Saturday, September 27, 2008

The reification of the collective

One of the more pernicious fallacies in social and political philosophy is the reification of the collective. Reification is treating an abstract entity or property as if it were concrete, separate and distinct from the concrete entities it abstracts. For example, median income is an abstract property of a population: it is an abstract statistical property of some number of concrete individual incomes. You can't do anything at all to the median income by itself; you have to change the underlying individual incomes to change the median.

We must take care to distinguish a true fallacy of reification from simple metaphor. Natural language is rich in semantic forms that describe real objects, and it's natural to use these forms to talk about abstract properties. An easy way to distinguish metaphor from fallacy is to translate the idea into real concrete terms. If someone says, "I want to raise the median income by redistributing wealth," that makes sense because they're talking about manipulating individual incomes. "Raise the median income" is thus a legitimate metaphor.

We sometimes see true fallacies of reification in the collectivist left* (modern communist theory notes the fallacy of reifying the proletariat), but it's actually rare. In almost all cases, collectivist left talk about collective entities make perfect sense when applied to the underlying individuals. The good of society really does reduce to the good of individual people. (At least most individuals; collectivists tend not to worry overmuch about the good of those who profit from the exploitation of others.)

*I have to draw a distinction between the collectivism-individualism axis and the left-right axis: There are collectivist rightists (conservatism, neo-conservatism, fascism) and individualist leftists (left anarchists). The short story And Then There Were None describes an individualist left society.

We most often see true fallacious reification in individualist right critiques of collectivism. Atlas Shrugged is a perfect example: Rand simply assumes that all collectivist social theories must necessarily reify the collective, and thus justify sacrificing each and every individual's good to the collective good. It's not even necessary to reproduce any quotations*; open the book at random and within 10 pages (unless Dagny is about to fuck someone) you'll find some moron spouting off about how every individual must sacrifice to the "collective". In Rand's view, the "collective" interest is completely divorced from everyone's individual self-interest.

*Nor will I do so. I read that monstrosity once; I'm not going to read it again to find quotations. Let the Rand cultists Objectivists annotate the book.

I focus on Rand specifically because Atlas Shrugged is the root of the neo-conservative narrative in Western society. Every egregiously stupid idea of neo-conservatism — even corporate socialism — can be traced directly to the novel. Millions of people believe that this monstrous pile of shit, with a logical fallacy on every other page, accurately reflects reality at some deep level. Although there are other writers (notably Leo Strauss) who have independently arrived at the same ideas, Rand's work has most effectively popularized those ideas.

It's possible that collectivists really are that stupid (Christians and Muslims, after all, do display an equivalent level of stupidity), but any reader of Rand should be immediately suspicious when she puts such egregiously stupid words into the mouths of her opponents, especially in a work of fiction; a critical reader should suspect a straw man fallacy. But even if collectivists really were that stupid, justifying some sort of Individualism by the refutation of fallacious form of collectivism — even if that fallacy were universally held by collectivists — is itself an ad hominem fallacy.

We can only speculate why Rand and other individualist right critics reify the collective. However, it's notable that in the real world, the reification of the collective prevalent in conservative traditionalism and most religious thinking has been a tool for justifying the exploitation of the many by the few. It is not the industrialists, the political rulers, the rich who are encouraged to sacrifice their self-interest to the good of the many, but rather the many who are encouraged to sacrifice their self-interest to the good of the few in the name of the "good of society (or God)."

Rand does not actually argue against collectivism. She argues, rather, against the wrong kind of collectivism. Her world is falling apart because the great individuals, the competent and hard-working, have gone on strike: It is in everyone's interest (i.e. the collective interest) to support, honor and value such individuals. Indeed all of the individuals in Galt's Gulch "rationally" act in the collective good rather than their immediate material individual good. Midas Mulligan owns all the land in Galt's Gulch; Galt owns all the electric power (his supernatural paranormal motor* that powers the valley). Rand lays a little transparent bullshit on us to justify their "good" collectivism (they "rationally" value the company of the elect), but it's an egregious double standard. Rand must reify the collective to simultaneously denounce the good of other individuals out of one side of her mouth and affirm it out of the other.

*I'm really curious what happens after the end of Atlas Shrugged, when the motor breaks down and requires selenium or some other substance not locally available, or some parts available only from an advanced manufacturing infrastructure. But Galt is MacGuyver on steroids; I'm sure Rand is confident that he can manufacture an integrated circuit using a pile of sand a book of matches and some paper clips.

