The Two Collectivisms

March 8, 2007

During these past weeks, I have been conducting an informal survey on varied message boards, in order to try to learn something about the relation between people's collectivist beliefs. To do so, I posted a survey asking people to rate their belief in the following social factors: government, religion, nationalism, family, popular culture. The ratings were designed to measure the individual's personal perception of these factors, and asked for desirability (from "I would like it to be a dominant force in society" to "I would like it to be marginalized or disappear as a social force").

First, I posted my survey on my own message board, Stefan Molyneux's board, and the Ex-Christian message board, places where there is a strong emphasis in rejecting all collectivist beliefs, in order to provide a baseline. Then I posted the survey on an atheist board (Rational Response Squad), a Christian board (Christianforums), a fundamentalist Christian board (Crosswalk Forums), Libertarian boards ( LibertyForum , Free State Project) and statist boards (Revolutionary Left, Conservative's Forum, Free Conservatives, Perspectives, Democracy Forums). From these 12 boards, I received 93 answers, which I then proceeded to compile and test my hypotheses upon.

Before I get into the survey results, I have to mention one problem regarding the responses. On most message boards, my survey got a good reception. On the left-wing and right-wing boards, however, it met with a lot of suspicion and sometimes downright hostility. This became a problem for the survey, as I only got five answers from individuals self-identifying as Conservatives, despite multiple attempts. I have yet to understand this hostility.

Here are the means for each factor, grouped by self-identification.

(For the sake of readability, I converted the ratings in numbers, where 0= extremely negative 2= neutral, 4= extremely positive)

Non-believers (baseline): Government 0.33 Religion 0.23 Nationalism 0.43 Family 1.66 Pop. Culture 1.73

Libertarians: Government 0.25 Religion 1.25 Nationalism 1.19 Family 2.81 Pop. Culture 1.63

Atheists: Government 1.42 Religion 0.05 Nationalism 0.74 Family 2.26 Pop. Culture 1.37

Left-wingers: Government 0.80 Religion 0.27 Nationalism 0.20 Family 1.93 Pop. Culture 1.27

Christians: Government 1.00 Religion 1.67 Nationalism 2.17 Family 3.50 Pop. Culture 1.17

Right-wingers: (with only 5 data points) Government 0.60 Religion 2.60 Nationalism 3.00 Family 4.00 Pop. Culture 0.20

In these results, we see some basic patterns. As expected, Libertarians scored lower on Government than the baseline, and atheists scored lower on Religion than the baseline. Interestingly, left-wingers scored lower on Nationalism than the baseline, which indicates that extreme leftism in some way can be characterized as a rejection of nationalism. Given the predilection of Liberals to promote cultural supremacism and trade barriers, this may seem incongruous, but remember that this survey was meant to measure personal perception, not correlation to concrete positions. Liberals strongly believe that they are opposed to nationalism, and that is what must be explained.

Other results are also counter-intuitive. The very low Government ratings for both left-wing and right-wing self-identifiers is puzzling. Why are both groups opposed to what is, in effect, their only mode of expression? And why are left-wingers basically indistinguishable from Market Anarchists?

To be honest, I started this survey based on half-baked, unscientific hypotheses. They all failed. But on the other hand, my analysis of the data confirmed another, more scientific, model. To understand this model, and before I reveal the results, I first need to explain the two collectivisms.

In sociology, there are two kinds of collectivism--vertical collectivism and horizontal collectivism--and two associated kinds of individualism--vertical individualism and horizontal individualism. To understand these very simply, think of individuals in a group structure. Vertical collectivism is a structure where there are strong links up and down: an authoritarian structure, made of power relations. Horizontal collectivism is a structure where there are strong links right and left: a conformist structure, made of self-censorship and reinforced by traditions and belief in equality.

