In fiction that tries to provide a wide diversity of cultural stances on the collectivism-individualism stances, there is often a trope that self-reliant, no-nonsense, rugged individualists (as a dominant demographics) are found either in the equivalent of the Wild West, or in space (Moon or Asteroid Belt seem popular places). However, this trope often receives criticism based on the historical fact that the Wild West was predominately collectivist-leaning (or at least so Americans tell us), and of course space exploration in our timeline so far was dominated by big governments like USA and USSR.

Which brings me to the question: when spreading the cultural spectrum and deciding where to put self-reliant, rugged individualists, where should they be placed? Note that I'm not talking about merely individualism of expression (in an otherwise neutral/collectivistic network of inter-reliance, as in modern civilised places), but individualism complete with strong self-sufficiency/self-reliance; nor am I talking about parasitic behaviour that is self-centred but reliant on others. And sure, I understand that it's impossible to completely nullify reliance on others on any decent tech level, but I'm talking about reducing it. I'm talking about a demographic whose social connections are more loose, and who value the efficiency of specialisation less and the reliability/redundancy/robustness of self-sufficiency more as compared to human society on average.

Fictional examples of such characters seem to be usually frontiersmen like the the small bands of Hulder and some brinkers in Eclipse Phase, wormhole dwellers in EvE Online, some fantasy rangers who live off the land and craft a huge portion of their own gear, and libertarian-leaning asteroid miners in some other, older settings that I can't remember. But those very examples tend to be targets of criticism for the choice of environment. I'd like to be better at picking the environments for those attitudes. I do not seek ways to invalidate that concept - it's a 'how to yes' question, not a 'why not' question.

The question seeks either examples of good environments where such an attitude would be more fitting, or changes that should be made to existing environments that would make such a survival strategy more appropriate (resulting in the local demographic being predominately individualist). For the scope of this question, humans are the target species, though moderately modified humans are also suitable when discussing futuristic choices (i.e. no posthuman I-am-a-starship people; similarly, I'd like to return the topic of aliens that evolved towards such leanings in a separate question at a later time).

  • $\begingroup$ Are you seeking voluntary self-reliance? (folks who have ready access to, say, dentists, but choose not to engage the complex society. Hermits, for example) Or are you seeking involuntary self-reliance? (folks who simply don't have dentists and complex support webs at all. Frontier settlers, for example) $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Aug 6, 2019 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 Voluntary self-reliance, albeit more along the lines of 'use less-efficient or more-demanding but more reliable approaches that would reduce the need to depend on dentists that exist at a greater social distance'. E.g. choosing teeth blackening to have less need of dentists. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have time to write a full answer, but these people would be good at scouting new territories. As other answers mention, they need support networks (think forts in the wild west, where there was likely a military doctor, supplies, etc.), but they take on dangerous work where they must work alone or in small teams to reduce the damage if everything goes west. $\endgroup$
    – user39548
    Aug 6, 2019 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan That's right. And gulags are collectivist. Every time. $\endgroup$
    – puppetsock
    Aug 6, 2019 at 15:20
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    $\begingroup$ you conflate several concepts and also several granularities of observation. Rugged people can pay their taxes and live in the US. Collectivists need a guy or gal to man the lighthouse at the edge of nowhere - this person won't be the most sociable. Just pile up all your traits, then have an environment that selects for those. Can build and farm all necessities? - Environment low on prefab, and high on materials. Goes to lengths to ensure to wear other pelts than the neighbors? uh, hard ... lots of mirrors, and/or instagram-dependence ... or something? $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Aug 7, 2019 at 14:12

7 Answers 7


The place of an individualist, self-reliant guy in fluxes

In western literature, this niche is usually filled with explorers and loners. In recent media, "The ballad of Buster Scruggs" puts forward several good examples, the best one for me the prospector in "All gold canyon", as we can see him basically living-off the land for long periods of time.

At a lesser level, most pioneers and first-wave settlers in frontiers have, by pure necessity, some degree of self-reliance. After all, your neighbour may be miles away, so you never know when help is going to come. On the other hand, when it's time to raise a barn, you don't do it alone if you want to do it well.

Once the place is settled, the second-wave inmigration is usually more specialized, and this specialization comes with the cost of lesser self-reliance.

For a futuristic example in literature, in John Scalzi's "The Last Colony" they describe this settling process, and due to certain circumstances that are unavoidable spoilers...

The government knew they were going to be stranded without regular access to technology so they sent not only older, more reliable and redundant technology, but also invite a group of Mennonites that are used to work without technology.

the book goes to describe how colonizing works in that particular future, but again, is expected that even with the help of technology these colonist have to be able to fend for themselves for long periods of time.