But Rand's collectivism must be seen as not a metaphor but as a true reification, because her good "collectivism" is justified even if 90% of the actual individuals perish. The passengers on the doomed train deserve to die because they are not morally pure. Dagny Taggarts's flaw, the failing she must correct as her moral growth, is valuing actual individuals over the reification of the Individual. Dagny must learn to value "Man" (the idealization) rather than mankind (the actual individuals). Only then can she enter the gates of heaven Galt's Gulch.

Not even the relatively rare die-hard cultist takes Rand's eliminationist rhetoric — evocative of Christian Eschatology — seriously. That metaphor at least is obviously a metaphor. They take from the book, though, that apparent exploitation is justified: no one is really being exploited. The masses of people gain their very life from the exceptional few, not by deserts but by grace; any and all surplus value extracted from them is meaningless compared to the gift of life. And if the exceptional stumble from time to time, well, it's only because of the perverse irrationality of the many, against which even the mightiest are sometimes helpless.

But of course collectivists are not as stupid as Rand portrays them. Collectivism is the philosophy (more precisely the root of various philosophies) that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... when those needs come into irreconcilable conflict. In most cases, there's little or no conflict, or there is some compromise that allows everyone to gain. By definition most individuals are part of "the many"; realizing the benefit of "the many" is realizing the benefit of many individuals.

But collectivists recognize that a few individuals can realize an individual benefit by exploiting and oppressing the majority of other individuals. The vast majority need not tolerate such exploitation. Eliminating such exploitation demands from those few a true Randian "sacrifice" — giving up a greater individual benefit for a smaller individual benefit — and therefore their sacrifice must be coerced.

And boo hoo for them.


  1. I disagree with your last paragraph. Not all collectivist schools of thought posit that the few should exploit and oppress the many or that the many must make a true sacrifice.

    Collectivism can be, and I believe should be, a philosophy about the inexorable interdependence of human beings. Where the collective good is given equal weight, and under certain circumstances more weight, than the individual good.

    Under this model of collectivism the only time a true sacrifice of good is required is under extreme scenarios. In fact often what is given up is actually traded off. For example taxes are taken as a trade-off for a sound infrastructure and so on.

    I think to define collectivism solely as you have done in the last paragraph is inaccurate. And you use terms and phrases that have completely negative connotations like oppress, exploit, and sacrifice. I think you have presented a false image of collectivism in your last paragraph.

    Very insightful look into Ayn Rand however and I do enjoy the blog.

  2. I disagree with your last paragraph.

    So do I. I rewrote it.

  3. Rand's work is so ridiculously full of shit in so many different ways: moral bankruptcy, eliminationism, glorification of misogynist rape culture, economic stupidity, philosophical incoherence, abysmally shitty turgid writing.

    It is always a wonder to me how anyone who has successfully passed through adolescence into healthy adulthood could see it as anything other than the steaming pile of shit that it is. Oh, umm, right.

  4. Rand's work is so ridiculously full of shit in so many different ways...

    ... and neo-conservatism (i.e. Republicanism) is ridiculously full of shit in almost exactly the same ways. Coincidence? I think not.

    I think Rand did more — far more — for neo-conservatism than Leo Strauss.

  5. I think Rand did more — far more — for neo-conservatism than Leo Strauss.

    She certainly has provided much better wank fodder for pathetic right-wing cheetoh-chomping doucheknockers who can't get laid. "I AM ROARK! AAAAhhhhh! SPLOOGE!"

  6. In my studies of neo-conservatism, I haven't come across much in the way of explicit reference to Rand. However, your essay raises some interesting parallels to a tendency I have long-noted in neo-conservative writing. Neo-conservatives are essentially neo-Platonists. They argue for what is really an oligarchy of philosophers and kings. Not dissimilar to the "great individuals" you point to.

  7. I'm still not sure I agree with your last paragraph and "coercion." I read a blog about what just happened in Oregon and that all the Galts will flee, capital flight, the usual capitalist bullshit fear mongering. Let them. Exactly what happens when a market completely opens up? Someone will move in and make a profit, even given the collectivist demands made upon them. You can only call it coercion if there's another standard to compare it to, and if that standard is correctly identified as criminally unjust? You don't call preventing murder coercion.

  8. You can only call it coercion if there's another standard to compare it to, and if that standard is correctly identified as criminally unjust? You don't call preventing murder coercion.

    Actually, I do call preventing murder coercion. I don't think all coercion is bad.


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