The different types of individualism and collectivism obviously cause different patterns of behaviour in their host society (and they are all present in any given society in different ratios). Horizontal collectivism is associated with communal sharing (i.e., trading without regard to cost and benefit), vertical collectivism with authoritarian hierarchies, horizontal individualism with personal tit-for-tat strategies, and vertical individualism with trading and market processes (Koerner, "Relational Models and Horizontal & Vertical Individualism-Collectivism," 2003). Horizontal collectivist support group reward systems, while vertical collectivists (and presumably horizontal individualists as well) oppose such systems (Chen, Meindl and Hunt, " Testing the Effects of Vertical and Horizontal Collectivism," 1997).

What does all of this have to do with how people believe? It suggests a very interesting line of inquiry: whether the standard "left" and "right" designations are not labels used to disguise different kinds of collectivism.

The primary collectivism of the left wing is horizontal collectivism. Liberals fight against social institutions because these institutions create inequality and power relations: organized religion in its "saved/unsaved" dichotomy, strong self-identification and rigid power structure, nationalism in its enforced division between citizens and non-citizens, between one's "country" and the rest of the world, and the family structure in its inherent authoritarianism and transmission of cultural norms (including religion). Because of the inherent populism of horizontal collectivism, Liberals can only oppose popular culture to a certain degree, for wholly opposing it would mean putting distance between themselves and others, and rejecting the principle of conformity.

Conservatism primarily reflects vertical collectivism--the belief and devotion to authoritarian power structures. Thus the Conservative supports the family above all, being the most concentrated form of authoritarianism, the nation and religion, which both reify the individual as having a "special" place, and of course militarism, another concentrated form of both authoritarianism and inequality (between the aggressors and the victims).

Just as the Liberal's pet peeves reflect his dislike of authority and inequality in power or resources (gun ownership, tax cuts, racial issues), the Conservative's pet peeves reflect his dislike of non-conformity and individualist value-expression (civil liberties, drugs, homosexuality, abortion), as well as his dislike of egalitarianism in principle and practice (evolution, welfare state, cultural relativism).

So the common Libertarian opinion that left and right are really the same is not true at all. Rather, it is the State that remains the same, and thus the expression of left and right positions through the State remain the same, hence giving the illusion of similarity.

The question of why both left and right oppose the concept of government is an interesting one. My hypothesis is that both oppose it for different reasons: Liberals focus on the authoritarian and hierarchical aspects of government (militarism, corporatism), and Conservatives focus on the egalitarian aspects of government (welfare state, public education). The concept of the modern democratic government seems to be the kind of compromise that no one likes.

Although they may still hold to some collectivist ideas, Libertarians and Market Anarchists tend towards the individualist side on both axes, at least as regards to society. This means that Libertarians support market processes and tit-for-tat relations, and are opposed both to egalitarianism (conformity, unaccountability) and authoritarianism (obedience, loyalty). Libertarians oppose government not only because they are against authoritarianism but because they, like people in post-Communist societies, understand "the incompatibility between state authority and self-determination" (Kemmelmeimer, Burnstein et al., "Individualism, Collectivism, and Authoritarianism in Seven Societies," 2003).

Right and left wing have not always been exactly as they are now, obviously. The evidence shows that political positions move in time, and we should expect that as perception changes, so does the expression of horizontal and vertical collectivism. In societies where government is still limited, belief in government can be compatible with horizontal individualism. In places where Christianity is associated with liberation theology--strong horizontal collectivism--the relationship between Christianity and socialism is reversed, while the relationship between Christianity and the family structure (with its attendant beliefs, such as being anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality) is maintained.

There are conceptual limits to this model. When seen from the perspective of Market Anarchist Theory, there is little ontological difference between horizontal and vertical collectivism. Authoritarianism in theory implies conformity to the dictates of the power structure in practice, and egalitarianism in theory implies in practice the existence of a ruling class to impose this artificial equality and dictate the "common good."

Given my newly constructed position, I now regret having only measured horizontal collectivism in my study, as it would have been very interesting to confirm the disparity in vertical collectivism as well. Just a "democracy" or "income inequality" rating would have done fine. Oh well. Does anyone have some money to throw away?

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Francois Tremblay's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Francois Tremblay blogs at Check Your Premises, is co-host of the Hellbound Alleee Show and has self-published a book called The Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics.