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This question has more to do with ideology then philosophy but something seems off in terms of logic.

The Oxford dictionary defines collectivism as:

  • "The practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it".
  • "The ownership of land and the means of production by the people or the state, as a political principle or system".

This is clearly understood in politics when imagining how the will of the group or state was imposed on the individual in the Soviet Union.

However, the first definition could describe the behaviour involved when an employee is fired to save the "greater good" of a company and the second definition would correspond with a cooperative in terms of ownership.

So one distinction seems to lie solely on ownership and in drawing a parallel with the Soviet Union it is not clear if companies actually belonged to the people as the government may have acted out of the will of a single person or small.

This in turn leads to a more subtle distinction in terms of intent which is something which can be difficult to determine.

Are there any flaws in reasoning here?

  • Why is this a philosophy question, as opposed to a political one? – Joseph Weissman Dec 19 '16 at 15:31
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    This is an interesting question, but can you please recast it so that it invites objective philosophical answers? – Alexander S King Dec 19 '16 at 19:15
  • @JosephWeissman the question is missing the logic tag which was removed by Eliran H. What I actually want to know is with respect to any flaws in reasoning. – James P. Dec 19 '16 at 20:36
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    Israel is a capitalist economy that has kibbutzes, collective "utopian communities, a combination of socialism and Zionism", which participate in it. – Conifold Dec 20 '16 at 1:33
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    @Conifold I don't think that the OP meant "within" in the way that Kibbutzes operate in Israel - I think he meant to say "Why is it collectivism when the state is enforcing it, but not collectivism when mega-corporations enforce it?" – Alexander S King Dec 20 '16 at 20:58
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There can be different responses to your question, depending on which definition from the Oxford dictionary you go with.


Based on the first definition:

"The practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it".

"Collectivism" isn't synonymous with "Communism" or "Socialism" nor is it antynomous with "Capitalism" - all of which are economic systems. On the other hand "Collectivism" would be a stance on human rights, ethics and social norms, and should be contrasted with "Libertarianism" or with "Individualism", not with the above mentioned economic systems.

From this point of view both Soviet style communism, and excessive forms of capitalism where large corporate interest impose lifestyle and economic choices on hapless individuals are both collectivist - whether the entity doing the coercion is a government actor or a private corporate interest doesn't really matter.

In fact many leftists and socialist thinkers saw themselves as opposing the collectivism imposed by capitalism.

Marx for example saw the division of labor as a limitation of freedom imposed by the capitalist mode of production: Capitalism force people to be either doctors, or bus drivers, or coal miners, or musicians, etc...whereas in a communist society people would be free to engage in whichever activities they please. In the The German Ideology (1845) he states that:

...while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Similarly Adorno and Horkheimer, in The Culture Industry saw Capitalism as imposing a unified artistic aesthetic on society, a factory produced bland art that is used to deceive the masses, while legitimate "high" art needs to be free and creative to satisfy human psychological needs.

I have also heard of capitalists who argued that collectivism is a good thing, but then went on a step further by claiming that capitalism is better at achieving collectivism than socialism is, by allowing any individuals to purchase shares in corporations through the stock market, and through things such as employee stock ownership plans. I don't remember the reference for this, but it might have been mentioned in this interview with Herbert Marcuse.

So the direct answer to your question is: Based on the first definition, there is no distinction between collectivism as it applies to communism or to capitalism. Whether collectivism is good or bad, it can be the result of both communism/socialism and of capitalism.


Based on the second definition:

"The ownership of land and the means of production by the people or the state, as a political principle or system".

Based on this definition, it seems that superficially that both communism and capitalism where the rights of large corporations take precedence of the rights of individuals amount to forms of collectivism.

A libertarian defender of (free-market) Capitalism, such as Robert Nozick or Ayn Rand, can argue that nonetheless, Capitalism does preserve individual freedom where socialism/communism don't in the following way:

  • In communist and socialist systems the workers don't have any choices. They are constantly coerced by the government and by restrictive labor laws and union rules (For example in many socialist countries, you are not allowed to just resign from your job, you have to have give several months notice, and your management has to approve your departure). In a capitalist system on the other hand, the worker is free at any time to leave the company if he doesn't like conditions he is working in (Of course he will likely starve to death, but he is doing so of his own free will).
  • In communist and socialist systems, the will of the individual is sacrificed to the "greater good". In capitalist systems, individual workers are sacrificed for the good of the shareholders who also happen to be themselves individuals, i.e. capitalism does focus on individual rights, it's just that is focused on the individual rights of shareholders not the individual rights of workers, and as mentioned above those workers freely entered into contractual agreements with their employers, nobody ever forced them into anything.