As I pointed in the original post, these guys are still funded by society advancements (for unfunded ones, you can see the natives as examples of self-reliance). Explorers, prospectors and pioneers are funded (or self-funded) with specialized tools, materials and resources, and promised rewards (be it a monetary compensation, land).

Also I want to note that this wasn't always considered the proper way: If we look at initial English wave of colonization, it usually contained a mix of specialists (farmers, blacksmiths, soldiers, craftsmen and some slaves), the idea being to bootstrap civilization. Also you can see the high degree of failure of these colonies, as the settlers failed to adapt to the conditions, the main causes being: the specialist farmers weren't very good at cultivating native crops that were indispensable to sustain the colony, and the failure of the settlers to gather enough resources to self-sustain themselves. Most colonies that survived relied on the help of natives (either voluntary or forced) to overcome these conditions.

So you need some degree of self-reliance to settle land. The english attitude of bringing "civilization" to foreign countries failed because of that.

(I talk about the English colonization because the initial wave of Spanish settling looks more like an invasion. Save for the first voyage, until la Española was completely settled, the ships transported armies -so: mostly soldiers, plus the specialists to sustain an army-, not settlers. The losses between voyages were huge in both fronts, and from the start they relied on the "encomendada" native workforce to sustain the presence. The army and the religious orders were the driving force behind Spanish and Portuguese colonization, unlike the other countries efforts which were mostly privately funded)

Original post follows:

Honestly, there is no environment where a individualistic, self-reliant behaviour will trump a collectivistic, self-reliant one.

Our great advancement as species was not the use of tools, was the ability to put aside our worst instincts and cooperate towards a common goal.

Most of our advancements are only available when we distribute the time-consuming tasks between individuals. Crafting thread and cloth is time-consuming, (and so is tanning leather, by the way, although a bit less so); preserving food is time-consuming; building a refuge is time-consuming, finding food is a full-time task.

Anything short of living in a minimally adapted cave, wearing drapes and eating almost day-to-day will consume too much of an individual to do it without cooperating.

To make a wild-west analogy, our intrepid asteroid dweller is similar to a gold panner: he spends long stretches of time alone, and may survive for a long time without human contact, but the clothes, the tools, the weapons and some of the niceties (tobacco, maybe some sweets?) come from the society in general.

In sci-fi, automatization can make easier for our space gold panner to keep away from civilization, but the automated systems have to come from somewhere, and can break, and will eventually need to go trade its findings for spare parts. We are talking about specialized equipment, after all, and Oxygen is not included, so is not something he will be able to cobble.

So the answer is...

Self-reliant individualistic people live in a reality bubble, where they obtain (or prey) on society resources to maintain its way of life, but at the same time they insanely believe they really are an individual apart from society. The sane ones will simply accept they simply want to spend as most time away from society as possible, but accept they rely on it.

As such these individuals belong to the fringes of society: Frontiers, like the wild-west in the past and the space in the future are a welcoming sight for them, but also developing and unstable countries, or even (as L.Dutch points) the most delusional ones can just live outside society IN society, be it hikikomori, criminals, hobos...

Rereading the post for corrections I recalled something that happened in my city: there was a vagabond in my neighborhood. Except for the "mandatory" (by city laws) biannual desparasitation, health checkup and clothing renewal, the guy lived on the street by its own means, which usually involved begging for wine money, and searching for edible bits in the trash. Much later we discovered that he was a university philosophy teacher and at some point he decided to reject society and voluntarily live as a pariah.


I've read an article about a Russian guy who lived as a hermit for six months. I would like to put a couple quotes:

During the experiment, Pavel said that one of his most important tools was an axe . An axe, he said, could be used to do almost anything, and anything that could not be done with an axe could be done with a tool that could be made with the help of an axe. Pavel also discovered that, although he did not have the pressures of modern life, he was quite busy. Every morning, he would have to feed the chickens and feed and milk the goats. After that, he would heat up the stove and grind grain. This gave him enough work to last until lunch time.

The axe, of course, was made with metal by a specialist, a tool that could not be made by the individual and had to be traded. Without the axe, one can imagine the guy would had almost no time to rest. Also, he didn't cultivate the grains itself (as the experiment was mainly to survive the winter), an activity that would had took him a lot of time away from other activities. He doesn't mention anything about maintaining the clothes, but that would occupy a lot of his time too.

