Vitalising ideas 1. Individualism…

Photo by Monstera on

In my last post, I was described my decision to leave the Labour party, which was partly about what appears to me to be dishonesty and underhand dealings from the leadership, and also because I no longer feel comfortable that the party is vitalised or motivated by a set of principles that I can get behind.

One of the foundational ideas behind the Labour party was ‘solidarity’, by which I mean collectivisation; mutual support; working together towards a common goal.

This idea arose in direct response to 19th Century experiences of the powerlessness of industrialised populations in which workers were subject to the whim of the wealthy and powerful. The revolution here was that ‘the people’ have a vast numerical advantage and despite a long history of sometimes violent oppression of dissent, an organised collective voice can confront manifest injustice to great effect. This did not come to us easily;

It is this collective organisation of labour – and of ordinary people – that became the origin of the Labour movement. It is all there, in these sorts of ways

  • Mass protests, from Peterloo massacre to the mass trespasses on Kinder Scout that opened up private land to urban ramblers from Sheffield and Manchester.
  • The co-operative movement, in which poor people tried to take control of their own food supplies.
  • Universal suffrage- resisted for so long and so hard won.
  • Unionisation of the workplace, bringing in a vast set of improvements to working conditiions, health and safety, a shorter working week, contracts of employment etc.
  • Universal health care available for all on an equal basis.
  • Non means-tested benefits in response to the punitive poor law which blamed the poor for their own indolence. The great post-war Beveridge report ushered in an era of ‘social insurance’ (that has been almost entirely wound back and replaced with the individualised punative system that Beveridge wanted to leave behind.)

The other root of British solidarity and collectivism was, ironically, the way we did religion, particularly non-conformist religious movements like Methodism, which emphasised works of charity, selflessness and sacrifice for our fellow (wo)man. I say ironically because a different kind of religion may well be undermining our collective identity. I have used this video before;

The backlash

Collectivisation become greatly unfashionable. Suspect even.

Partly this is the dominance of the American empire, in which individulism is religion and any collective action is satanic socialism. From the perspective of British history (as above) the logic of this is very hard to grasp, but goes something like this;

People should be self reliant. This is the healthiest, highest form of humanity and is the most American. Anything that undermines this, for example by creating dependency or rewarding lazyness, is immoral.

Poverty is the result of poor choices by individuals. The answer to poverty is for people to work harder. Where this is not possible (through sickness for example) the answer is the charity of individuals

This is powerful magic when filtered through a mass media machine in both the US and the UK that is largely receptive to ideas convenient to the rich and powerful. In fact, the idea is so powerful that it can be used to overwelm all research or bodies of knowledge that point out the flaws in the argument.

Here in the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s 80’s governments successfuly employed this magic in the wake of the political/social/economic upheaval of the 70’s, typified by confrontations between unions and industrial management (everyone of a certain age remembers the ‘winter of discontent’.) Thatcher was able to ride this crisis in order to confront the collectivised power of the unions, replacing the collective consensus with a new kind of militant individualism, in which she even claimed that there was ‘no such thing as society’. It also enabled her ministers, confronted with huge unemployment in the wake of the deliberate devastation of old nationalised industries, to claim that the jobless just needed to get on their bikes.

The interesting thing is that the post-Thatcher era Blair and Brown Labour governments never challenged the limitations of this kind of individualism – rather, they copied it, reshaped their language to accommodate it and left behind collectivisation as ‘old Labour’. This is nowhere more obvious than when Blair stopped using the word ‘poverty’ (the eradication of which had been a political consensus in the three dacades post WW2) and instead began talking about ‘social exclusion’.

The shift here is from understanding poverty as a structural problem requiring macro collectivised solutions towards seeing the poor as people who need to be corrected/rescued/re-included. As if the poor are not like us, not ‘normal’ so the kind thing to do is to try to ‘lift’ them back into the fold. It was as if the decades of research into the nature of poverty – how it happens, how it brutalises and how it re-vicitmises generationally – never happened.

With the coming dominance of individualism as a guiding principle not ony for policy, but of hegemonic discourse, it should be no surprise that successive governments were under no pressure whatsoever to address – or even notice – growing structural inequalities within society. At best the language used was around ‘fairness’, an amorphic concept that seemed ot owe more to individual consumer rights than the deeper morality of compassion for the most vulnerable within society.

The poor got poorer.

The the rich got richer. MUCH richer.

Some problems can’t be solved alone. If the pandemic taught us anything, surely it taught us that?

Our percieved powerlessness in the face of the climate emergency is likewise almost entirely because we are not able to concieve of a way to solve complex problems that require collective action to solve. Internationalism seems a universe away when our borders end at our own front doors, or our own bank accounts.

Of course there are things called corporations, which require complex interactions and social hierarchies, but these are still strangely… individualistic. They are about creating individual wealth, not creating a common good.

Photo by Irina Zimno on

Wait a minute, I hear you ask, doesn’t this collective action you are talking about sound like communism?

This is spectre summoned when we start to talk about what can feel like top-down solutions, centrally planned solutions or solutions derived from mass activism. The right-wing media start to talk about starvation from state farming and dreadful cars made from pig-iron.

The job of any progressive political movement has to be to reframe collectivism in a way that allows people once more to catch a vision of what is possible when humans use the power of coming together around a common cause.

The opposite is death (of the planet) from human self-centredness.

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