In every society, individuals reason about what is best to do and act accordingly. What is the difference between an individualistic society and a collectivist society? In each of them, only individuals reason or choose, but the nature of individuals’ reasons would be drastically different.
In an individualistic society, the fact that some person has a preference would rarely constitute, or even cause, a reason for some other person to perform an action. Further, the fact that an abstract, generic, average other person would, on average or in general or in principle have some preference would never constitute a reason for one to perform an action. As one reasons about what to do, others’ preferences would not usually figure in one’s reasoning, and the hypothetical preferences of average people would never figure in one’s reasoning.
In a collectivist society, the fact that others have preferences would constitute or cause the bulk of one’s reasons to act, and the fact that an abstract, generic, or average other person would, on average or in general or in principle have some preference would regularly constitute or cause a reason for one to perform an action.
In capitalism marked by the profit motive, individuals seek to maximize their holdings of wealth by engaging in profitable production. But what is profitable is that which interests other people — and what is profitable at market prices is that which interests generic or average consumers. To seek profit is to submit to a collective. Moreover, profit is only of use because other people can be coaxed to produce what one desires when one offers money; money is nothing but power over others. It’s true that it isn’t the same kind of power as violence, but it is power over others nonetheless.
How on earth has this form of submission been confused with individualism? Capitalism eschews overt, external control, in favor of manipulating the motives of individuals, so that the seeker of profit fails to recognize that he is a seeker of approval. Capitalism is the most insidious form of collectivism yet achieved, because the voice of the collective — the desire for profit — appears to the individual as his own voice. Capitalism is a form of slavery without masters, or enslavement to an abstraction: the consumer or the market.
(This plays itself out in The Fountainhead. Gail Wynand doesn’t recognize that “his” business decisions are in fact made for him by the masses whom he serves; Ellsworth Toohey’s “One Small Voice” is so softly seductive that each person who hears it feels as though he hears only himself. Howard Roark is struggling against capitalism; Ellsworth Toohey personifies capitalism.)
It’s true that capitalism — a social system in which the means of production are privately owned and controlled — is vastly productive and creative, and socialism — a social system in which the means of production are publicly owned — cannot succeed. Without capitalism, vast swathes of humanity would die and the remnants would trudge on in medieval misery. True enough. What that shows is only that individualism is inadequate. A compromise with collectivism is necessary; the market must go on. We can’t have prosperity and individualism at the same time. But if we’re going to compromise with collectivism, we ought to at least come to the bargaining table without having already given everything away. There has to be some way to, socially, preserve a zone of individualism against the sway of the collective.