Why Care? Individualistic culture vs Collective Culture in Democracy

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Culture matters. Today, democracy is under threat. We see “the decline of democracy” across many countries, including ones deemed the “beacon of democracy,” like the United States. The absence of “democratic culture” plays a major role in the “decline of democracy” we are seeing today. Today, we will analyze how being individualistic or collectivist matters for democracy.

Quick Summary

Both countries with predominantly individualistic and predominantly collectivist cultures can be democratic countries.
Successful democracies have a history of collectivist movements. Even the United States, with its strong focus on individuality, has strong collectivist movements and organizations that are thriving till this day.
Collectivism does not negate individuality. In fact, it can enhance it if done the right way, and there are examples across sectors to illustrate it.

What is The Meaning of Culture?

Let us now turn to what is culture before diving deeper in the article.

The term “culture” means the customs, beliefs, and norms of a group of people. The root comes from the Latin word cultura, which refers to the cultivation of agriculture. Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC), the famous Roman lawyer and orator, created the idea of cultura animi, meaning the development of the philosophical soil.

Cicero. (106 BC – 43 BC), the person who minted the phrase cultura animi, one of the earliest conceptions of culture. Image by DEZALB from Pixabay

In the early 19th century, Cicero’s definition caught on and the word was used in the English language to mean the “collective customs and achievements of a people” and a “particular form of collective intellectual development.”3Harper, Douglas. “Culture (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com/word/culture

Whether the focus is on the social or intellectual aspects of culture, it helps explain the intangible aspects of society, such as laws, behaviors and models of governance (e.g. democracy).

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Cultures may be individualist or collectivist

In this blog post, we will limit the term culture to a spectrum between individualistic and collectivist cultures. Although culture refers to the “collective customs and achievements of a people,” these customs can also be individualist or collectivist. As a whole, the people may share the trait of being more individualistic, which is typical of the mainstream culture in the United States or more collectivist as in China.

Individualistic cultures are those with a strong emphasis on individual rights and independence. Goodness and success are equated with self sufficiency and uniqueness. Individualistic cultures expect people to solve their own problems. We associate heavily individualistic cultures with mantras such as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “rugged individualism.”4Cherry, Kendra. “Individualistic Cultures Influence Behavior.” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, 11 Dec. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-are-individualistic-cultures-2795273.

Collectivist cultures are those that strongly emphasize the needs of the entire community or group over those of individuals. Values such as unity, selflessness, and dependability are highly promoted. Families have a central role in these societies. These cultures are associated with sayings such as “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”5Cherry, Kendra. “Understanding Collectivist Cultures.” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, 24 Mar. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-are-collectivistic-cultures-2794962.

If people’s identity in individualist cultures are defined in terms of their own characteristics and personal accomplishments, then self image in collectivist cultures can be defined through their relationships to others and role as part of a group.6Cherry, Kendra. “Understanding Collectivist Cultures.” Verywell Mind, Dotdash, 24 Mar. 2020, www.verywellmind.com/what-are-collectivistic-cultures-2794962.

Culture matters for democracy. Our mainstream culture influences the type of choices we make in a democracy or attitudes we have about issues that concern us all, such as climate change, public health and so forth.

A country’s culture helps explain its general laws and norms

Countries can be categorized and compared as individualistic or collectivist based on the whole of their society and their laws, norms, and attitudes.

The Country Comparison Tool by Hofstede Insights considers these factors and quantifies the level of individualism in each country. For instance, we can classify the United States and the United Kingdom as highly individualistic cultures because of their intense focus on uniqueness and self sufficiency of the individual.

Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, have low individualism scores and we perceive them as more collective cultures because of their emphasis on group harmony and family loyalty.7“Country Comparison.” Hofstede Insights, 12 Aug. 2020, www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/.

All four countries in the chart above are considered democratic countries, yet they have varying perceptions about individualism and collectivism in their societies.

People in more individualistic cultures may be less reliant on other people or less willing to ask for help because people are generally expected to look after themselves. People in collectivist cultures may tend towards collective organizations in which individuals work together to serve a greater good. Fortunately, there are non-mainstream cultural movements in the United States that are highly collectivist in their visions and daily operations.

Changes in society happen when there is tensions or friction. This is why the non-mainstream cultures that differ vastly from the mainstream culture, are important for a thriving democratic society. There has to be cultural variations in the national sub-groups to create a “competitive tournament” of cultural ideas that will prove more or less successful given a certain historic moment or context.

significant Variations in cultures exist within each country as well

While we can classify certain countries as having individualistic or collective cultures, conditions may vary across different regions or even within the same communities. The United States serves as a prime example of this domestic variance in cultures.

Generally speaking and compared to other countries, the culture of the United States is perceived as more individualistic. Despite its individualistic tendencies though, the United States has a rich history of successful collectivism. Spanning across a variety of sectors, many communities and organizations have embraced the idea of collectivist culture by restructuring the way traditional businesses, banks, and organizations operate. 

