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Collectivism vs. individualism

Is it important to orientate a society according to common goals and values? Or should everyone have extensive freedom, also at the expense of social interests?

Collectivism vs. individualism

"Modern societies can only exist if there is a healthy balance between collectivism and individualism."

Sociologist Grigori Judin

No, there was no outcry in the Alpine republic when Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz spoke in his speech to the world World Economic Forum Early 2020, between the lines indicated a crucial system change. Scattered, short press releases without further explanations, a few statements from NGOs - that's it. Since the beginning of the year, Kurz's declaration of war on collectivism has applied, which, according to him, has only brought one thing: "... suffering, hunger and unbelievable misery." European value system. Because shortly speaks "collectivism", it makes it sound like "communism", but rather wishes for "neoliberalism" (see regarding climate here).

"I think we all have to be careful that the issue of climate protection is not misused to protect the elderly collectivist ideas to advertise who always failed - no matter where in the world - and which brought only one thing: namely suffering, hunger and incredible misery. "

Chancellor Sebastion Kurz at the World Economic Forum 2020

Speech in Davos: Sebastian Kurz warns of totalitarian tendencies - but wants "climate protection"

Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz spoke in a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos for a link between the economically liberal Pol…

The crucial passage starts at 2:30 min.
By the way: It remains to be seen whether climate protection measures will follow. Bisher...

Behind terms

But what is behind the terms collectivism and the supposed antipole of individualism? This refers to value systems that give priority to the collective - that is, the political society, or in a nutshell: to all of us - or that focus on the individual and his interests. One thing in between: It has little to do with communism. Much more is meant: How does a society define itself?

It is very important: Even if collectivism and individualism are wrongly understood as opposites, they actually represent two independent dimensions in co-existence. Even if a society focuses on the common interest, this does not necessarily imply a restriction of individual freedom. But: collectivism and individualism can also have a slightly different meaning depending on the perspective, for example at the economic, political or social level.

Under collectivism is understood as a system of values ​​and norms in which the wellbeing of the collective takes the highest priority. The interests of the individual are subordinated to those of the social group organized collectively.
The individualism is a system of thoughts and values ​​in which the individual is the focus of attention.
It should be noted that individualism and collectivism in a cultural comparison are not opposite poles of a uniform dimension, but two completely independent dimensions; in fact, individualism and collectivism correlate exactly zero in a cultural comparison. * Like individualism, collectivism is not a rigid construct, ie just because there are predominantly collectivist values ​​in a society does not mean that individualistic values ​​do not also exist in it.
Sources: D. Oyserman, HM Coon, M. Kemmelmeier: Rethinking individualism and collectivism

The political level

“Austria is a democratic republic. Your right comes from the people, ”says Article 1 in the Austrian constitution. A choice is made in the face of many different opinions. It is therefore the task of democratic systems to organize themselves in such a way that individual interests are balanced and decisions are based on a presumed overall will, according to the prevailing opinion.

Social interests

Regardless of how one looks at democracy, its success is based in particular on its achievements in favor of the collective, the population as a whole. Achievements that are actually only the Socialism enabled: human rights, freedom of expression, solidarity, social benefits and many others. Collectivist achievements, which the current change in values ​​to individualism or neoliberalism falter.

Role models of individualism

Take the example of the USA: The American dream has always been that of the individual - and of individual freedom. And he has shown that equality can also become a financial question, that care for the sick is not a matter of course, that provision in old age does not apply to everyone.

Russia is arguably the best example of a change in the value system and its consequences - both politically and socially. "Russia is one of the most individualistic countries ever," explains sociologist Grigori Judin. Although two things are associated with Soviet people, collectivism and hatred of individualism. Judin: “We imported a trimmed version of the liberal-democratic system: liberalism without democracy. That puts us in a very strange situation. Because all studies show that there is absolutely no reason not to think about the Soviet or today's Russian people. In general, the juxtaposition of individualism and collectivism is a questionable undertaking from the point of view of the social sciences: its founding fathers were more concerned with synthesis. "

A balance

From a sociological point of view, it is not a matter of contrasting individualism and collectivism. Judin: "Modern societies can only exist if there is a healthy balance between the two. Our problem is that there is an aggressive individualism in Russia, which is fed by fear and therefore turns into brutal competition, total mutual distrust and enmity. […] If you want to make a fool of yourself, all you have to do is use the word "common good". "

But that doesn't make everyone happy, explains the sociologist: “If you say that there is a lack of collective life in Russia, it also means that the need for it is always there. There are a number of signs that people overall are having difficulty coping with this deficiency. [...] Man is created in such a way that he needs collective goals, an identity. "

