The individual and the collective, old and new

The collective can be both less, and more, developed than the individual.

I recently finished watching the series of documentaries by Adam Curtis, called "Can't get you out of my head". (BBC iPlayer). I found them fascinating and thought-provoking. Many others have watched them as well, and that makes them a good potential talking point. Besides the plethora of little facts of which I was unaware, the main point which has remained with me is Curtis's argument that through individualism, people have lost any meaningful collective power; politicians have recognised that and increasingly attempted to harness outdated ideologies; people in the large corporations have exploited it.

Despite all that, he ends with a curious note of hope. But he doesn't spell it out. What came to me in recent days is one way of spelling that out. It can be seen in terms of an understanding of two radically different kinds of collectivism or collectivity, and the relationship of the individual to both.

The collectivism in Curtis's frame I'm calling established collectivism. It's not necessarily traditional in any deep sense. Yes, it includes the ancient tribal collectivism, but equally some forms of communist collectivism from the 20th century. Rather than try to describe that (I'm no political scientist) I'll just say what strikes me, in terms of its relationship with the individual. The gifts and talents of individuals are seen in terms of how they relate to the established social or economic forms. This person may be good with people and science – maybe she will make a good doctor. This person is good with caring and tending. He might make a good nurse. This person is good with numbers and accuracy. He might make a good accountant. This person is good at motivating and developing people. She might make a good manager. This person is good with children … and so on. It's not only my own personal experience, but I have heard it repeated time and time again, how the supposed ‘careers advice’ given in schools often totally misses the mark, and maybe that's related?

Maybe a little word about individualism first. The old ‘collectivism’ is a branch of what Robert Kegan calls the traditional – his 3rd order consciousness, of the socialised mind. The ‘modern’ world demands more than this. It requires us, if we are going to function fully in modern society, to be ‘self-authoring’; to forge our own path, to make our own decisions. That is Kegan's 4th order consciousness. “You are all individuals! You're all different! You've all got to work it out for yourselves!” in the words of Monty Python's Brian.

I'm feeling that using the other word, ‘collectivity’, is more appropriate for the other kind. It's not an ‘ism’, but a different sense of the importance and role of the collective. If we leave behind the idea that the collective defines the norms and roles in society, we might be able to glimpse the possibility that individuality can relate to it in an entirely different way. Rather than being constrained by the collective, individuals can come together to co-create the collective. Maybe that reads rather obscurely, so let me have a go at explaining.

If individual people bring their own gifts and talents ‘to the table’, so to speak, placing them ‘in the middle’, a space can open up in the dialogue between these individuals collectively. None of them is trying any longer to push their particular, individualistic point of view. They have already ‘worked it out for themselves’, but now they want to move forwards from that, following the recognition that by oneself, one is so limited.

I see this as pointing towards a culture that is at the same time inclusive and diverse. That might seem like a paradox. If a culture is inclusive, doesn't including everyone mean that everyone has to conform? That certainly seems to be one of the ways that it was done historically. You're accepted as long as you conform. If a culture is diverse, how can that culture ‘include’ everyone, other than in the meaningless sense of a lack of active exclusion? You can let everyone do their own thing, for sure. But that doesn't ‘include’ them in other people's ‘things’. It seems pretty empty to me. How can you possibly ‘include’ a whole ‘diversity’ within any possible structure?

I see this integration of inclusiveness and diversity in terms, rather, of co-creation. When people bring their individuality, in all its diversity, to the table, letting go of their particular dreams of how everything should go the way they imagined it would, then in the right spirit (no prizes for guessing that this is the way of Collective Presencing) everyone can pick up on the different gifts, and they can be woven together, not by a conscious rational process happening in one person, but by a fundamentally collective process, within which everyone's full intuitive capacity is able to play with everyone's gifts, and the weaving together happens as if by magic, not in the mind of any one person. If it happens well, everyone's individuality plays a part – though it may not be the part that was expected by that individual – in the emergence of the greater whole, in synergy, beyond what all the individuals could do separately.

That is the relationship of individuality and collectivity that I see with positive value. That collectivity corresponds in my mind to Kegan's 5th order consciousness, characterised by self-transcendence. That is the new culture, the new society, the new economics, that I see hinted at by Adam Curtis. A world where the whole variety of individuality is included, and also transcended, into a greater whole, that to me means far more, and is far richer, than the old world ‘solidarity’.

Topics: Complex psychology;

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