For example, in our article on credit unions, we cite examples how credit unions provide banking services to underbanked and unbanked, and in our article on democratizing the lifestyle we illustrate how students at Subdbury participate collectively in the management of their school while each students crafts their unique learning experience.

Collectivism can be a tool for marginalized groups to organize and empower themselves

Looking back at American history, there are deeply rooted collectivist projects, especially in marginalized communities. Oftentimes, these projects are outside of the spotlight of the mainstream media.

In the late 18th-century, free and enslaved Black people utilized this collectivist mindset by pooling together their money to pay for things like burials, land, and even buying freedom for those enslaved. The Underground Railroad, a secret network of safehouses and people who helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom, is another example of a cooperative effort during this time period.8Barclay, Lisa. “Collective Courage: A Short History of Black Co-Operatives in America.” Provender Alliance, 28 June 1970, provender.org/a-short-history-of-black-co-operatives-in-america-african-american-cooperation-for-change.

When I first heard about the Underground Railroad, I thought about a literal underground railroad. The project was a collective effort to bring freedom and human dignity to the enslaved African Americans. Photo by anna-m. w. from Pexels

Operations such as these can be described as products of a collective culture, because they were deliberate, conscious efforts by individuals to bring together their resources and help one another, while each accepted some level of personal risk and responsibility for others through their involvement. 

In the centuries since, many forms of collective efforts have become more formal and developed into cooperatives. Cooperatives can take many forms and exist in various industries, but at its core, a cooperative is an enterprise which is owned and controlled by its members. They are guided by democratic principles of representation, cooperation, and equality, and members both govern and benefit from the activities of the organization.

Just like small businesses, most cooperatives are short-lived. However, they have an immense impact on their communities as they give individuals a chance to own, operate, and benefit from a collective business. This was the case with the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Co-operative. After the Civil Wars, Black farmers created their own cooperative after the Southern Farmers’ Alliance refused to allow Black farmers to join.

The cooperative promoted self sufficiency, political participation, and sharing techniques, and although it only operated from 1886 to 1896, the cooperative created many opportunities for its members, many of who started other cooperatives of their own.9Barclay, Lisa. “Collective Courage: A Short History of Black Co-Operatives in America.” Provender Alliance, 28 June 1970, provender.org/a-short-history-of-black-co-operatives-in-america-african-american-cooperation-for-change.

The founders of the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Co-operative formed their organization to address and overcome a systemic issue faced by their members – the exclusion of Black farmers from mainstream institutions.

Many cooperatives have been formed for similar purposes. For instance, The Freedom Quilting Bee was a cooperative founded in 1967 by Black women in Alabama involved in the civil rights movement. The women collectively sewed quilts which they sold to earn money for their families and to support civil rights causes. As a collective, the Freedom Quilting Bee could achieve more than each individual alone.10Barclay, Lisa. “Collective Courage: A Short History of Black Co-Operatives in America.” Provender Alliance, 28 June 1970, provender.org/a-short-history-of-black-co-operatives-in-america-african-american-cooperation-for-change.

Individuals overcome common barriers through collective action

Cooperatives developed today operate on the same principles and similarly work to overcome systemic barriers which may have prevented individual success.

In Brooklyn, a group of immigrant women created a cooperative housecleaning business in 2006 called Sí Se Puede (We Can Do It!) Women’s Cooperative. Before joining the collective, many of these women worked independently, which meant they had little power when dealing with clients; their clients often decided when they worked, how much they got paid, and what products they used, typically minimum wage.

After joining Sí Se Puede, members receive a 12-week training program on financial fundamentals and they typically contribute 10 to 15 percent of their earnings back to the cooperative.11Novick, Ilana. “Cleaning Workers Are Fighting For Better Pay and Benefits.” VICE, 8 Aug. 2018, www.vice.com/en/article/ev8m8k/house-cleaners-cooperatives-worker-owners. Members of Sí Se Puede earn about $20 dollar an hour, which is more than double the minimum mandated federal wage of $7.25.

A cleaning lady at work. Through cooperatives such as Sí Se Puede, women of modest means and education show it is possible to run a business and earn a decent wage. There is no need for pricey Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees. Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

The Center for Family Life in Brooklyn helped form Sí Se Puede and supported over fourteen other cooperatives. Collectively they employ over 500 workers in various industries. Each of these cooperatives is owned by its workers who have equal representation in voting on issues. Members of these cooperatives can earn better wages, control their work hours, and learn more about how to be an entrepreneur because of their collective approach.12Novick, Ilana. “Cleaning Workers Are Fighting For Better Pay and Benefits.” VICE, 8 Aug. 2018, www.vice.com/en/article/ev8m8k/house-cleaners-cooperatives-worker-owners.

Through the collective efforts, individual members of cooperatives can learn more valuable skills that will help them in business and in life. Typically, cleaning ladies and men are in the lower income tiers of any society. Usually, private agencies hire cleaning personnel and offer them minimum wage. They do not teach them how to manage a business successfully.