Collective security

But there are also other opinions: The fact that the climate of social coldness, indifference and selfishness is unrestrained individualism, the lack of cohesion, the ego instead of the we should be to blame for the German philosopher Alexander Grau as a misdiagnosis. Germany is sinking into collective comfort: “Our society is by no means individualistic and obsessed with autonomy, independence and independence. The opposite is the case. Deeply scared and overwhelmed by the consequences of an autonomous, free lifestyle, modern man longs for security and security. It starts at the level of private life planning. […] Individualistic values, a postmodern way of life of independent individuals? At best on the surface. […] Instead, a permanently pubescent search for meaning reigns, which has absolutely nothing to do with independence and individuality, but yearns for commitment and collective security. "

Unlimited economic freedom?

So many opinions? Not at all. Those who talk about collectivism and individualism these days all too often mean the burning issue of neoliberalism or economic liberalism. And even if the term can be understood as a political concept or ideology, one thing is meant above all: extensive freedom of the economy, detached from too much government regulation. Ideally without a union and social partners. So individualism and the freedom of capital. Liberalization has been going on for a long time. Austria, for example, took this path a few decades ago under the guise of privatization. For example, parts of the healthcare or social services have long been “privatized”, that is, “associations” dependent on subsidies or “outsourced” companies that have been founded. By the way, mostly under political direction and instruction.

Who is politics serving? The people?

Incomprehensible? Where some say that the state no longer fulfills its most basic tasks for society (or the people), others believe that this mandate has never existed and still does not exist. A government of the republic serves only and alone. There is no state goal "well-being for all" enshrined in the constitution. (Here, by the way, on the subject of state goals.) The Austrian Chancellor's oath reads: "I vow that I will closely observe the constitution and all laws of the republic and that I will do my duty to the best of my knowledge and belief." No word that a chancellor is there for the good of all.

Chancellor Kurz makes no secret of his individualistic goals. The economy seems primarily important to him, which is legitimate according to current legislation: "We need ambitious environmental and climate protection and at the same time strong economic growth and economic success and I am totally optimistic that we can succeed if we as a European Union rely on our strengths, namely on our open society, on our free society and above all on our free and strong economy in Europe. "

INFO: Who benefits from politics?
One thing is certain: The "wellbeing of the people" is by no means constitutionally established. Only the term “republic” is intended to imply the common good, can be read on the official websites and The government is responsible for the interpretation. “For the time since the 20th century, Wolfgang Mager or Josef Isensee noticed a clearing of meaning and inflationary use of the word. The term democracy determined and replaced the term republic, blurring the differences in meaning "government elected by the people" (democracy) and "politics serving the common good" (republic), as Hans Buchheim has pointed out " it says on Wikipedia.

Photo / Video: Shutterstock.

Written by Helmut Melzer

As a long-time journalist, I asked myself what would actually make sense from a journalistic point of view. You can see my answer here: Option. Showing alternatives in an idealistic way - for positive developments in our society.

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  1. A deadly virus is going around. I don't mean the corona virus by that. Rather, I am talking about neoliberal imperialism as the next level of capitalism, which - it seems - has also found favor with our Chancellor. Tenor: economic interests over those of the collective. Isolate Europe from all humanity. Climate protection only if it doesn't cost anything.

    According to Kurz at the World Economic Forum, collectivist ideas would have brought only one thing: “namely suffering, hunger and unbelievable misery.” “Learn history” would have probably answered former Chancellor Bruno Kreisky. Because it was not collectivist achievements such as human rights, freedom of expression, workers' rights, collective agreements, pensions and more that caused suffering, but the exploitation of the planet and people - for thousands of years - for the benefit of the wealth of a few. As a result, shame of others has reached a new dimension for me.

    My optimism ends right here. Because if a policy of selfishness and greed stops, the small global advances made so far are in danger. In view of the impending dictatorship of capital, I regret the missed opportunities to further develop democracy. Let us not be under any illusion: our only participation is the right to choose a party. Even in the face of an obvious climate crisis and two constitutional goals of “comprehensive environmental protection” (1984) and “sustainability” (2013), a referendum must take place, which is then “dealt with” in the National Council. Incidentally, sustainability is also a collectivist idea.

    I'm overreacting again? Tell the 20.000 refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014. The millions of exploited people whose suffering is partly caused by international corporations and western geopolitics. The politically oppressed, in whose countries we like to buy cheaply.

    This is the virus I mean!

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