Paul Ryan and the collectivism vs. individualism debate

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A toast to Paul Ryan -- or to Mitt Romney who made him his teammate in the U.S. presidential race -- for putting a grand old argument back on the front burner. "The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it," Ryan has said with spunk, "is a fight of individualism versus collectivism." That was once a great debate but it's drifted almost out of view. First the Berlin Wall came down 23 years ago, then the Soviet Union imploded, the "individualism" side declared total victory and if that wasn't enough, the End of History too. The collectivism side, which had been largely hiding behind communist and socialist parties, grew mousy, except for relics like the socialist "caucus" in the NDP.

Yet collectivism never quite vanishes, it always returns after its burial, as if there wasn't an actual corpse in the coffin. Think of John Lennon looming over the closing Olympics ceremony, like the spectre that haunted Europe in Marx's day, singing: Imagine no possessions/I wonder if you can/ No need for greed or hunger . . . Imagine all the people sharing all the world. Or Pete Seeger at Obama's inauguration four years ago -- with Obama uneasily present -- singing a long-banished verse from "This Land is Your Land": There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me/ And on it a sign said private property/ But on the other side it didn't say nothing/ That sign was made for you and me.

Poor Obama. He keeps trying to avoid the issue but it grabs him by the ankle. Last campaign, in 2008, he tried mildly explaining to Joe The Plumber that it sometimes helps to "share the wealth" a bit. That landed him in the docket for being anti-business and anti-individual. This year, he misplaced a "that" for a "those" (re. roads and bridges that businesses rely on) and got charged with giving government all credit for producing stuff economically.

Up here, the Harperites are set to finally legalize private ownership on reserves. Its absence has obsessed them, it sometimes seems they can't sleep because of it. I don't think that's because they want to impose a "Western concept" on "native culture," as has been suggested. I think it's more because common ownership on reserves reminds us all of the basically social nature of everything we are and do. It's good to be reminded of (though it's amazing we ever forget it) and it carries unwelcome implications for someone like Harper.

In Quebec's current election, debate is raging on whether Quebecers are individually ambitious and entrepreneurial enough, or "lazy" and too reliant on society. Lucien Bouchard and others began this attack years ago but there's been strong pushback, especially by an unexpectedly popular party, Quebec Solidaire, which is hard to translate but the English might be Collectivist Quebec.

Or take the Internet, which is shredding hard-won dogmas about individual property and ownership created during capitalism's three or four centuries. Just when you get rid of those pesky proletarian revolutionaries, along comes a new, essentially collectivist technology making similar trouble. It won't go away.

As for individualism, a toast to it too. Given the undeniable (it seems to me) collective underpinning of all our lives, what's astounding isn't claims for "collectivism," which simply describes what we are; it's the emergence of individuals and even individualism from such a powerful collective base. Strong individuals like John Lennon and Pete Seeger, who assert with great individuality their commitment to collectivism. That's complex. Or Nietzsche, whose new breed of individuals didn't replace the species but were examples of bringing it individually to a new collective level. At least that's how I read him. To each(ie) his Nietzsche. We even produce individuals like Paul Ryan who peculiarly think that only individuals count. That's about as plausible as the cult of ancient near eastern divine monarchs. The real source of wonder, even awe, is how a species so collective to its core, manages to generate such flagrant individuals.

So, in the showdown between collectivism and individualism, I take both -- always the best answer when faced with a difficult decision. Besides, you may have noticed how often those stark, either/or choices, end up awfully similar.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: tvnewsbadge/Flickr

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