So the libertarian will argue that the capitalist system is not collectivist insofar as it protects individual ownership and property rights, which are the only rights that really matter.

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The Soviet Union,and other socialist societies such as the current North Korean regime and National Socialist Germany, legitimised their crimes by referring to collectives like the proletariat or the Volk or the party. Such societies also did not give much latitude to individuals to own and run businesses, societies, clubs etc. Rather such organisations were spied ostensibly to check whether they served the state or society.

In reality, a group does not have interests over and above those of its members. People make decisions and hold ideas and values, and set up groups to serve those values. In the Soviet Union, the government acted in the interests of government officials. Government officials would pursue their own hobby horses, e.g. - murdering their enemies by persecuting them as kulaks. This disregard fort the rights of the officials' victims was excused by collectivism. Collectivist ideas also made it more difficult to understand that the government in those countries was a gang of murderers and thieves.

In a capitalist society, people running a business, club etc can run it explicitly in their own self interest. They don't have to lie about their reasons for acting. The society we live in now is a very flawed realization of capitalism as illustrated by the fact that people do have to mouth various platitudes and take some actions to keep the government from persecuting them, e.g. -conforming to environmental regulations, mandates to provide loans to people who can't pay them and so on.

You write:

However, the first definition could describe the behaviour involved when an employee is fired to save the "greater good" of a company and the second definition would correspond with a cooperative in terms of ownership.

In a capitalist society, the company consists of a group of people cooperating for mutual benefit. If one member of the company acts in a way that makes such cooperation impossible, then it is in the individual self interest of the members of the company to stop associating with him and paying him, i.e. - to fire him. This is entirely compatible with individual rights for all of the people concerned. The alternative to being able to fire somebody is to be forced to associate with him and give him stuff, which violates freedom of association and property rights. So firing somebody from a company can be undertaken for individualist reasons.

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  • the company consists of a group of people cooperating for mutual benefit. If one member of the company acts in a way that makes such cooperation impossible What if that member did everything possible to cooperate for mutual benefit and still got fired :p ? Or an individual outside of the company sees their rights given second priority to that of the company? – James P. Dec 21 '16 at 18:09
  • > What if that member did everything possible to cooperate for mutual benefit and still got fired :p ? In that case the company and the person aren't a good fit for each other and should go their separate ways. > Or an individual outside of the company sees their rights given second priority to that of the company? I don't know what rights you are talking about specifically. But if they are rights to control your own person and property and a company violates those rights then some or all of its members may have criminal liability. – alanf Dec 22 '16 at 10:25
  • Look no further then the great recession which bumped up Euro area debt by 20%. This and this are perhaps examples of the incredible "collateral damage" that too-big-too-fails have wrought. If Milgram had been alive today he might have wondered if the results of his obedience to authority experiment applied in an economic context. – James P. Dec 23 '16 at 4:30
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    Too big to fail (TBTF) is an example of a group getting priority over individual rights. In a capitalist society, a company would only be able to get money or other goods by offering goods or services people would voluntarily trade for what the company wants. TBTF involves companies getting money taken without consent. Tax money is taken without your consent: if you don't pay the govt will fine you, lock you up etc. Inflation and credit expansion use legal tender laws that force you to take govt money. So TBTF is an anti-capitalist policy. – alanf Dec 30 '16 at 9:40
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    On the occasions when we have got close to a free market in money banks have accepted currency made by other banks for their customers' convenience. See books like "Good Money" by George Selgin and Lawrence White's book on Free Banking in Britain iea.org.uk/publications/research/…. Legal tender means you can't sue if somebody pays in legal tender, even if you don't think the legal tender currency is no good and don't want to accept it. – alanf Jan 3 '17 at 9:24

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