One of the biggest debates in the respects of sociology and psychology is the debate between individualism and collectivism. Many believe that the human capacity is best contemplated by the individuality of a person, and that a person can serve as an individual to the rest of the society. The other side of the coin is that a human is not anything significant as per his individuality and that all progress of human development is dependent upon collectivism. A lot of differences exist in these two thoughts, and also many contend that one is not devoid of the other. This essay shall attempt to discuss the ideas behind individualism and collectivism on the basis of ideas presented by the famous sociologist Durkheim and Friedrich von Hayek's book The Road to Serfdom.
Durkheim was an advocate of individualism. He believed that what a person did in his or her life was something which was very personal and that no one should be allowed to interfere with their ideas, unless their actions were aimed at hurting the other. Durkheim expressed his ideas by significantly discussing the ideas behind suicide. Many people have argued that suicide is a very personal act, so much so that it only involves the will and the thought process of just the individual who commits suicide. Durkheim explained the nonmaterial social facts and social currents that could explain and predict a person's tendencies to commit suicide. The social currents in a society are one of the most basic characteristics of society, but at the same time, they might not have the durability and stability that some parts of collective consciousness or collective representation have. Many movements such as “enthusiasm, indignation, and pity” (Ritzer) have been associated with social currents. Hadden believed that Durkheim wanted to show that sociological factors were “capable of explaining much about such anti-social phenomena” (Hadden 109). It seems, however, that Durkheim viewed suicide rates as a collective phenomenon. At the same time, however, many researchers have depicted that Durkheim's main focus was the “general question of individual commitment to the social order.” The ideas related to social cohesion were related by Durkheim by the explanations of terms such as 'solidarity' and 'collective action' as these traits came out of the shared classifications.
Giddens explains the use of 'conscience collective' by Durkheim as a metaphor for the cultural inheritance that has been evolved in the social respects and one that forms the basis of everybody's experiences. This has been defined as being “neither the product nor the property of any specific individual.” It is basically a complex of abstractions that relate the beliefs, faiths, and emotions of the society and as the individuals in a society hold and feel as one collective being. This gives us very insightful ideas as to what would become of the society if everyone was allowed to freely express him or herself. A government and its laws are therefore very important for a society to function in a respectable manner. If the people are left to do what they please then there is no limit to the havoc that they might cause. Thus, even in a democratic environment, the full authority is never given to the public but the public chooses their representatives that are there to govern their actions. According to Locke, it should be the other way around and the public should be left to do what ever they please and the government should only be there to overlook all that. Durkheim, however, draws that there exists a very significant consequence that emanates from a democratic system. He believes that the social lives of people take on a very conscious and directed character. The cooperation of the public and the government is what creates the conscience collective and the government must maintain a good living environment for the public in order to achieve a worthwhile social atmosphere. “Many aspects of social life formerly ruled by unthinking custom or habit become the subject of intervention on the part of the state. The state is involved in economic life, and the administration of justice, in education, and even in the organisation of the arts and sciences” (Giddens). Thus the government is a very necessary part of the social affairs of the public. Some of the thoughts that people exhibit do become part of the social norms but the work of the government is to filter out many of these thoughts so that only the good ones turn out to become the values of the society. If the people were not monitored and controlled, there could be an influx of many undesirable values within a society, and a destruction of collectivism.
Friedrich von Hayek wrote the book The Road to Serfdom in 1944 and this book predicted how the world would be like in the next 50 years of so. This book basically talks about the destruction of the socialist movement all over the world following the Second World War and why this was the only thing that the world could witness and undergo in the post war scenario. This book can be used as a reference guide to understanding why the world turned out to be like it is in the second half of the twentieth century. The book talks about the death of collectivism everything related to it and explained then that all this would not be an accident, rather inevitable. It can be said that this book was perhaps what set such ideas into the minds of the people and the politician and thus the events of the world and history took the course that it did.
The basic idea behind this book is the idea of the battle between collectivism versus individualism. Hayek's argument of individualism is that it is a very sophisticated and subtle phenomenon and it depends completely upon the rationality of the thinker. Collectivism, on the other hand, is all about the emotions that the people can decree in an idea. Since the emotions in human beings are felt more strongly and are more primeval than the abilities to think rationally, collectivism is usually the stronger and preferred response to various situations. Hayek's main message was to undermine socialism as being an ineffective way of dealing with human resources and economics. He argued that wealth should not be distributed equally among the people and a sense of competition was required in order to keep the capitalist structure working and keep providing for the human race. It would seem that the message conveyed by Hayek was well understood as the liberal activists in the government today, both in the political as well as the bureaucratic facade, are more capitalist in their approach as their ideas of distribute the wealth among the society members is not through the government controlled acquisitions of factors of production and other economic facilities, but by the redistribution of the income by employing modern economic means such as taxation, the creation of the welfare state, and by the regulation of private enterprises.
The path from collectivism to collectivist action and ultimately to totalitarianism is the road to serfdom that Hayek based the title of his book upon. He believes that there should be a dictator present in a society in order for the society to progress and to keep the wheels of economics moving within that society. The individualism approach and the socialist way of thought is contended as being a selfish way of thinking and it really does not do any good to the society, rather it deteriorates and destroys it. Hayek's ideas presented in this book somewhat contradict with Adam Smith's concepts of enlightened self-interest in economic matters. But the capitalist view is somewhat the mean (and one which is extensively being followed today in all modern economies) and this pertains to the self-interest of doing well. This implies that as one person will succeed, so will the other, and hence the society as a whole can succeed.
Since the human beings as well as their societies are also always changing, the rules should also change within the confines of the preset framework, allowing for the maximum benefit to the society. Once the rules are set, the members within the society can be allowed to do as they please without breaking the rules. The economics of the society will automatically improve given the capitalist structure is followed and the idea of freedom of speech and property are upheld. The government would set the goals and implement them. This is where the gist of individuality comes into play: if such human interactions are not followed, we will first mislay our individuality, then lose our humanity and we shall all be then on the road to peace.
Giddens, Anthony. Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1997
Hadden, Richard W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition
Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, 4th edition, New York, McGraw-Hill.