Pavel was able to survive six months living in early Medieval conditions, demonstrating that it was possible for a man of that era to brave the Russian winter living on his own. Historical records, however, show that this was probably rare. Most monks by that time did not live as solitary monks, but in monasteries. A group of men living together would have lightened the workload, allowing more time for prayer and religious worship. Historical records show that it was typical at the time to not work during the 12 days of Christmas. This would not have been possible for one man working every day just to keep himself alive.

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    $\begingroup$ Eh, group behavior exists in a lot of different colours and flavours of primate; homo sapiens didn't invent it and our ancestral species appear to have been communal, too. The difference with HSS is that we were able to create faiths and cultures that transcended family and tribal boundaries... that's an improvement of collective behaviour over other species. Other than that though, all fine points. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ Jerry Pournelle wrote an article. "Those Pesky Belters", about oddly enough asteroid miners & their culture. When he tried to find where in the Asteroid Belt they could best locate a core central site, it turned out to be planet Earth. Them ornery Belters would actually be stay-at-home office workers monitoring mining drones & robots out in the asteroids. So much for their rugged individuality. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Aug 6, 2019 at 13:00
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    $\begingroup$ I like the way you articulate this. Most of the libertarian philosophy i see floating around on the internet is inherently parasitic, and those who espouse it just can't see it. I think there's an important exception to your response though that deserves its own answer. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ While this post seems popular, I must say that I find it overwhelmingly focused on continuing the criticism of stereotypical individualistic demographics and very little on offering better environmental alternatives to them that would be less subject to criticism. I'm not sure whether it is a matter of my question being phrased too vague (but betting that it is, I did what I could to add clarifications; I'm still not sure if they helped much though). $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2019 at 6:35
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    $\begingroup$ @MorrisTheCat Parasitism is pretty much the opposite of self-reliance, so that's not the type of demographic I am trying to ask about (but apparently I'm not so good at conveying it). $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2019 at 6:40

As already discussed in other answers, pure, self-reliant individualism just won't work since whatever you do alone in the wild, you´ll use products others produced. The axe or clothes being great examples. But if we decide to go full-on sci-fi, here a possibility for a self-reliant and extremely individualistic lifestyle comes up, at least if you are willing to accept a small, initial investment from the outside.

The key to true self-reliance is not need anything - Me in my never to be published book "Completly Obvious and Superfluous Life-Advice"

But what if you could get everything while needing almost nothing for it? Imagine owning a small space rock covered in solar panels and an armored and sturdy computer core with self-repair-capability. Now you upload your mind onto said computer and live in a simulated reality. You "need" a kilometer-sized sky-palace? Just imagine it and Thy will be done. In a simulation, you are a god as long as you got all the administrative privileges. Even time becomest irrelevant as you can use frame-jacking, increase or decrease the processing rate of the computer to slow down or speed up the time perceived in the simulation.

Of course, these individuals might create artificial limits to their godlike capabilities to keep themselves occupied. Or they are simply transhumans, who have cracked up in isolation and since they are mad as a hatter they decided to create their personal wonderland.

These individuals should be found in the cometary halo, the Oort-cloud of their solar systems or even on interstellar comets. That's where you go if you truly wanna be left alone in a sci-fi setting. Additionally, while the setup described above is the bare bones one, I would not be surprised if these individuals build out their asteroid even more. Self-replicating machines and advanced manufacturing should make this trivial. After all, who would bother a guy who is in a questionable mental condition, follows a fringe ideology and has an arsenal of kinetic, directed energy and nuclear weapons capable of sterilising a planet he'll shove up the arse of anyone who comes within one light-hour of this rock.

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    $\begingroup$ While it feels as if you were sidestepping the original question, i do like your answer. Have a +1 :-) $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Aug 7, 2019 at 6:54

If I understand your question, I think the answer is:

During and immediately after a breakdown of civilization

The primary weakness of cooperative/collectivist approach is that eventually you wind up with most of your population being specialized for specific activities. If you've got a hundred people, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand and you want ALL of them fed, clothed, and housed, then specialization is best for everybody, and the larger your population is, and the more efficiently people can share their work product with each other, the better it works.

Right up until the asteroid/nuclear war/pandemic/zombie apocalypse.

Events of this kind shatter the network of shared labor that collectivist economy and survival depends upon, by either eliminating lots of your specialists or breaking the mechanisms by which food/power/water/etc are distributed, or both.

This is the environment where a rugged, self-sufficient individualist will prosper because when something like this happens, they're already prepared to provide all their own essentials of living. This is why so many of the people who have these tendencies in our current society are fans of the 'prepper' ideology, because this is a mental framework in which their reluctance to fully integrate into our extremely collectivist modern society makes sense.

