I and thou: the dialectic of the individual and the collective

I must disagree with myself…

The contemporary American cliché holds that we are a U-shaped country with two teams, the right and the left, facing each other across a widening gulf. After years of having Donald Trump’s bloviations on the political stage, going back in recent memory to his attention-seeking attacks on Barack Obama’s birth certificate, that he built into a fascist movement culminating — for the moment — in the attempted coup on the 6th of January, a dichotomous system, at least one that is made up of two widely separated modes, feels like our reality.

A recent Gallup poll of political identification suggests that things are not so simple, though on a first reading, it is not a cause of confidence for American leftists. The organization found that thirty-six percent of respondents are conservative, thirty-five percent moderate, and twenty-five percent liberal. These terms are presumably up to the people being surveyed to define, but if the results are reflective of our national attitudes, more than two-thirds of the country are potentially in opposition to progressive goals — though “liberal” in contemporary American usage often means something significantly different from those.

The situation is even worse than a cursory reading would indicate. About half of the Democrats who responded to the survey identified as liberal, whereas three-quarters of Republicans called themselves conservative. Forty-eight percent of the independents identified as moderate — whatever that might mean, though I suspect it puts them solidly into the pro-corporate wing of the Democratic Party — and only twenty-nine percent took on the label, liberal.

Should we on the left thus accept the wishes of the right wing that we pack up and move to whatever non-American nation supposedly puts our goals into action — Denmark, Venezuela, North Korea, or whatnot?

I reject the notion that only the right wing is allowed to be evangelical — presenting the good news, such as it is defined by the political bloc. And I also do not wish to give up on my nation of birth, if for no other reason than the reality that immigration is not as easy as the Republicans want the country to believe. More than that, I do not accept the framing that the policy proposals of the left are either unwanted in America or incompatible with a free and wealthy society.

Consider first the popularity of progressive goals. Medicare for All, a signature piece of Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, for example, has seen increasing support in recent years, rising to a slim majority in October of 2020, with COVID-19 acting as a driver of popularity. Unsurprisingly, Democrats would prefer an incrementalist approach, going through a public option being added to the Affordable Care Act first, but it is encouraging to see that the country’s comfort with guaranteeing healthcare to all is growing — despite the right wing’s insistence that doing so will only result in death panels and delays in hip replacements. When discussing the matter with them, I observe at this point that Americans often wait so long that the only care we receive comes from the medical examiner, and the facts of healthcare in the developed world show that universal systems, operating through a variety of solutions, cost much less per capita — an important phrase to emphasize — and achieve better outcomes. The British National Health Service, despite all the assaults on it over the years by the Tories, leads the world in performance, and it is exactly the government takeover of that sector of the economy that Republicans are so afraid of.

Key elements of the Green New Deal also enjoy majority support. Fifty-three percent in a recent poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication say that addressing climate change needs to be a priority, and two-thirds support developing green energy solutions. This is in the context of a Hill-HarrisX poll that found some two-thirds of respondents seeing the Green New Deal as “largely socialist.”

Indeed. Support for making public colleges and universities tuition-free is also growing, even among Republicans, as long as they are under thirty years of age. And even universal basic income, an idea that Andrew Yang pushed onto the national stage during the 2020 primaries, has gained majority support, stronger among younger respondents.

In other words, the progressive agenda — that the right wing labels socialist, communist, or fascist, depending on the day — has reached a moment in American discourse in which it no longer feels like topics for a political science or economics graduate seminar and is instead a viable set of goals.

Except, as I am told regularly, Democratic primary voters chose Biden over Sanders. A favorite explanation of this involves various conspiracies against progressivism on the part of the party leadership, but I do not wish to sort through the claims and counterclaims here. The reality is that if voters would translate their support of policy into support of candidates who endorse those policies, the leftist platform would get done. The situation to explain is the disconnect between stated belief and action.

It is possible that the polls are wrong somehow, be that skewed sampling, questions that made certain answers more likely, or whatever other factors that distort results away from reality. But the American psyche does also have a defense mechanism against anything that is called socialism, a characteristic that we on the left have to deal with.

The answer to this involves first noting that while it is easy to see us as living on a one-dimensional spectrum, left to right, one that I have tacitly assumed so far here. But American politics is more of a multi-dimensional space that has unexpected shared regions — Rand Paul’s ideology, for example, includes opposition to domestic spying, a stance that progressives can agree with. There is, however, a kind of bimodalism with regard to the concepts of the individual and the collective, two zones that pull in a lot of fellow travelers.

If labels must be put on these two modes or regions, call them libertarian and socialist. On the question of healthcare, the libertarian will speculate about the efficacy of deregulating the process to remove the price inflation caused by the government, while the socialist will say the things that I said above, but behind these arguments will come a conflict over how much any one of us owe to each other. The libertarian sees no obligation to anyone else; the socialist accepts mutual duty. If these sound like exaggerations, I invite anyone to talk to anyone who identifies with those political philosophies. Libertarians routinely tell me that they would rather suffer illnesses, even to the point of dying, than to allow a universal system, paid for by taxes, that would cure them — on the argument that taxation is theft. I do not know how serious they are in this, or how serious they would be upon developing such an illness, but the belief is influential in any case.

