04/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Individualists Are More Vulnerable to Dictatorship

After the Olympics last fall David Brooks wrote a thoughtful article comparing individualism and collectivism. He cited studies showing that individualists fail to see contexts and tend to overestimate themselves, while collectivists see relationships and tend to underestimate themselves. He seemed to be acknowledging that despite the failure of communism, and the economic superiority of the individualistic mentality, the collectivist mentality might have something to offer. It was a fine, balanced analysis, marred only by a deeply erroneous final sentence summing up the "ideal of harmonious collectivism". This, he says, is "a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats".

The truth is, history and research both tell us that the reverse is true--that a collective mentality is the best protection against autocracy. After all, the oldest strategy in the world is 'divide and conquer'.

When De Tocqueville came to the United States in the mid-19th century it wasn't just the personal freedom of Americans that impressed him, it was the incredible proliferation of associations--of clubs, societies, and activist groups. And this is, in fact, what political scientist Robert Putnam found differentiated the democratic Northern Italian from the authoritarian, mafia-dominated South. The North was characterized by a rich variety of clubs and societies. The Southerners, by contrast, were suspicious of their neighbors, saw any kind of cooperative behavior as dangerous, and longed for stronger law enforcement. Their relationships were vertical rather than horizontal, due to their dependence upon wealthy land-holding patrons who doled out favors to the subservient.

Despots are not afraid of individuals. They're afraid of populations. But the ideal American hero is a loner, and hence, a loser. We celebrate the Cowboy, incapable of cooperating with anyone, and hence no threat to those in power. Action movies are full of them--lone Rambos and Bonds, blasting away at the enemy, heroic in the movies, utterly ineffectual In real life. (As symbols, of course, they're very effective in persuading the ovine to smoke, be paranoid, and carry guns).

As Putnam observed in his book Bowling Alone, voluntary associations in the United States have been on the decline for many decades. There are many reasons for this, but the rise of strongly anti-democratic media is certainly one.

After the last individualistic greed orgy brought about the 1929 catastrophe, ordinary people realized they needed to band together to protect themselves. Veterans marched on Washington, unions fought for decent wages, and so on. FDR got the credit (and blame) for institutionalizing what ordinary Americans in cooperation had initiated. Then the 'Red Scare' of the Forties and Fifties gave Republicans a prime opportunity to demonize as 'communistic' any sign of collaboration among peers. Republicans, who have never really cottoned to democracy--except as a code word for free market capitalism--have made good use of individualistic ideology.

One reason Americans are so confused on this issue is because authoritarians of every stripe--in the military, in schools, in bureaucratic corporations, in mafia movies--use the word 'cooperation' as a euphemism for obedience.

The freedom individuals have in our society is something to be treasured, but the moment individualistic ideology begins to cripple our ability to cooperate in order to achieve common goals, authoritarian rule is only a whisper away.

In his inauguration speech, Obama talked of a whole new way of doing things. To understand the cultural paradigm shift that engendered this change--the shift that both Bush and the Taliban have resisted so fiercely, see my website for information on THE CHRYSALIS EFFECT: THE METAMORPHOSIS OF GLOBAL CULTURE.