Now, that said, over time the survivors who are less resistant to forming new social collections post-apocalypse will prosper more than those who are determinedly solitary, again due to the same economies of scale that drive our current society. But for getting through a disaster, whether localized or worldwide, individual self-sufficiency is where it's at.

  • $\begingroup$ There's an interesting problem here in that there are vanishingly few examples of stereotypical "rugged individualists" thriving in a breakdown of society, because such breakdowns are generally brief, or localised, or leave plenty of supplies and equipment available. The preppers are preparing for a theoretical catastrophe, and as such it isn't at all clear whether such an event would come to pass or how well they'd survive in it. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ For an interesting example of a catastrophe that was insufficient for the preppers to thrive in (and indeed, the rugged individualists tended to suffer very badly at the hands of organised gangs), have a look at the events around the economic crash in argentina at the turn of the century. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 15:24

The way you describe them, your individuals remind me of hikikomori, at least from the point of view of withdrawal from society.

In Japan, hikikomori (Japanese: ひきこもり or 引きこもり, lit. "pulling inward, being confined", i.e., "acute social withdrawal"; colloquially/adaptive translation: shut-in) are reclusive adolescents or adults who withdraw from society and seek extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. [...] hikikomori react by complete social withdrawal. In some more extreme cases, they isolate themselves in their bedrooms for months or years at a time.

Being secluded in a small environment, refusing any contact with the outside, can only be possible in an environment which:

  • offers good protection from natural risks
  • offers an easy way to gain nutrients (e.g. web-shopping to order food)

Such as a modern, highly developed nation as Japan can offer.

If you want to be more strict on the self reliant aspect, then look at hermits: they used to live in remote areas (deserts, mountains, etc.), living of what they could harvest or cultivate in the wild.

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    $\begingroup$ Hermits are in line with the direction of answers I'm seeking, as they have to be self-reliant; hikikomore seem to be much more reliant on the collective (as you said, web-shopping, as an example) and thus not the direction I'm seeking. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 10:12

In the middle of your society.

homeless dude**

https://www.petaluma360.com/news/9749709-181/29-surge-in-number-of?sba=AAS&artslide=1 The fact that you are homeless does not mean you are a rugged individualist, just as the fact that you are a cowboy does not mean you are a rugged individualist. But you can have someone living in the middle of a society and detached from the infrastructure that connects others - no phone, no address, no credit card. The archetypal hobo might be one such - on the move, willing to work for food but without attachments in the larger society. The hobo is the prototypic rugged individualist - aware of society (or societies) and navigating them as an outsider.

If your rugged individualist must make clothes out of leaves and eat only what he kills or grows, then this will not do. Being a solo sustenance farmer is great but offers limited traction for an author. For a fiction, the individual within but detached from society offers the possibility of exploring the nature of your society (fictional or otherwise) at arm's length.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think urban hobos match the criterion of self-reliability - they depend too much on the city. Now, hermits as mentioned in another answer would be a different matter. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2019 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ @vicky_molokh - all humans depend on their environment for air, food, water and shelter. If relying on one environment type seems more self reliant to you than relying on another environment type I cannot argue. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 7, 2019 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ Reliance on the environment is one thing, but reliance on other people is another. 'Living off the town' is much more reliant on other people than 'living off the land', to give a simplistic example. (Of course as I pointed out, nullifying reliance on others isn't an option, as, at a minimum, you want to start with the right tools made by others.) $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2019 at 17:27

People often replicate their surroundings. This is suggested by the 'nature vs nurture' idea, as well as in both real-life and in stories. As you yourself pointed out, the Wild West was actually collectivist-leaning, not filled with macho gunmen living by their own rules, which indicates that there's no strength to being solitary in an environment built to isolate you. Perhaps then you'd want to build characters that prefer solitude in environments where there are too many people - a heavily populated metropolis, for example. It won't incorporate typical survival skills here, but it could be cool! Another way (if you want to make it more scifi) would be to create a character that is a trader, bounty-hunter, or something similar in space - they would travel between and amongst many cities and planets in space, but their journeys would be lonely, requiring them to be rough and tough.

Another way to go about this is to consider the reason for which a character is a lonesome, rugged, person. The kind of character you describe is an individualist, sure, but what made them that way? Did they lose a loved one? Did they get on the wrong side of the law? Did the come to the sad realization about the truth of the corrupt environment they were living in? Depending on what the reason is, you can try and build a world where this reason is prevalent enough for a person to not want to have to do anything with anyone.

I hope this helps.

