John Steward of Jesus
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The cycle of collectivism and individualism

May 29, 1980

The historical cycle which swings from collectivism to individualisrn is really an expression of the never-ending dynanic created by the production-consumption cycle.

Production and consumption are perhaps only differing perspectives of change. A tree may be said to produce oxygen and consume carbon dioxide, Whether this is good or bad depends on whether one prefers or needs oxygen or carbon dioxide. Animals produce and consume these elements in reverse cycles. So it is with most forms of life, which are really focused forms of change.

An individual finds times of production and consumption in his typical day. He eats, washes, wears out his clothes, etc., as each day progresses. Yet each day has times of production, of whatever kind. Each week has times where production and consumption are each emphasized. A family of many members often has one  member who seems to consume more than he produces. He may be subsidized for much of his life by his more productive brothers, perhaps to avoid his exposure and their embarrassment. The son who inherits a fortune may degenerate into professional consumption. Conspicuous consumption has become a mark of achievement in recent years. And so it goes.

Those who emphasize the merit of the collective emphasize the supposed (though not actual) equality of consumption in the collective. This is thought to be more “just” or “fair” than inequality of consumption.

Those who emphasize the merit of individualism emphasize that the system which rewards production encourages it, and has historically  always been more productive. Emphasis is placed on  the lack of equality in ability to produce (or at least in the tendency to produce).

As does the individual’s day, so do the times of history swing from production to consumption. When it is obvious to all that goods are scarcer and production is necessary, then the public mood is more receptive to the merits of individualism. If the general need to produce is unquestioned, and if each individual knows that he will be
forced to produce, then he wishes to be recognized and rewarded for that production. Hence the swing to individualism and “free enterprise."

When goods seem to be abundant, however, and when the time for consumption arrives, then the public generally is impressed with the need for equality. Each wants his share of the pie. Therefore the trend toward the collective. The wealth must be distributed. This trend, once started, will continue until the need to produce, because of the obvious shortages, is perceived as the more important consideration.

Such cycles seem to occur not only within countries, but on a global scale. Because the collective is a consumptive system, it must reach out to more productive countries so that it may acquire more wealth to distribute. It’s appetite knows no limits; only starvation  or the threat of it will change the mood of the times. Who will challenge a system so long as everyone’s appetite is satisfied, or at least so long as the appetites of the decision makers or power centers are satisfied?

If such trends are part of the production-consumption cycle,
then it may be missing the point to ask whether there is a
“conspiracy” to promote consumption through collectivism, and thus
to promote the deterioration and weakening of a society. It is certainly true that there will be men who take advantage of any stage of a cycle, be it productive or consumptive. But such individuals do not “cause” a trend any more than the cheering section at an athletic game “conspires” to overcome the opponent or to fix the game. They may have a contributing psychological effect, and accelerate the momentum. But they do not cause a victory for either team. Investors do not cause market movements in basic directions, though they may cause accelerated or exaggerated movements of prices. Trends to collectivism (or individualism) are perhaps not caused by individuals or groups nearly so much as we imagine. Trends develop when the time is right for them.

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Biblical morality attempts to avoid the unpleasant extremes of such cycles by emphasizing both individual responsibility and collective responsibility. The individual must work and not covet his neighbor’s goods, nor steal them. Fair pay for fair work. But the individual who is productive and accumulates must recognize his goods as a trust for the common good. He has a responsibility to the community. If this responsibility is exercised then the demand from lesser producers for a share of the consumption will not grow to the extent that a collective is called for. Hence the need for the producers to remain in community with their fellow men.