectivism argue in favor of cooperation among citizens. This means that they support the idea that citizens in a given country should pool their resources and cooperate in order to deliver social programs and services that benefit all or most people. Economically, this would mean that people should be able to rely on the government for programs such a welfare, public education, public healthcare and senior pensions. Collectivism is best associated with the ideology of socialism which developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As such, it is generally agreed that collectivism is made up of several different main principles, including:
- Economic Equality
- Public Ownership
- Government Regulation
HISTORY OF COLLECTIVISM
Just as the ideas of individualism developed during the time period of the Age of Enlightenment, so too did the values and principles of collectivism. For example, the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed the idea of collectivism in his famous work ‘The Social Contract’. In it, Rousseau argued against the idea of class divisions in society and the idea that people should be guided by self-interest alone. Instead, he believed that each individual has a social contract with the rest of the people in society that requires them to consider the collective-interest of the group.
Similar to Rousseau, Thomas Hobbes also argued in favor of the concept of a social contract in society. Hobbes was a British philosopher who lived through the brutality of the English Civil War. During this time, he came to believe that basic human nature was evil and greedy. He argued that people were guided by self-interest that when left unchecked resulted in violence and death. As such, his understanding of the social contract was that individuals in society give up some of their freedom to a strong central authority in order to remain safe. He argued in favor of an absolute monarch in society with that belief that the monarchs job was to maintain order and security. In fact, he famously stated that without a strong government to maintain security, the life of individuals would be “nasty, brutish and short”. In his famous work ‘Leviathan’ he also stated that “…during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man”. Hobbes’ arguments are considered to be rooted in collectivism because he was essentially promoting the collective security of society over the individual rights and freedoms of the citizen. As such, he was more concerned with the common good of society as a whole than the impact it had on individual people.
Collectivism further developed in the 19th century with the ideas and writings of Karl Marx. Marx is one of the most influential philosophers of the last two centuries. His writings inspired revolutions in several countries and are still used today in support of worker’s rights and other socialist principles. His ideas are often associated with the timeframe of the Industrial Revolution since he witnessed and expressed concern for the horrible working conditions of the period. For example, his most famous work ‘The Communist Manifesto’ was first published in 1848, during the height of the Industrial Revolution, and was highly critical of the failings of capitalism, such as: child labor, income gaps, lack of workers’ rights, etc. Instead, Marx argued that working-class people should unite and collectively own and operate the businesses to avoid being exploited by the wealthy owners of the time. This was an important contribution to collectivism as an ideology because Marx was supporting the ideas of collective interest, economic equality and public ownership. Essentially, he was arguing against right wing ideologies such as capitalism and classical liberalism and wanted a classless society to replace it based on collective principles.
As a result of Marx’s ideas, the ideologies of the 19th century drastically transformed to include more collectivist ideas. For instance, different socialist ideologies emerged at the time in response to the perceived failings of classical liberalism and the hardships it was causing for working-class people. These socialist systems include: Marxism, Communism, Democratic Socialism and Utopian Socialism. Each had a profound impact on the world and even led to dramatic revolutions in certain parts of the world, such as: Cuba, North Korea, China, and Russia.
As well, modern democratic countries were impacted by the rise of socialist ideologies. For example, during the events of the Great Depression, the United States transformed its economy to include more collectivist elements. The Great Depression in the United States began in 1929 with the stock market crash and continued throughout the rest of the 1930s until World War II began in 1939. It was characterized by years of high unemployment and a lack of consumer spending. As well, the events of the Dust Bowl worsened life for many working-class people and farmers. Similar to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression was characterized by a period of time in which working-class people struggled. As a result, governments around the world, including the United States, tried to end the crisis by intervening in the economy to create programs to end the recession and get people back to work. For example, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt intervened in the economy with the creation of the New Deal.
