What might it be like to live in a society where there are no "selves" and "we" has replaced the individual as in the book Anthem?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Clearly, there are many ways in which it would be terrible to live in a society where there are no selves and where people have to think solely in terms of “we.”  However, there are also disadvantages to societies in which “selves” and “I” are everything and no one thinks about “we.”  While we tend to be aware of the benefits of individualism and the pitfalls of collectivism, we tend to forget that there are problems with individualism and good aspects to collectivism.  This is why it is possible, for example, to have cultures that are much more collectivist than our own (Japan’s is one of the better-known) without those cultures being dystopian horrors like the one in Anthem.

In some ways, living in a society where “selves” are suppressed in favor of “we” could be terrible.  There would be no way for us to feel proud of any accomplishments because we would not be able to think in terms of what we had personally achieved.  We would not be able to have independent thoughts.  Perhaps most importantly, we would not be able to have true human emotions.  We would not be able to have friends or to love anyone because we would not be able to think of ourselves or anyone else as individuals.  This would, in many ways, not be a human existence.

However, there would be some good aspects to life in such a society.  Without selves, there would be no selfish behavior.  People would not steal, murder, or rape because they would have no self-centered reasons for doing any of these things.  There would be no wealth or poverty because people would not see any reason to keep extra money for themselves above and beyond what they needed to survive.  There would be no conflict because people would not have individual desires that would be contrary to those of others.  We would not have people harming the environment for the sake of convenience or profit and we would not have drug dealers harming their customers in order to make money.

There are reasons why some societies try to deemphasize the “self” and encourage people to think in terms of “we.”  However, there are also reasons why dystopian fiction is written about societies that have gone too far in this process.  There are good and bad aspects to collectivism, just as there are for individualism.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It might not be too difficult to imagine a society in which there are no "selves" since some believe American and European societies have moved closer and closer to what a book reviewer describes in Anthem as "socialistic thinking and economics" with the "concept of individualism [being] eliminated." 

With the recent expansion of the powers of federal government, there are in the United States many who live under its financial control, for one thing. In addition, individual thoughts and actions are controlled by various aspects of American society such as the U.S. Department of Education and state education departments that determine what should be taught in schools and printed in textbooks and read as novels. The unwritten laws of "political correctness" shape thought and silence speech and punish those who violate its dictates, while technological advancements allow phone companies to monitor people's records and conversations and cameras are everywhere on devices that record people's candid remarks and their spontaneous actions.

Many people's thoughts are only those of others; their actions, mannerisms, etc. imitate others, and they measure themselves by their friends in real life and on such sites as Facebook. Oscar Wilde remarked upon this "phenomenon" decades ago when he observed, "Most people's thoughts are quotations."

It's true societies of the "free world" have not assigned jobs to people. But there is certainly a fear in many people that what they say may cause them problems. In Chapter 2 of Anthem, Rand writes,

There is fear hanging in the air of the sleeping halls, and in the air of the streets. Fear walks through the City, fear without name, without shape. All men feel it and none dare to speak.

This fear is in almost all modern societies today. Many are vilified by key figures in government or the media if they speak out about someone on the controlling side of the political battleground, or someone who differs from them in other aspects. 

In the final chapter, Equality writes, 

But I still wonder how it was possible in those graceless years of transitions long ago that men did not see whither they were going and went on, in blindness and cowardice, to their fate.

It is no coincidence that Ayn Rand is from Russia. Perhaps, having lived under a controlling government gave her the perspective she used in writing this book. At any rate, she certainly knows much about Communism and socialistic governments and the threat they can sometimes pose to individualism. Sadly, there is a tendency in humans to wish to be accepted and belong to the "group" that can lead them astray without their realizing it. When Germany was at its knees in the 1930s economically and otherwise, Adolf Hitler, who brought the country out of its economic depression, promised to make the people strong and safe again, and to bring "change"; they voted him into office, sacrificing their individual liberties for security. In the US the same words, "safe" and "change," have been used and some believe the results have also been a loss of personal freedoms. 

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