Politics & Media
Oct 16, 2023, 06:27AM

Collective Agents, Collective Punishments

As events in Israel make clear again, there's something to be said for individualism.

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Individualism, as an ideology or a theory of human nature and a guide to political life, can seem ridiculous as well as evil. Many academics, for example, associate it with capitalism and the destruction of the world. They gasp when I describe myself as an individualist; they've never met one. But individualism—which I insist is traditional among my people, i.e. Americans—has its strengths. Or it might be better than the alternatives, as events in Israel over the last 10 days strongly suggest.

The question is one of moral ontology: what is the fundamental human agent, and to whom should responsibility be assigned for various events? Let's define “collectivism” as the view that it’s groups rather than individuals that are the fundamental agents of history and the fundamental bearers of moral responsibility. “Individualism” would be the position that denies that.

"None of us can live in isolation; we are interdependent; humans are social creatures. We depend on one another; we need one another; no man is an island." These are the very general but also very compelling objections to individualism. But the objections to collectivism of various kinds are even more compelling, as we can see right now around the Gaza strip. How can anyone justify slaughtering hundreds of young people at a dance party? Well, they are Jews, the "thinking" goes, and we, the Palestinians or the Arabs or the Muslims, are oppressed by the Jews. The Jews are responsible. We will kill them.

The Israeli response tries to attenuate the language of group blame, which they know to be at the center of anti-Semitism and also an illegitimate justification under international law for the sort of wide-scale violence in which Israel’s now engaged. But many Israelis are making it obvious what they think by approving of the leveling Gaza, demanding that a million people move immediately. I've heard a number of Israeli officials but also a number of American pundits saying that the Palestinians "have only themselves to blame" for allowing themselves to be ruled by Hamas, hinting that (and more to the point, behaving as though), all two million people in Gaza, or all Palestinians, are responsible.

"Jewishness" is a collective identity, and "we" were attacked, even if I was on the other side of the world when the whole thing happened. Our collective agency expresses our solidarity, but is also at the very heart of the possibility of prejudice. It's how "we" survive. It's also why they're executing us. But first of all: what is it? Is Jewishness a race, an ethnicity, a religion, a nation called Israel? It's all of these at once, which means that it's none of them in particular: finally, a mystery, like all collective identities.

One advantage that individualism has over collectivism as a fundamental starting point is that there are many fairly plausible but mutually exclusive candidates for collective agents. Perhaps the fundamental human realities or identities are nations, races, classes, or ethnicities. All of these have been tried, or theorists have tried to account for all human differences along one of these dimensions. "The history of the world," wrote the antiracist  W.E.B. Du Bois in 1897, "is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races." Racists such Arthur de Gobineau agreed. When Marx claimed that world history was determined by classes, he was making a similar though completely incompatible claim. Pretty soon Marxists were engaged in dekulakization.

Some of these things (classes, for example) are vague, or turn on arbitrary decisions to include or not include people as middle class or part of the peasantry, for example. Some of them are viciously problematic, and nationalism has caused world wars. Some of them are in-your-face fictional, like races. (The child of a black person and a white person is a black person: is that supposed to be some sort of objective fact?) I doubt we could really tease out very clearly what an “ethnicity” is, but the ethnicities seem to be bottom-line social categories or fictions that are widely accepted.

I’ve heard many commentators over the last week saying that the Palestinians' "fellow Arabs" should "step up" and offer them "safe haven." But how convincing is "you share an ethnicity" as a reason to expend resources or compromise your "nation's" security? Many people believe or at least assert that sharing someone's ethnicity (whatever that is, exactly) creates special moral obligations to them. By the same token, one seems to be relieved of certain obligations if you don’t share an ethnicity; no one is suggesting that Norway or the Ivory Coast or Polynesia needs to step up and take two million Arab refugees. But can you really make sense of the underlying structure of these thoughts?

How certain are you that all these collective entities aren't, like races, fictional? Putting them all in relation to one another makes you wonder which of the groups you belong to is you, or what sort of collective entities are fundamental. It can't be both classes and races. If it's races and nations, then your politics are defining themselves by racial supremacy. I'm probably embedded in a dozen or more alleged collective agents, as a Jewish white male baby boomer het cisgender American bourgeois person. Which of these collective identities is fundamental, or really real? Maybe I’m all at once, which doesn't actually help me: should I vote my generation or ethnicity? Actually, my ethnicity is a mess. But this whole collectivist terrain is a mess.

I think all the candidates for our fundamental collective identities emerged into the public consciousness around the same time: call it the early-19th century, with "the nation" really driving the bus at first. I hope you'll admit that the racism and nationalism of the last couple of centuries haven't really been that wonderful, that millions of people have perished in the alleged class wars and ethnic cleansings, and that the most evil ideologies lean on these collective identities.

And the most basic conceptual questions about the nature and moral status of any of these collective agents haven’t been answered. They can’t be answered. Until you make a much more plausible attempt, you should stop appealing to any of these entities in explanation of events or as wielding them as motivations to action.

Events that are imagined as the actions of collective agents performed on collective agents, as when "Palestinians" kill "Jews," are some of the worst things humans have ever done, even as each participant's responsibility is apparently dissolved in the collective acid bath. If there were collective agents, terrorism like that inflicted by Hamas and collective punishment like that perpetrated by Israel might make sense. That's a good reason to try to believe that there are no such things.

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell

  • When the IDF goes in to rescue the hostages and kill or take into custody the terrorists, they will inevitably kill some Palestinians who didn't commit atrocities. The standard operating procedure of terrorist groups in the Muslim world is to hide behind human shields. If this is extensive enough it will require levelling parts of Gaza to get at the perpetrators of the attack. If that is the only way to get at those responsible, then the deaths of the human shields are their responsibility and the IDF is blameless. I would go farther and say - to the libertarian anti-Zionists - If the only Israeli settlements had been purely voluntary, with no eminent domain etc. and Israel did not even have a state, but was instead some libertarian anarcho-capitalist utopia, history would have been exactly the same. The same Islamic theocrats who kill gays and beat uppity women and oppress and tax Christians (and Jews) would still have provoked war by attacking Jews. Jews would have had to fight back. They would have had to seize land from the aggressors to make a buffer zone. They would have had to target people the Islamic terrorists hide behind and make innocent shields. The only libertarian position is some level and type of support for the more classical liberal community and condemnation of the mass murderers of innocents. That does not mean that you cannot criticize actions of all parties in general and at other times. But right now the Islamic terrorists are willing to sacrifice their own Arab subjects in a war, as well as kill innocent Israelis and tourists, in part just to prevent Israel from continuing to make peace agreements with some Arab states.

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