The New Deal was a series of government initiatives and programs aimed at ending the economic devastation of the Great Depression. Many historians agree that the New Deal included two distinct stages. The First New Deal occurred from 1933, when Roosevelt took office until 1934, and focused on issues related to banking. The Second New Deal occurred from 1935 until 1938 and focused on several important programs including the Social Security Act. In general, Roosevelt’s plan was for the federal government to spend money in an attempt to achieve three goals: economic recovery, job creation, and investment in public works projects. The policies of the New Deal had a profound effect on the United States and created several different programs that are still in existence today. These social programs are considered to be examples of collectivist principles, such as collective-interest, public ownership and economic equality. For example, the Social Security Act established old age pensions, unemployment insurance and benefits for the disabled and dependent children. This idea of federally-funded social assistance programs emerged out of the New Deal and continues today. This was a dramatic change for the United States, which had previously been based more on principles of individualism and caused the country to shift more towards the center of the economic spectrum and towards modern liberalism. Over the next 80 years, many more social-assistance programs were created, but they were generally built upon the foundation of the Social Security Act of 1935. The emergence of federally-funded social assistance programs fundamentally changed the political landscape of the United States for several decades following the Great Depression.
MAIN PRINCIPLES OF COLLECTIVISM
As stated above, there are several main principles of collectivist societies, including: economic equality, public ownership, cooperation, collective-interest, economic equality and government regulation. These principles emerged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in response to the earlier development of capitalism. As such, most historians view the advent of collectivism as an attempt by some societies to correct issues related to ideologies on the right-side of the economic spectrum. Ideologies based on collectivist values include: Communism, Marxism, and Socialism. As well, some modern democratic countries contain elements of collectivism while also maintaining some individualistic principles. Economists consider these societies to be examples of a mixed economy, welfare state or modern liberalism.
Public ownership is a central principle of collectivism. It is the idea that the government should have the ability to own property, which could include: land, businesses, products, ideas, etc. For example, in the Soviet Union (Communist Russia) the government owned the means of production. This was especially apparent in the collectivization plan that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin carried out during the 1930s in the Ukraine. It involved the government assuming ownership of previously privately owned farms. A central argument for government ownership is the idea that the government should ensure the continuation of an essential service. The hope is that public ownership of the business will help control prices for average consumers while also providing a service that, if it failed, would be harmful to the citizens of the country. As well, from a Marxist perspective, public ownership was seen as positive because it could potentially help prevent exploitation of the workers at the hand of wealthy business owners.
Cooperation is another important principle of collectivism. It is the idea that citizens in a country should work towards a common goal rather than competing against each other. It is similar to another collectivist principle which is collective-interest. It is the idea that a society should act, economically, in the interest of all people for the common good. For instance, collectivist societies would support the idea that the government should fund and operate social programs that are in the best interest of most, if not all people. A social program is a government-funded and program that is, in general, universally provided to all citizens of the country. As such, it involves both cooperation and collective-interest because citizens are cooperating in order to provide a service or program that will benefit most or all people in society. There are many examples of social programs in modern democratic nations, including: old age pensions, some form of government funded healthcare, public education, welfare, etc. For example, countries such as Canada, the United States and England offer public education to citizens of their countries. The idea is that a basic education for all citizens is in the collective-interest of the country as a whole and not just for individual people. For example, public education allows low income citizens to afford to send their children to school and receive a similar education to others in the same country. Truly collectivist societies, such as Cuba, also display cooperation and collective-interest in the creation and maintenance of their publically-funded healthcare system.
The final principle of collectivism is government regulation to ensure the equitable distribution of income. It is the idea that the government has a role to play in the economy in terms of solving issues related to wages and income gaps. Economists refer to this as ‘economic equality’ because it involves the government trying to create more equality among people in society in terms of their income. For example, at different times in history, such as the Industrial Revolution or the Great Depression, there has been wide income gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners. Some economists have argued that a wide income gap was one of the main causes of the Great Depression. Governments across North America and Europe have sought to solve this issue through government regulation. For instance, minimum wage laws were created to protect working class citizens from being taken advantage of by wealthy owners. The idea was that the government should set a minimum wage such that those earning the lowest amounts in society are still able to take care of the basic necessities of life. While this may not always be true, minimum wage laws show the government’s attempt to increase the equitable distribution of in come in society through government influence and intervention in the economy. This idea was also an important element of the writings of Karl Marx in ‘The Communist Manifesto’. For example, Marx famously stated: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. In this quote, Marx is arguing for economic equality because he believes that society should take from those with a strong ability and provide for all citizens. As such, most societies that are based on Marxist values believe in some form of redistributing the income of society to prevent issues related to poverty and homelessness.