Through working in a cooperative, each individual learns and grows more as part of the experience. Each person is not only a worker, but they are a worker and an owner of the business. Each person learns how to be a worker and an owner, resulting in gaining more skills and potentially income.

Collectivism challenges the American ideal of individualism

The mainstream American business model promotes individualism in its focus on competition and hierarchy. The expectation in most of American culture is that individuals work their way to the top, alone. Just like in any pyramid, being on top means being on top of other people.

From a very young age, Americans are taught that they are and must be unique and that to get ahead, they must be an independent, rugged individual.

The expectation of individualism is sewn into the fabric of most traditional businesses and organizations in the United States, but cooperatives challenge that idea by inextricably tying the success or failure of individuals to a whole. 

The cooperatives mentioned earlier, along with many others, succeeded because their collective action overcame (or sought to overcome) systemic issues which individuals could not overcome on their own.

Individual Black farmers had little agency to compete with the organized alliance of white Southern farmers, but as a collective, they could support one another both politically, emotionally, and materially. Similarly, the immigrant women working as cleaners struggled to set their own hours, pay, and conditions when they were acting alone with little formal financial experience and facing language barriers. Through the cooperative Sí Se Puede, the women could gain entrepreneurial experience and set their own rates. 

When combined into a collective, with one voice and one mission, there is incredible potential for empowerment of all workers, both at the individual and collective levels.

Cooperatives exist across various industries

The empowering benefits and growth potential of the collective model is seen not only in worker cooperatives as discussed earlier, but in other forms of cooperatives as well.

There are financial cooperatives, called credit unions, which offer similar services to banks but are owned and controlled by their members who have equal voting rights in decision-making (for more on credit unions, see this article).

To this day, there are cooperatives that are thriving across industries. Some examples include REI, the outdoor equipment and clothing company, and Ace Hardware. Agricultural cooperatives include Ocean Spray and Land O’Lakes. Even the Associated Press news agency operates as a cooperative owned by American newspapers. 

The empowerment potential of these cooperatives may not be as visible as in worker cooperatives, but they operate on the same democratic principles of collective ownership and cooperation. Cooperatives are much more prevalent than you might initially think. Their unique structure and ownership offers a successful and sustainable alternative business model for individuals, communities, and organizations to pursue. 

Collectivism is key to democracy, but collectivism and individualism can coexist

To the mainstream, collective organizations in America are, in a way, counter-cultural. They push back against the traditional capitalist business structure and they challenge our intense individualism. However, collectivism can also foster strong individual development. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, we just need to learn where, when and how to collaborate together and when to let the individuals define their own path.

Both collectivism, with its cooperatives and emphasis on the needs of the group, and individualism, with its promotion of independence and self-reliance, are necessary facets of American society. These two cultural extremes compliment one another.

This is what democratic schools such as Sudbury Valley School do well. They allow their students to take part and gain experience living in a democratic culture, through voting on key decisions such as mandatory classes, while supporting each individual to pursue his or her path. This is also what the Sí Se Puede cooperative does for its workers. Alone, the ladies would not earn decent (more decent wages). The greater income, control and flexibility they have over their jobs allows them more time to pursue their individual interests.

At its most basic level, the goal of democracy is to empower people. This fundamental goal of democracy is best achieved when individuals work together to benefit the whole. In benefit the whole, they can benefit themselves as well.

For our democracy to succeed and thrive beyond merely the continued occurrence of elections every few years and the persistent functioning of a status quo government, we need more collectivism in our society.

For our democracy to embody what it claims to represent – equality, opportunity, liberty – we need to shift towards a collective mentality. For our democracy to operate in the daily lives of its citizens, we need to embrace and support cooperatives and collective organizations.

If our culture was more oriented towards collectivism, we could consistently practice democracy through empowering individuals in their workplaces, homes, financial institutions, retailers, and beyond. 

Through stronger collectivism we can have even more empowered individualism.

Collectivism is not denying the individual, it is about enhancing individual empowerment.

Action Steps

Now it time to review some actions. Below are some suggestions how to make your life more collectivist, while enhancing your individuality:

LEARN more about collective organizations and their history. It will surprise you what you can learn.
IDENTIFY cooperatives you can join or support in your area. That way you meet new community members and become more involved in community affairs. You will also gain first-hand experience how cooperatives operate.
TRANSFORM your family business into an employee-owned, worker cooperative or a collective. Do not just think about passing down your company to your children if they are not interested in it. There are others who are and depend on it. Your employees. More companies are looking at ensuring their continuity beyond the founders by passing it on to their employees, the people who helped build the business.
START your own cooperative and create your own democratized community. Remember, there are successful cooperatives in many industries such as taxi, cleaning, app development, hospitals and so forth.
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Hi! I am Stefan Ivanovski, founder of Lifestyle Democracy, a knowledge platform that empowers individuals and communities through sharing and teaching how to apply actionable democratic principles and practices, one day at a time.

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