This dialectic, the individual and the collective, steers the American political debate. It reminds me of Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou, a discussion about how we relate to an other — a relationship with another person or with an object, an it. From the socialist’s perspective, it is appropriate that Buber chose the pronoun, du, rather than Sie for this other, the former being the familiar form of address, the way one speaks to an equal, a comrade. But his notion of treating others as a thou — as an autonomous individual of the same kind of being as I — gets at the elements of the two regions that we should learn from each other, since each political region can neglect what is important to the other to the detriment of both.

As I suggested above, it is my observation that what unifies the various spaces of the right wing is a commitment to the freedom of the individual, and I hear from the leftist space a belief that the collective is the definitive unit. I wish to see the truth in both and to demonstrate what each can contribute to overall progress.

The collective can only be as good as its individual members, and individual goodness requires a personal autonomy into which society cannot force entry. For libertarians, this is treated in economic terms, but I understand it as having a broader meaning of the ability to think, to express my thoughts, and to define myself. It would also include a measure of personal action, including economic activity.

At the same time, the individual’s opportunity finds its ground in the collective. As Stephanie Kelton has pointed out in her book, The Deficit Myth, the currency we use is national property, paid out to encourage economic activity. It should be obvious to say that such activity takes place in a society, not in an idealized vacuum. The libertarian response here is to say that government does not create anything, but instead all that is done is produced by individual actors. That is easily proved false, since, for example, the medium in which this article is presented is a government creation, but so what? Even if the claim is true, it reveals the dependency of the individual on others. Exchanges in an entirely free market with no mutual obligations beyond keeping one’s word sounds to some people like a utopia, but all of this lovely interaction works much better when the participants are healthy, educated, and comfortable. Libertarians living in developed nations do not acknowledge how much they benefit from the collective that they disparage.

I rejected above the framing that the policies offered by the leftist region of socialism is incapable of creating wealth. The richest nations of the world have a lot of overlap with the nations that do the most to reduce income inequality. The United States and China, countries that do not nearly enough and little at all respectively to narrow the gap between rich and poor, are the two wealthiest nations, leading many on the right to conclude that wealth creation and progress are unconnected if not antithetical, but the top five nations in lifting up the poor — Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Germany — are also in the top twenty-five richest nations, with Germany being the fourth richest. Japan is the third richest and the eleventh most active in reducing inequality. And it is worth noting that many of the countries that do so well in this area are hitting well above their weight class in terms of population.

My argument in all of this is that we must maintain the tension between the individual and the collective, preserving and empowering both to produce continual progress. Letting either get out of balance risks pushing us into anarchy or authoritarianism.

Since I come from the socialist space, I will start with some suggestions for the left — and for parties that call themselves leftist while in fact being closer to Republicans. One immediate step is that we need to support an Internet Bill of Rights that requires social media platforms to be neutral with regard to all protected speech — incitement to violence does not qualify, of course, but there is a lot of speech that does, even speech that offends me. And since social media has taken on the role of the contemporary agora, the diversity of opinions has to be allowed. Another area in which we can acknowledge the agency of the individual is by dropping gun control. As the courts currently stand, it will lose if passed — unlike healthcare reform which can be constitutional as a tax — and unlike programs such as Medicare for All, support for stricter gun laws has been on a recent decline. As I explain in discussions of this topic to people around political space, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is more than eight hundred pages on how to reduce violence, and gun control does not figure in anywhere. We needlessly sacrifice votes through the middle of the country when we distract ourselves from useful programs — ending the War on Drugs and guaranteeing addiction treatment are high on the list.

What can the libertarian space offer? I ask them to consider the necessary role that the collective plays in making life in community worth the effort. I gave a reason above: A society with wealth to spread around makes better customers. That wealth exists because we exist with others around us. Any resources that I cannot use — especially if I cannot use them before they expire — have no value to me unless I can exchange them for something else that I can use, and this is much more likely as the people around me are given the opportunity to develop their own skills and resources. We can read Frédéric Bastiat and Ayn Rand on electronic screens or cheap paperbacks at great distances from their place of production because we have all worked together to build the social infrastructure. We can discuss their ideas with each other beyond the reach of the unamplified voice for the same reason. I am told that the poorest people in America today are far better off than most people in most places throughout human history. This is true, though much less significant than it is believed to be, but it is the case precisely because we have done so much as a collective to make each life more tolerable.

The only lastingly successful political system is one that treats both I and Thou as important levels of social organization. We have to respect the agency and autonomy of the individual and the productivity and progress of the group. The dialectic must remain in tension to generate continual syntheses of human development, individual or collective.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store