In preparation for an article to be published in the Autumn, I just reread The Open Society and Its Enemies – Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. The book traces mankind’s opposition to change and the consequent rise of the myth of destiny, technically, historicism: the belief that history unfolds according to laws which can be discovered.
Popper argues that the strain of civilisation causes us to seek to return to a supposed harmonious state of nature, a heroic age of tribalism, rather than face the burden of personal responsibility. This is, he argues, what gives rise to totalitarianism.
In chapter 6, Totalitarian Justice, Popper presents an argument about the use of the words individualism and collectivism in combination with egoism (selfishness) and altruism. He explains that “individualism” is used in two senses: in opposition to collectivism and as a synonym for selfishness. But Popper explains that collectivism is not opposed to egoism: class egoism is a common thing. However, someone who is anti-collectivist — an individualist — can also be an altruist, one ready to make sacrifices for another individual.
Plato makes the mistake of thinking society faces a choice between collectivism or selfishness. In fact, altruistic individualism is possible, without individuals living constantly in a state of subjection and sacrifice for some group. In our time, as in Plato’s, this error provides a defence of collectivism which is unjustified.
Society is the cooperation of individuals. In my view, one great advantage of a society based on equality before the law, freedom, peace and property is that it can bear selfish individuals without harming the whole of society. More than that, perhaps such an order is the only one which exploits the selfish individual to the benefit of other people.
These are ideas to be developed another time. Meanwhile, I am struck that many contemporary complaints against individualism fall into Plato’s trap and that some of the deeper green ideologues seek a return to a long-lost harmonious state of nature. I wonder if they realise where their ideas may lead?