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    $\begingroup$ "the Wild West was actually collectivist-leaning, not filled with macho gunmen living by their own rules." Actually, it was collectivist-leaning macho gunmen living by their own rules. It was essentially gangs of tens to hundreds of people living and dying defending their group/town and helping each other survive between fights with other gangs. $\endgroup$
    – user39548
    Aug 6, 2019 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Didn't know that extra info - sounds a lot like modern day gangs or mafias. Perhaps the best environment is either urban, densely populated areas. Or as roving bandits. $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Aug 6, 2019 at 14:00

Put them where you like. In every environment, collectivism is inferior to individualism. This has happened every single time collectivism has been tried, and every single time individualism has been tried.

For example, the first Plymouth colony nearly died out the first winter because they had instituted a collectivist model. The colony took all the produced food and clothes and distributed them according to need. This meant that nobody produced anything, since they got the same regardless of their actions. And they were not frugal with their resources, since they could go and "need" some more any time. The second summer they abandoned this model and let each family have their own plot of land, raise their own crops, and keep the results. The second winter was still a challenge, but it was a lot better.

It's not necessary to go as far as The Black Book of Communism to see this. Yes, collectivism killed more than 100 million people in the 20th century. That's true. But you don't need to go that far to see how much of a failure collectivism is. All that is necessary is to look at the Nordic countries. This Huffington Post article tells us that Denmark is not nearly as successful as you might think. They are coasting on the wealth generated by a capitalist past. Or take a glance at Hong Kong before the hand-over, and see the results of individuals working for their own benefit in cooperation with others.

Other answers to this question have assumed that individualism means a hermit, or an individual who must get all of his needs without cooperating with anybody else. Far from it. Individualism means that each individual is treated as an end in himself. That nobody is treated as simply a member of a group with rights, or duties, based on the group.

Forcing your neighbor to do what you want is incompatible with individualism. When you are seeking your own benefit, and prevented from using force to achieve it, you quickly realize that it is not to your benefit to treat other people badly. Other people are a huge potential benefit. Cooperation is a lot easier, and produces a lot more benefits than attempting to dominate them. This isn't collectivism. It's self interest.

Collectivism is incompatible with cooperation. Somebody must determine the will of the collective. Somebody must enforce the will of the collective. If you disagree with any part of that, you will be suppressed. This has happened every single time collectivism has been tried. From planned famine in Ukraine, to forced collectivization in China, to the teamsters boasting about how many heads they would bust if anybody dared oppose them.

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    $\begingroup$ A curiously unpopular answer, and yet the only one which references both facts of history and the modern era. "Someone must enforce the will of the collective" - evolutionary biology teaches us this unequivocally. However, within the frame of the question, this fails to be specific in answering it. Nice critique though, even if regarded as inappropriate by the will of the collective. ;) An alternative approach would have been to leave a comment asking for clarification of terms from the OP. $\endgroup$ Aug 6, 2019 at 16:49
  • $\begingroup$ If collectivism killed 100 million people over the last century, and tens of millions die every year of poverty in more capitalist countries, but capitalist countries make more money than communist ones did, does that still mean collectivism is worse than the alternative? A counter-example I'd like to provide is of the Israeli Kibbutz - collectivist groups that could be arguably more Marxist than the Soviet collectives, but worked real well. This was because skilled people wished to contribute to these societies. What you state is that collectivism != cooperation, but I disagree (contd.) $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Aug 7, 2019 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say that there can be cooperation within collectivism, or you can force people to get collectivised (so to speak), but the fact that we have become successful as a species by living in cities, working together in companies, and forming nation-states is evidence that the overarching idea of collectivism (the idea that the group must come before the individual) isn't a dumb idea at all. So I'd say that collectivism can have cooperation, and self-interest could be a reason for cooperation, but none of these things truly conflict with one another. $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Aug 7, 2019 at 5:29
  • $\begingroup$ Now this doesn't help the OP at all, but if the OP is interested in failed collectives and exploring a life of a person in one, I'd recommend reading 'A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and perhaps building a character around that. $\endgroup$
    – arpanet101
    Aug 7, 2019 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ @cyber101 Claims not in evidence. Here gapminder.org is the data. Poverty kills the most people in countries that are the least capitalist, and because they are less capitalist. In the last 40 years, capitalism has raised about 1/3 of the planet out of poverty. The countries with the least poverty, and the lowest inequality of wealth, are curiously the ones that are the most individualist. It's curious also how you can identify capitalism as individualist when it's convenient, but not in a way that causes you to agree with my answer. $\endgroup$
    – puppetsock
    Aug 7, 2019 at 13:29

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